Abuse magnets: the people behind corporate Twitter accounts

Some brands are ridiculously meticulous about what appears on their feeds. A single tweet from a French cheese brand took 45 days from conception to being published, first passing through copywriters, designers and several internal review procedures, according to a report on Business Insider. It failed to garner a single retweet, and only two favourites.

Abuse magnets: the people behind corporate Twitter accounts

Picking the right people

No matter how well trained or responsive a company’s Twitter team is, there will be times when they face a barrage of abuse – sometimes sexist and racist abuse, or threats of physical violence – for matters that are outside of their control. Simply monitor the @ replies of your local train operator the next time there’s a problem on the line to witness some of the vile invective the staff have to deal with.

The impersonal nature of Twitter leads some people to forget they’re dealing with another human being. “People in an online environment can lose all inhibition, because they don’t have a one-to-one contact,” says Salins.

Corporate twitter fails

Kellogg’s (@KelloggsUK)
The award for worst-thought-out campaign goes to Kellogg’s, which in November 2013 tweeted “1 RT = 1 breakfast for a vulnerable child”. After accusations of child exploitation, its social manager went snap, crackle and pop.

Tesco (@Tesco)
In the middle of the horsemeat crisis, Tesco staff should perhaps have thought better than cheerily telling customers they were “off to hit the hay”. They later apologised, but the horse had already bolted.

Bian Salins is a managing consultant on social media at Capgemini, and has previously run the social media teams for major brands such as Sky and BT. She recalls how BT inadvertently turned Twitter into a customer-service platform back in 2008.

“When you’re on a phone call, people shout, but they’re aware they’re shouting. When people shout in a virtual space, they don’t care. The abuse can be pretty strong, almost to the point of bullying.” Salins says her staff have been racially abused because the customer wrongly assumed the Twitter account was being handled by a foreign call centre rather than staff in the UK.

“Thick-skinned” is a phrase that crops up regularly when you ask the social media experts what characteristics they look for in staff. “Who you choose to be on your frontline is really important,” says Salins. “The people need to be of a certain type. We were always very open with our staff to tell them this is what they’re getting into. Not everybody chose to be part of it, not everybody lasted.”

Mark Wainwright is a senior account director at We Are Social, an agency that includes sports brands such as Adidas and football clubs among its clients. He says the tribal nature of sports fandom can ratchet up the abuse another notch. “Even on a small scale, when people are saying nasty things about something you’ve been involved in, it’s not very nice,” he says.

Wainwright says Twitter isn’t the best place to deal with abusive customers, because the conversation is open for anyone to see. “Most brands will try to take the conversation offline, out of the public sphere, as quickly as possible,” he says.

When services fail, and there are thousands of customers ranting at the company’s Twitter account, the temperament of the Twitter account handlers is really tested. “A good social media agency will make sure you have robust plans in place in case something does go wrong,” says Wainwright. “You have to switch off, and in a crisis situation you just have to be quite thick-skinned and rely on your process.”

Not flannelling customers and being as honest as you can is critical, according to Salins. “We realised that when the floodgates open, acknowledging and accepting there’s an issue, and then reacting quickly, is very important in turning a negative into a positive.”

During a broadband outage at BT, she persuaded the company to let her tweet a photo of a flooded telephone exchange to customers, to help them understand why it was taking time to reconnect them. “If a brand isn’t willing to take that level of honesty and transparency, then it becomes extremely difficult, because all you’re going to be doing is telling your frontline staff to say sorry, and sorry isn’t good enough for thousands of people who are unhappy.”

Biting back

Yet, even with training and emergency procedures put in place, staff are only human and liable to snap on occasion. There are only so many times you can be called something unspeakable in the course of a ten-hour Sunday shift before something gives.

“When your emotions run high, that’s the point when you’re most likely to lose control,” says Wainwright. “Social media amplifies what could potentially be quite a small situation, because if you’re a huge brand then one tweet could be seen by millions of people. Even if you delete your tweet, someone is going to have screengrabbed it and sent it to the media. You might think it was only up for a second. The next thing you know you’re a major news story.”

Salins describes social media staff lashing back at customers as “the worst-case scenario” because it’s “brand-impacting”. Suddenly the company is trending on Twitter for the wrong reasons, and everyone from the head of PR to the CEO is dragged into the incident.

Wainwright says the only way to deal with it is with a swift mea culpa. “The best thing to do is acknowledge it, apologise, show that you’ve dealt with the situation and try to make sure that it won’t happen again. There’s nothing else you can do.”

He says that the fact these high-profile Twitter slip-ups have become reasonably commonplace has helped reduce the impact of a staff member going rogue. “People will be offended by it, but… [other] people will just find it funny. You have to do something particularly bad to make the papers nowadays.”

Such is the lot of the average social media account worker: paid something short of a king’s ransom to work antisocial hours and soak up regular abuse from customers, knowing that the one time your patience runs dry you’re likely to be the story on p7 of tomorrow’s tabloids. It may be worth remembering that the next time you’re preparing to vent your frustration at the cancelled 7.32 train from Didcot Parkway.

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