The tube strike (or: how to keep bystanders out of your squabble)

Written by Quietroom
Wooden train set illustrating a blog that discusses how the language used by London Underground put customers in the middle of the tube strike squabble.
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A strike is always bad news: it means that communication has failed. As communications consultants, that makes us sad.

It’s been a difficult morning at Quietroom, what with the tube strike. We had to cancel a client meeting. Steph and Claire had to order expensive taxis to get here. Andy had to weave through the first-time cyclists – the wide-eyed swarm on their Boris bikes, stopping without looking behind them and turning without signalling.

I don’t want to assign blame for the strike – I don’t know enough about the issues. But how we talk about emotive issues like strikes matters if we ever hope to solve them.

Transport for London sent an email warning people about the strike. It’s a masterclass in how not to talk to people during a crisis:

The first sentence of the email reads:

‘In response to plans to modernise and improve your Tube service, and despite us offering significant changes, the RMT union has called a further five days of strike action’.

There’s a lot going on here. Here are some of techniques being used and some thoughts on why they’re damaging.

 

The Patriot Act manoeuvre

After 9/11, the American Congress passed a law giving the authorities more power to spy on terror suspects. Its advocates called it The Patriot Act, a name that plays to the emotions by conflating the aims of the act with the means of achieving them. It was a nasty move, designed to send the message that anyone who disagreed with them wasn’t a patriot. TfL is pulling the same trick here. By using loaded words like ‘improve’, rather than less loaded words like ‘change’, TfL is sending the message that it wants to make things ‘better’ and the RMT wants to make things ‘worse’. And only bad people want to stop things from getting better.

 

Misusing pointing language

The words we use to point at things can make them appear closer to us further away. So, ‘this’ thing feels closer than ‘that’ thing. TfL talks about ‘your’ tube, which ought to feel closer than ‘the’ tube. Except it doesn’t. Given the stand-off, ‘your’ tube feels manipulative. It’s saying that not only is TfL suffering, but that so are you, the good people of London. It’s not just asking us to take sides, it’s assigning us a side and assuming that we agree.

 

Passive aggression

The letter ends with TfL promising to ‘work hard to minimise the disruption this action by the RMT will cause you’.

This sentence is remarkable because it’s so unlike the way that TfL usually communicates. Usually, when services are disrupted, train companies talk about ‘any inconvenience that may be caused’. Here, ‘any’ becomes ‘the’, ‘inconvenience’ becomes ‘disruption’ and ‘might’ becomes ‘will’. It’s harder, more certain language. It’s everything that TfL never says about itself when trains don’t work. And, just in case you forgot, you’re reminded that the RMT is to blame.

 

Trying to sneak a commentary into a description

An effective letter puts one purpose front and centre. In this case, there are two purposes fighting for the number one spot: there’s giving the reader the information they need during the strike, and there’s telling you who to blame.

This happens a lot in politics when the stakes are high and people are afraid of being blamed. But the effect on the reader is always to create doubt. Here, it conjours an image of two puffed-up teams, arguing for pride’s sake. It makes me think: if this is how you write, I dread to think how you talk when you’re negotiating!

 

All told, this letter isn’t just ineffective – it actually backfires. Rather than advocating TfL’s side of the story, it makes them look petty. That’s a shame for the Londoners caught in the middle, and it does a disservice to good people on both sides of the debate.

So here’s a quick try – ten minutes over lunch – at how TfL might have approached their letter. I’ve simplified the letter to one idea – the idea that matters right now, which is: What does the strike mean for you today? The ideas that follow – will there be more strikes? – are framed to help the audience, rather than defend the company. I’ve also tweaked the pointing language and taken away the loaded words.

—–

Dear Mr Hope,

Because of a strike, tube services will be severely disrupted over the coming weeks

Tube services will be affected from:

• Around 9pm on Monday 28 April until the morning of Thursday 1 May

• Around 9pm on Monday 5 May until the morning of Friday 9 May

 

What should I do while the strike is on?

Plan as much as you can. Lots of services will be running as usual – the DLR, London Overground and national rail services – but they will busier than normal.

Because of this, we’ll be running more buses on busy routes.

If you’re going to cycle, look out for people who are cycling for the first time.

 

Why is the strike happening?

It’s to do with a disagreement about staffing at London Underground stations.

We’ve been negotiating for months with the transport unions about our plans to change how the tube works.

One of the unions, the RMT, believe that the mayor reneged on a promise to keep ticket offices open. We don’t agree. We do plan to close ticket offices, but we’re offering everyone affected other work at London Underground.

Sadly, we’ve reached an impasse. The RMT has called a strike.

We’re sorry that it’s come to this, and we’re sorry that it’s going to be harder to get around London over the next few days.

 

Will there be more strikes?

We hope not.

We want to resolve the debate as much as tube drivers do. We each believe that we’re doing the right thing for Londoners, and we want to get back to work.

You can read about our plans at http://tfl.gov.uk/futuretube.

You can read more about the RMT’s position on their website, www.rmt.org.uk.

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