Sometimes a missed PR opportunity can be the best result of all

A version of this post first appeared on All Media Scotland on March 24, 2013.

First Group - ScotRail franchise operator

First Group – ScotRail franchise operator

Train operator ScotRail has just been involved in a wee case study of damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-dont media relations.

A finger-wagging report from The Scotsman’s Alastair Dalton tells us Scotland’s rail franchise operator ‘sparked anger’ after ‘snubbing’ a BBC documentary team. Tough-talking tabloid type words.

What we’ve got here is a classic media village story that’s nothing to do with service levels, delays, overpriced sandwiches, patchy onboard Wi-Fi or the nuts and bolts of what commuters really care about.

In fact it was almost entirely about the nature of public relations and playing the age-old poacher versus gamekeeper media game. From that point of view I couldn’t help but be interested.

As the article helpfully points out, ScotRail runs 95% of Scotland’s train services, so why did the company refuse to take part in the BBC’s programme, The Railway: Keeping Britain on Track? According to the piece, other train operators revelled in a ‘sympathetic portrait’ showing how much staff loved their jobs.

If the suggestion of a PR blunder at passing up such a golden opportunity wasn’t clear enough, there were a number of usual suspects lined up to helpfully point out the shortcomings of ScotRail’s comms and media team.

First up was Green MSP Patrick Harvie with this wee gem: “ScotRail’s public relations people are always happy to talk about their successes, and it’s disappointing that they don’t want the public to see a truly detailed picture of how they run a vital public service.”

Likewise an official from train drivers union Aslef rued the “missed opportunity to showcase the exceptional talents of their staff”, while Dave Watson, an official with Unison in Scotland, Tweeted: “ScotRail sensitive to publicity they don’t direct. Usually with good cause, but this an own goal”

Other Twitter reaction took a similar vein. Freelance journalist Andrew McFadyen ‏Tweeted: “It doesn’t surprise me that Scotrail snubbed the BBC. They have one of the least helpful press offices in Scotland.” Ooyah.

Another journalist and writer, Paul Bigland, had this to Tweet: “@ScotRail manage to turn an excellent PR opportunity #therailway into a very public own goal.”

That’s the ‘damned if you don’t’ bit. The negative tone of The Scotsman piece and some media-savvy Tweeters may smart a bit. But nobody in PR would stay in the game long if their hides weren’t thick enough to deflect the slings and arrows of disgruntled meeja types when they feel PR is getting in the way of a good story.

Should that be the sum total of the adverse coverage, then I reckon the ScotRail media and management teams will be high-fiving all round, because they just dodged a bullet. Had they participated in the documentary it could have been … well, a train wreck.

Perhaps surprisingly in a story all about the apparent shortcomings of PR people it was a journalist who pointed this out and rallied to defend ScotRail.

Nigel Harris, managing editor of RAIL magazine believes the team from the Beeb would have focused on characters who made the best TV, not necessarily the best ambassadors for the rail company. His assessment was blunt: “I commend ScotRail for holding out.”

I couldn’t agree more. Reality TV or fly on the wall documentary makers aren’t interested in ordinary workers – they are looking for outliers who will light up the screen with controversy, comedy, haplessness, heartbreak or hopelessness.

Sure, there’s a chance that ScotRail might’ve come out of something like that well, particularly if they were an underdog operator or a fresh new kid on the block. They’re not. They’re the big guy in a maligned sector whose experience is that messages about their successes (delays reduced by 50%, with passenger numbers up 20%) fall on deaf ears.

FirstGroup, which runs the £2.5 billion, ten-year ScotRail franchise, will be keen to hold on to the juicy contract (the biggest handed out by the Scottish Government) when it goes to tender in 2015. PR and public perceptions will play a role that.

ScotRail’s decision to walk away from this apparent TV “PR opportunity” meant lean pickings for the documentary makers and for journalists who can fill column inches with the cringe-inducing characters thrown up by fly-on-the-wall documentaries.

But with make or break commercial issues looming large, the job of the ScotRail PR team isn’t to give open access to reality TV crews, then cross their fingers and hope for a good result.

Whichever way ScotRail played this they were likely to get negative headlines of some sort. The storm in a teacup about some sort of missed PR opportunity is actually the exact opposite – almost certainly the best PR result ScotRail could have hoped for.

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