Live-tweet Q&A. What could possibly go wrong?

While there have been a number of recent, notorious social-media fails in the past few years, this one with British Gas feels especially case-study worthy.

The day they announced a sizable rate increase, BG pushed out Twitter hashtag #AskBG to field questions from the public.  Online Q&A, live.  Following a very negative announcement that impacted millions.  I guess they were thinking people would queue up at the virtual mic and ask penetrating but civil questions—you know, the way they do at town-hall meetings.  Well, have a look.

Predictably / sadly, BG circled the wagons on this one.  Apparently someone made a calculation that the perception of transparency was worth the snark-infested waters  (note the metric of 11,000 tweets sent as of the first day).  Or they thought that, since someone would probably have created a nega-site, anyway, better to get out in front of it by sponsoring it.  These would be sensible if you don’t factor in the possibility of looking ridiculous.

Two temptations here.  One is thinking that any channel can be shaped to contain any message.  Another is thinking social media are especially adept at creating credibility no matter what.  But no communications technology or platform has its own aura.  The same platform that can seem to create intimacy can also seem to create distance.  The new meta-problem this creates is that perception of your communication IQ now becomes perception of your business acumen or of how you view your employees and customers.  Examples abound (I’ve seen all these and more):

  • Scripting your outsourced customer service reps with appreciation and empathy sentences
  • Having an emcee moderate a live Q&A session with the CEO
  • Blast emailing a PowerPoint deck to explain the rationale behind a merger
  • Separating an employee via a phone call
  • Waiting to discuss anything related to a crisis until Legal signs off on everything
  • Robocalling customers with a pre-recorded message about a service interruption
  • Introducing a new executive with Too Much Information about their personal life

One blogger thought BG could have tweaked their approach by using Twitter better.  Even then, it would be important to know the context of BG’s social-media reputation to date before heading toward a tactic like this.  Clearly, the very next thing BG does in the social space will demonstrate whether they’ve gotten smarter from this experience.

How can you tell in advance what will work and what won’t?


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