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The art of railway PR: learning from the past, John Elliot and the Southern.

The British railway industry is not good at presenting itself positively in the public sphere or hyping its achievements. Despite some exceptions, there is frequently a near-deafening silence when fare increases are splashed on the front-pages of newspapers and news websites, whilst improvements to the network are simply not paraded regularly enough for all to see.  I am not presenting an argument here for or against the current structure of the industry, but simply suggesting that if the industry wants to try and ingratiate itself into the public’s hearts and garner support, then it needs to improve its communication with it. The industry is cowered, perhaps because this is a most difficult of challenge. How do they reverse decades of ire aimed at it, and challenge the alleged misinformation that circulates?

To start they may want to take a leaf out of the inter-war railways’ books. Between the wars British industry began embracing recognisable Public Relations, the art of an organisation managing its relationship with the public(s). For instance, when in the 1920s Shell-Mex, was charged with polluting the British countryside by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and others, it used tasteful modern art, shown at galleries nationwide, to create narratives enhancing the idea that they cared for the environment, were a responsible company and, thus, improved their public face.[1]

Unsurprisingly, given the railways were (and are) inherently ‘public’ organisations, they followed suit and developed Public Relations operations to counter similar negative press. Unlike the commonly held, perhaps idealised view of the inter-war railways, they were not held in high esteem in 1923. In the forty years before the First World War their place in public life had changed and had been challenged. Once seen the vanguard of modernity and a symbol of British industrial progress, by 1900 they were cast as greedy monopolists that set rates for goods haulage too high and thus damaged British industry’s international competitiveness, provided poor services, and cared not for the safety of the public or their staff. The public saw them as only concerned about the bottom line.[2] War did not change much. Whilst there was justifiable respect for their significant achievements in supporting the war effort, this was not enough shake off negative perceptions of their public position, especially given a goods rates increase in 1921 hit many struggling businesses’ finances hard.[3] To add to the pressure, this was a period when nationalisation was a common part of public discourse, much to the concern of railway officials, and the companies’ were looking to throw off what they saw as Victorian restrictions on their commercial freedom (common carrier obligations, goods haulage rates available for publicly inspection at stations etc.) that they considered held their profitability back.[4] The railways therefore not only needed to improve their public image to stave off criticism and, perhaps, nationalisation, but also needed to acquire support for legislative changes to compete effectively with road haulage.

Creating a positive public image and managing their relationship with the press and public was therefore very important. The London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) was perhaps the first of the new ‘Big 4’ railway companies to address the issue (100+ companies had been amalgamated into 4 by the Railways Act 1921, which came into force on 1 January 1923) . In mid-1924 it outsourced press relationship management functions to the advertising agency Whitworth Hird, which acted on its behalf until the function was bought in-house in 1928.[5] Yet it was the Southern Railway’s response to a crisis in 1924 that perhaps could teach railway executives today the most about improving the industry’s corporate image, managing its relationship with the public, and that negative narratives that build up in the public sphere should not be allowed to become established unopposed.

Starting with gripes over the introduction of a new time-table, from July that year there were frequent letters in The Times about poor train services, ticket prices that were high and strangely set, and the low standard of facilities. Reminiscent of current complaints about the railways, one complainant stated the following in late July:

Sir – That the advantages of amalgamation are not to be shared with the public is shown in more ways than the inadequacy of the new time-table of the Southern Railway. For instance, Tunbridge Wells, Eridge and Crowborough are connected by motor-car service. When asked that a season ticket from Eridge to Victoria be made available on their other line from Tunbridge Wells to Cannon-Street for the through journey only, the company’s reply is that an additional £16 2s 8d a year must be paid for this convenience, although the distance from Tonbridge Wells is shorter. With slow trains, often from inconvenient stations, and a general lack of encouragement to travel by rail, is it to be wondered at that travelling by motor-car is resorted to more and more?[6]

As months went on, what started as a gripe of a handful of letter writers transformed into a widely-understood and damaging narrative where the paucity of the company’s services and overall offering became an establish fact, as this letter from October shows.

