At around 1pm yesterday afternoon a very casual newsletter-esque email popped into my inbox from Virgin Trains. I have never signed up to the Virgin Trains media list. How odd. It had seemingly gone to a very similar mailing database that the Conservative Party uses, jam packed with Tory-leaning 'influencers' and media types. I can’t prove that, but I am just putting it out there.
There was then an immediate but very giddy flurry of social media activity, complete with pictures of Jeremy Corbyn sat (in a seat!) on a train and remarks about Virgins. You know, the kind of thing we have not seen since the BBC went rogue on Mr Clarkson. Politicians started posting God-awful gags, playing it safe and speaking in codes rather than coming out and saying what Joe Public really thought; the picture of Corbyn sitting on the floor of a train carriage was very similar to that of a common garden gnome sat on the edge of a pond with a fishing rod.
In political crisis comms terms, this was a great opportunity for the Conservatives (largely because I suspect it had advance warning). In the new era of Labour’s Alistair Campbell-less PR machine, Corbyn really ballsed it up from a PR point of view. It took a solid three hours before a wishy-washy statement emerged from Gnome HQ.
In those three hours, and while Tory spinners tried to think of more shit gags for their MPs to tweet, the wise folk of social media (not including myself, it took me much longer to twig) realised that this was not a Sir Richard Branson ploy to bring down Labour (let’s not forget he has supported Labour policies in the past) but it was, in fact, a fan-bloody-tastic Virgin PR plan to knock British Airways off Wednesday’s front pages.
— Andrew Haigh (@AndrewHaigh) August 23, 2016
A quick recap reminds us that British Airways had gone to significant expense to paint the nose cone of the plane bringing our PE-class legends back from the Olympics. Gold… plane PR Stunt 101! The stories coming out of BA during the flight home of our super-successful athletes had been trickling out all day, complete with pictures and videos of the heroes on the plane and, you know, all leading up to dominating Wednesday’s papers. It was meant to be BA’s day!
Virgin had the train story for nearly two weeks. Two weeks! Two weeks is a lifetime in the political world. Virgin has clearly sat on it and debated when would be a good time to release it. Knowing it would be a front-pager, what better time to release it than when its biggest rival was about to be splashed across the UK nationals and online press for a super positive story?
In the aftermath of the “Battle of the Beards” (my own name for it), Gnome HQ had no chance. Branson is a PR machine in the style of BoJo, and this means he never really lets the facts get in the way of a good story and has the ability to power through any publicity opportunity.
By the time the political parties realised that Virgin had played them all it was too late. The front pages had been sent to the slate and Virgin had not just bumped Team PE off the front pages but had actually taken the BA plane off the media radar entirely. Let’s face it, we all know that Virgin and Branson are PR heroes, but this takes ambush campaigns to new heights.
For me, this is up there with Amazon and that time it had the spurious story about its drones being ready to be deployed, which went on to garner global media headlines, a few days before Black Friday. Genius…
British Airways must be sick of Virgin! Once again it has lost out and now looks like the unpopular kid at school who tried to hang out with the sporty kids to seem cool, but failed.
Virgin, PR land salutes you.
Andy Barr heads up the PR agency 10 Yetis. He tweets @10yetis