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
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.