The last time my thoughts appeared on this lofty website I was berating the FirstGroup PR tactics relating to their win of the West Coast Mainline. Today though, well today this has changed.
I am a fickle public relations operator, and as such, it is my right to flip-flop into whichever camp I prefer. After the DfT’s announcement that the West Coast contract handover decision be scrapped, today I am TeamFirst.
The reasons behind the decision are yet to be outed to us the great unwashed but believe me when I say that they will. There is no way the reasons can be kept quiet in today’s 24 hour rolling media.
First are in the position where their share price has been whacked because of the news, all future tendering, including the Great Western tenders, have been put on hold and their whole sector now looks a bit “wobbly”. Wobbly being a travel sector PR term.
At the time of writing, First has (publicly) done nothing wrong. They played a slowly-catchy game in terms of dealing with Beardy Branson and his suey-suey PR army and have quietly gone about their business in preparing to take over.
The government tried to brush everything under the carpet apart from a Transport Secretary investigation that went very quiet until someone hit the panic button in the early hours of this morning.
Now though, First is in the shizzle, big time. Virgin is celebrating the fact they have got the contract back. It is very much starting to feel like Virgin is championing this as the people’s choice. It wasn’t, it was the civil servants' choice.
Labour is lauding it hinting that the big nasty FirstGroup have somehow got into cahoots with the Conservatives to be awarded the contract in the first place and First is just lumbered with a load of costs for prep work it no longer needs.
So far, three civil servants have been suspended, the reasons, as I say, unknown. I think many people who have worked in the sector, as I have, had the word “bung” pop into their head whilst hearing about the story this morning, but as yet, nothing of this nature has emerged (last line to keep the legal team happy!).
So, what next for FirstGroup, what can they do, to arrest the share slump. This is something the company has historically been very good at.
I fully expect a successful cost-cutting announcement, maybe the sale of a poorly performing division (sorry my old colleagues but that will be, cough, the bus division) and let’s go whole hog, an acquisition or two.
Failing the above, they could do what any struggling ruling party does when it needs a PR boost, go to war! Boom.
Oh, and who could FirstGroup go to war with? Well hello Mr Beardy, now might be time to retreat to your island. Let’s not forget Virgin has history when it comes to not being whiter than white, anyone remember Virgin Atlantic fuel shenanigans with BA?
If the slightest murky word emerges from the DfT involving Virgin Trains then FirstGroup should go for the jugular.
Virgin has treated this whole situation like the transport industry version of X-Factor. Carrying on this analogy, FirstGroup started out looking a bit Louis Walsh but I for one think they could come out very Simon Cowell if they just play Virgin at their own PR games.
Please God, for my sake, let FirstGroup be whiter than white for this.
Andy Barr is a former FirstGroup PR man who also worked for a number of financial institutions including AXA and Chelsea Building Society before co-founding the PR agency 10 Yetis.
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