It’s a balancing act between transport employees respecting their employers online but not being limited to a corporate sales pitch

What do you lot make of the Gary Lineker shenanigans this month? I’ll be honest, there’s times when I think he’s like one of those smug old school rail bigwigs that have outstayed their welcome in the industry, but on other occasions I think he is a fine and compelling presenter. He has certainly brought more to the fore the very sad and complicated asylum issue and engendered meaningful debate.

Many of you will be asking what this has got to do with transport – and not unreasonably so. However, the whole saga has made me examine the way in which our industry communicates and how our own Gary Linekers present themselves.

As I have the outlet of this column to mouth off unsolicited and I have spent over a third of my career outside of mainstream employment and thus able to speak freely, it must sound hypocritical for me to confess that I crave one day being a hermit. I wistfully and regularly dream of the days when I can retire and shut myself away, turn off social media, sit in the most extreme corner of a desolate county cricket ground or bus surrounded by absolutely no one, or hidden in my attic with the model railway and just be isolated from all the noise of life. You’ll never hear from me again, I swear.

In the aftermath of Lineker’s comments, I trawled social media and among transport folk, I saw a mix of pro-active statements and remarks about the state of the industry, of old timers who gave so much to the sector, but should maybe have better things to do than get worked up about it all. I’m not being ageist nor suggesting they shouldn’t be deprived of a voice post retirement, but wondered whether it’s doing them or the industry any good profiteering their views on social media. Appearances at conferences or more detailed and measured articles in journals or mags or simply volunteering their time to help companies might be more beneficial. Their wisdom may then not get lost in the chatter and increasing faux outrage, or be unfairly interpreted as the rantings of cynics of yesteryear.

I also looked at the social media outputs from those currently working in the sector and there is clearly a cognisance of the need to abide by contractual requirements, but this does, of course, mean that almost all outpourings are deeply sanitised, cautious and the sum contribution from everyone is of a transport sector where everything is rosy. Managers are out on the frontline grinning with staff and customers 24/7 and it’s just great news all-round of social value contributions, environmentally friendly initiatives, rainbow images on staff ID lapels, long service awards and customer service excellence recognition. The reality is rather different with prevailing, deep-seated morale issues in many companies, of grievances and inequalities including around race, gender and sexual orientation, of intense frustration around leadership, including bullying behaviours, and constant fear and despair around spending cuts, staff shortages and a continued inability to deal with basic issues that impact on operational performance and, in turn, customer satisfaction.

Whilst I believe that many of the social value type celebratory posts are commendable, some of them fill me with cynicism because many of those making them do not on an everyday basis imbue behaviours that are true to their comments. International Women’s Day earier this month was a classic example – trust me, there were comments doing the rounds from people who, when they drop their guard, don’t appear to practise what they preach or celebrate in that department.

‘Social value’ is a well-intentioned concept that started with the need for Corporate Responsibility Statements (CRSs) which were like Customer Service Standards in a train company. Organisations are asked to showcase their contribution to the community and other good causes. Many companies do this because they know it will look good in a bid and on a press release, or help them rub shoulders with the good and the great decision makers in power. It’s seen by some as a quickfire way to make some dosh.

The social value imperative brings out the worst of “virtue signalling” and is, I believe, sometimes contrived to deliberately distract attention from the failings of a transport company in doing what they are set up to do – please customers. Not too long ago, one transport director bemoaned to me that the MD of their company was obsessed about focusing on niche minority, social causes to the detriment of operational service performance that was spiralling out of control. Indeed, many a newcomer to the industry would quite easily think that photos of foodbanks outside stations, or charity donations on platforms, and celebrating the emancipation of those from repressed walks of life, are the key elements of their role.

That’s not to say that these aspects aren’t important at all, but it’s about balancing the extent to which they are relayed across the sector, such that its use is part of a meaningful conversation, rather used so arbitrarily and regularly that it feels like virtue signalling. The transport industry does not exist primarily to promote good causes. But, if it can do so whilst successfully delivering its good cause of getting customers from A to B, then that’s success. At the moment, it’s not delivering that.

