How FirstGroup bounced back after West Coast Mainline disappointment

How FirstGroup bounced back after West Coast Mainline disappointment

September 2, 2013

The loss of the West Coast Mainline contract proved the catalyst for a step change in communications for FirstGroup’s internal communications team. James Simons investigates.

Internally, it was a big celebration. Rail operator FirstGroup had just secured the prestigious West Coast Mainline franchise.

The 10-year contract to run the 1,500-mile route was a significant win for the company’s Rail Division, and its employees.

But delight quickly turned to despair when Virgin Rail (the former operator) opposed the deal, claiming the bid was unrealistic and if it went through, FirstGroup would go bankrupt.

What followed was a sustained campaign by Virgin Rail and its supporters to try and reverse the Department for Transport’s original decision.

“Naturally, this was quite unsettling for employees,” recalls Cathryn Halton, Group Internal Communications Manager.

Cathyrn Halton, FirstGroup Group Internal Communications Manager.
Cathyrn Halton, FirstGroup Group Internal Communications Manager.

“Every day they would read more stories on social media and elsewhere about what might happen.”

Personal response
When FirstGroup was awarded the contract, in August last year, the group – responsible for approximately a quarter of the UK’s rail network – had immediately set about preparing for a smooth takeover of the franchise.

The challenge from Virgin Rail was unexpected, as was the strength of its response.

At one a point a petition – started up on Twitter, and supported by Virgin Rail – attracted thousands of signatures, including a number of celebrity endorsements.

And, to make matters worse, confidentiality and competition laws surrounding the franchise meant it was impossible for FirstGroup to respond with all the facts. Even internally, information was strictly on a need-to-know basis.

“We hadn’t really been in a dispute situation like this before, and one that was so high profile”,” admits Cathryn.

Initially, news of the dispute was communicated internally via traditional channels: a group announcement cascaded through team meetings. However, as the situation escalated, a new strategy was adopted.

Messages from FirstGroup Chief Executive Tim O’Toole became more frequent – and personal.

An open letter to employees was widely appreciated; as was a video update from Tim available through the company’s extranet, and when speaking publicly, he was quick to reassure staff at every opportunity.

The effect was instant as employees realised they had a figurehead to rally behind.

“It was very much a case of everybody pulling together behind a single cause – and behind the CEO,” says Cathryn. “He was going out there speaking up for the company and standing up for employees.”

Fast forward six months and the group can reflect on a valuable lesson learnt. Despite the cancellation of the West Coast contract – the process was scrapped in October 2012 after an internal review found “significant technical flaws” in the way the bid had been run by the Department for Transport and for which FirstGroup was in no way at fault – the experience delivered several notable benefits: communication has improved, the CEO is more visible and employees feel more united.

“A lot of that stems from what happened last year and how we went from a negative to a positive,” Cathryn concludes.

FirstGroup train

Time line
1997 – Virgin Rail begins running West Coast Mainline
2011 – The Department for Transport invites bids from companies interested in taking over the franchise
15 Aug 2012 – DfT announces it has awarded FirstGroup the franchise
28 Aug – Virgin starts high court proceedings demanding a review into the decision
10 Sep – Commons transport committee takes evidence from CEO Tim O’Toole
3 Oct – DfT cancels the award of the franchise due to “significant technical flaws” in their own bidding process.

Five top tips for turning around a crisis
1. Get the CEO to talk direct to people
2. Identify a figurehead for people to rally behind
3. Explore different media channels to get the message out
4. Find a consistent message – and stick to it
5. Always look for the positive in any situation!