Track Record: A Journey Through London Underground PR
So how has the London Underground PR team used public relations over the years?
First, a bit of history. The iconic London Underground is almost 160 years old and still chugging along strong, albeit with some bits that don’t work like they used to.
The world’s first underground passenger railway has stood the test of time, changing the way people travel in and around London since it opened in 1863.
The Tube carries over one billion passengers to their destinations each year, raking in more than £2.5bn in revenue for Transport for London (TfL), the authority responsible for running the city’s public transport network.
Transport for London
A service with as long a history as the London Underground is bound to require some PR intervention from time to time to keep everything on track. TfL has an in-house team of public relations professionals that handles the communication across the organisation’s portfolio. From the buses and trams to the railway and, of course, the Tube, the award winning London Underground PR team keeps the train rolling, through the good and the bad.
And that’s the focus of this post. The reputation of the world’s oldest underground railway and the PR that has seen the institution draw both the ire and the admiration of the public.
Let’s head underground.
London Underground PR Examples: The Bad
The Tube Strikes…Again
In March 2022, London’s commuters had a ticket to nowhere as 10,000 London Underground employees went on strike in protest at money-saving plans to axe up to 600 station posts and review the pension scheme – plans that union bosses called a ‘financial crisis deliberately engineered by the Government to drive a ‘cuts’ agenda.’
In response, Transport for London’s CEO claimed: ‘TfL haven’t proposed any changes to pensions or terms and conditions, and nobody has or will lose their jobs because of the proposals we have set out.’
Maybe both sides could benefit from some internal communications training?
Strikes by London Underground staff are not a rare occurrence. There have been many instances of industrial action over the last decade or so, but this particular instance affected all lines and stations in the network, causing severe disruption.
Of course, the people who lose out are those that rely on the service to go about their daily business: commuters, tourists, parents doing the school run, people doing their weekly grocery shop and those visiting their families.
All these things are affected by the suspension of London Underground services, leaving people feeling frustrated and stuck in the middle, going nowhere fast and unable to do anything about it.
It’s an eternal cycle: The general public experience severe disruption to their daily routine and London Underground’s reputation takes a hit whilst everyone waits for some sort of agreement to be reached.
London Underground PR Takeaway
While strike action is not going to permanently damage London Underground’s reputation, it certainly doesn’t do it any favours.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot that can be done in terms of PR to remedy the customer dissatisfaction other than apologising for the disruption and keeping people updated on the progress of discussions between the parties involved, and of course, offering advice and support where needed.
After all, the public relations team is not in control of contracts and pension agreements. They’re not decision makers. They’re PR professionals, doing the best with what they have. And sometimes what they have is not a lot.
For another perspective on dealing with strike action, read: Uber PR: Why it’s Not Been an Easy Ride
Signs of Sexism
Another PR problem came about through a whiteboard. Distributed across London Underground stations throughout the city, whiteboards provide commuters with important travel updates and information. Simple, useful – perhaps, boring? – communications that do the job that’s needed.
But in 2017, those boards became an internet sensation when two (at the time unknown) London Underground staff members started using them to share witty and inspirational messages, under the pseudonym ‘All On The Board.’
Photos of the boards were shared online and from there, the duo generated a huge social media following and authored two books. That’s some positive PR for the underground right there.
So what’s the problem?
Thoughts of the Day
Long before these unassuming wordsmiths rose to fame, a London Underground customer services manager was brightening up Tube message boards with his ‘Thought of the Day.’ The response to his messages was positive, and the tradition was carried on by colleagues after his retirement.
This is where we reach the not so positive London Underground PR. A ‘Thought of the Day’ shared in February 2018 did not sit well with many who read it.
‘100 years ago, suffragette Emily Davison died after throwing herself in front of the king’s horse. History remembers her as being influential in giving women the right to vote. What history doesn’t remember is her husband, who didn’t get his tea that night!’
Hmm. We’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume this was an attempt at humour. That’s perfectly fine. Humour can be an incredibly effective tool in public communication. But humour is also subjective. What’s considered witty and harmless to some is a communications trainwreck to others.
The ‘funny’ message certainly did not amuse one commuter, who took to Twitter to share her outrage, instigating a wider backlash to the message.
The problem with this particular whiteboard ditty is not only that the message is factually incorrect (as pointed out by Georgia Aspinall in a 2018 Grazia article), but it makes light of a tragic event and cheapens the achievements and sacrifices made by a beloved historical figure.
The lesson? There’s a time and a place for funny. And this was neither the time nor the place.
