And so it came to pass that Network Rail started work on Platform 0 at Leeds Station. It’s a project I’m broadly familiar with, as it was initiated when I was still working at WYCA. Those meetings were four or five years ago, if you’re in any doubt as to the glacial pace of rail-related infrastructure projects. It also happens to be across the river and car park from my flat.
This was all fine and well, until they started digging up the car park directly opposite my bedroom window. At around midnight. Four times, in November and December, without so much as a word of warning. Curiously, work would stop at around 5pm on Saturdays and 4pm on Sundays. And then there were the temporary lights, which shone directly into my flat, five storeys above and 50 metres away from the work area.
Of course I complained and was visited by the Communications Manager and Communications Executive handling the project, just before Christmas.
Now: I should, in all transparency, point out that one of the jobs I was interviewed for last summer was with Network Rail. If I’d got it, then this project would have been one of mine.
No-one likes to be told how to do their job, but it’s reasonable, I think, to wonder what I would do differently in the same situation
For example: the reason I was given for the lack of warning of the noisy work was that the project team had told the comms team that they weren’t doing any ‘noisy’ work. In Network Rail terms this is correct; the piling work is way noisier than anything else. In the real world, however, someone jack-hammering into a tarmac car park at 1am is noisy. Trust me, I have the sound files.
In my experience, when something goes wrong on a project the communications professional is the one in the crosshairs. Assuming you haven’t been tipped off elsewhere, the first you know of it is when the local Intelligencer calls you first thing Monday morning for a comment in time for their midday deadline. Then you have to run round trying to find someone from the project team to find out what actually occurred, write a response, get it cleared by all parties.
If you’re very lucky, you won’t miss that midday deadline by more than a few hours. But you probably won’t be.
What would I do / have I done differently?
The simple thing is to put yourself in the shoes of your customers/clients/users before work starts and to ask yourself: “How annoyed would I be in this situation?” I know that the last thing I’d want is to have to take a phone call from someone like me complaining about something I hadn’t told me. If you follow.
Good communication is not simply taking someone else’s message and passing it on. You need to be aware of and understand the external influences on the project or organisation. You should ask awkward questions and get some clarity – better they be answered now than wait for something to go wrong through a lack of attention to detail.
Good communication also involves regular communication; stakeholder updates should be part of your own communications project plan. One project I was involved in – at the other end of the station, curiously enough – included a monthly update newsletter to all affected stakeholders, including dates when intrusively-noisy work would take place. If you know your sleep might be disturbed one weekend you could make plans not be around, if possible. Forewarned is forearmed.
The project team members are also stakeholders. Attend the project meetings – yes, they’re dull, but you might also hear something beneficial. If you get a report it’ll be second-hand, so get in there.
That way, you might notice that the “non-noisy” work includes digging up a car park surface at 1am, and raise a hand.
If an external stakeholder complains, say sorry – the first time. After that, people won’t believe you. If you were that sorry you wouldn’t be having repeat conversations about the same issue. And make sure you understand what their issue is, not what you think it is.
Remember that nature abhors a vacuum. If an external stakeholder complains, then you need to take ownership, investigate and respond quickly. In my case it took five weeks from the original complaint (and four Friday nights of disturbance) before anyone came to see me, even though I can see the Network Rail office from my flat. Would they have moved any quicker if I’d complained via a councillor, my MP or the local press? I’d like to think not, but…
Ultimately, public relations is about reputation. But stakeholder engagement also about timeliness, understanding and empathy. Be a solution, not another problem.
Update (Wednesday 15th)
Two hours after I posted this last night, work started on the platform with a jack-hammer until around 2am. This morning, the canopy is being carefully dismantled. Noisy work at night when we’re trying to sleep, quiet work during the day. You can imagine the email I fired off.