The O2 outage and how it used Twitter: Irresponsible or taming the trolls?

Natalie Brandweiner
Contributing Editor
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When the O2 mobile service recently crashed leaving thousands of customers without mobile access, many took to Twitter to angrily complain. Unusually for a big brand, the company responded with some quirky banter. Was it a clever way to deal with trolls or an irresponsible approach to customer service? Natalie Brandweiner reports.

The O2 service failure left customers outraged. After a 24-hour blackout, many of its 8m customers were unable to receive or send calls and texts or access data. The network was eventually restored the following afternoon - but by that time angry customers had flocked to Twitter to let O2 know exactly what they thought of the service failure and the brand. 

However, bombarded with hateful tweets, the in-house social media team behind the O2 Twitter account responded in a very interesting fashion. Rather than the usual straightjacketed corporate tone typically doled out in crisis communications, the O2 account ttempted to get through the nightmare with some light humour and personality.

And O2 was subjected to some some truly shocking tweets (look away now if you are easily offended!):

And more: 

And some people were really, really angry: 

But humour was doled out to lighten the mood: 

Which went down well with some of the network's customers:

O2 was reluctant to name (and potentially shame - depending on your view) the man behind the mask and instead told "Clearly we're not happy that we've disappointed our customers over the last 24 hours, but it's good to hear that some have enjoyed our tweets!"

But had it struck the right tone to respond to frustrated customers in a crisis like this or is it only going to provoke them further? 

Clever communications

One advocate for O2's response strategy is Julian Heerdegen, CRM Evangelist at SugarCRM, who argued that a politically correct and sober message of crisis communication might make you look somewhat hapless. 

He said: "Is it the right tone to respond to a service failure? No. Is it risky? Yes. Does it work? Yes! 

"O2 took an unconventional and flexible approach to gain back some control over the conversation – and the online sphere so far gives them credit for doing so."

Kelda Wallis, new business manager at Tempero, believes that although the network chose a potentially risqué path, it paid off and showed they were taking the matter seriously. 

She said: "Risqué tweets aside, O2 did a really great job of showing their human side, by crafting unique rather than the standard ‘copy & paste’ responses. At times, they were definitely pushing the boundaries, but they clearly understand the platform and thought it was worth taking the risk."

Even Twitter's own UK Director, Bruce Daisley, came out in support of O2 with a tweet that read: "Wonderful day's work from O2's Twitter account yesterday. Wrote the rule book."

Tactless tweets 

But not all are convinced that it is the best approach.

Owner of Positive Marketing, Paul Maher, emphasises that the impact on small businesses of the service outage could be serious, so taking a light-hearted approach could be inappropriate.
He said: "Business customers do not want glib responses and 'network issues' given as excuses. We would like to know exactly what went wrong and most importantly, is it likely to happen again. If we were given these facts, which likely could not be squeezed into 140 characters, we might know whether to trust the 02 brand again."

PR consultant Sean Fleming argued that although initially a clever move from the mobile network, they took the entertainment too far.

In a blog post he said: "That whoever was staffing the twitter account was given the freedom to do that is a masterstoke [sic]. However, I also got the impression that the huge positive sentiment that tweet elicited from the wider audience prompted someone at O2 to declare 'do more tweets like that, I think we’ve found our way out'.
"For a while it seemed that O2’s motivation on twitter was no longer to inform or engage with customers, but to demonstrate how achingly funny the brand could be – how irreverent and not-at-all-how-you-expected it was capable of being. For me, that joke wore thin pretty quickly. It was clever though." 
Best practises 
So can other brands deploy this communications strategy and what are the best practices for businesses that find themselves in a similar position? 
Wallis doesn't think so: "While it has appeared in the main to have worked to their benefit, it’s not an approach that would have worked for every brand – such as a bank for instance, that has much tighter restrictions. It’s about knowing your audience and understanding the platform you choose to talk to them on.

Harriet Clarke, who sits on the Internet Advertising Bureau's social media council, believes humanisation is a key word that should run through all marketers social strategies.

She said: "Talking to a customer as a human, being transparent and responding in a timely manner is crucial for any brands social media success and reputation.

"Never forget to keep your social media strategy at the heart of all your communications and ensure your tone of voice reflects your core business objectives and remember your customers are your brand advocates and you should work hard to both engage and enchant them."
What do you think? Did O2 use the right tone to respond to customers during the crisis? Would you adopt the same tone?


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By David Evans
30th Nov 2012 15:55

This is a great example of how social media can be used to defuse situations using humour but more importantly it has worked because it has humanised a faceless company. Even when replying to negative and really rude tweets, it shows that they are responsive which is what people look for from Twitter and social media. 


-- Dave Evans Commercial Director at accessplanit Specialist in learning management system and training management software

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