OPINION: Branson keeps his public image on track

Sir Richard Branson is a one-man PR machine and there is probably no public figure outside of politics who is more in tune with the demands of the media. But last week, Britain's favourite business tycoon probably faced the toughest test of his career when one of Virgin's Pendolino trains derailed.

The safety record of our train network has taken a number of knocks recently, and the media are in no mood to be sympathetic to rail operators. News of yet another crash, following Hatfield in 2000 and Potters Bar in 2002, was therefore likely to mean bad publicity for Branson, his train company and Network Rail. Remarkably this was not so, thanks in part to brilliant PR skills all round.

We all expect visits from royalty or politicians at the scenes of tragic incidents, but I can't recall the owner of a train network turning up and so effectively dealing with the media. Branson managed to suggest strongly early on that it was not his train's fault that it derailed, but a fault on the track. More than that, the Virgin boss was quick to praise the driver, who he branded a ‘hero', for staying at the controls, thus saving many more lives.

Sir Richard even visited the driver and other casualties in hospital. All this helped to show him as a caring owner and employer, while shifting the blame for the crash towards others. Network Rail was left firmly in the dock.

But Network Rail has much better PR skills than its predecessor, Railtrack. Network Rail has made senior spokespeople available night and day, and even if it is ultimately found to be responsible for the crash, it can't be faulted for failing to face the spotlight.

It also isn't to blame for the fact that the privatisation of the railways has been an unmitigated disaster. Its website tells us that ‘we strive to provide Britain with a safe, reliable and efficient railway fit for the 21st century' - but who believes that? Certainly not Branson. He didn't miss a trick here, using the crash to demand a say in maintenance matters ‘for companies that use the track'.

He clearly has a strong case, and although he has fallen out with Tony Blair, he hasn't given up on Gordon Brown - because, as with his latest fight against Rupert Murdoch, PR alone will not produce victory.

Branson probably doesn't remember bending down and kissing my feet at the 1997 election victory party just because I was working for the Chancellor at the time, but he won't need to go that far to influence Brown today. The next PM happens to be a big fan of Branson.

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