TfL apologised for the message and opened an investigation into the incident, but the damage had already been done.
London Underground PR Takeaway
Sexism is not ok. ‘Jokes’ like this should be left to old-style comedians in comedy clubs.
This was negative press that TfL could have done without, and what’s more, it was totally avoidable. If only there had been a little forethought.
It’s ok for your business to use humour in its public communication. We all like to laugh. But you need to think about the context and delivery. Run it past a colleague or two before going public. It can be the difference between shared laughter and irreconcilable reputational damage.
For PR insight into another British Institution, read: The BBC and PR: Why it’s a World Icon, and How it Can Stay That Way.
London Underground PR Examples: The Good
Obviously, London Underground is not all strikes and sexism. The service wouldn’t still be running one and a half centuries later if that were the case. So, let’s dive into some examples of good public relations from the London Underground PR team.
Project Guardian: Report It to Stop It
Sexual harassment is prevalent on London’s public transport network, but research conducted by Transport for London found that 90% of women who experience unwanted sexual behaviour whilst travelling in the city never report it.
In response to these findings, TfL launched Project Guardian and the Report It to Stop It campaigns. In a co-ordinated effort with the Metropolitan and British Transport Police, TfL aim to raise awareness of the issue and encourage women to report any instances of harassment they experience.
Building on this success, a new campaign was launched, aiming to improve the safety of women and girls travelling in the capital and challenging the normalisation and dismissal of unacceptable sexual behaviour as just ‘something that happens.’
A very worthy campaign indeed.
London Underground PR Takeaway
Widespread sexual harassment can’t be eradicated overnight. And it’s not an easy topic to navigate in terms of PR, as even the most sincere campaigns can come under fire if the execution is off track.
However, it’s certainly not a conversation that an organisation can ignore. We have to give credit where it’s due to Transport for London for understanding that there is a problem and taking steps to tackle it. The campaigns have provided positive results and the work continues.
There’s still a way to go, but London Underground PR team has made a good start with this campaign.
COVID 19: Welcome back. Tube it. Bus it. Train it
When COVID 19 went full speed across the world, the government ordered everyone to stay home. As a result, London Underground usage dropped a staggering 95%.
Not very good for the finances. But it was written in law that only essential journeys were allowed, so a campaign to actively encourage people not to use the Underground was launched. Reverse marketing, as former TfL marketing chief, Chris Macleod, puts it.
Once everything started opening up again, a massive communications campaign was launched to get people back on the Tube and buses. The Welcome Back London campaign included station posters, escalator panels and screens, and a promotional video, which manipulated the iconic Underground roundel and destination boards on buses to showcase the many reasons to explore the city: from haircuts and art galleries to shopping and drinks after work.
The multi-channel campaign, delivered via TV, social media and throughout the city with out-of-home (OOH) advertising at London Underground stations was a rousing success. It grabbed headlines in all the trade press, with Nicola Kemp dubbing it ‘pitch perfect’ in a Creativebrief article.
Welcome back. Tube it. Bus it. Train it. This was the slogan used to mark the so-called ‘Freedom Day.’ Short, simple and highly effective.
London Underground PR Takeaway
After what seemed like a lifetime of lockdowns, it was going to take something special to get people back outside and underground. Although notorious for not outsourcing their PR endeavours to third parties, partnering with a creative agency on this campaign was a smart move from TfL. Collaboration provides a larger pool of creative ideas, as well as an outsider’s perspective.
The point is, it’s good practice to get another point of view in high-stakes PR comms. You may have the greatest PR team on the planet, but sometimes the situation calls for a little outside help to bring a new way of thinking to the table. This partnership produced fantastic results and was applauded by the public and PR professionals alike.
So don’t shy away from collaboration. When necessary, find people whose skills complement your own to get more from your PR campaigns.
Reputation: What do people think of the London Underground?
We’ve discussed a handful of good and bad London Underground PR examples. If you delve into its history, you’ll find many more on both ends of the spectrum. It’s inevitable for a service that has been running for as long as the Tube to have its ups and downs.
The Tube has a good reputation overall, though. Its many lines and trains provide locals and visitors to the capital with regular, and easy access to the many different streets and squares across the city. So, what’s not to like?
Yes, there are delays, closures, strikes and sadly, the occasional tragedy occurs. But all in all, the Tube is a reliable, low-cost option for travel across London.
For more on building and maintaining a good reputation, read: Reputation Management: How to Win Customers and Influence Stakeholders.