Roger Shire is a journalist’s PR man. Sitting before me with his shirt-
sleeves rolled up, chuckling affably, he is the antithesis of the slick,
po-faced spin doctor - not at all in keeping with the stereotype of
someone destined for one of the most demanding jobs in the business:
head of media relations at Railtrack.
Then again, this is the man who had tabloid journalism’s arch liberal-
baiter Richard Littlejohn as best man at his wedding. Littlejohn has
been a friend since the early 1980s, when he was industrial
correspondent of the Evening Standard and Shire and his boss Alan
Marshall were at the British Railways Board. It was a time of great
‘Roger’s a class act,’ says Littlejohn. ‘I’ve never known him tell a
lie, he’ll always give you a straight answer. With so much negotiating
being done in public between BR and ASLEF he was much more than just a
press officer. He and Alan were key players, because if the wrong thing
appeared in the papers it could wreck the whole negotiation.’
From BR, Shire moved to London Underground and, shortly after his
arrival, had to deal with the horrors and repercussions of the King’s
Cross fire which left the Tube’s reputation in tatters. In the following
years he set about painstakingly rebuilding the transport system’s
London Underground managing director Denis Tunnicliffe, who describes
Shire as ‘an absolute joy to work with’, says that it was LU’s media
campaign that swung the Government into supporting the Jubilee Line
Extension. Shire concurs.
‘The JLE was definitely on its way out, no doubt about it,’ says Shire,
a touch of his native West Country drawl still in his voice. ‘We grabbed
it by the seat of the pants and got so much publicity for it. It struck
a chord at a time of massive unemployment.’
Shire’s time at LU has been marked by sparring with the Evening Standard
and, in particular, its transport correspondent, Dick Murray.
He describes as ‘hairy’ the period several years ago when the Central
Line developed a fault which could not be traced for days, causing havoc
with the service. At one point the Standard ran a scathing front page
with the headline ‘Enough is Enough’.
But Shire helped defuse the situation by inviting Murray to sit in on a
meeting of the top brass to show that everything possible was being
done. And when the piece of burnt out cabling causing the fault was
discovered Shire made sure it was put on display at a press conference.
LU has also had to bear the brunt of 20 Evening Standard front page
splashes on its pay dispute. But it is a tribute to Shire that the
coverage has been balanced, and to underline the fact the stories are
plastered across his office wall.
‘When you’ve got something coming up that you know will be a problem
don’t sit back and let it smack you between the eyes,’ he says. ‘Call
the journalists and give them the real story.’
Philip Dewhurst, the former Rowland Company chief executive who recently
joined Railtrack as director of public affairs, says he approached Shire
because he needed a ‘big presence’ to quash the public perception that
having separate operating companies for trains and track was unsafe.
‘Frankly we’ve been shot to pieces in the media,’ says Dewhurst.
‘Because we’ve lost control of the media debate we’re having to respond
to a range of criticisms. It’s hard to regain the initiative.’
Shire will take charge of the four-strong Railtrack press office next
month at the age of 54. The PR business is often criticised for
discarding experience, but Railtrack could hardly afford to overlook a
man who has had to deal with the toughest operational and industrial
situations at both BR and LU.
‘Because of your experience you’ve got a different outlook on life,’
says Shire. ‘In years gone by I used to lie awake at night worrying
about what I’d said to a journalist. Now nothing worries me, nothing
Straight-talking, fearless and jovial - expect to notice an improvement
in the tone of Railtrack’s media coverage from next year.
1958 Local newspaper journalist
1966 Regional editor RailNews
1968 Divisional PR officer, British Rail Southern Region
1980 Chief press officer, British Railways Board
1986 Press and PR manager, London Underground
1990 Media relations manager, London Underground
1995 Head of media relations, Railtrack