In-house Communications

By The Drum, Administrator

June 29, 2006 | 7 min read

Vicki Greenhill is early for our meeting, but you’d expect that... she knows the roads better than most. As the senior media officer for Amey – the roadworks management company – it’s her job to keep the travelling public moving.

Amey has managed and maintained the motorways in central and southern Scotland for the Scottish Executive (now Transport Scotland) since 2001, recently winning a renewed £140m contract to continue in its role for the next five years.

During the previous contract, PR support was provided by an external consultancy however, this changed last year with the appointment of Greenhill as in-house media officer for the transport giants, reporting to Jim Gilmour, Amey’s head of liaison.

Amey employs around 2000 people in Scotland alone, and further strengthened its in-house media and communications team earlier this year. However the announcement of a massive £4.5m project to reconstruct the busiest section of motorway in Scotland in July, means the small but busy team will have a challenge on its hands as, what is likely to be the “nastiest piece of roadworks to face motorists in Scotland for a long, long time” gets underway.

“Our relationship with the press is continually improving,” says Greenhill. “Amey in Scotland has tried to be proactive, giving press and broadcast travel desks advance information about roadworks that are planned. In the past the press have always tended to report on such information in a very negative way – ‘roadworks chaos’; ‘motorway misery’; ‘gridlock Scotland’ – but we took a real step change about 12 months ago. We wanted to put a stop to the negativity. Amey does a lot of good, essential work. The motorways carry a huge amount of traffic in Scotland, and drivers need a well-maintained, well-managed motorway that isn’t crumbling under their wheels.

“We’re not apologetic about what we do. Our client, Transport Scotland, invests a lot of money in the network and there is a massive amount of planning that goes into any project, to cause the least disruption possible.”

As well as running Amey’s 24/7 press office, providing up-to-the-minute traffic and travel information, the comms team specialises in transport media relations, taking on news editors to dramatically change the way that roadworks are sensationalised negatively.

Since organising a press conference in early June announcing the approaching, and no doubt high-profile, work on the M8, Greenhill has been responsible for pulling together a full marketing and communications strategy encompassing print and broadcast advertising, leaflet distribution and media relations.

However, it is not just the inconvenience of roadworks that the communications team deal with. There are matters of a slightly more important nature too.

Imagine trying to do your work and just feet away there are lorries and cars thundering past at 70mph, and all you have to protect you is a traffic cone?

In the last year alone in the UK, five road workers have been killed while doing their jobs by the side of the motorways – one death being on Scotland’s busy M8.

“Driving behaviour costs lives,” says Greenhill. “If you don’t observe the speed limits, or if you hurl abuse (or worse) at the workers; don’t pay attention or talk on your mobile, then you are putting the lives of others as well as your own, at risk.

“What is sometimes forgotten is that it’s real people out there working on the roads – from major roadworks to grass cutting, litter picking, winter maintenance and accident investigation work – and the negative headlines really affect them in their job. The public transfer their frustrations and the negativity onto the workers at the side of the road, who are already in a dangerous enough position.

“One thing that I’m really keen to look at, which has been on the back-burner for the last year, is putting together an advertising campaign promoting road safety for the workers – imagine a high-speed roadworks situation, but instead of having a works crew at the side of the road, you have a nurse by a hospital bed, or someone behind a desk... How would you like to do what you do with traffic flying past?

“Road-worker safety is a massive issue on the agenda, right up to Transport Minister level in Westminster, its importance being raised by the number of deaths over the last year.”

Proactivity has been a long-term strategy for Amey, but since Greenhill joined the company last April, she believes the results have been changing due to the sheer levels of planning undertaken by the team.

“We’re not fire-fighting as much as we used to as we are so well planned-out. We are answering the questions before they are asked. We put so much of our efforts into being proactive, it minimises the reactive activity that we have to undertake otherwise.

“A large project – from the initial survey of the road, to finding out what condition it’s in, drawing up plans, bringing in contractors, designing the road and speed management – can be four or five years in the planning. Maybe 12 months of that will include looking at the communications planning.”

Of course, every project does not involve this much planning, but the work starting on the M8 next month is on the busiest stretch of motorway in Scotland, with 130,000 vehicles using the stretch of road every day, and it’s the first time the stretch – on the M8 and M77 junction – has been reconstructed since it was first built in the 1970s.

“Because it’s such a tricky location to work in without causing mayhem, there had to be that level of planning going into it,” says Greenhill. “It is a real passion of mind, so it’s really important that people know to what massive degrees we go to to ensure that there is as little disruption as possible.”

By no coincidence, in the summer months the volume of 130,000 cars using the stretch of motorway each day drops by five percent – with a knock-on effect of reducing congestion by about 75 percent – hence, Amey taking that window of opportunity to undertake the work.

“We have spent a great deal of time meeting news editors and journalists,” continues Greenhill, “We went out with the BBC travel desk and have built some strong relationships. Now, what’s really good for us is when reporters mention a set of roadworks, they actually remind travellers to drive carefully, and to watch out for the guys on site, and the news bulletins are peppered with the safety messages that we want to get across.”

The success of the change in Amey’s profile was marked at the company’s annual conference in October, where Greenhill won an award – against several hundred entries – for her work to positively influence newspaper headlines in relation to roadworks and for profiling the very real issue of roadworker safety.

Furthermore, the media team in Scotland has been asked to contribute to business that Amey’s been working on south of the border.

“We are currently re-bidding for the South East unit, and our clients across the country see communication as a key part of the work that’s done,” Greenhill says. “We’ve been asked by the Highways Agency to come to London to present to all their senior press officers on how we managed to turn the headlines around.”

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