COMMENT: Editorial; Legacy of a poor track record

The privatisation of Railtrack surely represents a triumph of political will over adversity. Privatis-ation no longer excites the imagination as it did in the 1980s. The promotional formula is also beginning to look tired - the swooping helicopter shots and stirring soundtrack of the advertising have been seen in almost every previous sell off.

The privatisation of Railtrack surely represents a triumph of political

will over adversity. Privatis-ation no longer excites the imagination as

it did in the 1980s. The promotional formula is also beginning to look

tired - the swooping helicopter shots and stirring soundtrack of the

advertising have been seen in almost every previous sell off.



Above all, the political climate has changed drastically since we were

all urged to tell Sid about the British Gas sale (if not about how much

its managers stood to gain). And even apolitical Railtrack investors

will be concerned about the uncertain future of their investment under a

future Labour administration. In recognition of this, the appeal

directly to jaded investors’ pockets has never been more blatant - with

a pounds 69 million ‘sweetener’ promised in first year dividends.



In selling itself, Railtrack has also been hampered by the disastrous

reputations of many of its privatised predecessors, such as water

companies, whose managers’ new found wealth kept the Cedric Brown

inspired fat cat stories running and running - unlike the water in

Yorkshire.



Railtrack appears to have learned some important PR lessons from their

example, and has prevented itself from falling headlong into the share

option trough. Unfortunately, in the absence of juicier morsels, the

media has fallen instead on its proposed performance-related bonuses

scheme as a further example, albeit rather lame, of corporate piggery.



Galling though this undoubtedly is for the company, the criticism will

wither more quickly because the argument against performance-related

bonuses is far harder to sustain. Railtrack’s PR team will also be hard

on the case, persuading commentators of this.



It’s a pity that the Government itself seems unable to learn some PR

lessons from this approach. Buoyed up by findings which suggested that

some think the BBC is soft on Labour, Tory party chairman Brian

Mawhinney rounded on Today presenter Sue MacGregor this week with barely

concealed fury at a valid, if cheekily phrased question about the

drastic action needed for the Government to regain voters’ enthusiasm.

As they seek to browbeat the BBC into being nicer to them, the

Conservative party reveals its fundamental misunderstanding of the

nature of PR, which is to persuade, not dictate. Attempts at the latter

are inevitably counter-productive; witness Alastair Campbell’s misguided

attempt last year to force the BBC into pushing Tony Blair further up

the news agenda.



Just like Railtrack, the Government has a legacy of perception to deal

with in its uphill struggle to win the public’s support. Bickering with

the BBC will not help them one jot.



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