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Media mogul blasts PR ineptitude

Media mogul blasts PR ineptitude

🕔16.Sep 2013

Phil Riley, Chief Executive of Orion Media, owners of Free Radio, explains how the case for HS2, good or bad, has been damaged by bad public relations.

I should start with a disclaimer. HS2 will run 1km from my house in Warwickshire, so as a NIMBY I’m against it! I’m also against it overall on economic grounds, as I genuinely don’t believe it represents best value for money. However, as a Brummie businessman I also recognise that it may end up benefitting my city and my company, although I might think differently if I were from say Wolverhampton or Stoke.

Because of this dilemma, I thought that rather than arguing the pro’s and con’s, I’d write about an aspect of the project that fits with my own professional expertise, namely the marketing of HS2 to the general public. And frankly, the PR for HS2 has been an utter disaster.

As we now know, HS2 was conceived as a PR stunt, by Peter Mandelson and Labour to show off their “modernity” as they headed towards the 2010 election. Mandelson himself now admits this. In a twist of fate, the Tories picked up on High Speed Rail for their manifesto as a transport PR positive when their own London MPs rebelled against expansion at Heathrow. HS2 fitted the bill. Again, numerous insiders have confirmed this.

So HS2 ended up as an initiative backed by both major parties. You couldn’t ask for a better start to the job of getting political and public approval for a major infrastructure project.

The first strategic “line to take” on the project chosen by the coalition was “environmentally beneficial”. That justification was soon dropped however, because of mounting evidence of higher power usage from the line itself compared to standard train travel and the massive damage it was apparent the route was going to inflict on affected countryside. It’s not an argument heard from the pro HS2 lobby at all these days.

So the PR spin moved onto speed and the significant efficiency savings for the economy, and business travel, due to business time not being spent idly sitting on a train. Until it was pointed out that business folk don’t spend their time idly on trains these days. In fact most of us would claim that with the availability of 3G/wifi and portable laptops/tablets, travelling by train can be the most efficient part of the day. Again the DfT have been forced into acknowledging this, and are due to remove this claim from their project business case in the new iteration to be published this autumn. The resulting “expensive train for rich businessmen will boost the economy” line is again not much in evidence today.

And so the PR spin moved to “rebalancing the economy” and “fixing the North/South divide”. Except again, because there’s no evidence to support this thesis, the spin didn’t stick. In fact most academics believe High Speed trains suck economic benefits from distant towns and cities towards the centre, irrespective of the overall economic gain from the investment. The fact that recent opinion polls show a majority of northerners are opposed to HS2 again shows how poor the PR work has been here.

The most recent PR line taken has been about capacity. Again though, the evidence suggests ordinary folk are not convinced. And this isn’t surprising. If you are on the crammed 8.28 from Dudley Port to Snow Hill, I doubt you think the £billions spent on HS2 will help much. However, I do think this is HS2s strongest card.  Although forecasts of capacity problems may be overstated and it may well be possible to improve capacity quicker and more cheaply by a package of measures on the West Coast main Line,  a “looming capacity crunch” is hard to disprove, and had it been played consistently from the beginning HS2 might be much further ahead in the opinion polls.

So now, after the PR spin on the environment, business traveller benefit, healing the North/South divide and guaranteeing you a seat on your commuter journey have all failed to win over a sceptical public, it could be argued we are onto the final PR spin, first ridiculed by Samuel Johnson back in 1775 as being “the last refuge of a scoundrel”, namely appealing to national unity and pride in the UK. “it’s a Global Race”; “How can we not do it when the French, Spanish etc etc have”. These lines, recently uttered by the Prime Minister et al, were followed shortly after by an opinion poll showing even greater negative views on the line.

The government have comprehensively lost the PR battle on HS2. The public are set against the project, in large numbers, on all sides of the political divide. It may still happen, it may even be beneficial; but the expense of it certainly won’t be welcomed, and for that the politicians know who to blame. Themselves.


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