Public relations is about reputation, but it’s also about storytelling.

You can dress it up with buzzphrases such as “compelling narrative” or “engaging content” but it’s all to do with telling the right story at the right time to the right audience in the right way.

I was thinking about this when looking at Network Rail’s performance during the recent upgrade to Waterloo Station, London.

I’ve said before that in any sort of crisis or change to expected behaviour, the first question people ask is “What does this mean to me?” and Network Rail got a handle on that early on, giving people lots of notice about the work, working with operators to promote the temporary timetables1. Come the start of work, there was no chaos, despite the efforts of certain newspapers to say otherwise.

During the work we had regular updates via Twitter, behind-the-scenes looks at the work as it progressed, and it was turning into a masterclass in how to manage and promote good communications during an extensive project with short-term upheaval.

Euston, we’ve had a problem2

But then, as may be expected with a project of this size, there were delays to commissioning the signalling.

It was pretty obvious that something had gone Pete Tong with the project plan as the usually informative and upbeat tweets were replaced with “STATEMENT FOR MEDIA” and an image of some words for release.

And it was going so well, too.

But it got me thinking about project communications, and the things that could go wrong – and that got me thinking about Apollo 13.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the film. In particular, the second half of the film, where each mini issue is overcome only for another one to arise. But in each of these stories-within-the-story there’s always some exposition; why the heat shield is crucial to re-entry, what the CO2 scrubbers do, and so on.

Fairy lights

I’ve been on the customer communications side of major projects, never the rail industry side; but I’m pretty confident in saying that signalling is complicated.

You’ve got wiring linking lights and signal panels/boxes, communications lines, warning systems… and it all needs to be tested before acceptance. And you can’t test it until it’s installed. You know it’s all supposed to work out of the box but sometimes it doesn’t, and there could be 1,001 points of failure, all of which need to be checked.

It’s like when you bring out the box of Christmas tree lights every year. They worked when you put them away, but you end up rolling the whole thing out on the floor, testing each bulb individually to see which one is loose or needs replacing.

Only much more complicated.

And it made me think: just how many miles of cabling are involved at Waterloo? How many connections to be made? How many things need to be tested? What is the scope of this work?

Tell that story beforehand, and people might be more understanding if it takes longer than planned.

And if you explain to people how difficult it is, but then it all works first time, you’ll look awesome. Win-win, in my book.

  1. Deleting the older tweets is bad form though, which is why I’ve not been able to embed any in this post. []
  2. I know. Don’t care. []