Flop of the Month: Virgin Trains' virtue signalling failure

It's not often that a company's internal comms memo becomes the biggest news story of the day, means it becomes pilloried as an enemy of democracy and puts it in Fleet Street's bad books.

(image via virgintrains.co.uk)
(image via virgintrains.co.uk)

In November, Virgin Trains (VT) told staff in an internal memo that it would no longer be carrying the Daily Mail in its shops or first-class carriages, after staff raised concerns about the paper, and management agreed the paper to be "not compatible with the VT brand and our beliefs".

This went unnoticed until PRWeek brought the incident to public attention this month - in response, the Mail accused the train operator of censorship, with plenty of other commentators making similar points.

PR pros took issue with the company's handling of the situation, saying it had made an enemy of both the press and potentially large swathes of the public.

It was not clear exactly why VT had arrived at its decision - whether it was a calculated attack on the outlet by Virgin's maverick boss (something Sir Richard Branson has since denied), or a well-meaning but poorly executed attempt to understand staff concerns.

What does seem clear is that the incendiary words "not compatible with the VT brand and our beliefs" were used without sufficient scrutiny and sensitivity.

A few days after the story broke, VT agreed to start stocking the paper again, salvaging some dignity, although lasting damage may have been done to Branson and the company's relationship with media.

And whatever happened to the person who sent out that internal memo?

Drew McMillan, head of colleague comms and engagement at the firm, has now got a big job at British Airways - another travel company which coincidentally no longer stocks the Mail. The paper announced in December that it would stop a scheme under which it sold copies to the airline at a substantial discount.

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