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Traingate: Corbyn vs. Branson

Train Interior

Will a leading politician ever tweet while taking a Virgin train north again?

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s social media update, insisting that he was experiencing a problem faced “by many passengers every day” is now notorious.

The episode polarises opinion – his fans are more convinced than ever that a hostile media and privat(ised) sector are out to get him.

Those who have been on the receiving end of a Momentum ‘shunt’ feel satisfied – this is a little illustration for the public of the misinformation spread in little ways by Corbyn supporters about them all the time.

Before we get to the way Corbyn’s went wrong on this, it’s worth thinking about images we’ve seen recently, and the way the public talk about them.

More prominent (sorry Jeremy, it just seems to be) was the image of an injured Syrian boy – stunned, blood-stained, pulled from the rubble. I suppose on the upside, he did have a seat.

On the Radio 4 Any Questions that followed, a Conservative noted the perils of basing policy on a single image like this.

A counter-argument is that the image of the boy only has resonance because there are so many situations that are similar, but which weren’t captured by a journalist.

Can you fake something authentic, though?

Hmmm, this is difficult. A war journalist who has faked their proximity to real events is harshly judged by the public – and by their peers and opponents. Journalist Johann Hari’s habit of pulling other people’s material into his own articles was a moral and career mistake.

Corbyn’s sedentary photo-jape would seem to fall into this last category. By playing into the hands of Richard Branson’s pugnacious streak, the Labour leader has probably harmed the cause he sought to promote (and which he presumably still thinks is worth arguing for very good reasons).

I think the damage from this event has been done.

Hearing his campaign chief justify the episode made me wince – he hid behind an attention-trying narrative that sounded like a quasi-legal defence. If it lost my attention as a comms professional, I’m sure it lost the averge member of the public.

But right now, from the public’s point of view, it’s a first offence – equivalent of a juvenile spliff or a speeding ticket. Here, no law’s been broken, and seating can be a bit of an issue on the east coast mainline.

If it is to stay like that then his comms plan must be to – does this sound too obvious? – not do anything similar again. As editors in the press say – two’s a trend, three’s a feature.

Trust is hard won, and easily lost.

I think Corbyn got away with it this time, but he cannot do it again. And his followers need to be cautious about the ‘truth’ on social media too.

So, the comms advice here is clear, if a little worthy sounding – how about sticking to the truth and avoiding confected messages you can be picked up on?

Of course, I wouldn’t dismiss the idea that he’s had that advice already, and often at that – but that wouldn’t make it any less valid.

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