Why PR works: Number 3

I feel like a trainspotter. Which is odd, because I rarely travel on trains, have no interest in rolling stock and am indifferent about railway stations.

However, a week or so ago I posted on the £800m cost of the refurbishment, which has taken place at St Pancras station in London as the new home of the Eurostar service. A phenomenal amount of money to spend on a train station, which left me bristling indignantly.

Indeed, so offended was I that when I found myself in London at the weekend I had to to have a look and see exactly where all that wedge was spent. Most of the interior still under wraps. But the huge, curved steel roof canopy and the massive clock certainly look a bit special . That said, I was still astonished that sprucing up a railway station should cost so much.

When I first posted about this subject, what most amazed me was that until this got a mention on Radio Five Live I hadn’t heard so much as a peep about it, despite the enormous amounts of money involved.

A short time later, though, my better half announced that she’d just watched a rather impressive telly documentaray all about this very subject and was able to tell me all about the historical and engineering importance of the station. Muttering dismissively about London-centric TV programme-makers I buried mysef in a copy of (London-centric) industry bible, PR Week. Only to find a two page interview with – yes you’ve guessed it – the man who is responsible for the PR push at the refurbished station.

Simon Montauge, the head of comms at Eurostar sounds like a very nice bloke. What didn’t escape my attention though was that he has a 14-strong communications team as well as two big name PR agencies who have been working tirelessly for a long time on getting the message out.At first I considered their efforts a failure, since I’ve only heard of this project in the past fortnight and my indignation at the amount of money spent could hardly be considered a postiive reaction. That, however, is particularly harsh.

To recap, I’ve heard an extensive (and largely positve) report on BBC radio, read about it in my industry magazine PR Week (again very positive). Meanwhile, my missus caught a TV documentary (hugely positive) about the station and I made the time during my (once a decade) visit to London to have a look at the station. All of this in little over a week.

When I look at it like that it is clear the PR team are clearly doing something right. Yet, Nagging doubts are well named. They are doubts. That nag. And mine were still telling me that my perception of this station was, well, negative. However, even I had to admit defeat when the email below dropped into my mailbox from buildingtalk.com (all right, maybe I am an anorak):

Howard Chapman, Editor, writes: The Queen has opened a transformed St Pancras International Station, the new rail terminal for Eurostar that cost £800m. The front of the station, Sir George Gilbert Scott’s neo-Gothic masterpiece, will open as a five-star hotel in 2009. St Pancras is today celebrated as one of the finest examples of Victorian architecture and engineering, but it could easily have been demolished in the 1960’s but for protests from the likes of poet laureate John Betjeman, co-founder of the Victorian Society. Developers have called it the jewel in the crown of a £5.8bn project to bring high-speed rail to the UK. When the Eurostar leaves for Paris on Wednesday it will also mark the completion a truly remarkable feat of engineering. There were 45 contractors involved in the project, building 109km of high speed track, 22km of twin bore tunnel, 3 major viaducts, 150 new bridges, 3,000 other structures designed and built. All this achieved in a little over 5 years, arriving bang on time and on budget!

D’oh. Suddenly I felt like the kind of narrow minded, anti-change, curmudgeonly kneejerk reactionist I’ve always disliked. How is it possible to keep hating this project in the face of all the positive PR messages I’ve been bombarded with? How was it possible to see only an old station getting a makeover, when the project is actaully 3000 projects – all delivered on time and on budget?

The answer – it isn’t possible. But I only realised this when I started seriously considering booking a trip to Paris on the Eurostar. A city I’ve never much fancied on mode of transport I don’t very much like. One of the stated aims of the new St Pancras station is to lure a further 40,000 Scots per year to use the Eurostar service – so they’ve only got 39,999 to go.

In some ways I feel a bit embarrassed by all of this. How could I fail to spot what was happening to me and yet still profess to be a PR and communciations specialist?

Easy. In fact, this entire episode has actually proved very refreshing, because it has reminded me that no matter how hardened, inured and cynical I become, I can still be surprised by the positive power of PR.

Simon Montague and team – notch that one up as a considerable success.

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