Campaign: GNER gives WiFi the flip-flop treatment

GNER goes WiFi, and being the first UK train operator to do so, needed a PR powerhouse to aptly publicise the fact. Read on...

Campaign GNER – A WiFi World Leader
Client GNER
PR team In-house and The Red Consultancy
Timescale January-November 2006
Budget £6,000

Last October, east coast train operator GNER completed a three-year project to install wireless internet capability on its 41-strong train fleet. The new technology will enable commuters to surf the net and send and receive emails while travelling.

The trains use a combination of roof-mounted satellite dishes and mobile phone antennae, using both 3G and GPRS technology. WiFi access is free to use for first-class passengers, and operates on a pay-as-you-go basis for others.

Because GNER was the first UK train operator to offer such a service on all of its trains, it naturally wanted to publicise the move, so turned to retained agency The Red Consultancy.

To differentiate GNER as an innovator, while highlighting its unique WiFi service. To increase passenger satis­faction and raise extra revenue.

Strategy and Plan
Because the roll-out of WiFi had taken a number of years to complete, the PR team felt the launch event needed visual appeal to bring the story to life. It decided to focus on those passengers who would typically use WiFi on a train, and created characters based on customer profiles.

These included a businessman, a student, a ‘silver surfer’ and a female shopper. Actors featured in a photoshoot at King’s Cross station on 26 October 2006. They wore archetypal clothing on their torsos, but donned flip-flops and Bermuda shorts to signify that they were ‘surfing’ the web. To reinforce this image, they also carried with them a branded GNER surf-board.

For tabloid appeal, the team set up another photoshoot, this time with a female model in a red, Baywatch-style swimsuit (pictured). It also convened photographers at Edinburgh station, where Scottish transport minister Tavish Scott officially named a GNER train while sporting an online motif.

Measurement and Evaluation
Sixty-one articles on the WiFi service appeared in national newspapers, including The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, Financial Times and The Guardian. Other publications included Yorkshire Evening Post, Northern Echo, The Scotsman, Stuff, Boys’ Toys, Arena, Web User, Computing, Modern Railways and Railnews.

The story was picked up by BBC Radio Newcastle and York, while international coverage came from Indian magazine Express Computer.

The campaign had an estimated reach of 43 million. According to the PR team, 86 per cent of coverage was positive, with only one per cent being negative.

GNER reports passenger satisfaction to be at an all-time high of 90 per cent, and the WiFi service has proved popular – it recently celebrated its 250,000th user.

Business travel journalist Mark Frary, who covered the launch for The Times, says: ‘GNER is ahead of the game here.

The internet is guaranteed by a combination of satellite and mobile phone links. Even if the train is in a cutting, you get a signal.’


Mark Borkowski (pictured), founder of stunt specialist agency Borkowski, runs the 'stuntwatch’ page at

I must declare a bias here. Asking a seasoned commuter to comment on the craft of a train operator’s PR company is a bit like asking a recovering gambling addict to comment on an online poker company.

GNER has perhaps a better reputation than most of the app­alling train operators which exploit their passengers daily. And I’m always interested when an in-house team tries, and sticks its head above the parapet for a publicity stunt to extol the virtues of an added benefit. So it’s interesting that First Great Western is not quite bold enough to come up with a pro­active publicity mechanic.

The GNER stunt delivered a considerable amount of interest. Without the benefit of perusing the articles mentioned and knowing how each of the outlets commented, it’s difficult to offer a constructive opinion about the quality of the press. But given 61 articles, one would hope there was some quality copy. Or was it just a case of ‘never mind the article, look at the coverage’?

I hope the in-house team shows its true PR skill in trying to calm the ever-more-frustrated passenger at rush hour, who would like to see column inches on a better service and cheaper fares.

Despite my cynicism, a big pat on the back is deserved. I have no doubt it will be submitted for a PRWeek award.

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