Good and bad PR, it seems, can fall off the back of a lorry.
It's always easier for staff to alienate the public than to win its respect. And never easier than in the case of drivers employed by trucking companies - whose vehicles frequently wear the livery of some important commercial customer. Inconsiderate driving is a quick way of making enemies, and a recent survey by Welcome Break Service Areas showed, not surprisingly, that lorries driving too close to each other, or to other vehicles, are a pet hate of 85% of motorway users. Some companies are now trying to turn potential damage to their advantage by inviting any member of the public who wishes to lodge a complaint to telephone a number on the rear of each truck.
Clothing retailer C&A was one of the first to adopt the idea in the UK. David Hughes, transport and operations manager of Swiftflow Distribution, a C & A division co-ordinating freight movements, first heard about it in the US. 'We felt it was a positive statement, in terms of the image of the company. It's a simple way of encouraging drivers to behave responsibly.' Drivers belonging to the contract-hire firms concerned were initially less sure. Nevertheless, claims Hughes, 'a large majority of calls are from people ringing to say, "What a good idea" - and to praise the driver'. The cost of the exercise is negligible, since calls are handled by the usual switchboard staff at half-a-dozen regional depots. Messages are passed on to managers, who may refer each one to the relevant haulage contractor.
Tim Bloch, managing director of nationwide removals and courier firm Moves, is equally convinced. 'We started off by fixing self-adhesive vinyl signs to all our vehicles, but now the message ('How's my driving? Tell my boss') is part of our standard livery. It shows we have nothing to hide.' But not everyone is so keen. 'We considered the introduction of such notices to our vehicles, however there are some technical difficulties,' says Tesco distribution director, Paul Bateman. Problems could include hoax callers, although both C & A and Moves reduce that risk by using a standard telephone number and calling enquirers back, rather than operating a Freefone service which could be abused. A tailgate message might also distract some drivers. Bateman says that Tesco will follow forthcoming recommendations from the Freight Transport Association. The FTA, reveals John Guttridge, its director of external affairs, is discussing the idea with several members as one of a number of possible measures to boost the image of the industry and its customers. 'The results show that such schemes work and have considerable public relations value,' he believes. 'However, to be effective, a sign needs to be quite large. Many firms would regard their vehicle liveries as sacrosanct.' Much depends, too, on the scale of operations. 'We have over 200 sites or depots throughout the country,' points out Martyn Pellew, business and market planning director of Exel Logistics, part of NFC. 'It would be virtually impossible to monitor drivers on a local basis; and if we did it centrally, we would need a large dedicated staff.' The FTA's findings are expected by the autumn. Until then the message must be 'Watch this space'.