I am relieved that when I was a young hot-head, social media didn’t exist

Onto the Linekers of our sector. I pity youngsters trying to make their way in public transport currently. I am relieved that when I was a young hot-head, social media didn’t exist. I’d have been the Gary Lineker of my time. I would have eventually been sacked because I found myself so completely and utterly energetic and wrapped up in the rollercoaster emotions of work, that, for sure, I would have been taking to social media after every depot or station visit, making a comment that would no doubt have been misinterpreted by staff or customers. In my usual defensive way, it’s likely that I’d have declared war on any stakeholder who dared to criticise the service we were providing and it would have been fair game humiliating competitors. My tweets and posts would have been made from nightclub dancefloors when I would have been in an irrational state of mind. That the youth of today are able to show restraint and maturity not to jeopardise their jobs by taking errantly to social media is commendable.

The risk to the industry is such that youngsters are now so alert to and in fear of the trip hazards posed by social media and the power it holds as a vehicle to virtue signal that they are in danger of being clones. It feels like we reside in an industry that is so sanitised and controlled, bereft of free speech. In doing so, a generation of transport professionals are being deprived of the ability to have proper discussions, to consider alternative, non-mainstream approaches and viewpoints that are multi-faceted or might not necessarily be the pathway that has been taken by their employer.

The issue has become rather binary insofar as social media is the vehicle used to determine whether someone ‘complies’ or is a ‘free spirit’. I’m not advocating a clamour to take to social media and start generating debate and in some respects dissension – for me, that tends to lead to an unsightly spectacle that does no one any favours. Instead, I’d prefer other vehicles to have these kind of discussions – seminars, articles, ‘think tanks’, workshops, conferences or societies, as well as internally within organisations. Social media can often be arbitrary, headline soundbites, rather than properly researched, considered and comprehensive debate.

Sadly, though, many conferences are now so predictable – you could trot out, Chat GPT-style, the messages in advance, without bothering to pitch up. One pal asked last week whether I was shelling out 600 smackers for a future rail event. My response on WhatsApp was blunt: “It seems a rip off. It won’t tell you anything innovative or new as all the speakers are very scripted and many of them bland and some might appear at the ‘centre’ but are peripheral.” Many conferences are the same. Top dogs turn up – the same old suspects – and read off an autocue and they don’t tell you anything you don’t know already and when you look round at the audience it tends to consist of sycophants or shirkers whose presence away from their ‘day job’ won’t be missed. This sorry state of affairs has motivated me to work with a great client to organise an alternative transport event later in the year – covering multi-modal stuff and with speakers who are innovators, entrepreneurs, controversial and don’t speak in platitudes and corporate mumbo-jumbo. It will be anarchic, but great value.

The Lineker debate is enlightening in the way it provokes reflection around how much our own thoughts and brand are owned and represented by the company who pays us money

The Lineker debate is enlightening in the way it provokes reflection around how much our own thoughts and brand are owned and represented by the company who pays us money. “You don’t bite the hand that feeds you” is an old adage I subscribe to and I do believe that Lineker has enjoyed so much wealth due to the BBC that he should show them respect and not believe he is above their policies. But equally it does make me feel somewhat uneasy in our own sector when I meet managers who are so utterly wedded to and defined by their employer that they seem so utterly bereft of articulating a view or way of being that is anything but some kind of pre-rehearsed, corporate gobbledegook press release. It’s like watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers with these faceless clones and they tend to be those who define their whole self-worth in life through their role and status within the company they work. The industry – and rail is the biggest offender – is now set up in such a constrained way that it creates an environment where dullards can flourish and where mediocrity thrives unchecked.

For us two-bob freelancers – the lowest denomination in the food chain – there are individuals in the industry who try and control our free speech, as though we exist just to write nice things about their company for free. They try and use their seniority to make you react as though you are controlled or employed by them. It’s always the same old grumpy, narcissistic suspects who throw in the odd veiled threat if they don’t like what you write or say. They delude themselves that even those who aren’t employed by them should feel they are subservient to them in the imaginary organisation chart in their minds.

Sensible balance is needed – employers don’t ‘own’ folk who work for them and they should encourage and respect healthy debate and ideas on a cross-organisational, industry basis, providing trade secrets aren’t being shared and the discussion isn’t besmirching the company being represented. It’s about mutual respect and the employer realising that constant advertorial and presenting an image of an employee of having swallowed some brainwashing pill actually creates a loss of self-respect for that person. The most heinous crime for me is to write anything in this wonderful mag that has a whiff of advertorial. It will make even bigger a mug of me than I am now and insults your intelligence as readers too.

For me, it’s all about balance and measure, something that public transport and those representing it would do well to pause and remember from time to time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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