23.08.2016 Jeremy Corbyn’s #traingate and other political PR stunts that backfired

Jeremy Corbyn’s claim that he had to sit on the floor of a “ram-packed” Virgin Train backfired spectacularly this afternoon as the company hit back with a major PR offensive.

A video showing the Labour Leader sitting on the floor of the three-hour London to Newcastle service went viral earlier this month and earned Mr Corbyn praise from his supporters for refusing to upgrade to a first class ticket.

But today Virgin released an incredibly detailed rebuttal stating that not only were seats available on the service but that Mr Corbyn actually walked past empty seats before choosing to sit on the floor.

It has produced a number of pieces of video footage of its own, taken from the train’s CCTV, to back up its claims.

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Even Virgin boss Richard Branson tweeted about the row

In its 900-word response, Virgin Trains took the opportunity to “thank” Mr Corbyn for highlighting its “first-rate customer service” with the media and to agree that more trains were needed on the route before pointing out it was doing just that.

But, it added: “We have to take issue with the idea that Mr Corbyn wasn’t able to be seated on the service, as this clearly wasn’t the case. We’d encourage Jeremy to book ahead next time he travels with us, both to reserve a seat and to ensure he gets our lowest fares, and we look forward to welcoming him onboard again.”

In the day of 24/7 news and instant social media ripostes, it is notable that Virgin Trains didn’t respond to the claims immediately. Instead it took its time to gather evidence (and presumably run its response past the legal department) before hitting back with a bold, detailed and slightly sarcastic retort that was very on-brand in its tone.

Speaking from experience, sometimes it’s unavoidable to have to set up filming or photo shoots. Logistics, annoying the general public, timetables and availability of key people can all be factors in setting up a PR stunt. But trouble lies ahead if you aren’t completely honest about the circumstances. A good PR stunt should get people talking about the issue you are trying to highlight – if more focus ends up falling on the perceived gaffe, no matter how sincere the intentions, then it’s a definite fail.

While the debate continues about #traingate and the truth of the empty seat claims, one thing is for sure; Corbyn isn’t the first politician to take part in a PR stunt that backfired.


Mr Corbyn’s predecessor Ed Miliband was often made to look foolish by the press, but sometimes the Labour leader needed no help.

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In the run up to the 2015 general election Mr Miliband was filmed for a BBC piece with his wife in the small, basic-looking kitchen of their London home. But his PR team’s attempts to make him seem like a “man of the people” backfired when it emerged he actually had two kitchens in his £2 million home, and he was in the smaller of the two.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron (remember him?) has been involved in a couple of PR stunts gone wrong.

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Back in 2014 the PM posed for photographs in the home of people suspected of immigration offences.

The PR stunt aimed to showcasing the coalition’s toughness on illegal entrants to the country, but it was attacked by Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights charity Liberty, who said it was “bad taste and constitutionally inappropriate for elected politicians to intervene in law enforcement”.

More recently, in May this year, the PM took time out from campaigning for a remain vote in the EU referendum (and we all know how that went) to visit a garage in his constituency.

There, the multi-millionaire, Eton-educated prime minister bought his wife Samantha, the eldest daughter of Sir Reginald Sheffield, 8th Baronet, descended from King Charles II, a 2004 Nissan Micra with 92,000-miles on the clock. Cue much derision from the press.

But perhaps the political PR stunt that backfired the worst came courtesy of Sylvi Listhaug, Norway’s immigration minister who dove into the Mediterranean Sea in an attempt to better relate to the struggles of migrants.

This in itself was a fairly offensive act, but the fact she was wearing a high-tech survival suit unavailable to desperate refugees risking their lives to reach Europe compounded the situation.


At Brighter Comms we don’t engage in PR ‘stunts’, we just focus on giving the best PR service to our clients. To find out more about what we can offer you or your brand, just get in touch.

*Featured image ATGImages / Shutterstock.com