The rail strike – a Media Training perspective
The rail strike is dominating the headlines and will continue to do so for the next few days. Depressingly, we might be here again on a number of occasions over the next few months with new strikes threatened. As a Media Training consultancy working with many travel companies (as well as law firms, tech companies, retailers and charities), we were particularly interested in looking at the rail strike through the lens of media and crisis communications training. Here are five thoughts.
1. The biggest rail strike in 30 years
It might seem obvious but exploring why the rail strike is so high up on the news agenda tells us quite a bit about what journalists are looking for in a good media story. We explore this at the start of our media training workshops. It helps participants develop confidence because they know the nature of the beast they’re dealing with, and it gives participants confidence and helps them prepare.
The rail strike ticks several newsworthiness boxes. First of all, it’s happening now on the news. It also affects millions of people up and down the country, so it’s relevant to audiences. It’s about confrontation and trouble – two important ingredients in any media story. Related to this, it also allows news outlets and commentators to take sides and tell those audiences what they want to hear.
2. The reporting of the weather strike
The way the strike is reported gives us insight into how journalists work and what makes a good media story. As you’ll notice, if you watch TV packages, there are always vox pops and interviews with members of the public giving their opinion on the justification or otherwise for the strike and how it’s affecting them. This presses the very important “human interest” button in our newsworthiness acronym. In our media coaching courses, we look at how interviewees can use this to their advantage.
Whether the strikers are justified, whether the unions are behaving reasonably and whether the government is doing the right thing or not – all of these are very much affected by the editorial stance of the outlet. We advise participants of our media training courses to always think about who they’re talking to so they can tailor their messages accordingly.
3. PR battle
We work extensively with organisations such as charities and pressure groups to help with their campaigns. Our media trainers are well versed in the theories of persuasion, and we help campaigners distil their messages and present them in an impactful and convincing way. According to polling earlier in June by YouGov, people are divided in their opinion of the strike. Half of the respondents oppose rail workers striking, while a third said they were in favour.
Network rail spokespeople have generally sounded calm and reasonable and focused on human impact. We have to say, though, in our opinion, the unions have not come across so well. Many of them sound aggressive and confrontational and have tended to fit the stereotype of the union barons. However, you might have your own thoughts on that. At Communicate Media, we’re big on examples, stories and anecdotes. So we noticed that Grant Shapps was giving specific examples on GMB this morning of what he regards as well overdue changes to working practices. He added that some of the rules under debate go back to 1919. This was striking and memorable.
4. The Rail Strike Crisis
Crisis communications are not always concerned with something as serious as a crash, an explosion or a major accident. We work with the PR companies and in-house communications teams of various organisations to help them plan for when they have to make an unpopular announcement or a difficult decision.
This can include price rises or job losses. We look at the importance of expressing sympathy and concern – something that both sides could do more of, we would say. We also look at the importance of talking about action taken to minimise any damage done to those concerned. We advise organisations to put the situation into context to help explain their point of view and refer to any independent, third-party regulators or authorities to add context and provide practical justification for their actions. As we point out in our crisis communications training courses, the stakes are always high in these situations. Still, those organisations who handle them well can sometimes emerge not only with their reputation and brand image intact but enhanced.
5. The relevance of the rail strike to other interviewees.
Even if you’re not directly connected with the rail strike, it can still be relevant if you’re doing a media interview at the moment. In our Media Training sessions, we always advise participants as part of their preparation to think about the “While I’ve got you here…” question.
We’ve all heard this at the end of a broadcast interview. The interviewee has answered the questions on the issue they agreed to discuss, but the journalist then asks them about a completely different but related topic. One of our favourite examples is when the designer James Dyson appeared on the Today programme to talk about a new training initiative he was launching. Justin Webb happened to throw a “While I’ve got you here…” question at him at the end of the interview about the latest twist in the tortuous Brexit negotiations at that time. Dyson gave extensive an and interesting answer. The result? His training programme received little coverage, but within an hour or so, The Times was reporting his Brexit comments at the top of the site.
June Rail Strikes
The rail strikes this week might be contentious and annoying for many of us. Still, it will undoubtedly continue to provide some engaging lessons for those working in corporate communications and Media Training.