Leadership and language: What can we learn about influential communication from Traingate?

Written by
Changeboard Team

25 Aug 2016

25 Aug 2016 • by Changeboard Team

‘Traingate’, as it is now affectionately dubbed, is the latest leadership controversy regarding Jeremy Corbyn.

A video was released of Corbyn sitting on the floor between train carriages because he claimed the train did not have any available seats. 

In the video, Corbyn says: 

“This is a problem that many passengers face every day on the trains; commuters and long distance travellers. Today this train is completely ram-packed, the staff on the train are absolutely brilliant, working really hard to help everybody. The reality is there are not enough trains. We need more of them and they are also incredibly expensive: isn’t that a good case for public ownership?”

In response to the video, Virgin Trains released CCTV footage of Corbyn walking past empty seats seemingly undermining his claim that the train was ‘ram-packed’. This led to some back and forth between the Labour leader and primarily journalists looking for a scoop about whether or not the seats were reserved and whether or not the Labour leader should sit separately from his wife.

However, the issue is not ‘traingate’ or the onslaught of criticism: all leaders, no matter the organisation, must firstly, respect that a high degree of unconstructive criticism is part of the job, and secondly, assume that it is likely to happen. The issue is about constructing a message in such a way as to survive the onslaught. This is precisely what Corbyn has not done. 

Here are the statements Corbyn makes in turn:

1.    This is a problem that many passengers face everyday on the trains; commuters and long distance travellers

2.    Today this train is completely ram-packed

3.    The staff on the train are absolutely brilliant, working really hard to help everybody

4.    The reality is there are not enough trains. We need more of them

5.    They are also incredibly expensive

6.    Isn’t this a good case for public ownership?

There are multiple problems in how Corbyn has structured his message and these  become apparent once we unpack his statements:

1.    Statement one and two should be reversed in order to make the problem he is raising clearer: ‘Today the train is completely ram-packed and this is a problem many passengers face every day.’

2.    The third statement, whilst certainly an important positive message for Corbyn to give, does not follow from how he begins. Instead of then talking about the problem and why it is happening he changes topic to speak about the work of the staff. This break from his initial opening statement does not convey a sense of a clear line of thought. 

3.    This means that when he does say ‘there are not enough trains and we need more of them’ there is not an explicit link between lack of trains and overcrowding. 

4.    The penultimate statement then appears as an after thought: ‘They are also incredibly expensive’ does not relate to there being overcrowding problems, or not enough trains.

5.    There are two major problems with his final statement ‘Isn’t that a good case for public ownership?.’ Firstly, he is ending with a rhetorical question. While this is often used as a persuasive device, in the context of the overall lack of structure in Corbyn’s argument, it creates an ambiguous and weak closing statement. Secondly, it reveals Corbyn’s own lack of awareness that he has not communicated clearly why the problem is happening, how the different issues relate to one another, and what public ownership has to do with improving or making the railways better. 

The lack of structure or a coherent case being made is indicative of a leader who has not taken the time to think before speaking. Instead, the camera switched on and words came out.

Had a ‘case’ been actually made: here is the problem, this is why it is happening, and this is why public ownership would help- very few people would have prioritised ‘traingate’ over the political message. Instead, Corbyn’s point got lost not only in a ramble, but also in a media storm of whether there was a seat or not. 

Corbyn’s recent public relations mess was not caused because he sat on the floor; it was instead a failure in communication, a case of a leader not communicating influentially to people they believe they represent.