Viewpoint / Editorial: Losing faith in our service providers

JUST what is it with the companies we rely on to provide and maintain essential public services and their complete inability to communicate properly with the folk reliant on those services? The past few months have seen one hapless PR muck-up after another.

First we had Loganair back in May, whose communications firm The Big Partnership refused to field anyone from company management to discuss islanders’ mounting discontent about high airfares and a slew of delays.

The Edinburgh-based firm even queried whether Shetland News was exaggerating the number of people complaining about prices. Presumably the 15,000 people backing the laudable campaign for lower airfares have disabused them of that notion.

 A few weeks later it was Serco NorthLink’s turn. Several passengers got in touch to say they had enduring a scary “near miss” on board the Hrossey in flat calm seas near Kirkwall.

It took the ferry operator five days to finally acknowledge an incident had taken place after its PR firm Weber Shandwick fended off questions with the old “we can neither confirm nor deny” approach.


With the Marine Accident Investigation Branch saying they are too short staffed to investigate, and harbour authority Orkney Islands Council saying they are unable to without an incident report, significant questions about why a boat carrying over 400 passengers had to swerve to avoid hitting a large coastguard vessel remain unanswered.

There is no intention to blow the incident out of proportion here. The company’s attempt to play the incident down simply doesn’t tally with the on-board experience of numerous passengers. 

This weekend there was an alarming blackout where the loss of phone and radio links left people unable to contact emergency services for several hours.

With dialling 999 no longer an option, NHS Shetland was left asking anyone requiring hospital treatment to travel to the Gilbert Bain Hospital in person. Pity help any pour soul without access to transport who might’ve had an emergency on Saturday afternoon.

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Privatised telecoms giant BT must now identify what happened and make damned sure it doesn’t happen again. The Scottish Government, NHS Shetland, Shetland Coastguard and others should be making that case to BT in no uncertain terms.

The communications blackout also resulted in the closure of Sumburgh Airport on Saturday afternoon. Again the response of the authorities responsible was sorely lacking.

Sumburgh Airport operator HIAL advised passengers to contact their airline for information. Not good enough. Loganair, meanwhile, issued no information at all. Some passengers spoke of initially being informed by staff that one of the planes had “probably gone technical”!

Do these organisations not realise that people use social media websites and would benefit from being kept properly informed via such channels?


But then Loganair’s own Twitter page is private, which perhaps says something about its attitude towards its customers.

Last week we had the spectacle of a much-maligned services provider trying to explain why it had failed to deliver prisoners to Lerwick Sheriff Court.

One of the transport methods open to G4S in bringing defendants to Shetland is run by another much-maligned services provider, Serco, and the other is part-run by much-maligned budget airline Flybe.

When big operators feel unable to be open and honest with the public who rely upon them, it is very difficult to trust that they are acting in our interest rather than thinking of the bottom line and shareholder dividends.

As a result many question whether outsourcing responsibility for so many vital services and pieces of infrastructure has in fact made us all poorer.

We must hope the Scottish Government is listening to the pleas of islanders for a better deal once several of these contracts come up for renewal.


In the meantime, SNP transport and islands minister Derek Mackay ought to come down on the various operators like a ton of bricks – and perhaps remind them that it is not us grumpy gits in the islands media that they are insulting with their cack-handed PR, but the Shetland public.

How well he responds to media enquiries on behalf of islanders is a subject still very much open to question.

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