Andy Newman - Why few will shed tears for National Express

Anyone whose business takes them to London will know that a long-awaited date is nearly upon us: February 5.

This is the red-letter day when the Greater Anglia rail franchise is finally removed from National Express, and transferred to Dutch rail firm Abellio, initially for a period of 29 months.

Few tears are likely to be shed for National Express, despite the fact that it has in more recent times considerably improved punctuality and reliability, at the same time as struggling with the same crumbling rail infrastructure that Abellio will have to deal with.

So how is it that the outgoing operator is so unpopular; how did it get to the stage where its reputation is so poor that there was almost universal relief among train travellers when it was stripped of its franchise?

Reputation is about two things: getting the reality right, and then communicating that in a credible way so that your audience believes you are worthy of their esteem.

Unfortunately, too many organisations think PR is just about the communicating bit, believing that if the message looks glossy enough, people will believe it whether it is true or not. This is called 'spin', and it is ineffective.

When they first won the franchise, National Express spent a lot of time and effort on PR gloss, and not enough getting the basics right. Smart, newly-painted trains will impress no-one if they always run late and break down a lot.

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Too many big promises were made, and not enough was done to make them come true.

The result was a catastrophic collapse in trust among the travelling public, and the operator never really recovered from this, even when its actual performance started improving.

Once the trust had evaporated, National Express found itself blamed for every problem, even those which weren't its fault.

So, a new operator, and a new opportunity to build a better reputation for our beleaguered Cinderella railway service.

Perhaps recognising the pitfalls in over-promising, Abellio has so far been careful to manage expectations for what is a very short-term franchise. The big prize will be the 15 year contract which will follow, and our new operator will be in a strong position to win that if it can build a good reputation in the next two years.

Clearly it is not going to do that by providing new trains in such a short timescale, and the infrastructure is out of its hands.

But within these constraints, it can improve the travelling experience, and above all work at building a good relationship with its customers and a good reputation in the wider community.

It may surprise some to hear a PR man say that honesty is the most vital tool in public relations, but reputation – which is our business – is built on trust, and nothing makes trust evaporate more quickly than dishonesty and dissembling.

If only because it is following such an unpopular franchise holder, Abellio will start on February 5 with a PR honeymoon period.

How long that lasts will depend on how careful it is to create the best reality (as opposed to the best spin), and how honestly it communicates. We will be watching.

Andy Newman runs Newman Associates PR