The polite, softly spoken and terribly British voice came out from the tannoy on a grey, drizzly night earlier this year. “Hello, my name is James. I do so hope that you had a good day at work. It’s so lovely to see you. Beside me are some chocolates, please take one as you pass by.”
And so the legend of ‘James the St Albans station announcer’ was born, the man who has since almost single-handedly made thousands of gloomy Hertfordshire commuters hate First Capital Connect just that little bit less.
Let me explain. I am one of those gloomy, St Albans commuters who for the past ten years has spent a small fortune (no, in fact, make that a fortune) travelling into London and back again whilst glaring enviously down at the lucky few passengers (the Harpenden lot) who have nabbed a seat.
The most expensive rail commute no less, mile for mile, in the whole of Europe! I was delighted, you can imagine, that my town was honoured with that title by the BBC last year.
On trains which over the years are often late (or indeed cancelled), which can change platforms and back again at a moment’s notice (to be fair it is quite funny watching hundreds of commuters rushing from platform to platform like a Benny Hill sketch…) and which whimper at the mere sight of snow or in fact any weather outside the extremes of quite rainy and windy.
Nope. First Capital Connect (and its predecessor, Thameslink) has over the years become a swear word in the leafy suburbs of Herts and for our cousins down in Sevenoaks.
But change is in the air, and for the St Albans massif, it is in no small part to one man, a PR powerhouse – James.
Every morning and evening, as weary travellers drudge their way into work and back, James is there on the tannoy giving a sincere ‘good morning’ or ‘good evening’, always asking after our general wellbeing and regularly inviting us to take a choccy on our way out.
James always sounds genuinely aggrieved when a train is late (it causes a ‘certain dampening of his soul’, as he puts it) and falls over himself to apologise, as well as providing a detailed reason as to the cause of said delay.
The other week, on a particularly wet November night, James welcomed his passengers home with a reminder of why ‘home’ is such a great place to be, and that nothing quite beats it. Looking around the platform as people disembarked, it was amazing to see so many smiles and chuckles. We St Albaners never, ever smile when in ‘commute mode’. It goes against the unspoken code.
Who is this genius, this raconteur of the rails? I thought.
Quite simply, people like James. To the extent that he has become a local celebrity and now with a Facebook appreciation group.
James has helped First Capital Connect to re-engage with a lot of previously disgruntled St Albans customers and for me, certainly, he has almost single-handedly changed my perceptions of the train operator. I now associate them with something good.
Sure, my journey is still (very) expensive and trains are still occasionally late, but at least now I feel that there is a voice within First Capital Connect that cares.
And ultimately, that is what good PR is all about. It is about having a positive line of communication with your audience – whoever they are – to be engaging and to make that audience believe that they matter to you.
Whatever the platform, and in the case of James the station announcer, it is the platform itself, good PR is about making audiences understand that they are important to your business. And quite literally, having good relations.
James, Sir, you are a PR maestro.