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Was British Gas right to schedule a Twitter Q&A session on the day it announced huge price hikes?

Jane Priest, Teaching Fellow

Faculty Blog

Customers can be the best publicity. There are lots of them, they like to talk and they tend to believe each other more than they would a stranger with an ulterior motive (sales).  Add the internet and the power of consumer-generated content can be huge - going ‘viral’ and creating a ‘storm’. While many brands use online social media to great effect (think Red Bull with its daredevil antics that get everyone talking), there’s the uneasy flipside. What if everyone is talking, and what they’re saying isn’t good? Organisations that embrace the benefits of online social media also take a risk.

This is illustrated by a recent incident with British Gas. On the day it announced a large price hike that will affect nearly eight million households in the UK (an 8.4 per cent rise in gas prices and a 10.4 per cent increase in electricity prices) it also launched a one-hour question and answer session for its customers on Twitter.

The outcome was to be expected: a surge of angry customers venting their frustration, or, as one UK newspaper put it, a “torrent of loathing”. The resultant media furore included other descriptions, such as “Twitter stunt backfires”, “it perhaps hasn't gone quite to plan” and “a spectacular own goal”.

But did the Twitter stunt backfire? Customers were bound to be angry, and probably would have vented their frustration elsewhere had this forum not been available. At least this way British Gas was seen to be transparent and retaining some element of control. The result was over 11,000 tweets and plenty of media coverage in true Twitter Storm style, though not a lot of it was positive!