SOUTHERN RAILWAY TIMETABLES – The unfortunate traveller on the Southern Railway has yet to face another terror besides that of bad train services. Having to travel to town on Saturday afternoon, I bought a time-table at Purley Railway Station on Thursday and went to catch the 2.2 pm to Charing Cross. I was calmly informed that there was no such train, that it was a “misprint”, and that passengers had been arriving at Purley all the week intending to travel by that train, yet time-tables were being sold at the railway station without notice being given to the purchaser that they are unreliable.[7]

Whilst printing an incorrect train time in a timetable was clearly an error, and one passengers should have been notified about on purchase, the letter writer situated this issue within the recognised narrative of the Southern Railway’s perpetual failure. Its travellers were ‘unfortunate’ and  this was was ‘another terror’, despite this being an easily remediable problem that under other circumstances might have been simply forgotten. Thus by the end of the year, every new issue that arose, however small, was folded into the existing, prevailing negativity, thus reinforcing it. The Southern recognised something needed to be done to present a counter narrative that would attempt to improve its public image. Enter John Elliot.

The railway industry did not traditionally recruit talent from outside, preferring to appoint from amongst its own.[8] Elliot’s appointment as the Southern’s “Assistant to the General Manager for Public Relations” in January 1925 was therefore pretty unique. He was a press man and had been Assistant Editor at the Evening Standard and was the son of the editor of the Daily Express.  To appoint someone who had knowledge of the press – ostensibly the enemy at this point – was a master-stroke. It was an acknowledgement by Herbert Walker (the General Manager) that the company did not have the necessary skills internally to manage the relationship with the press and how its public persona was projected through it, whilst also a recognition that the void could only be filled by an individual with an understanding what they were up against.  Elliot did not however want to be a mere adjunct to the company; he wanted a £2,000 salary and to be on the senior management team, both of which he got. The latter was crucially important if he was to improve the Southern’s image – operational decisions and new policies could be coordinated and synchronised with the PR operation so that there would be no misunderstanding or mixed messages. The message about everything the railway was doing should be carefully and effectively managed.[9]

1925-01-22 - The Times (London, England), Thursday, Jan 22, 1925; pg. 17

The first advert that formed part of Elliot’s PR campaign of 1925, “Display Advert”, The Times, Jan 22, 1925, 17. Because this cannot be blown up, I have added a full sized version at the bottom.

Elliot arrived on the 16 January and only six days later an advert appeared in the press with the heading “The Truth about the Southern” that attempted to put into the public domain a new, clear and consistent narrative about the company. It highlighted the labours of the southern railways during the war and the running down of the system (heading: “Achievement”), and the fact that because the railways had not passed back to private control until 1921 there had been three lost years when investment and advancement could not take place (“Period of Unrest”). Importantly, and reflecting what the passenger wanted to see in their services, it stressed that what was then occurring was “Reconstruction”; “From the day that the Southern group was formed it has laboured in unceasing endeavour towards the standard of efficiency which its directors have determined it shall achieve.” This “standard of efficiency” encompassed the delivery of 80 new passenger engines, 120 main line carriages, 537 new vehicles as part of an extension of electrification, the rebuilding of 70 stations, and, ultimately, investment of over £10,000,000. Indeed, this reflected the company’s desires to be seen at the heart of the nation as in the vanguard of technological progress. Finally, the company cast itself as vital to post-war reconstruction, a key cog in Britain’s social and economic health – “the Southern Railway will take its place as a Builder of National Prosperity”. This sentiment was summed up by its new tag-line “Actively Engaged in the Public Service.”[10]

Over the next half-year further informative and easily understandable adverts appeared that created and the reinforced a positive narrative about the company’s activities. Some showed the intensity of the train operation in and out of London stations at peak hour, demonstrating the operational challenges it faced,[11] others drew attention to the delivery of new passenger locomotives,[12] whilst others told the public that of the 113,709 steam trains run in February, 93 per cent arrived within 5 minutes of the scheduled arrival time – something the advert deemed a success.[13] Newspaper adverts were also just one dimension of an integrated PR campaign. The Railway Gazette reported that there was a “systematic scheme of connected and co-related publicity” that utilised closer media management, a regular publication for first class ticket holders, postcards and even paperweights, all of which carried consistent messages about investment and improvements.[14] This was, one could argue, a sophisticated, dynamic and far-reaching PR campaign.

