British Gas on Twitter – was it truly two-way?

In the past week British Gas announced a fairly steep price rise – clearly this wasnt going to be popular.  It decided to take to Twitter… may have taken part in the chat or read about the fall out. There was a good discussion on the BBC  Radio 4 Today programme on Saturday. Taking part was Kate Magee (@katemagee) who made some good points I thought.

I decided that this was one to ask Chris Tucker for her views on. Chris leads our CIPR PR Diploma course and has worked for a large corporate. Here are her thoughts….do jump in and tell us what you think……

Chris said…..”When I first started out in Public Relations I always used to find it amusing that despite the job title the public were the last people I would actually talk to.  In fact I found it best to avoid them.  I spent much of my in-house PR career working for banks so a member of the public on the line was not likely to be a happy experience.  Often they were angry and unlike journalists there were no ‘rules of engagement.’  I soon learnt to transfer consumers to my competent and experienced colleagues in customer services.  I expect Bert Pijls the brave member of British Gas’ social media team wishes for a return to that world following his experiences of the public this week.

For those of you that missed the story once again “Public Relations” and “disaster” have been linked in the headlines.  This time though the twist was that the decision of British Gas to send poor Bert into the Twittersphere to explain its decision to hike energy bills by 10%.  The AskBG hashtag unleashed a storm of protest from very angry members of the public and all Bert had to protect himself were three key messages.  To quote those well-known social media gurus Brian Solis and Deidre Breakenridge for British Gas social media had indeed put the Public back into Public Relations.

I can see the decision-making process at British Gas.  Large organisations are now required to be transparent.  They need to be seen to be accessible and in the light of concerns around energy prices and supply the energy companies appear to be over-hauling their communications efforts to do so, as detailed in this recent CorpComms article.  One of British Gas’ competitors SSE for the first time ran a series of adverts in the national press on the day it announced a 28% increase in profits.  The advert asked “What has an energy company ever done for us?  Quite a lot, as it happens.”  And E.ON even braved Watchdog and Anne Robinson this week.  But was a Twitter Q and A on the day of a huge price rise a good decision?

Our old friend PR academic James Grunig wrote: ‘If the social media are used to their full potential, I believe they will inexorably make public relations more global, strategic, two-way and interactive, symmetrical or dialogical, and socially responsible.’ The problem with British Gas’ use of social media was that there was no real effort to be two-way or interactive.  Tweets were met with the same key messages around the need for a price rise that we are all now familiar with but simply don’t like.  Twitter for British Gas appeared to be just another perhaps funkier channel to say exactly the same thing over and over again.  Not so much brave as brazen.”

What do you think? Let us know

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