Humour on social media can be a high-risk, high-stakes thing. This is nowhere clearer than in the now-famous Twitter spat between Thameslink and Poundland.

Thameslink’s woes stem from the introduction of a new timetable. If you want to know how that’s going, go to National Rail Enquiries’ ‘Live Departure Boards’ page, select any station on the line and then maybe have fun betting with your friends on which train will show ‘CANCELLED’ next.

It’s not going well. In fact, it’s chaos, and Thameslink has had a very thorough online kicking from commuters on this strategically important line.

Someone in charge of the social media account for Thameslink had clearly heard that self-effacing humour could be disarming. Replying to one passenger on Twitter, they said: ‘Very sorry Kevin. Appreciate at the moment the service is less Ferrero Rocher and more Poundland cooking chocolate. We are working out [sic] best to stabilise the service.’

I don’t know if this worked on Kevin – it certainly didn’t work on Poundland. Responding with a pic of a letter, Austin Cooke, the store’s Retail Director, wrote: ‘Aside from the breach of trademark, we think you’re taking the chocolate biscuit.

‘Frankly, you have no right to use our name to describe poor service. We served 8 million shoppers last week and didn’t have to close any store due to leaves on the roof, the wrong kind of rain or a shortage of managers.

‘We think we have a pretty good idea about what great customer service is compared to most rail companies.

‘But if we ever fall short, perhaps we’ll describe ourselves as a bit Thameslink.

‘If you don’t want to hear from our extremely twitchy legal team, we suggest you remove your tweet.’

Thameslink has apologised for the tweet.

But of course, Poundland’s response has made headlines and been very widely shared. As LBC’s coverage put it: ‘Poundland’s Response To Thameslink’s Tweet Was Brutal.’

Why did social media work for Poundland, giving it hectares of free, positive coverage, but not for Thameslink? Here’s a few thoughts.

  1. Thameslink aren’t completely rubbish at social media. They humanise it a bit by signing tweets with an individual’s name, and sometimes they try to be helpful, suggesting sensible alternative routes. Their worst mistake here was dragging another brand in to the exchange.
  2. The other brand, Poundland, is pretty confident in what it does. How Thameslink thought the shop would be disappointing commuters really isn’t clear. Unlike the rail company, it does what it says on the tin (to borrow from another brand’s marketing).
  3. The humour was quite wrong. The levity overshadowed the intended disarming self-deprecation – it’s a mistake to be ‘too clever’ when you’re on the ropes as Thameslink currently is.
  4. Poundland clearly monitors for mentions, knowing social media is now central to brand value – no-one above a certain size can afford to ignore social media. Measured sarcasm was fine because Poundland had done nothing wrong, and Thameslink has few, if any, fans to be offended by extension.
  5. The details of Thameslink’s poor service used were brutally forensic – and gave nice detailed ammunition to Thameslink’s detractors.
  6. Poundland caught the mood – with too few trains to get on, passengers were looking to give Thameslink a kicking. Poundland gave the public a novel line – cast here in the role of champions of a peed-off public.

The immediacy of social media means responses are quick, entering into dialogue is expected, and people operating channels need to be trusted to handle this. The best defence to errors such as the one Thameslink made, is not to retreat from social media, but to hire sensible people and train them.

If you’d like to learn about our social media training, tailored to your business’s aims and its risks, I hope you’ll get in touch.

About us

MD Communications are experts at boosting the reputation of law firms and suppliers to the legal sector- whether that’s raising your profile in the mediaenhancing your legal directory submissions or improving your social media presence.

Melissa Davis is the managing director of MD Communications, the international legal PR agency. She is also former chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Business Development Working Group and a member of the ABA Transnational Legal Practice Committee.

MD Communications is on Twitter @mdcomms

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