Was Virgin Trains crazy to pick a fight with the Mail? Comms experts analyse this week's big story

Virgin Trains' decision to stop stocking the Daily Mail has been judged as a clumsy move for the company and a worrying move for public debate - but it also asks questions of the outspoken outlet.

We spoke to several corporate and public affairs experts about the news, broken on Tuesday by PRWeek.

Hostile move

It is widely seen in the world of PR and beyond that Virgin Trains was unwise to make itself an enemy of the press - journalists from across Fleet Street have condemned the move.

The company had already been strongly criticised by the Mail (and others) last week over its financial arrangements, and sister companies have now also been unwittingly placed in the firing line.

James Frayne, founding partner of Public First, tells PRWeek: "Virgin Trains seems to think it has executed some neat and discreet virtue-signalling. In reality, it has volunteered as a full participant in a political culture war where the majority of the public agree with the Mail more.

"Virgin Trains will now be viewed as fair game in political combat and scrutiny across all the Virgin brands will radically increase. It is now going to have to gear up to fight its corner in the months and years ahead."

The fact that Virgin's decision was not communicated as an overt public attack, but in an internal memo in November that was then given a national stage by PRWeek, does not help.

"I’m quite sure Virgin’s management knew exactly what they were doing when they made the announcement," says Arlo Brady, chief executive of Freuds.

"In today’s world, internal and external communications are more or less the same thing. Virgin is a media-savvy business and would have known that a slur directed at the Mail would cause ‘some disturbance’ in due course."

Moreover, the company would have suffered even more had it made the announcement in a more public manner. Will Spratt, head of policy and issues EMEA at Cohn & Wolfe, says: "Making the Mail unavailable for sale has rightly attracted widespread scrutiny. Any attempt by Branson to 'front' the announcement would likely have courted yet more cynicism that this has more to do with publicity than it does ethics."

'Commercially crazy'

PR professionals also tend to agree that Virgin Trains (and other brands to have distanced themselves from the Mail recently, such as Lego, the Body Shop, Paperchase and Joy) risk alienating consumers.

Frayne of Public First says: "Brands that disagree with the Mail on political issues are usually putting themselves on the wrong side of the English middle class. For some firms, that doesn’t matter. For most, including most high-street retailers, that’s commercially crazy and they’ll soon realise that."

Meanwhile, the Mail might stand to lose very little from such boycotts, many of which have been led by the online activist group Stop Funding Hate.

"While the Mail might lose the odd advertiser in the short-term, as long as it mirrors mainstream provincial English opinion, it’s going to remain a chosen outlet for most retailers," continues Frayne.

Andrew Clark, a director at Burson-Marsteller and formerly the Guardian's transport correspondent, agrees.

"As it stands, these boycotts are tiny - they're like an ant nipping at an elephant. The Mail has a vast readership and will continue to dismiss its critics as snobbish liberal elitists. Given the size of its online reach in particular, almost anybody who wants to be in the news - be they politicians, corporates or celebrities - will still want to be in the Mail," Clark argues.

'Pariah status'

Nonetheless, the story illustrates the very negative perceptions of the Mail held by a sizeable portion of the public - Amnesty International comms director Osama Saeed Bhutta said on Twitter that the paper was heading for "pariah status".

Clark disagrees. "The Mail is a long way from having pariah status, even though it does increasingly irritate and annoy the intelligentsia," he says, but goes on to highlight a reputational issue it does have on its hands.

He comments: "The real risk in reputation terms of these kind of anti-Mail campaigns isn't a short-term commercial one - its challenges could be in long-term recruitment of younger readers, in persuading people that the MailOnline is a separate entity from its very conservative newspaper, and in convincing the next generation of talented media types that it's an attractive place to work."

'Corrosive intollerance'

Simon Gentry, a partner at Newgate Communications, also noted a generational split in views towards the Mail and its detractors.

"A lot of my younger colleagues think that that's perfectly acceptable," he said of Stop Funding Hate's attempts to shame advertisers into withdrawing their money from the outlet. With several stories emanating from the group's efforts last year, it is likely more will follow this year, despite Gentry's warning. "I would advise clients against playing politics in this way," he says.

Gentry also argues that the case has important free speech implications. In a Twitter debate on the issue with his colleague Gavin Devine, said that refusing a platform to a newspaper in this way "helps to close minds", calling it the "corrosive intollerance of the 'liberal' elite".

Cohn & Wolfe's Spratt agrees. He tells PRWeek: "Virgin, like any business, has a right to determine its supplier relations, but what it has chosen to do here is not far off censorship. Offering the Daily Mail for sale forces nobody to read it and it’s an issue of personal choice.

"We live in a democracy where a free press can and still does hold establishment, big business and others in responsibility to account. Restricting public access to the free press can only serve to slowly and insidiously erode personal choice and with it, the freedom of the press. If you believe in democracy, I’d strongly suggest this is a bad thing.

However, he also added that a potentially bigger concern is "the increasingly likelihood of the second stage of the Leveson inquiry proceeding, which could pose a big threat to press freedom".

Finally, there is one organisation who may join Stop Funding Hate in delighting, albeit quietly, at the news.

Burson's Clark comments: "The Department for Transport will probably welcome it. It's meant that journalists have something else to talk about other than Chris Grayling's controversial renegotiation of the East Coast franchise."

Ian Griggs also contributed to this report.

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