When PR Backfires: Corbyn v Virgin

If you’ve read the papers recently, you’re probably aware of the #traingate row. It’s a great example of PR backfiring.

So what happened?

Over the past few weeks, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons following a major PR blunder.

Corbyn was drawn into an extraordinary row with Virgin Trains after he recorded a video in which he complained of overcrowding on their services. During a journey from King’s Cross to Newcastle, Corbyn claimed the train was ‘ram-packed’ on camera, resulting in him being forced to sit on the floor. In the video he laments the lack of available seats, saying, “this is a problem that many commuters and long-distance travellers face every day.” He then went on to call for renationalisation of the railways. “This is why our policy to bring the trains back into public ownership is so popular with passengers and rail workers.”

Virgin reacts

Virgin Trains were quick to react to the PR stunt, releasing CCTV footage from the train showing Corbyn walking past rows of empty, unreserved seats, to the far end of the train, where he and his team sat on the floor and started filming.

Backed by Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, the train operator claimed it had to “take issue with the idea that Mr Corbyn wasn’t able to be seated on the service, as this clearly wasn’t the case.” A spokesperson for Virgin Trains added, “we know that some of our services are extremely popular and it can be hard to find a seat. This usually happens when there’s a big sporting event. Unfortunately we can’t do anything about Cup Finals, but we’d be delighted to work with ministers to review fare structures for long distance services, with the aim of reducing overcrowding”.

Following the CCTV evidence, a Corbyn source admitted that a handful of seats had been available, but not two together and the Labour leader had wanted to sit with his wife. As a result he, his wife and his team were forced to sit or stand in the corridor. The source added that when Virgin staff spotted Corbyn sitting in a vestibule they offered him a complimentary upgrade to First Class, which he refused.

Virgin PR

As exemplar PR operators, Virgin Trains’ quick response was measured, factual and formal. In fact Corbyn did Virgin a favour, as #traingate succeeded in demonstrating the brand’s PR prowess. On the other hand, by being selective with the truth, Corbyn’s team have been shown to be untrustworthy, manipulating a situation unfairly at the cost of a great British brand to make their leader look good.

As a result, there was an immediate flurry of social media activity, mocking Corbyn, complete with pictures of him sitting (in a seat) on a train captioned with remarks about Virgins. Visibly annoyed, Corbyn was still fielding questions about his journey some two weeks’ later when he was trying to launch a new health policy.

Political Crisis Comms

In political crisis comms terms, this was a great opportunity for the Conservative Party. From a PR point of view, Corbyn made a mess of the situation. It took a solid three hours for a wishy-washy statement to emerge from Labour HQ. In that time, Tory spinners thought up a slew of gags for their MPs to tweet, which made #traingate a trending topic on Twitter.

Naive PR

While Corbyn has, according to some, suffered media misrepresentation, he brought this particular negative story on himself. By choosing to refrain from active participation with journalists, and now issuing an opportunist story against a seasoned PR pro like Branson, it’s reinforced the perception that his poor judgment and amateur approach to the media are the reason he fails to control his story.

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