Kate Bush’s atop the charts, inflation is soaring, we face a cost-of-living crisis and a major impending rail strike. No wonder the internet and the papers are absorbed by a casual similarity to the economic crises of the 1970s.
And that matters. When it comes to this week’s rail strikes, that comparison is a gift for a government PR machine that thrives on negativity and rarely needs a second invitation to sling (often slanderous) insults at its opposition.
It pushes at an open door. Negativity and criticism are intellectually easier to digest and decidedly more media-friendly than equivocation, so the simple, traditional Conservative anti-union messaging of ‘greedy’, ‘entitled’, ‘self-serving’ and ‘shutting the country down’ would already have a high chance of success even if fed to a national media that was less gleefully supportive and compliant than most of the current lot. With so much of the media as it is, the No 10 PR machine has everything in its favour.
Pursuing the line that the strikes are “taking us back to the heart of the 70s” is a potent weapon against the unions, and the opposition, as the woes of the 1970s took place under a Labour government. In drawing this parallel, the government connects the strikes to hard times past and reminds the public of previous failures on Labour’s watch … while distracting from their own plethora of crises and scandals. It’s their kind of win-win.
This makes an already challenging situation harder for the unions as they seek to maintain their action and battle for the public support they’ll need to sustain it. They call for solidarity in a battle against a neglectful and ideologically zealous government, and in the face of a historic cost-of-living crisis. They voice justification for the strikes as necessary to ensure fair treatment and the safe and smooth operation of the railways.
Both arguments could gain some traction in what is obviously a febrile situation. One poll on Tuesday, conducted by YouGov, suggested more people (45%) oppose the rail strikes than support them (37%).
But in another, released last night by Savanta ComRes, 58% of the 2,300 people questioned said the strikes are justified, with 34% deeming them unjustified and 66% saying the government has done too little to prevent them. This suggests there is still much to play for, as one might hope when the union’s main obstacle is a stricken, badly run government with a derided leader and an awful record.
But from a PR professional point of view, the obvious challenge for the union campaign is still its choice of communication channels and optics for these messages. Mick Lynch, the general secretary, is ubiquitous, as one would expect, and obviously determined to support his members. He is practised and combative, as we saw in his series of tart exchanges with Sky’s Kay Burley yesterday that became a hit on social media. He is very much the face of their campaign. But via these important media appearances, he sometimes evokes the cliched union leader from another age.
His supporters, and many neutrals have been lauding him. But much of the public he needs to persuade sees a scratchy figure. The government peddles its “dragging us back to the 70s” dogma, knowing it to be simplistic – probably downright untrue – but too often the union risks providing sounds and images to bolster that characterisation. If the battle is to be fought in the court of reasonable public opinion, the union has to think harder about how this looks to the undecided.
It should look to the present and the future. It will always be difficult for a rail union – or any other union – to get a fair hearing on the government’s home turf – ie most of the national print and broadcast media – but there is an opportunity on new media channels like TikTok that are strongholds for anti-government sentiment, particularly among the young. Yet so far, social media discussion of the strikes mostly seems to involve short rehashed clips of (generally pro-government or anti-union) traditional news coverage. No ‘explainers’ by cool young, progressive Gen Z influencers; just Piers Morgan and Kay Burley (again) lambasting or tussling with union reps.
It may be a rigged game; still, it’s winnable. But by failing to deviate from the old methods, and to think about the tone, union leaders are making the PR battle much harder than it needs to be.
Others currently weighing up strike and other dispute options should take note. It would be an unfortunate achievement indeed to squander a valid case through lack of strategy, and to allow Johnson and his coterie to parade as true guardians of the public good.