Northern Rail & the great public relations & social media disaster

I’ve been a Northern Rail customer since 2007; commuting five days a week from Steeton into Leeds; and throughout that time have always spoken highly about the quality of the service it delivered.

I’d maintained this positive point of view even after Northern’s introduction of an army of lurking teller-offers. And I’d bit my tongue when my ticket started getting checked multiple times on every single journey. The reason being that these developments, while not particularly palatable, were done for an easily understandable reason.

But then came the Great Northern Rail PR Disaster Day – the timetable change that came in to force on May 20th, 2018 and has trended on virtually every day across all social media channels since then, while also commanding the attention of Government ministers, Jeremy Corbyn and pretty much every newspaper and news programme you could think of.

There’d been timetable changes before. Mostly seeing different services being moved by a minute or so here and there. All of which happened with little to no impact on Northern Rail customers. All of which led me to believe this time would be no different. In fact, I was so confident they’d stick with the tried, tested and pretty damn good, I didn’t even bother looking at the new timetables until someone handed me a leaflet at Leeds station that suggested significant change may well be afoot.

What has happened since has been the biggest corporate public relations and social media disaster I can recall. While millions of Northern Rail’s customers have had their every single day horribly inconvenienced, what makes it stand out from other PR meltdowns is that the quiet; phone, book and Kindle engrossed; carriages of just a couple of weeks ago have been transformed into conversation hotbeds where the topic is always the same – what on earth has Northern Rail done and why?

Take my particular route. In the morning the 8.03 has become the 8.12 and the 8.23 has become the 8.19. Unfortunately, the 8.03 was always a few minutes late and the new time slot hasn’t changed its spots. Add to that, the fact we now all have to arrive early to get a ticket before boarding (or risk being locked up and having the key thrown away) and it means those turning up for the 8.19 arrive in time to get on the late running 8.12. All of which means the 8.19 (which incidentally is the bigger train) is eerily quiet and because it’s running behind the slow, knackered, angrily overcrowded and always late 8.12, it still arrives in Leeds at the same time as the 8.23 did.

As for going home, let’s just say Northern Rail drivers and revenue protection officers stand around beside the arrivals and departures boards at the even more choc-a-bloc then usual Leeds train station looking as confused as the rest of us.

As a director of a public relations and social media agency, with a strong track record in crisis management, I do find Northern Rail’s response has added fuel to a fire that was burning savagely already.

There’s been an apology; a long-winded explanation that seems to point the finger of blame at Network Rail; and the promise of "comprehensive plans to reduce disruption and give passengers the greatest possible certainty of train services, so they can better plan ahead." This though will take an unspecified amount of time to deliver - a little like the resolution to the RMT strike action, which seems to simply meander on and on... and on.

So how does Northern Rail fix a reputation that currently lies in a crumpled mess - a little like a well-trampled Metro after the morning commute?

First off, I'd suggest sitting down and reviewing all the timetable changes and switching back to this that made far more sense than the new ones. This could then be rolled out line by line (starting with Skipton to Leeds please) with localised press statements, a focused social media campaign, and a senior spokesperson putting themselves forward for local and regional broadcast interviews.

This approach would surely be far quicker to implement, and would deliver an immediate change in opinion that would snowball as lines were restored to full working health on a regular basis. It would certainly sit more comfortably than the current quick-fix of an emergency timetable until the end of July.

Once the timetable issue has been resolved, then how about a Northern Rail behind the scenes documentary? There’d definitely be huge interest and it would provide the perfect platform (boom, boom!) to get across the amount of work that goes into getting its trains scheduled, on the rails and running in a timely fashion.

Remember, there are over 500 stations on the Northern Rail network and annual passenger numbers of over 100 million. It’s a hard job, that until recently was being done in a pretty good fashion, so come on Northern – show us what it entails and give a currently faceless business some character. The end result would surely be a public relations and social media masterstroke.

Written by Daniel Kennedy, 08/06/2018