Brand PR can help rail franchise bidders
Over the past few days, the issue of rail franchising has come back into the spotlight and, predictably, the reporting suggests an industry in turmoil.
Ed Milliband and others within the Labour Party have said the success of the publicly-run East Coast Mainline – under the DfT-backed Directly Operated Railways – supports their case for a full or part re-nationalisation of the rail network. A policy statement guaranteed to make headlines.
Having been directly involved in the communications around two franchise bids on the East Coast Mainline, I have to confess an ever-so-slight bias on this issue. I think privatisation, overall, has been a good thing.
It has brought significant private sector investment into the rail network that otherwise probably would not have happened. It has also brought a new generation of engineering and management talent into the industry.
Future investment relies, of course, on the success of the DfT’s franchising process, which has been under fire since the 1990s but which reached a peak over the West Coast debacle.
Keep the PR focus, despite delays
More delays over the re-franchising timetable (it has been reported that both the Essex Thameside and Thameslink bid processes could be put back again) have only added to the feeling of perpetual uncertainty that seems to surround the rail industry.
The bid process for the flagship East Coast line is due to start in October, with an award due 12 months later. But with delays already in the system, and a General Election looming in 2015, the chances of that timetable being met must be in the balance.
Nevertheless, the incumbent train operating companies (TOCs) and potential bidders need to have refranchising at the centre of their communications strategies.
The TOCs, of course, face a constant battle against a largely negative media environment. Journalists prefer to report on delays, rising ticket prices and company profits than on improved punctuality, investment and service improvements.
Positive, proactive PR takes a back seat as the TOCs become bogged down in firefighting and negativity. And the PR tends to be very much at an operational level, based around service delivery.
When it comes to franchising communications, however, the importance of brand PR shouldn’t be underestimated.
Having brand goodwill might not eradicate media criticism (although it certainly helps reduce it), but when it comes to franchise bids a strong TOC brand can certainly have a positive influence on stakeholders.
GNER, for example, invested heavily in developing a clear brand position. It took on and defeated Virgin on the East Coast partly because it was such a trusted brand. And even though parent company Sea Containers was stripped of the franchise in 2006 due to financial problems, affection for GNER from East Coast passengers still lingers.
But how many real ‘brands’ are there in rail currently? Virgin doesn’t count, because the brand was ready-formed when it came into the rail industry.
It’s highly unlikely any of the franchise bidders over the next few years will be able to rely on their brands in a similar way in the battle to influence the hearts and minds of stakeholders across those routes, but that shouldn’t diminish the importance of brand reputation.
PR and social media will have a central role in brand positioning within any franchise bid, and for the players eyeing up the various routes to be contested over the next few years, the hearts and minds battle starts now.