Did British Gas feel the heat with #askbg social media chat?

The Social Buzz Awards, which are organised by The Drum, celebrate the very best in social media communications in the UK. This blog will include interviews with entrants, judges and other topical social information.

British Gas announced two things today: a price hike of 9 per cent and that it would have a live twitter chat with Customer Services Director Bert Pijls from 1-2pm under the #askbg hashtag. But can energy firms or other firms ever win at this sort of thing? After all, a study has shown that you can't use facts to win arguments.

Customer Services Director Bert Pijls

So are they damned if they do and damned if they don't?

Looking at the whole thing purely from a communications perspective, I think it's good that they did it. I also admire them for doing it on the same day as the price hike.

Others in the PR industry might feel that it would have been better to lie low and avoid it, but I think this is quite a brave attempt at engagement and to deal with the issue and get their side of the argument across in a timely and two-way engaging fashion. This is what brand engagement is all about (The Social Business argument is rather different but let's stick to the comms side for now). Doing nothing was the easy, old-school option.

On the PR front let's also bear in mind that British Gas have a highly trained PR unit and will have considered all the ramifications of doing a chat the same day as the price hike. They've also probably rehearsed and trained for the worst questions that they anticipate getting. They aren't comms amateurs and will have fairly thick skins (and need them).

Let's also consider that five minutes before the Twitter chat started, there were more than 700 tweets - overwhelmingly negative. Here's where they missed a trick in my opinion. To try and clear the decks ahead of the main chat, they should have had an account responding to the queries, using factoids and infographics to inform people, showing where the price hike will be spent, how much profit they make and so on. They shouldn't have been sitting in silence (this BBC article might have done them favours).

Another nice thing might have been to have Bert Pijls do it from his Twitter account to make the chat seem more personal.

One danger with the amount of tweets being fired by though is that serious questions or reputation issues get missed under a deluge of more sarcastic tweets as one person pointed out.

In fairness to British Gas (disclaimer: not a customer, never worked with them), they are trying to do their best and are linking to videos, answering individuals and even RT'ing some of their harder points being made at them. And people are reading those links - going by metrics, at least 300 people clicked on the links BG provided. Equally, there appears to have been no attempt at putting in fake accounts to come up with positive messages.

And while the likes of Trinity Mirror's UsVTh3m got involved, one surprise was the lack of questions by charities or the likes of Shelter or support by others.

One area they did dodge a bullet was that no cheeky or alternative brands got involved because there were a few PR gifts in that conversation stream.

They think it's all over... it is now. How did British Gas do?

With more than 1800 tweets reaching more than 60,000 accounts in the last few hours, they've done as well as could be expected. They didn't quit early, they RT'd questions before answering, they didn't duck much. However, there was no new insight or depth into how it all works, it was very formal with no insight of humanity or the people involved.

Some people will say it's been a social media fail and it will live on as a case study but I think from the larger comms perspective they've done OK out of it. They knew they weren't loved as a brand, people still don't like them, I doubt it cost them customers. It's been the online equivalent of a no-score draw.

#askbg lessons for firms doing social media chats

  • Be realistic about what you will get from the event and brief senior staff so they they don't go online expecting a love-in and face a wall of criticism
  • Get people to pre-prepare short and infographic answers to the 20 most hostile questions you can think of
  • Also have links to longer in-depth material to show people you are experts in your field
  • If the pre-event mood is turning nasty or critical, have someone go in to try and answer some of the questions up front
  • Have customer services team be monitoring so that they can jump in and help customers with genuine enquiries
  • With an eye towards social business, ask yourself if there's anything you can do across your company that will genuinely change how you engage with customers or how customers see you
  • Bear in mind that, especially with an emotive topic like this, there will always be criticism put towards you
  • If there are any points that you change in your organisation after this sort of event, let online know. Show the world you are listening, responding and changing.
  • Even though chats like this are a stunt, bear in mind that social media engagement is about ongoing, daily engagement

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