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#AskEddie: Southern Rail's work experience success spotlights expectation gap on Twitter

Stephen Waddington is partner and chief engagement officer at Ketchum and visiting professor at Newcastle University.

This picture was posted on Southern Rail

A Southern Rail social media work experience teen delighted Twitter but he couldn’t make the trains run on time.

As a summer story, Eddie the Southern Rail Twitter intern delivered. It was irreverent, intriguing and heartwarming.

A 15-year-old student managed Southern Rail’s social media account for two days last week, inviting questions via the hashtag #AskEddie.

Eddie’s online banter was so good that many people in the business, myself included, mistakenly believed that Southern Rail was trialling a new artificial intelligence solution.

Twitter was delighted. #AskEddie trended. It caught the attention of the mainstream media. It appeared in the Guardian, the Sun, Daily Telegraph and Metro.

Eddie toured BBC and Sky television studios talking about his experience. But it’s a distraction at best and cynical manipulation at worst.

Southern operates train services into London from the south coast, through East and West Sussex, Surrey and parts of Kent and Hampshire.

I say operate but for the last 12 months it has been criticised for delays, cancellations and union walkouts.

Unsurprisingly Eddie dodged conversations with Southern Rail’s 165,000 Twitter users about the customer service issue.

The day after Eddie left his post, Southern Rail’s parent company Govia was fined for poor performance by the government.

The Department of Transport said that the £13.4m fine must be reinvested in passenger and performance improvements on the service.

Inevitably #AskEddie spurned copycats.

Tyne & Wear Metro handed its Twitter feed over to an intern on Friday afternoon.

It’s a transport service in the North East of England operated by Nexus that has its own issues.

Early in the week Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah tabled a question in the House of Commons about infrastructure investment in the Metro service.

It’s another example of social media being used as a sticking plaster for a service that frequently fails to meet the expectation of its customers or employees.

Social media can be a fantastic tool for engaging with customers, especially in the transport sector where they expect real-time information.

It’s the sharp end of public relations and customer service. Thick skins are frequently required to deal with the travelling public.

Virgin Trains uses Twitter well for customer service and marketing. It also runs the trains on time between Manchester, Newcastle and London. When it doesn't, staff are responsive and candid on Twitter.

Twitter is not a solution if your product or service is flawed. Any gap between expectation and reality will be called out and result in a backlash or reputational damage.

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