First British Gas, now Ryanair: Companies are failing to communicate properly on social media

It might be fun to watch, but what happens when you have a genuine grievance?


Anyone who has ever travelled with Ryanair will agree that trolling its own passengers appears to be almost company policy.

So it was rather enjoyable to watch budget airline boss Michael O’Leary get a taste of his own medicine during a live Twitter Q&A.

He  inappropriately responded to the first person who asked him a question with “Nice pic. Phwoaaarr! MOL”, unaware that using the #GrillMOL hashtag meant his reply was going to be seen by everyone.

His catcall was challenged by other Twitter users, one of whom responded “@Ryanair how is it appropriate for an airline CEO to be a sexist pig?”

And thus Ryanair became the second high profile company in a week to host a Q&A on Twitter that quickly became a PR disaster.

British Gas’ attempt at being “open and transparent” with customers also collapsed spectacularly with their PR offensive becoming merely offensive.

A volley of hatred was levelled at the energy giant’s Twitter account along with the usual jokes at the company’s expense.

There is often nothing wrong with their motives but many big corporations are failing miserably to communicate with their customers. Can companies ever provide decent customer service on Twitter?

It’s not an easy task. Twitter is not an ideal platform for customer service. Rarely can any issue be solved in 140 characters, so the first step has to be exchanging contact details of where a longer interaction can take place.

People know complaining through Twitter is not ideal, meaning that when a customer takes to Twitter, they are likely to be exasperated. Perhaps their email was ignored or they failed to get through on the help-line so instead they try to exert a bit of PR pressure. This means customer complaints on Twitter are likely to be deliberately provocative, making them even more difficult to handle.

Many corporate social media managers know that people are trying to shame their employers into customer service.

Often they have to deal with a huge number of complaints and they don’t actually have the power to solve the problem. Many are ignored. The last poll showed that around 70 cent of social media complaints are left unanswered. This is a big problem, especially as 88 per cent say they are unlikely to buy from a company that ignores their online complaints.

However for many social media managers, the immediate issue that needs handling on such a public forum is a PR one. This comes before solving the problem. Therefore those people who have large followings on Twitter, verified ticks, or important looking 'bios', are going to get a premium service.

Customers’ exasperation as they try to get companies to listen is obvious. Yet having a small Twitter following doesn't necessarily mean you will not be a big PR problem. A genuine grievance can go viral very quickly if a journalist or a celebrity champions your issue, so that’s another issue that social media managers have to deal with. Sifting through the interactions to find people with valid issues versus those with mere sarcastic gripes. 

Yet even doing that conscientiously won't address the main problem faced by a social media manager.

They aren’t close enough to the decision makers and don’t have the power to solve your complaint. All they can do is acknowledge your problem and try and smooth over your frustration so you stop being mean about their company in public.

This impotence is half-acknowledged by Twitter users. If they had more power, people wouldn’t be as keen to take the mick when hashtags like #AskBG or #GrillMOL came around. If you knew that contacting British Gas through Twitter meant you got your broken boiler seen to more promptly, you probably wouldn’t want to poke fun at them. After all, you like hot showers and you are grateful for their service.

Managing a company's social media is a hard role which combines customer service, PR, news and technology. It requires listening, being flexible and dealing with very angry people, all the while being held to account for things which aren't the social media manager's fault. I want companies to take social media more seriously, to listen to their team and take action, so a Twitter storm can be rained off before it even begins.

And in the meantime let’s not give people on Twitter an excuse to get angry. If your boss is a sexist idiot, don’t give him a public platform. If the decision your company's chief has made (in British Gas’s case to raise prices) has provoked worry, distress and ultimately fury, don’t let your company's Twitter account (and you) be their focus. #simple 

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