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3 Essential Lessons from the Southern Rail Twitter Meltdown

Posted on October 4, 2016

The Southern Rail Twitter row made national headlines. They tried to use social media to tackle a labour dispute. It didn’t go well. If you ever wanted a crash course in how NOT to use social media, this is it.
On the morning of October 3 2016, Southern Rail tweeted this:
Southern Rail Twitter
For those who aren’t familiar, Southern Rail services link London with Surrey, Sussex, Kent, and Hampshire. The RMT is Britain’s largest specialist transport trade union.
Months of industrial action have badly impacted Southern’s services. Additional strike action is planned. Southern Rail seems to think that these strikes might be called off if the RMT were only aware of how it affected ordinary people. So they urged their Twitter followers to give the RMT a piece of their mind.
We’re not here to discuss the politics of this issue. We’re here to point out that Southern Rail’s strike-breaking master plan was a very, very bad idea. 
Why? Well, just take a look at some of the reactions they got:
Southern Rail Twitter Southern Rail Twitter
Southern Rail Twitter
Southern Rail Twitter
The word you’re looking for is “ouch”.
Now, before we talk about what Southern Rail did wrong, let’s talk about the one thing they did right: They didn’t try and silence the debate.
The original tweet, complete with its many scathing replies, is still there for all to see. Or at least, it still is at the time of writing. This is important. As past social media meltdowns have proven time and time again, any attempt to silence these things – or worse, to pretend that they never happened – has only made things worse.
But beyond that, this is a good case study in how NOT to do social media.
Here are three key lessons from the Southern Rail Twitter meltdown.

1 Don’t shirk your responsibilities.

This is actually a golden rule for customer service in general. Notice that many of the angry tweets above are lambasting Southern Rail for shifting the blame. Rather than taking responsibility for their shortcomings, Southern Rail essentially shrugged and said “it’s not our fault! It’s all because of these guys! Go complain to them instead.”
For many, this is unacceptable. It perhaps suggests that Southern Rail aren’t taking their customer service duties seriously enough.
Compare this to East Midlands Trains, who last year pledged to go 24/7 on social media. On average, they tweet disruption updates every 18 minutes, and they actively seek out opportunities to build their reputation through transforming complaints into positive stories of good engagement and excellent service.
In short, East Midlands Trains take ownership of their responsibilities. This is exactly what their customers like to see. Southern Rail did the opposite. It’s understandable that people got angry.

2 Don’t ignore the experts.

This call for people to contact RMT wasn’t exclusive to the Southern Rail Twitter account. It also appeared as a two-page spread in several newspapers:
Southern Rail Twitter
Read through the replies to the tweet and you’ll see repeated calls that Southern Rail should sack their social media team. But that this same message appeared in a major free newspaper suggests that this debacle was commissioned from up high.
This whole thing has an air of corporate intervention about it. It’s possible that Southern Rail’s social media team had nothing to do with it.
Because when it comes to Twitter, Southern Rail seem to have some idea of what they’re doing. They’re at least in the habit of responding to complaints promptly (if not satisfactorily):
Southern Rail Twitter
Maybe the Southern Rail Twitter team advised against this approach. Maybe this tweet only went live because the management demanded it.
If this is true, then this whole thing proves that you should NEVER disregard the advice of your social media team. They spend all day on social media. They know how things work. So listen to them! If they think that something’s a terrible idea, then do something else!

3 Don’t try and settle your union disputes on Twitter.

This is the obvious one. But perhaps it can be better phrased as “don’t rock the boat.”
If there’s one thing people love on social media, it’s a good old fashioned corporate meltdown to sink their teeth into.
Southern Rail should have treated their Twitter account as a place to broadcast service updates. They should have used Twitter as a reactive customer service platform. They should have used Twitter to try and win over their customers after months of disappointments.
Instead, they openly invited people to share their opinions on the state of their service. They did so while pointing the blame at a third party. And worst of all, they gave people a hashtag to play with!
This was never going to go well.
It’s even possible that some of the comments under the original tweet were left by people who have never used Southern Rail services.
That’s just how Twitter works. People are drawn to conflict. Never give them fuel for their fire.

Southern Rail Twitter Meltdown – 3 Key Takeaways For ALL Businesses on Social Media:

-Hire a team of social media experts and listen to their advice.
-Take responsibility for your shortcomings. Don’t pass the blame. Own it. Address it. Then fix it.
-Don’t involve your social media audience in your political disputes.
In fact, you should do all you can to avoid mixing politics and social media. Things almost always go wrong when you show your colours.
Status Social is one of the UK’s most trusted Social Media agencies. Our social media consultations can help you to avoid Twitter meltdowns. And our social media training can show you how to use Twitter to deliver excellent customer service.
Get in touch for a free consultation!

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