I do not envy the poor souls who man Southern Rail’s Twitter account. The company runs commuter rail services in and out of London and, as a lot of regular passengers will tell you, the service is not without its problems.
You can imagine the situation, tens of thousands of frustrated commuters are running late for work, can’t get home on time, or are crammed into hot, overcrowded carriages, so a lot of them will turn to Twitter to vent their anger. (Personally I owe Southern Rail a debt of gratitude because I found the service so unreliable that I chose to cycle for two hours a day rather than using the train, and I’ve never been fitter.)
Southern Rail uses Twitter to provide service updates and respond to customer enquiries, which it does in a chatty, informal tone. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t really see much wrong with this, but the problem is that the account has to field a high volume of negative comments from people who are, quite understandably, extremely annoyed about the quality of service they receive. I can understand how people might find the chirpy tone of the account somewhat grating in the face of all that.
Sometimes the discussions get a little heated, as in this example from this morning, and it feels like Southern Rail’s approach isn’t really conducive to making customers feel better about the situation. The tone doesn’t really seem right for dealing with what is essentially a comms crisis, and the frequently poor use of English only exacerbates things.
Widespread dissatisfaction with the company and its Twitter account has been given voice through a popular parody account, which appears right next to the official account in the search engine rankings.
So what’s the answer? I think to a certain extent Southern Rail’s comms team is doing the best it can under the circumstances (i.e. they have to be the public face of an essential service that a lot of people feel is failing them) and at least they do take the trouble to engage frustrated customers on Twitter. But when you’re managing a Twitter account that’s almost permanently operating in crisis comms mode, I think it’s probably worth thinking carefully about the tone and type of language you use. You have to earn your customers’ goodwill before you can play matey with them.