PR and media in any industry is difficult to get right. There is a fine balance to be made between managing a pro-active message whilst ensuring that the reactive activity results at, in best, balanced coverage. There is also a view that negative press coverage can be watered down with sufficient positive coverage. Having worked in PR with a leading brand for almost 13 years I don’t buy that. Positive is Positive and Negative is Negative. Far better to have lots of balanced coverage.
Most companies use agencies to monitor their media coverage and score it as Positive, Balanced or Negative. They also highlight the most ‘productive’ journals and writers as well as the key company spokespeople.
When I joined the rail industry in 2000, the Press Desk I worked on had two people on it every day, and sometimes three. Hundreds of requests for comment were made every week and the resultant coverage was negative. The Trade Press were extremely valuable for communicating future plans and giving an insight into major project activity. Sometimes, their coverage would result in snippets appearing in the national and regional press.
Fast forward to 2004 and there was a change that saw more time and resource put into building regional media relationships, whilst still meeting the demands of the Trade Press. Over time the reactive media activity. The focus also changed to consumer-related activity, which was less relevant to the Trade Press. However, all that changed again when it was recognised that these Trade journalists were the first port of call for national (and world) media when things go wrong.
Whilst the example above is from my time in the rail industry I am all too aware that the way the rail industry currently handles PR and Media is vastly different between companies. At times it seems that some organisations put the shutters down and hide behind an answer phone. I was always told the Press Desk phone should be answered within three rings.
Still, if companies take the view that they would rather not deal with certain sections of the media, or discriminate by sector then they must expect to get a “not available for comment” reference in the story. In my book any news story with such a comment this can only be categorised as negative. It would interesting to know what drives this business decision. I suspect that it could be a case of not upsetting the paymasters. And here I’m not referring to the holding companies but the Government. Unlike the early days of rail franchising when franchisees were in control of their franchises, today’s rail franchises are little more than management contracts with the Department for Transport having greater control and influence.
It’s time we got back to a position where train operators welcomed the media, whatever sector they represent, and shouted about their business. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening including at some of the companies who in the past were leaders in dealing with the media.
Steven Knight is a Transport Specialist who has over 40 years experience in the bus and rail industries as well as in specialist transport journalism. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists.