The first rule of avoiding a PR crisis – never make assumptions


What could possibly go wrong?  Southern Rail, bloodied but evidently not bowed after months of industrial action from its staff, probably felt quite pleased with itself after spending half a million pounds on an advertising campaign. “Strike back” the ads told its customers. “Time to get back on track. Tweet the RMT Union and tell them how rail strikes make you feel.”

After all, Southern Rail covers Surrey, Sussex, Kent and Hampshire – areas not known for solidarity with the unions. Customers, unable to get to work, were bound to be on the side of the bosses, weren’t they?

Never (well, hardly ever) in the history of customer relations has a business got it so wrong. Whoever once cited ‘leaves on the tack’ as an excuse for late trains must rue the day; yet still not as much as the Southern Rail manager who ok-ed these full-page ads.

The campaign unleashed a noisy PR backfire worthy of the Brighton Belle of old, but with the sooty fumes hitting not the union but Southern Rail itself. “Let’s be radical. Employ more staff,” said one customer’s tweet. Others followed suit: “You brought this on yourselves” and “I dislike unions, but I dislike incompetent management even more,” were just typical comments.

Anyone living in Southern Rail’s ‘parish’, as I do, could have warned the operators against the campaign. Although people want the trains to run on time, they also want to keep the guards, especially as many rural stations are unmanned. They want to deal with people not machines. So if this isn’t economically viable then sensitivity, not provocation, is needed.

This PR disaster is just one of many recent incidents when the powers-that-be have misread the public mood. The Brexit surprise, is the most notable example, along with unexpected popularity and possible presidency of Donald Trump in the US. Many presumed neither of these would ever happen, but then real life rarely turns out as expected.

So these cases are very relevant in an age where data and artificial intelligence are being used to predict customer behaviour. Much has been written about ‘black swan’ events and trends that come out of the blue and how these can be taken into account when creating the analytics.  Their very nature means that however smart the algorithms, there will always be exceptions. This is why – as on Southern Rail trains – humans are still needed, alongside the clever technology, for the time being at least.

I have no idea how Southern Rail assesses its market and how it could be so off target with its messages. Yet ultimately it comes down to never making assumptions about the general public at large, or your customers, in particular.

Plus having a good PR team who can advise about integrity — and against spending thousands on an advertising campaign with one hand, while cutting staff and customer service with the other.