Matt Bryant: The curious case of the Southern communications fail

Written by Matt Bryant on 11 October 2016 in Opinion

The latest twist in the saga of the under-fire train firm is just mind-boggling from a professional point of view. 

The fallout from the recent Southern advertising campaign targeting the RMT union is likely to last far beyond the next round of strike action.

The call for passengers to tell the RMT how upset they were, with the strapline “Let’s Strike Back,” was at best evidence of Southern underestimating the strength of anger among their customers; and at worst will go down as one of the biggest PR gaffes in recent history.

The vast majority of people working in London will have been affected by the shambolic Southern service one way or another. They either use Southern themselves, or have a colleague who’s arriving late or facing more stressful journeys as a result of the ongoing problems.

It’s clear that this was more than just one over-enthusiastic member of the communications team going rogue. The tweets, posters and newspaper adverts that emerged are evidence of a planned, concerted effort to shift the blame and get passengers back on side. Yet it is that effort that makes it worse than a slip of the tongue or an errant tweet.

On Wednesday, Southern finally admitted defeat. A leaked email, demanding a halt in the print run and the removal of all posters, effectively conceded that the campaign had been comprehensively derailed.

What is oddest is how the campaign saw the light of day at all. The collateral would have been discussed and seen by numerous people in the sign off process. One would hope it was at least run by their legal team. It seems inconceivable that nobody at any point questioned whether they were risking further fallout and ill-feeling by embarking on a very aggressive campaign.

OK, strike action rarely makes a trade union more popular, but targeting them – in effect, targeting your own workforce who make up their membership – is a bizarre move to say the least.

Given their already fragile corporate reputation, this campaign proves the old adage of ‘when you’re in a hole, stop digging’. Whatever the thought process behind it, this latest move will have done nothing to improve Govia's chances of bidding for future franchises, as warned by the former rail Minister. Effective communications campaigns can make the difference between winning and losing a contract.

Most of all, Southern now has left itself with even more work to do to regain the trust of its passengers. Getting their trains to run on time would be a start.


Picture by: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/Press Association Images




About the author

Matt Bryant is the Director of Communications for Resolution, and was formerly on the board of Connect Communications. He is grateful not to be a user of Southern Rail.

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