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August 14, 2015

You Don't Bother With That, Do You?

Charlie Swift

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My friend Harry was looking at me disdainfully over his glasses. "Whatever's the matter?" I asked him, surprised. "Twitter," he said. "You don't bother with all that, do you?"

I'd just told this self-confessed geek that he'd be able to follow my holiday – all my experiences, observations and photos as I travelled – in real time, on his tablet. Harry isn't the kind of guy to be fazed by technology. In fact, although he is a generation older than me, he'd been extolling the wonders of smartphones long before I converted from my "steam-driven" device. So what was his issue?

"All that social media stuff – it's for kids!" he explained. "You're an intelligent woman, so what on earth do you want with all that?" He was warming to his theme now. "All that empty froth, gossip, trolling... Ugh. I just haven't got time for it. Literally!"

"Oh... But... " I was deflated and a bit shocked. How to explain this alternative world to a skeptic? Yes, it's far too easy to find drivel and hate in the deluge of posts crisscrossing the globe at any minute of the day or night, but there's so much that's fascinating and uplifting too.

Where to start? How about best-selling author Joanne Harris's bulletins from her garden shed? Or perhaps the World Health Organization's latest Ebola report? Not to forget the changing seasons by the sea brought to us by that man in New Zealand. Then there's the account devoted to quotes from Emily Dickinson's poetry, the International Space Station's repair work in progress, the guide dog being cheeky about his visually impaired human – and the woman in Toronto who's grieving the death of her mother...

All of life's rich tapestry is here. Including, if Harry would only look, my glorious holiday!

Fast forward to midway through my holiday, and I've followed on Twitter the international railroad company that I hope will eventually get me home. I want to know before I set off if there's likely to be any delays or cancellations. And if I need to, I can get advice direct from the people who have the best information.

Over a few days of monitoring, I've become fascinated by the tone and approach of the account – and the people engaging with it. Most users are a little anxious before they travel, or relieved and happy afterwards, and the company's social media specialists welcome, reassure, inform, and cheer them. Occasionally, there's a joke or even a virtual dig in the ribs. The atmosphere is both warm and professional, and many customers say they'll come back for more.

Then there's a ripple and a growl. Someone's fed up with waiting in a crowded departure lounge. He's hot and tired, and unimpressed with the business, so he shares photos of the crush and shouts his disappointment to his followers. Some of them wade in with sarcastic or aggressive comments. Heck! How will the team deal with this? Will it argue, go cold and corporate, or simply ignore him?

In fact, Mr Angry gets an official apology straight away, plus an acknowledgement that the space is inadequate and some information about a planned refurbishment. It's far more than he expected or imagined. The tension defuses – he's had his say, he's been heard, and he's been seen to be heard. He says "thank you" and the mob falls silent. Calm returns.

A day or so later, a train breaks down between cities and there's a fast-moving flurry of complaints, worries and demands for the social media team members to field. They reply to some individually, in the public arena; they take some off to private channels (DM, email and phone); they sprinkle in announcements for everyone, and set up a hashtag for anything to do with the event; they get efficient back-up from operational colleagues, who provide a replacement train and hotel rooms. And when the crisis has passed, they wrap up with an apology for all and best wishes for the next day's travelers. Phew!

So, I'm really impressed and feel in safe hands even before I board my train. But not every business manages its communications (and reputation) so well. Some of them are led by people, just like Harry, who can't see the point, and that means they're risking disaster. Let's hope they see our latest article on How to Handle Social Media Complaints!

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