Thursday 12 December 2013

Pennsylvania Railroad Serving the Nation

There’s an entertaining case-study in Roland Marchan’s Creating the Corporate Soul (1998) on the subject of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and its pioneering enthusiasm for the devious art of public relations. Second only to the New York Central in terms of passenger numbers, the railroad was unloved by both customers and employees according to an opinion survey it commissioned in 1926. Travellers were unimpressed by singularly unhelpful and discourteous staff while the workforce was confronted by an employer hostile to unions and bent on reducing wages and pensions. To break this vicious cycle, a campaign was launched with the aim of raising employee performance by celebrating instances of exceptional assistance rendered or displays of outstanding courtesy (both actual and fictional) in magazine advertising and internal newsletters. Nothing less than a corporate spirit of virtuous service would suffice. A wedge was driven between the workers and their union by assiduously promoting a company employee association. Another company ambition was to develop a close relationship with all the small communities served by its network and convince the populace that despite its monolithic scale, at heart it was a small business like any other that only existed to serve the needs and desires of ordinary folks. Every bit of publicity was designed to reinforce the notion that the PRR possessed a heart and soul dedicated at every level to the welfare and happiness of its customers. This campaign was regarded as an exemplar by the infant public relations industry but as Marchan points out, there was no conclusive evaluation of the results and such indications as there are suggest it accomplished very little. By 1933 some 67,000 workers had been laid off and the remainder casualised and an industry expert is quoted saying that the PRR was “easily the most hated railroad and General Atterbury (company president) the most hated railroad executive”. 

From 1941 the priority was to demonstrate the company’s resolute commitment to serving the military campaign – every freight train carried essential supplies and munitions and every passenger train conveyed troops to their point of embarkation. Public morale was boosted by restating the fundamental values of American greatness, elevating vast clouds of patriotic fervour into the upper atmosphere alongside the smoke from the locomotives. The rewards of victory were held out, offering a return to an era of peace and plenty to sustain the public through the privations of war. Every operational aspect was reconfigured to save waste and improve efficiency and then reported to the public via mass circulation magazine advertising. Copy was written to personalise the PRR and communicate in the voice of a concerned citizen, gently reminding the readers that all essential supplies, raw materials, power, light, energy, food etc. were dependent on the activities of the railroad. Blue-collar and white-collar put aside their differences and united in the national interest. 

When peace returned there was a focus on rebuilding the infrastructure although the deeper message was to enlist support for the campaign for tax breaks. New improved coaches offered passengers enhanced space and comfort while new freight wagons destined to transform industrial efficiency rolled off the production lines to be waved on their way by enthusiastic small boys. Then there was the moment when the military uniform was set aside in favour of a return to the railroad blue, a transition celebrated in an ecstatic hyper-real tableau that captures the resumption of peacetime normality in an effort to reinforce esprit-de-corps. Molly Pitcher was doubtless sent packing as other servicemen returned to reclaim their former positions. The sunny prospects of vacation travel replaced the exigencies of wartime that demanded that every passenger train was shown passing through an industrial underworld beneath glowering apocalyptic skies. Despite the gleaming new trains with their recreation cars, the convenience and superior speed of airlines were rapidly stealing the customers away. When the network of interstate highways was complete, the end came quickly and in 1968 the PRR was merged out of existence. 

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