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October 18, 2013

#askBG: British Gas might have ‘failed’, but not at Twitter

British Gas had a torrid day yesterday. For those who missed it, the gas company hiked prices, ran a Twitter chat and reaped the whirlwind.

Now the fun is over, it’s worth re-examining the #askBG session and asking what went right. After all, the brand opened itself up to questions and public opinion. Isn’t that the kind of thing we all want?

Here are three points:

1: It was available

An alternative framing might have worked better – something that steered the session towards tips on coping with price rises, rather than leaving it wholly open. Even so, a hijack was inevitable from the start. British Gas could have cancelled the chat and hidden behind press statements. Instead it actively sought public reactions.

2: It rode out the storm

There is no universe in which British Gas could have concocted an appropriate reply to “How would you recommend I defrost an elderly relative?”. It didn’t try to be funny, didn’t chide anyone for rudeness and didn’t give up and go home. It just got on with answering questions that appeared to be sincere.

3: It retweeted criticism

Customer service director Bert Pijls was never going to highlight the most vitriolic messages, but his choice of retweets wasn’t entirely sanitised. These four all featured:

Fail?

Does the session represent a ‘social media fail’? Try turning that on its head: if #askBG is a failure, what would success look like?

British Gas was never going to take to Twitter for a few hours and win disgruntled customers round. Nor would anyone be congratulating it if it had kept its head beneath the parapet. The reputational damage comes from its pricing policy, not from anything it did wrong online.

Yesterday we tweeted a tirade against belief in the ‘content marketing fairy’. Well, there is no reputation fairy either. Twitter won’t redeem unpopular actions. But while provoking criticism might qualify as a failure, facing it does not.

Pijls said being online in the aftermath of a controversial decision was simply ‘the right thing to do‘. He’s right, even if it will take much more than that to recover goodwill.

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