A version of this article was originally published in Rail Professional magazine, November 2017.
Account director, Ben Blackburn, explains why the rail industry should be alive to emerging social, cultural and political changes and focus its communications accordingly.
Trust is a commodity in rare supply.
A recent analysis showed that the level of trust held by the general UK population in our government, business and media is low, and that the gap between the mass population and the ‘informed’ public (those most likely to be part of those three institutions) is at its widest for several years. Indeed, the UK public is one of the least trusting of the 28 countries surveyed.
We don’t need a survey to tell us that the public is suspicious of the establishment. Jeremy Corbyn’s general election campaign tapped into this by shaping itself as a popular grassroots movement kicking against elites. Labour’s use of non-mainstream news sites and ‘owned’ content like social media was part of this; contrasting with the Conservatives’ inarticulacy in ‘new’ media and reliance on getting their message out through a more sympathetic mainstream press.
People simply don’t believe the system works for them. According to the thesis presented by the rail minister, Paul Maynard, several times at the Conservative party conference, it is this lack of trust that goes to the root of the current debate around passenger rail.
A YouGov poll, carried out after Labour’s election manifesto describing the nationalisation of several key industries was published, showed that state ownership was the preference of the majority of those surveyed. The poll showed that 60% were in favour of a state-run railway. A more recent poll (Legatum and Populus) found 76% in support.
While many working in the industry might consider the public debate around the merits of rail re-nationalisation frustrating for its lack of sophistication - and convenient ignorance of the fact that a major element of the industry, Network Rail, is state-owned - it would be foolhardy of anyone to dismiss this groundswell of opinion.
There are serious implications for how the sector and associated supply chains would withstand re-nationalisation. The lack of certainty around how a Labour government - now a realistic proposition - would actually implement its policies, affecting both passenger franchises and rolling stock lessors, does not help any organisation to plan for the future.
Heart & soul
But, by and large, the general public is not motivated by such concerns. For most, this is an issue of emotion, of feeling, even of belief; of how those who are seen as leading and controlling the industry are perceived by a population whose reserves of sympathy are in deficit, and capacity for nuance and technicality are limited.
Many describe these as ‘post-fact’ times and it is clear that the populist attraction of Donald Trump, and maybe Jeremy Corbyn too, is inextricably connected to people’s general feelings about the established order.
While it’s tempting to ignore these, at times unpalatable, realities, we should instead seek to harness them.
In this context, Paul Maynard’s analysis is highly astute. Support for Labour’s policy stems from an imperfect popular understanding of what the rail industry is actually doing to make peoples’ journeys better. He hopes the new Passenger Ombudsman, expected to be launched in the New Year, will be an important step forward in engendering better relations. One would expect the bedding-in of schemes like 15 minute Delay Repay to also help.
The industry is delivering improvements. But they are all too often washed over, or ignored, by a disengaged public.
But when public trust in government, business and institutions is generally low, what can the one industry really do?
A big part of the answer has to be in how it communicates with its customers and again we can look to those who are managing to communicate effectively.
If the industry can harness emotion more effectively, then it stands a greater chance of establishing meaningful relationships with its audiences. We shouldn’t be afraid to be less ‘stiff upper lip’.
People’s faith in a technocratic, policy-heavy and technical approach is waning. Of course, there is no substitute for good, evidence-based policies. But in terms of communication, people want to be warmed by the latest announcement; to believe that it is unquestionably a good thing - not to be merely impressed with how clever it sounds.
And that goes for the messenger as well as the message. Today, first class communicators aren’t just proficient speakers; people who can get others excited and engender trust though the force of personality are precious.
An even playing field
Transparency has increased hugely over recent years, and customer service via social media has transformed the dialogue between operator and customer. But both also present new opportunities for the motivated individual or pressure group to examine performance in fine detail, to measure outputs against published specifications, and to call out deficiencies in real time in highly public fora.
Within this context, those responsible for communicating directly with the public have no option but to adapt.
Openness and consistency are key. In a bygone era, businesses and the government could rely on the fact that they had a relative monopoly on information. No longer. Communicators cannot draw a veil over a reality that’s already in the public domain or present a development as something it is not.
If a minister announces a new initiative to digitalise signalling on an important part of the network, only for the detail of the announcement to reveal this actually means assigning a small amount of money to scope out potential for it, the government shouldn’t be surprised if this is poorly received - particularly if it fits a perceived narrative about under-investment or taking the public for granted.
Would the government have announced its revised approach to electrification differently if it was more mindful of how the general public - and the fourth estate - might perceive it?
Questioning your status quo
How the industry makes use of the media should also be reassessed.
Bad news sells. And even major good news stories are often contentious or too technical to capture the public imagination.
Rigorously questioning the status quo in light of emerging societal trends will help all organisations to consider whether things could be done differently: new tactics, channels, messages; being innovative in your thinking; reducing the reliance on others to publish your stories and instead looking to your own channels that will reach the right people in the right way are all essential.
Mr Maynard describes his role as being “a champion for the consumer”. This echoes the language of many leaders in the industry and rightly so.
To be successful in reducing the trust deficit, those positive words have to be backed up with tangible action that tugs at both the neurons and the heart strings and involve a renewed sensitivity to how leaders in the industry, and the messages and stories that they and their institutions convey, are perceived.
Freshwater has over a decade of experience working with organisations in the rail sector. To discuss how you might enhance your communication to develop more effective relationships with your stakeholders, customers and audiences, contact us on 0207 067 1595 or email: email@example.com.