By Matt Beard, CIPR Professional PR Diploma student and Head of Media at Govia Thameslink Railway,
In the aftermath of the severe disruption caused by last Spring’s new timetables, the One Show asked Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) for an interview with our new CEO.
We told them it was too early to do the behind-the-scenes piece they wanted to film, but we promised to keep in touch as this was a good opportunity to rebuild trust and credibility with passengers.
The appeal of working with the One Show lay in its magazine format, its mass audience and the primetime slot they command.
We proposed that in return for an exclusive interview with the boss, Patrick Verwer, we would give the cameras rare access to our control room to illustrate the challenges of running GTR, which is Britain’s biggest rail company.
We also agreed for Patrick to be filmed as he rode the train, taking passengers’ questions onboard one of our Gatwick to London Bridge services and then mingling with the rush hour commuters.
Although we deal mostly with regional media for a direct link to passengers, we also felt that because this was a national show, they might be more open to an explainer-type piece.
As a student of the CIPR Professional PR Diploma, I am aware that a key part of reputation recovery is showing and telling what you are doing and this above all drove our approach to the programme.
We knew the One Show team had a duty to cover the disruption suffered by many thousands of passengers. They were painful images for some of the viewers, and for GTR.
In his book, Crisis, issues and Reputation Management, Andrew Griffin writes: “The most important part of reputation recovery is to prove that performance is meeting expectations. Recovery is based on substance and action not words. The trick is showing and telling what you are doing.”
According to Griffin we at GTR had the toughest of rebuild tasks, as the problem was – at least in part – caused by us, although it was part of a complex industry-wide issue.
As he said: “A [positive reputation outcome] is harder to achieve for internally driven crises where there has been a (real or perceived) performance failure.”
Rebuilding trust also takes time and it certainly helped that that in the eight months since our initial conversation with BBC producers in Salford that the train services were much improved and the majority of services on Thameslink and Great Northern – 400 in total – had now been reinstated.
The majority of passengers interviewed by the reporter testified to this improvement.
I felt the resulting seven-minute film balanced the seriousness of last May’s disruption with the efforts of the company to turn things around with a new CEO at the helm.
This story was told to three million One Show viewers, but would also have been appreciated by key stakeholders such as our 7,000 staff, politicians, the Department for Transport and our owning company, the Go Ahead group.
The film was well received by staff and social media comments were very positive, and it also enables us to start a new chapter.
In hindsight, it was a challenge for our CEO as he spent half a day in front of the cameras with little respite from questioning. It took guts and lots of preparation to do it, but as he said on camera about taking on the GTR turnaround task, “Someone had to do it”.
Working with the One Show allowed us to have a genuine dialogue with their crew before, during and after filming – and this is something that a news crew won’t have time for. By keeping dialogue going, you can address any factual errors or misunderstandings – noting, respectfully, that the One Show are not transport experts – and get a better idea of what the film will look like so you can prepare the boss accordingly ahead of broadcast.
It’s a sad fact of handling a crisis that in the end the only way to convince stakeholders that an organisation is determined to put things right is to appoint a new management team. This is what happened with Govia when it appointed Patrick Verwer as its new Chief Executive. A new CEO is the most obvious and most visible way to demonstrate that the organisation is committed to change.
The next step in the process of organisational rehabilitation post-crisis is what is known as the ‘rhetoric of renewal’. This is the organisation seeking to communicate a narrative that focuses on the future rather than the crisis itself and who is to blame. A renewal narrative needs to talk about change and provide demonstrable operational proof points of what that change will mean to stakeholders. I know Matt and his team have taken great time and trouble to craft such a narrative.
Once this messaging is in place the communications team needs to find the correct channels to communicate it.
Here Matt and the team took a calculated risk in agreeing to a behind the scenes type approach for a programme watched by millions. But amongst these people were many who would have suffered from the botched new timetable implementation of the previous summer.
They were the ones who needed to be convinced.
Plus, of course, the BBC is still hugely influential with other key stakeholders such as Government. Matt’s approach paid off especially given the time he took to build a supportive dialogue with the BBC team. The piece is hugely positive. In fact, so much so that if you watch to the end you will find that when one of the presenters begins talking about the new CEO and his previous experience you find the other presenter chiding him for knowing the ‘back-story’.
Essentially the piece is beginning to look a little too positive and someone needs to bring back the balance.
So, what next? Now Matt and his team need to look to developing a calendar of opportunities to continue to communicate the new narrative. I am afraid there is no time to rest on laurels.
Photo of Patrick Verwer and Justin Rowlatt by Roger Perkins