How Corbett put his reputation on the line - and won

Media Strategy
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Few would have expected Railtrack's chief executive, Gerald Corbett, still to be in a job this weekend. Fewer still would have predicted that he would emerge from the Hatfield disaster with his personal reputation enhanced.

Few would have expected Railtrack's chief executive, Gerald Corbett, still to be in a job this weekend. Fewer still would have predicted that he would emerge from the Hatfield disaster with his personal reputation enhanced.

But since tendering his resignation on Wednesday morning, Mr Corbett has transformed himself in just 72 hours from Britain's most vilified boss to the "Man Who Can Save the Railways". He has picked up the support of the Government, rail operating companies and even some of the victims of last year's Paddington crash.

Dark mutterings have been heard about a Railtrack spin operation to rebrand Mr Corbett as a more caring boss. But according to observers, the reasons for the change in his fortunes lie not so much in PR as a change in culture at Railtrack and the genuine contrition shown by its chief executive.

When news emerged that a broken rail was the likely cause of the Hatfield derailment a barrage of criticism looked set to break. Here, after all, was the man who had vowed to resign if there was another serious accident after the 1999 Paddington disaster, which claimed 31 lives, and was partly blamed on Railtrack signalling.

At 11.30am on Wednesday Mr Corbett announced he intended to step down on "a matter of principle", and appeared before the cameras to say in a cracking voice: "I am personally distraught that another tragedy has occurred on our railways. The families of the bereaved are foremost in my mind."

Since the Southall and Paddington disasters, an external PR company has been brought in to advise Railtrack and its top managers on public presentation. But the companyinsisted that the remorse shown by Mr Corbett and his admission of failure on the part of Railtrack was instinctive.

A senior Railtrack source said: "On Tuesday night we could see the wall of vilification that was coming toward us as a company and Gerald as anindividual. Gerald knew he would have to resign the next day but his reasons for doing so were out of genuine sorrow and dismay that another dreadful accident had happened on his watch.

"But what none of us expected was the support he subsequently received. How could we have possibly 'spun' victims of previous crashes offering their support?"

Pam Warren, 33, the co-founder of the Paddington Survivors Group, issued a plea on Wednesday for the Railtrack board not to accept its chief executive's resignation. Mrs Warren, who wears a plastic mask after being badly burnt in last year's crash, said she had met Mr Corbett and found him to be "genuinely upset and personally affected" by the crash.

For the public relations mastermind Max Clifford, it was this intervention that was the key to Mr Corbett's survival. He said yesterday: "Gerald Corbett acted correctly in tendering his resignation ... but the defining moment was the support of Mrs Warren. I doubt very much that that was the result of PR. It showed more than anything that the situation had changed and he had to stay."

By yesterday Mr Corbett had even begun to set the pace with proposals on how to reform the railways. The chief executive of old, battling vainly to make privatisation work, had suddenly emerged as the visionary who would create a network fit for the 21st century.

Comments