Free from accountability, HS2’s behaviour and comms keeps going off the rails

By Anthony Longden, specialist partner at crisis communications agency Alder.

If you’re the PR team for a huge project, one which has attracted significant criticism from the moment it was put forward, your PR crisis response should be Rolls-Royce standard.

But for High Speed 2 – Europe’s biggest rail project, no less – that has rarely if ever been the case.

Its latest disturbing incident was last month – in Fradley, Staffordshire, where a man protesting against its construction was tackled by security officers after he allegedly fired carrots at them with a catapult.

This being 2020, someone was on hand to film the incident with their mobile phone. A video, which quickly made its way into the media, showed him being pinned to the road under the knee of a man who sat heavily on top of him for four minutes, while onlookers and passing motorists objected and tried to intervene. The man was eventually allowed up once police had arrived to arrest him, and happily, seems to have avoided serious injury.

I scarcely need mention that video of someone being knelt on, pinned to the tarmac has a particularly toxic resonance right now. It needed immediate damping down through sensitive, switched-on comms.

That didn’t happen, but then HS2 has form for being failing to display lack human warmth, whether that’s having blocked the passage of an ambulance, chopped down trees planted in the memory of dead children, dragged protesters before the courts, or occasions when media, local communities and other stakeholders demand the project justify itself.

In this instance, instead of reaching for the usual stock phrases around responsibility, accountability and concern, the HS2 team came out with all guns blazing. Unfortunately, the weapons were trained unerringly on its own feet.

HS2’s statement – dutifully run at length in the Daily Mail (and elsewhere) – made no reference whatsoever to the incident. Not one word. The language is all wrong, and the elephant remains in the room: what are you going to do about the fact that one of your security guards knelt on an unresisting man’s neck for four minutes?

The local MP, Michael Fabricant, has taken up the matter, asking both the Staffordshire Chief Constable and Andrew Stephenson MP, the minister responsible for HS2, to investigate.

To understand why HS2 keeps getting it wrong, it is worth remembering that the project was enabled by a special hybrid Act of Parliament, which allows it unprecedented and sweeping powers associated with construction along the route. This appears to have created an organisational arrogance, and removed the usual contrition and concern in its responses whenever problems arise as a result of that arrogance.

Instead, its responses might as well read: “The project is a done deal. MPs voted for it. We can, and will, do what we like. Nothing to see here. Move along, please.”

The concept of practical accountability has been greatly stretched in the last couple of years – it is increasingly difficult to know just how bad something has to become before there are resignations or sackings.

HS2 is in danger of becoming a victim both of its own colossal size, something which admittedly makes it very difficult to keep its culture under review, and its accountability-free foundation.

Nevertheless, the lessons are the same from giant infrastructure projects right down to the smallest business or parish council.

Keep on top of your image and how you are perceived externally, and ensure your voice remains measured, authoritative and trustworthy.

If you are caught on camera, never duck the issue – even if an Act of Parliament means you’re never likely to face the consequences of those actions, it’s rarely a wise move. In fact, we should all reflect that it’s a good thing for society that so few organisations enjoy that luxury.

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