On Tuesday, a brave teenager on work experience was tasked with the challenge of taking over the Twitter account for the UK’s worst performing railway firm, Southern Rail. Interactions with @SouthernRailUK soon shifted from its usual flurry of complaints, shouts and cries of despair regarding continuing issues with delays and cancellations were replaced with random questions and memes sent in praising the bravery of 15-year old Eddie for taking over the flailing channel (using #AskEddie).
Within minutes of Eddie announcing his arrival on the Twitter page, questions piled in including playful hypothetical questions such as whether he’d rather fight 1 horse sized duck or 100 duck sized horses… Eddie’s crowning moment was his answer to one question asking if a boy “could swim faster than a shark” to which the GCSE student replied: “I don’t think so but you never know there could be a girl that can,” prompting responses such as “I love you”.
Although regular customers probably awaiting train information or wishing to vent their fury were originally confused with the concept, many ended up applauding Southern Rail: a great success in a move that could have easily backfired. Twitter Q&A sessions have of course failed for brands in the past – J.P. Morgan, for example, were forced to cancel their #AskJPM session as many used the hashtag to vent their grievances after losing money due to MF Global’s bankruptcy.
On the flip side, this move partially succeeded, receiving very little backlash from the angry mob created by Southern Rail’s poor performance, as customers were deterred by the idea of cyber-bullying a young boy. Of course, the biggest discussion point is whether the stunt belittled the issues of thousands of people, whose travel and lives have been affected by railway strikes and disruptions.
Despite this, comments from frustrated customers which could not be avoided by Eddie were met with requests from other Twitter users to “lay off the abuse for a bit”. This reaction, in a nutshell, sums up the aim and success of the activity regardless of criticism it received: a momentary distraction for a company suffering from a negative stream of news – a move that can hardly be criticised as PR is all about moments of positive and impactful actions that can change consumer behaviour.
But was it right to #AskEddie? Probably not. Nonetheless, it remains a classic example of how a brand is able to communicate with the consumer whilst building a positive reputation grounded in a sense of humour and personality. At the end of the day, Eddie probably is a great guy, who’s young, ambitious and genuinely prefers chicken fajitas!