Virgin rail crash: the PR reaction

The man in charge of Virgin Trains’

media response over the Pendolino crash in Cumbria said that 24-hour news coverage has dramatically changed the way press offices deal with major disasters.

Jim Rowe, who has worked in railway PR for 20 years, also explained why he thinks the crash, which killed one passenger and seriously injured 10 others, has not damaged Virgin Trains’ image.

“I do not believe it has had any adverse affect on Virgin Trains,” he said.

“But if you had asked me that on Friday night I would have said ‘I do not know’, because we were still waiting to find out the cause.

“I didn’t know whether we were going to continue to be a credible business.”

The Rail Accident Investigation Branch said in its initial findings on Monday night that faulty points on the track, maintained by contractors working for Network Rail, were “the immediate cause of the derailment”.

The Virgin Trains press office was not open when the crash happened just after 8pm on Friday, but within 90 minutes four staff arrived to answer questions and conduct broadcast interviews.

A statement was put out just after 10pm outlining basic facts and the office arranged for a Virgin Trains executive to speak at a press conference at Virgin rail crash: the PR reaction Kendal police station at 2am.

The office then stayed open with four or five people manning the phones until early the next evening.

Rowe worked on the Clapham rail disaster in 1988 and said that PR crisis management has moved on a great deal since then.

“The story develops more quickly now than it did 10 years ago. Mobile phone technology means that within minutes we and the rest of country were seeing images from inside the train.

“In one sense it’s helpful because we got a good feel that it was a major incident.

But at the same time it means the media can push on much more with the story. The landscape has changed so much. In 1988 there was breakfast TV and news of the crash broke at about 8.15am on a weekday morning, so it was covered there but it wasn’t 24/7,”

he said.

Sue Crawford, news editor of the News and Star, Carlisle, said the company had managed to emerge from the crisis unscathed and that Virgin Group founder Richard Branson’s presence at the site on Saturday morning had a big influence.

She said: “Generally Virgin has come out it quite well. Because of their reaction, Branson coming and because the train itself was intact, people have a lot of confidence in [the company].”

See page 13 for details of how regional radio and newspaper journalists reacted to the crash.

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