Trying to get around London hasn’t been much fun for this past two days. Strike action by underground staff over plans to close ticket halls crippled the network on Wednesday and Thursday, buses, taxis and ‘Boris bikes’ were stretched to capacity and Twitter was abuzz with talk of packed stations and lengthy bus stop queues. On Wednesday, the first morning of the 48hr walkout, #tubestrike was tweeted more than 60,000 times. At the time of writing, according to Topsy, the number of tweets had exceeded 91,000 in the past seven days.
In any crisis, social media teams are often stretched beyond capacity but, as Transport for London was inundated with tweets from commuters, visitors and tourists looking to make their way around the capital, the team at @TfLTravelAlerts worked to make a difficult situation that little bit easier.
Whatever people’s views on the strike action, the @TfLTravelAlerts team demonstrated all of the hallmarks of good crisis management – they were personable, honest, sincere and swift. Of course many weren’t happy with the responses that they received, but many appreciated the efforts that were being made in what was a very trying situation.
@TfLTravelAlerts Thanks for the update. Your staff at paddington have been very helpful as well!
— Joe Taylor (@MrJosephTaylor) February 6, 2014
@TfLTravelAlerts Amazing. Thanks for the swift updates! It has made the strike a breeze!
— Emma Bertmark (@emmabertmark) February 6, 2014
— Mark Savage (@markwjsavage) February 6, 2014
@tfltravelalerts Thank you. I’ll check closer to that time Many thanks for your help!
— Francesca Mancuso (@just_francesca) February 6, 2014
What we see is TFL communicating as a human being, not with the formalism and insincerity that many brands use when communicating through social media. We see honesty, a setting of expectations and genuine advice, from one Londoner to another. We can see that the people behind the account are having a tough time but, crucially, so can many of the people who are engaging with them.
What wasn’t working so well, however, was the primary Transport for London account, @TfLOfficial.
Having separate accounts for branding communications and for customer enquiries is a common practice but in a crisis, it is important to manage both accounts appropriately.
Where @TfLOfficial fell short, in my view, is that it continued in “marketing mode” throughout the crisis. Whilst millions of Londoners were struggling to get around the city, TFL was tweeting about new cycle lanes, boasting about the number of stations open, making bold claims about the number of Oyster card journeys being made and publicising a deal for new trains with Bombardier.
@TfLOfficial You all need to get round the table instead of boasting about how many or how few trains are running.It is a pain in the arse.
— Kelvin Moon (@TheFatPriest) February 6, 2014
@TfLOfficial All on the buses? Your optimism borders on delusional
— Dave Smith (@DaveBlacklist) February 6, 2014
@TfLOfficial Amazing, then we wouldn’t have to worry about tube strikes.
— Dean White (@tweetdeanhere) February 6, 2014
— Jim P. (@cheminot1) February 6, 2014
Whilst news about the securing of manufacturing jobs in Derby is welcome, as are efforts to improving cycle lanes, it is not exactly what Londoners want to be hearing when their regular train is ‘sans driver’ and so the timing of such announcements is poor. It smacks of a PR team looking to bury bad news, not of a transport authority looking to address the needs of its customers.
The tweets, unsurprisingly, were met with cynicism. Many Londoners support the strike action or, at the very least, object to the plan to close ticketing offices, so those tweets branding the strikes as “unnecessary” understandably drew some ire. Claims of open stations and Oyster usage were met with similar levels of cynicism.
So what can we learn from this? Well, dialling down the marketing push during a major brand crisis is likely to go a long way to rebuilding your relationship with customers. For non-Londoners especially, the official TFL Twitter account is likely to be their default destination (it is much more prominent than @TfLTravelAlerts in search and has 215,000 followers – compared to less than 64,000 for the alerts account) and what those users would have seen is an account that was bolshie, PR focused and doing little to help passengers.
It is such a shame that the good work of @TfLTravelAlerts was soured by an account that tried to talk down the crisis, rather than help those affected by it.