I’ve written before about how easy it is to make a social media faux pas these days – and how the strength of this fluid online world can inflate something small into a trending #fail in no time at all.

As if on cue, on 10  Jan @BritishGasHelp tweeter ‘Paul’ produced something that proved my point entirely using the anniversary of David Bowie’s death as the subject of one of the company’s tweets. He said:

“Morning all. A year today we lost a pop icon. David Bowie, time flys don’t it? We’re here till 10pm if you need anything. Thanks, Paul #RipDB.”

You might find the grammar/spelling in the tweet a bit offensive but what a lot of people complained about was the inappropriateness of using a big public event for self promotion. And a sad public event at that.

Where’s the connection? It’s clumsy PR and it does make you wonder whether ‘Paul’ had a free hand with the British Gas Twitter account or whether someone in a management position approved the content. More than that it really shines a spotlight on the humanisation of brands.

Human is the hardest thing to be

The Twitter accounts that seem to achieve the most success are those that have a very human feel to them. They might be tweeting about cakes or cars, legal services or voucher codes, but it’s always the ability to be human that makes people engage.

Which is where Paul sort of fell into a trap – because, while corporate Twitter accounts need to be human, they should never be too human i.e. clumsy and insensitive, drunk, emotional. There’s much less room for error with a brand than an actual person.

The question of sensitivity in branding

The likelihood is that if a tweet like this had been read out during a digital marketing strategy meeting it would have been shot down in flames. However, the idea is sound – there is no shortage of examples of businesses trying to find new ways to get humans to engage with their corporate social accounts and latching on to external events is one that makes it into many a strategy.

And it can be a good idea – it does work. Although, here at MD Comms we tend to advise clients to steer away from the topic of death and to avoid combining the sad with the promotional. Had the tweet been a little more sensitive – without the sales bit – it may have worked but you’re still walking a very fine line.

The power of Paul

However, there is another argument here that perhaps Paul did British Gas a favour. His ham-fisted approach to David Bowie’s death was so human in its faultiness that he really did give the brand a face. Albeit a slightly embarrassed one. He responded to what must have been a barrage of irritated responses with “Hey, David Bowie meant so much to me. I didn’t mean to offend anyone & I only wanted to pay tribute to a master songwriter & true icon ^Paul.”

Which makes you feel rather sorry for the guy. Paul was promptly removed and replaced by another tweeter with a more corporate attitude. However, his ‘offending’ tweet received 206+ responses, 257+ retweets and 371+ likes. @BritishGasHelp’s average engagement prior to this was 1 like.

The difficult matter of a social voice and brand humanisation is one that all businesses have to deal with. However, as Paul may have proved, perhaps having some personality – even if it not everyone gets it – is better than none.

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