In My Opinion: Scott Douglas: ScotRail were right to reject TV documentary invite

TRAIN operator, ScotRail, has just been involved in a wee case study of damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t media relations.

A report from The Scotsman’s Alastair Dalton tells us Scotland’s rail franchise operator sparked ‘anger’ after ‘snubbing’ a BBC documentary team. Tough-talking, tabloid-type words.

What we’ve got here is a classic ‘media village’ story that has nothing to do with service levels, the nuts and bolts of what commuters really care about.

In fact, it was almost entirely about the nature of PR and playing the age-old ‘poacher versus gamekeeper media game’. From that point of view, I couldn’t help but be interested.

As the article helpfully points out, ScotRail runs 95 per cent of Scotland’s train services, so why didn’t the company take part in the BBC’s programme, The Railway: Keeping Britain on Track?

According to the piece, other train operators revelled in a ‘sympathetic portrait’ showing how much staff loved their jobs.

If the suggestion of a PR blunder at passing up such a golden opportunity wasn’t clear enough, there were a number of usual suspects lined up to point out the seeming shortcomings of ScotRail’s comms and media team.

First up was Green MSP, Patrick Harvie, with this wee gem credited to him: “ScotRail’s public relations people are always happy to talk about their successes, and it’s disappointing that they don’t want the public to see a truly detailed picture of how they run a vital public service.”

Likewise, an official from train drivers union, Aslef, was quoted, ruing the “missed opportunity to showcase the exceptional talents of their staff”.

Twitter reaction took a similar vein. For instance, journalist and writer, Paul Bigland, said: “@ScotRail manage to turn an excellent PR opportunity #therailway into a very public own goal.”

But should the Scotsman article and a few smarting tweets be the sum total of the adverse coverage, then I reckon the ScotRail media and management teams will be ‘high-fiving’ all round, because they might have just ‘dodged a bullet’.

Had they participated in the documentary, it could have been … well, a ‘train wreck’.

Perhaps surprisingly in a story all about the apparent shortcomings of PR people, it was a journalist who rallied to defend ScotRail.

Nigel Harris, managing editor of RAIL magazine believes the team from the Beeb would have focused on characters who made the best TV, not necessarily the best ambassadors for the rail company. His assessment was blunt, as he was quoted as saying: “I commend ScotRail for holding out.”

I couldn’t agree more. Reality TV or fly-on-the-wall documentary makers aren’t interested in ordinary workers – they are looking for outliers who will light up the screen with controversy, comedy, haplessness, heartbreak or hopelessness.

Sure, there was a chance that ScotRail might have shown up well, particularly if they were an underdog operator or a fresh new kid on the block. But they’re not. They’re the big guy in an usually maligned sector whose experience is probably that messages about success (delays down, passenger numbers up) often fall on deaf ears.

FirstGroup, which runs the £2.5 billion, ten-year ScotRail franchise, will be keen to hold on to the contract (the biggest handed out by the Scottish Government) when it goes to tender in 2015.

PR and public perceptions will play a role that.

ScotRail’s decision to walk away from this apparent TV ‘PR opportunity’ meant lean pickings for the documentary makers and for journalists who can fill column inches with the cringe-inducing characters thrown up by fly-on-the-wall documentaries.

But with make-or-break commercial issues looming large, the job of the ScotRail PR team isn’t to give open access to reality TV crews, then ‘cross their fingers’ and hope for a good result.

Whichever way ScotRail played this, they were likely to get negative headlines of some sort.

The ‘storm in a teacup’ about some sort of missed PR opportunity is actually the exact opposite – almost certainly the best PR result ScotRail could have hoped for.

Scott Douglas is a director of Holyrood PR. He is also the founder of Deadline News Agency and a former reporter with the Daily Record, The Journal and the Edinburgh Evening News.