As press releases go, it’s a pretty bizarre one. Virgin Trains East Coast put out a notice yesterday that all but accused the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition of lying.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn went viral last week thanks to an uncharacteristically clever piece of PR. On his way to debate his leadership challenger Owen ‘Who?’ Smith in Newcastle, Corbyn was filmed sitting on the floor of a train, bemoaning the fact he and other passengers weren’t able to get a seat and calling for the railways to be renationalised. It’s sure to have struck a chord among hard-pressed commuters sick of being crammed onto carriages like cattle, no matter their political persuasion.
But Virgin, whose train Corbyn was on, were not impressed. ‘CCTV footage taken from the train on August 11 shows Mr Corbyn and his team walked past empty, unreserved seats in coach H before walking through the rest of the train to the far end, where his team sat on the floor and started filming,’ it said in yesterday’s statement.
He later returned and found a seat, the company says, and it even published stills of CCTV footage apparently showing the Labour leader filing past said empty chairs. ‘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,’ a spokesperson added.
It’s a pretty weird move. Of course Virgin wants to rebut the idea that its trains aren’t horrible and lacking in seats, and it also used the opportunity to announce the launch of a new fleet of trains. All publicity may be good publicity and this will certainly attract a lot of media interest.
But this isn’t a simple rebuttal, a short quote on the day the video emerged. It’s a pointed attack that will win Virgin no friends among Corbyn’s die-hard fanbase. Even Richard Branson himself put the boot in - a reminder that it's unwise to take on the king of PR stunts with a stunt of your own.
For the record, Corbyn’s team denies the allegations, claiming he was unable to find a seat at first and was only able to get one once a family was upgraded to first class. Several eyewitnesses have backed up that story but Virgin hasn’t backed down and it’s still not so clear why Corbyn apparently breezed past several empty seats.
The two-way recriminations are sure to continue but attacking politicians of any stripe seems like a risky move for corporate comms teams, no matter how unlikely they are to ever be in power. Like dinner parties, business doesn't mix well with religion and politics. But at least Virgin didn't accuse the Archbishop of Canterbury of fare dodging.
And here are some pointers from Corbyn on how not to conduct a press conference.