Could Southern Rail's union-bashing campaign come off the rails?

Southern Rail's confrontational campaign against RMT was inflammatory, tone-deaf and ill advised, say comms pros, but it may yet yield results.

Southern Rail's campaign is ill advised and tone-deaf, comms pros told PRWeek
Southern Rail's campaign is ill advised and tone-deaf, comms pros told PRWeek

Southern Rail took out double page adverts at the front of The Metro and other newspapers this morning as well as sending out a tweet to followers.

Under bolded-up headlines of "Let’s strike back" and "Let’s move forward", Southern warned of impending strikes before setting out conditions for its employees and telling readers that RMT "won’t listen to us but they may listen to you".

The operator then called on the public to contact RMT to tell the union how they feel about the forthcoming strikes. Following the tweet and accompanying hashtag, #SouthernBackonTrack, the public responded with a crushingly inevitable backlash against the rail operator.

Rod Cartwright, global partner and director, global corporate practice at Ketchum, said: "Even if #SouthernBackonTrack had been strategically well-advised (which it clearly is not), Southern’s problem is that they lost their licence to comment and campaign long ago – having already fallen far short internally with their change communications.

"Given the toe-curling time-lag over the past year between endless delays and corporate communications responses to them, today’s move was realistically only ever going to come across to endlessly frustrated commuters as another instance of buck-passing. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the unions’ position, Southern have sadly made their communications bed and are now lying in it."

And Estelle McCartney, managing director at Champollion Group, dismissed Southern’s attempt to deflect attention as tone-deaf.

She said: "This would be a high risk approach for any brand but given Southern's current woes, it seems a particularly clumsy case of wrong tone, wrong tactics and wrong timing. Creative social media content and gimmicky stunts have a role to play in the overall communication mix but can never trump a considered and consistent communication strategy particularly when your own reputation is under intense scrutiny.

But Jon Bennett, managing director of Linstock Communications, said Southern’s approach had been brave and may yet yield results.

He added: "The immediate backlash on social media was always likely. So the gamble may be to let a minority vent against the business online while a larger, less vocal body of commuters are won over by the traditional ads.

"Unfortunately, ‘Let’s strike back’ is an inflammatory headline where a measured tone was required, and that alone could send Southern’s campaign off the rails."

Field Consulting handles media relations, public affairs and employee comms for Southern Rail but it is understood that it did not have a hand in the current campaign.

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