How do Virgin East Coast Trains use social media to calm a crisis?

Nick Wood, Social Media Manager for Virgin East Coast Trains, explains how they use social media to share fast, accurate information and to keep passengers calm when things get heated. What tips do they have for other public-facing businesses when using social media?

So there I was, on the 7:48am Ely to Apperley Bridge, heading up north to go and deliver a social media training session at 1pm. All looking good, with an hour spare in the bag. 

Then, Grantham.

Overhead wire problems. The whole of the north-east rail network in chaos. Everybody off. What ensued can only be described as a bloody nightmare, and to cut a long story short, I turned up two hours late. How embarrassing, I hate being late. Didn't eat all day, thought I'd grab something on the train home but buffet car due to a day's worth of disruption. 

Somewhere in the middle of this, while checking Twitter for updates, I found myself feeling impressed at the masterful way that @Virgin_TrainsEC were handling it on social media.

It's everything that we advise people to do to stop a crisis from escalating (however big or small it may be). 

  1. Acknowledge the problem
  2. Get accurate information out there on the official channels, and fast! Pictures if possible - not just text
  3. Point people to sources of help; in this case, they regularly tweeted a link to a site where passengers could get refunds

The tone of voice is good too. It must be hard when you've suddenly got an avalanche of tweets from people who are either confused and in desperate need of information, or just furious and in need of a good rant. 

Feeling like I was approaching tantrum-mode myself, I thought I'd turn my frustration into a positive. So I got in touch with Virgin East Coast Trains to ask if I could talk to their social media team about their approach to using social media in a crisis situation.

Happily, Nick Wood, Social Media Manager, was able to take a quick break to answer my questions.

So, how long have you been part of the team?
Four years – I set up all VTEC’s social channels and am responsible for delivery, strategy and brand content.

Tell us a little more about the team. Where are you based and how many people are there who manage the social media accounts?
We are based in our Control, which is in a building adjacent to York station.   have a team of five social media advisers.

Which channels do you use, which ones are most active? Do you use a different approach on each?
Twitter is our main one, which is primarily used for customer care and service updates, whilst being a good vehicle for brand/PR campaign activity. 

We also use Facebook, which is mainly for brand amplification, but also receives a fair few customer queries on a daily basis.

Has social media been a core part of Virgin East Coast’s communications strategy from the beginning?
Social media supports a number of different functions at VTEC – Customer Experience (which we now sit under), Operations, Marketing/Brand and Comms.

You must deal with situations that change very quickly. How do you make sure the information you send out is accurate?
Sitting in Control means the team is close to all service information as it happens. We work alongside our customer information controllers to make sure our information matches the messaging they send to all parts of the business. 

This is massively beneficial to customers as it means they get fast, reliable and accurate information in real time.

Do you have set guidelines in place for keeping things calm in a crisis? What techniques do you use when dealing with angry passengers? Is there a policy you have to follow?
Yes, we have a disruption protocol that our team follows. Usually, we focus on regular ‘broadcast’ messages targeted at our wider community.  We then follow up with as many individuals as we can.

Have you or the team ever sent a tweet that you’ve regretted, perhaps in the heat of the moment when someone is getting abusive?
Yes! But, I think most big brands on Twitter probably have done! It’s how you deal with the fallout to things like that which is important.

What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you online?
Difficult to say, but anything personal about individuals that is underhand is pretty unpleasant.

Tell us about the response you’ve had from the public. Does personalising your tweets with initials help, make you sound more human?
Yes, it’s one of the simplest, yet ,most effective changes we’ve made since we switched from East Coast to Virgin. People are naturally curious, and like to build rapport with the individuals they are dealing with.

As a train company, what are the positive outcomes you’ve had from social media?
It allows us to give customers useful and up-to-date information in real time. It’s what customers expect, so we have to deliver.

It’s also a powerful comms medium. We get our fair share of negativity, but on the flip side we probably get the highest percentage of positive feedback than any other customer comms channel.

It's helped us maintain a relationship with our passengers - people like to know they can get real-time information online from a human. 

What tips would you give other public-facing businesses when using social media?
Have a thick skin!