To what extent Elliot’s efforts were responsible for the fall in complaint letters written to The Times after January 1925 requires more research, especially as this may also be partly attributable to improvements and investment coming to fruition. There is however evidence to suggest that he changed popular perceptions about the Southern. A brief survey of post-January letters broadly shows a shift towards complaints being  individualised grievances, rather than them being connected to a broader discourse of continual railway failure. Frequently, letters also suggested the Southern Railway could make positive change, denoting greater public trust in its abilities. One letter from August complaining about poor timekeeping of new electric trains ended by stating “Surely a solution is to be found?”[15]

Elliot was a pioneer of railway company PR; his twenty-first century successors could learn a lot from him. He realised that negative public narratives, built up over time, could damage companies’ reputations and, potentially, business propositions – they therefore needed to be challenged through the crafting of new positive counter-narratives over a long period of time. To do this he required a prominent position and voice within the Southern so as to align policy with PR, he had to manage the relationship with the public carefully and cautiously, and he delivered a sustained, unified and consistent message that sold a positive view of what the Southern was doing that reflected what passengers wanted to see. As such, whatever you might think of the British railway industry today, it clearly needs to improve how it presents its public face, perhaps through adopting similar methods as Elliot did.

[1] Michael Heller, “Foucault, Discourse, and the Birth of British Public Relations”, Enterprise & Society 17, no.3 (2016): 651-677.

[2] P.J. Cain, “Traders verses Railways: The Genesis of the Railway and Canal Traffic Act,” The Journal of Transport History, New Series, 2, No. 2 (September, 1973). T.R. Gourvish, Railways and the British Economy, 1830-1914 (London: McMillan, 1980).

[3] Thomas Spain, “‘Food Miles’: Britain’s Transition from Rail to Road-based Food Distribution, 1919-1975”, Unpublished PhD Thesis, 2016.

[4] Gerald Crompton, “‘Good Business for the Nation’ The Railway Nationalisation Issue, 1921–47”, The Journal of Transport History 20, no.2 (1999): 141-159.

[5] TNA, RAIL 390/35, London & North Eastern Railway Organisation Committee, 20 February 1924 and 26 March 1924. Untitled, Hendon & Finchley Times, Feb 25, 1927, 6.

[6] “Letters to the editor”, The Times, July 26, 1924, 8.

[7] “Points from Letters – Southern Railway Timetables”, The Times, Oct 14, 1924, 10.

[8] Terence R. Gourvish, “A British Business Elite: The Chief Executive Managers of the Railway Industry, 1850-1922,” Business History Review 47, no.3 (1973): 289-316. David Turner, “Managing the “Royal Road”: The London & South Western Railway 1870-1911,” Unpublished PhD thesis, University of York, 2013.

[9] Michael R. Bonavia, The History of the Southern Railway, (London: Unwin Hyman, 1987), 63-64.

[10] “Display Advert”, The Times Jan 22, 1925, 17.

[11] “Display Advert”, The Times Feb 18, 1925, 10.

[12]  “Display Advert”, The Times Mar 4, 1925, 18.

[13]  “Display Advert”, The Times April 15, 1925, 9.

[14] Beverley Cole and Richard Durack, Railway Posters, 1923-1947, (London: Laurence King, 1992), 10-11.

[15] “Points from Letters”, The Times Aug 27, 1925, 12.

1925-01-22 - The Times (London, England), Thursday, Jan 22, 1925; pg. 17

The first advert that formed part of Elliott’s PR campaign of 1925, “Display Advert”, The Times, Jan 22, 1925, 17.