This has not been a good week for the Broadcast Spokesman for the Rail Delivery Group which represents some of the UK’s much-maligned rail companies.

Robert Nisbet’s claim on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Breakfast programme  that Britain’s rail services were “the envy of Europe” was widely mocked on social media, by politicians and by countless callers to radio phone-ins.

[If you want to hear the interview in full click here – it’s on after the 8am news]

The incredulity in presenter Nicky Campbell’s tones must have been shared by most of 5 Live’s listeners and indeed the rest of the media who latched onto the story like lightning.

After the interview ex-Sky reporter Nisbet quite rightly issued a a written apology.

He then presumably thanked his lucky stars that he hadn’t been inerviewed by Radio 4’s John Humphreys.

When so many people are experiencing problems which seem to be the polar opposite of what you are publicly claiming,  you’ve got problems.

In my view, Nisbet has been and still is an effective PR spokesman for the rail industry (and boy did they need one) and he did the right thing by issuing an apology even though the main damage was already done.

No doubt the phrase “the envy of Europe” will come back to haunt him, even though he didn’t actually utter those exact words which were said by Campbell and confirmed by his reply.

It brings into sharp focus how things can quickly get worse with an ill-chosen phrase or attitude and a sharp interviewer, whose job after all is to reflect the views of the audience.

He was caught for a few seconds trying to spin the unspinnable.

And that can happen so quickly and easily when you’re live on air.

Overdoing the spin?

Nisbet tried to divert attention from customer dissatisfaction by alluding to more positive rail news which is absolutely his job but then went on to quote  from a 5 year old customer satisfaction survey (as later revealed in his written statement of apology) upon which his ‘envy of Europe’ claims were made, according to the RDG statement.

It was a gamble that didn’t come off.

But that fact probably wouldn’t have been made public had he not made the original error.

The Rail Delivery Group will live to fight many more battles, and while right now most regional train news is of the negative variety, if commuters experience BIG improvements over a sustained period of time then Nisbet’s misfirings will eventually forgotten by most of us.

His crisis communications strategy has been to accentuate the positive while admitting to the serious shortcomings which so many customers have long complained about.

On this occasion he got he balance wrong and suffered the consequences.


Own goal

From a PR perspective there can be fewer more dispiriting feelings than going on the radio to admit to failure while trying to convince your customers that you’re across the situation … and then end up scoring an own goal.

If you over-egg the spin you run the risk of an interview which spirals out of control and then adds to the negative coverage, which is what happened.

It’s interesting that the RDG tend to rely on Nisbet for their PR profile rather than a experienced senior executive with a strong background in the industry.

But this is a seasoned journalist with superb broadcasting skills who earned his spurs as a reporter at the BBC and Sky (25  years, according to his LinkedIn profile) and yet in a few seconds made a difficult situation worse.

This is not a personal slight, it could happen to any of us.

And if it can happen to an accomplished broadcaster like Robert Nisbet it can happen to anyone who is thrust into the media spotlight and asked to defend an organisational failure.

To repeat, it’s all about the content and balance of your message.

Authenticity is the key

How effective would your company’s PR person or spokesperson be when put under the spotlight? Are you confident that he or she can perform at the highest level to protect your brand and tread that difficult balance between Pity, Praise and Promise …and Spin?

At our intensive media training workshops are tailored to the needs of your organisation. We’ll put your prospective media spokespeople under pressure in a realistic but controlled environment to prepare you for the full range of situations so you’re fully prepared for whatever may come your way.

Preparation is 90% of the battle and we’ll prepare your organisation to up its game so your authenticity and authority shine through.

We don’t do spin and nor should you.

Slickness and smoothness is a double-edged sword – fine when it works but potentially catasrophic when it goes wrong.

It’s not worth the gamble.

It’s my view that authenticity is what audiences respect so our trainers  work hard to bring that out in all our trainees.

Leave spin to some football managers and politicians.