PR pros react to Virgin Trains' reinstatement of Mail: 'Mature and wise' - but who really made the decision?

Sir Richard Branson has reversed Virgin Trains' decision to stop stocking the Daily Mail on its services - a decision he said that he was not involved with or aware of until last week's media reports.

Branson claims he wasn't aware of Virgin Trains' decision until last week's reports (©virgintrains.co.uk)
Branson claims he wasn't aware of Virgin Trains' decision until last week's reports (©virgintrains.co.uk)

After PRWeek revealed on Tuesday last week that the train operator had stopped carrying the paper in November, the company was widely criticised for "censorship".

PR professionals agreed that the brand had made a serious misstep in alienating both customers and the press corps.

A statement from Branson has now been posted on the website of Virgin Management, the organisation overseeing all Virgin investments. Virgin owns 51 per cent of Virgin Trains and the remainder is owned by Stagecoach Group.

It says that Branson and Stagecoach boss Sir Brian Souter were not aware of the decision until they read last week's reports, and was "not part of some grand campaign or at my behest".

It goes on to say that the company respected its employees' decisions but had listened to concerns that the decision constituted censorship. The Mail will now be stocked, it says, and a review of the company's sale policy will be conducted.

The full statement is copied at the end of this story.

PR pros' reactions

The PR professionals who commented on the case in PRWeek last week have reacted to the train operator's u-turn.

Simon Gentry, a partner at Newgate Communications, said simply: "Companies should not be in the business of censoring what people read or think. Well done Virgin, a mature and wise decision."

Burson-Marsteller director Andrew Clark said the affairs had been a "rare mis-step by Virgin’s usually slick PR operation".

Of the new statement, he said: "The words 'Brian and I' leap out here – I wonder whether banning the Daily Mail was a step too far for Sir Brian Souter, whose Stagecoach Group truly calls the shots on Virgin Trains."

James Frayne, founding partner of the agency Public First, said: "The public will be much less irritated about suggestions of Virgin Trains’ censorship than the firm’s apparent moral judgement on their political beliefs. It therefore makes sense to draw attention to censorship rather than politics in explaining their climbdown.

"In moving so fast and so publicly, they’ve probably avoided serious damage to their reputation. I wouldn’t fancy working in Virgin Trains’ press office the next time they cancel a load of train services though."

Cohn & Wolfe's EMEA head of policy and issues Will Spratt said the reversal was a "positive" decision, but went on to say that Virgin Trains was not off the hook just yet.

Spratt said the company's sales review would attract attention, commenting: "A lot of people and businesses will take a keen interest in the review, its findings and how they are communicated. This will ratchet up the pressure on Virgin Trains. It could also set a precedent for how other business and brands choose to tread this path in the future."

Finally, a spokesman for the Mail, which had reacted to the ban with firm criticism, said: "We welcome Sir Richard Branson and Brian Souter’s support for freedom of speech, which is a cornerstone of our democracy, and his decision to instruct Virgin Trains to restock the Mail. We are sure the many Mail readers who travel on Virgin Trains will be delighted."


Branson's statement

"When Virgin Trains took the decision back in November to remove the Daily Mail from sale, it was not part of some grand campaign or at my behest – indeed Brian Souter and I were not aware of the decision until we read the media reports this week.

"The decision was made in response to feedback from some of our Virgin Trains employees. Brian and I respect our people when they make decisions and we listen to their views. It is the way we have always run our companies.

"But we must also listen to the concerns voiced widely this week – by those who agree with The Mail’s editorial stance and those who vehemently disagree with it – that this move has been seen as censorship.

"Freedom of speech, freedom of choice and tolerance for differing views are the core principles of any free and open society. While Virgin Trains has always said that their passengers are free to read whatever newspaper they choose on board West Coast trains, it is clear that on this occasion the decision to no longer sell The Mail has not been seen to live up to these principles.

"Brian and I agree that we must not ever be seen to be censoring what our customers read and influencing their freedom of choice. Nor must we be seen to be moralising on behalf of others. Instead we should stand up for the values we hold dear and defend them publicly, as I have done with The Mail on many issues over the years.

"So Brian and I have instructed our team at Virgin Trains to reconsider this decision and re-stock the Daily Mail while they undertake a full review of their sales policy, making clear that this policy should not single out individual media titles."

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