From Philip Dewhurst’s desk on the 12th floor of Railtrack’s
tastefully refurbished Euston building he enjoys sweeping views of
Railtrack’s great London termini.
Most people would find the job of masterminding the PR for stations
throughout the UK enough of a challenge, but next year Dewhurst will be
preparing to take on the presidency of the Institute of Public Relations
in 1999 - not a job for those who are short of time.
Dewhurst moved to Railtrack two-and-half years ago as it was preparing
for privatisation. His broad-ranging communications experience had
spanned local government, industry and consultancy, culminating in a
short spell at Rowland during a turbulent time in that agency’s history.
Some eyebrows were raised when he jumped ship for Railtrack but no one
doubted the enormity of the challenge he faced.
’When I first came here I thought that the flotation was the challenge,
to get people to buy shares,’ he recalls. ’But the challenge now is the
culture change at the company, to become more customer-focused.’
An example of this shift towards a greater focus on rail users is
Railtrack’s recently announced plan to invest pounds 40 million in
improving security at its 2,500 stations. The initiative was driven by
Dewhurst and his department.
Dewhurst has arguably one of the most diverse jobs in corporate affairs,
with his responsibilities stretching from media and government
relations, through to internal communications, IR, sponsorships and
corporate advertising, to controlling a regional public affairs team. A
recently completed departmental restructuring (PR Week, 24 October)
means that he now has five team heads reporting to him.
Privatisation has been successful, with Railtrack’s shares trading at
three times flotation level, but with the change in Government came a
change in the communications task.
’We’ve got to convince Government in particular that profitability is
good, so that we can invest more,’ says Dewhurst. ’For every pounds 100
we make, about pounds 30 goes to shareholders in dividends and the rest
goes into reinvestment.’ As Railtrack is tightly regulated, Dewhurst
continues, its directors are far from being fat cats.
Another Dewhurst objective is to convince people that privatisation does
not mean taking short cuts on safety. As September’s Southall rail crash
proved, the question of safety can shoot to the top of the news agenda
in an instant. Dewhurst and his team emerged with credit from the
incident, working round the clock to field 5,000 media calls and
briefing the hundreds of journalists who descended on the crash
Journalists were denied access to the heart of the accident scene but
Railtrack sent in its own camera crew. The pictures it provided for the
media dealt with the clear up operation rather than dwelling on ghoulish
images, with the result that TV coverage shifted its focus on to the
repairs and Railtrack’s efforts to re-establish services.
’It was an awful accident,’ recalls Dewhurst. ’But for the sake of the
1.2 million people who travel into London everyday by rail you have to
get things into perspective and be reassuring. Seven people died, but on
the same day 22 people died on the roads.’
When Dewhurst first arrived at Railtrack he used a model for measuring
media reporting against certain criteria to learn that the company’s
coverage was almost universally negative. Today, he claims, a little
over 50 per cent of coverage is positive. Still a long way from ideal
but quite a shift in a relatively short space of time.
Away from work Dewhurst relaxes by playing 12-bar blues. His band is
currently searching for a drummer, but when I suggest Dewhurst’s
ex-colleague at GCI Adrian Wheeler, Dewhurst sheepishly replies that
Wheeler is probably ’too good.’
Ah well, if the man’s talented enough to improve the battered image of
Railtrack it’s a bit much expecting him to play blues guitar better than
BB King as well.
1980 - PR director, Surrey County Council
1984 - Public affairs director, Chemical Industries Association
1988 - Director, GCI
1994 - Chief executive, Rowland London
1995 - Corporate communications director, Railtrack.