Strikes, travel chaos and managing the media

Inflation is soaring, the country is crippled by strikes, and Kate Bush is number one in the charts.

That’s enough to lead some to suggest the UK is returning to the 1970s.

Those fears have been compounded this week by 40,000 railway workers striking over three days – the largest walkout seen in Britain for more than 30 years.

And the action has put one man firmly in the media spotlight.

Mick Lynch is the general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT).

His union wants a seven per cent pay rise and has rejected an offer of two per cent with a further one per cent tied to job cuts.

The strikes began on Monday, causing travel chaos for many, with services reduced by around 80 per cent.  And it meant Mr Lynch was in high demand from the media.

He featured on almost every broadcast news programme you can name and these appearances certainly grabbed attention.

In one interview with Sky News, Mr Lynch accused presenter Kay Burley’s question of “verging on nonsense.”

The exchange saw Ms Burley ask what the union would do if agency workers hired by the Government attempted to cross a picket line to take up posts left by striking workers.

As the line of questioning developed, she referenced the miners’ strike, which saw divides between picket lines and the workers who crossed them.

“Well does it look like the miners’ strike,” Mr Lynch replied as he pointed to the picket line behind him. “What are you talking about?

“You seem to have gone off into a world that isn’t real.”

Ms Burley said: “I’m sorry that you feel the need to ridicule me. I’m just asking you what you expect your members to do if agency workers…”

And before she could finish, Mr Lynch interrupted, saying: “Your questions are verging into the nonsense. We run a picket as effectively as we can.”

Ms Burley later took to social media to claim the Union boss “got a little flustered” by her questioning - not a description I would use.

There was also an eye-catching start to an interview with Good Morning Britain, where Mr Lynch faced a bizarre question from presenter Richard Madeley.

The host, who had earlier promoted the “exclusive” question he wanted to ask the union boss, said: “Can we just get one thing nailed to the wall before we get going here? You’ve been accused severally over the past few weeks of being a Marxist.

“It happened again last night, a backbench Tory MP said you are a ‘Marxist with no interest other than trying to tear down the Government’.

“Now, are you, or are you not a Marxist? Because if you are a Marxist, then you’re into revolution and into bringing down capitalism. So, are you, or aren’t you?”

Mr Lynch laughed and said: “Richard, you do come up with the most remarkable twaddle sometimes, I have to say.”

Then on Politics Live, there was a brutal exchange with Tory MP Jonathan Gullis.

The Conservative politician said the strikes were putting extra strain on the UK's transport network and claimed the pay increase the union is calling for would make rail “more unaffordable for more working people”. He also suggested the union was afraid of modernisation.

He added: He (Mr Lynch) should be apologising to the doctors and nurses who can’t get to hospital, the patients who can’t get their operation, the kids who miss out on their education today but also there’s armed forces veterans who risk their lives for our freedoms who won’t be able to celebrate armed forces day on Saturday."

Mr Lynch replied saying the politician should apologise for “talking nonsense.”

"We’ve got on-train technicians, all sorts of new technology that’s been deployed,” he said.

“That is just stuff written in Conservative central office that backbench MPs just spout.

"I don’t want this disruption. I don’t want people to be inconvenienced and I want a settlement to this dispute.

“I can’t do that with a backbench MP who’s just learnt it off a script. We know what the issues are."

When asked on Sky News about Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, calling for pay restraint, Mr Lynch replied: “Pay restraint? He’s on £600,000 a year.”

And if that’s not enough, during an appearance on Newsnight on Monday, Mr Lynch accused Conservative MP Chris Philip of “lying” and “being a liar” 16 times.

Entertaining stuff.

But are there any media training lessons other spokespeople can learn from his appearances?

 

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Well, I thought he stayed calm, appeared down-to-earth and straight-talking. He communicates with clarity and confidence, can think on his feet, and you get the impression he had done his media interview homework – always a crucial media training tip – and is enjoying talking to the media.

Interestingly, he has broadened the appeal of his argument. It is not just about rail workers, but also about the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer. 

He also has two magic ingredients. He is authentic, while those politicians offering different views often seem scripted. Instead of getting rattled by what they say and interrupting them, Mr Lynch lets them speak before setting about dismantling their argument.

And he is relatable. He reminds you of your uncle, your friend's dad, or your dad's mate. 

While we would not condone criticising the journalist during our media training courses, he showed good humour despite facing some questionable questioning – his dig at Mr Madeley left the presenter floundering and rapidly backtracking.

There’s a view that Mr Lynch's combative style could detract from the union’s message. And that it could damage its battle for public support.

That is a risk with this approach and is why it would not work for many other spokespeople.

But for now, these interviews seem to be benefitting Mr Lynch and his union in the battle for public opinion - public sympathies seem to broadly be with the workers, particularly among those under 65. Research from Ipsos shows that more than 60 per cent of people 'sympathise' with the rail workers and that 50 per cent of 18-34 year olds support the strike. 

Praise for his media appearances has come from former Conservative politician Rory Stewart, money-saving expert Martin Lewis and even actor Hugh Laurie among others.

And with warnings the strikes could last a long time, we could be seeing quite a bit of Mr Lynch on our screens.

About to face the media? Get your media interview homework off to the best start by downloading your copy of our free media interview preparation eBook

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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