The #Traingate Debate

The media has been in a flurry for the past week over the so called ‘Train Gate’ dispute between Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Virgin Trains. After targeting the rail provider over a ‘ram-packed’ carriage meaning he had to sit on the floor, Jeremy Corbyn’s story was met with a very considered PR response from the brand.

Leaving aside the wider implications of a clash of two opposing political ideologies, it’s an interesting study on how a slick PR operation can help a brand maintain its reputation when under fire. There are several lessons to be learnt here:


Maintain control of the story

What could have been an easy PR win for the Corbyn camp turned sour, largely because they underestimated Virgin PR team’s ability to re-imagine and direct the story. Virgin’s factual and comprehensive release, complete with accompanying images and CCTV footage, struck a neutral tone which succeeded in clarifying the brand’s position and was pushed out over traditional and social media for maximum effect – they even managed to use the opportunity to announce their new fleet of trains and show off their customer service.

Virgin’s considered response succeeded in creating sufficient doubt about the story to discredit it, or at least to create debate about its veracity. In a climate where a healthy public appetite for a juicy story shaming politicians makes front-page news, it’s a risky strategy to rush into a story without a back-up plan to maintain credibility when outmanoeuvred.

The Labour leader has often got into hot water over his reluctance to engage with traditional media, while Virgin played directly into the traditional PR-media role to demonstrate the importance that this relationship has for brands.

Timing is everything

There is another (almost conspiracy theory-like) twist to the story, which shows just how savvy Virgin’s response was. The two-week delay between Corbyn’s story breaking and Virgin’s response might have looked like a worried pause, but a closer look reveals that the timing was spot on.

The release and footage dropped into journalist’s inboxes at the moment that it coincided perfectly with a rival brand’s front page-worthy news; British Airways flying the GB Olympians home, complete with a decorated BA-branded plane. While two weeks might be a lifetime in PR and politics, the Virgin team knew the value of their story, so could afford to be liberal with timing. With the opportunity to pip a rival brand to the front page, delaying its release was a savvy move which meant that the story provided extra commercial value for the brand.

In contrast, the several hours of silence before Corbyn’s team issued their response to Virgin’s claims left a space easily filled by jokes, puns and speculation across social media.

Don’t underestimate social media

As this case demonstrates, social media is a hugely important tool in maintaining brand reputation. The trump card of Virgin’s response was their unusual choice to centre the release around visual evidence. By releasing the CCTV footage of Corbyn on the train, they provided a targeted, bite-size response that could be easily and rapidly shared on social media. As the video and images are shared, they become increasingly recognisable which, in this case, left Corbyn’s team unable to formulate a powerful enough response to alter the narrative.

Adhering to his own mantra of being the face of his brand, Richard Branson’s own involvement on social media further succeeded in pushing engagement with Virgin’s story, exposing it to a further 8.2 million people.

In conclusion:

• Maintain a focused and informative tone when issuing releases; this can be used to greater advantage than an emotional and potentially accusatory spokesperson.
• Timing is key and if it benefits you, have the confidence to delay
• A picture paints a thousand words; use social media and strong visuals to full effect

Madeleine Gayfer
Account Executive