We’ve probably all posted things on social media that we have very quickly regretted.
But for most of us, it hasn’t resulted in being ridiculed in newspaper headlines and berated by other social media users.
But that is exactly what happened to Sir Richard Branson this week when he took to social media to share his thoughts on lateness.
Displaying a startling lack of self-awareness, the billionaire told his 12.4 million Twitter followers that “there’s very little that annoys me in life, but people turning up late really does”. He added: “Punctuality shows organisation and respect for others.” The post included a picture of him running to make sure he got to a meeting in Manhattan on time.
Sir Richard’s Virgin Group controls Virgin Trains which runs West Coast services from London to Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, Edinburgh and north Wales.
Its official Network Rail performance figures show that almost one in five trains were more than 10 minutes late to their destination.
It hovers around the bottom five operators for train punctuality – which means Sir Richard would be doing quite a lot of running if he used them to attend meetings.
With figures like these, it was not surprising that the post was seized upon by disgruntled customers blaming Virgin Trains for their lateness and asking why his personal punctuality does not extend to his businesses.
I really hate being late, it's my biggest bugbear. Sadly every virgin train I have ever caught has been late or simply cancelled— Ssscrudddy (@Ssscrudddy) September 13, 2018
I'm sorry, Richard. I set off on time but my Virgin train was late.— heartbeeps (@hrtbps) September 12, 2018
Looooooool- your really rubbish Virgin Trains made me 12 hours late getting to Scotland. Almost 18 hours stood in a toilet with my then 10 year old daughter. Got a refund, but never got an answer to the complaint I sent you . Hypocrisy on a giant scale 🌹🌹— Julie Harrington 🌹#GTTO #JC4PM🌹🌹 (@celtjules66) September 12, 2018
I caught 3 of your trains yesterday, they were all late. I was organised and on time at the beginning obviously late by the end of the day. You're right it was annoying.— John G (@oh_johnny_boy) September 12, 2018
It's a bit more difficult for people who have to rely on @VirginTrains rather than private jet...— PeaceEnvoy (@TrustMeTony) September 12, 2018
About 30% of the times I’ve been late it’s been because of one of your trains mate. https://t.co/RouHHRBHX1— Rebecca Reid (@RebeccaCNReid) September 12, 2018
And with negative coverage like that, the story was quickly picked up by mainstream media.
Here are some of the headlines:
Richard Branson hits a raw nerve with gripe over lateness The Times
Richard Branson facing backlash over ‘hating lateness’, despite one in five Virgin trains and flights being delayed The Telegraph
Branson backlash: Rail passengers turn on Virgin boss after he blasts people for lateness The Express
Richard Branson mocked for complaining about people turning up late by Virgin Train passengers Evening Standard
Richard Branson mocked by passengers for saying punctuality is important Sky News
A pretty extensive range of negative coverage from just one social media post and yet it’s hard to imagine that Sir Richard didn’t think that his post would receive this type of reaction.
Did he really not anticipate that it would generate angry responses from people who use this train services?
Or people who use other services operated by his group? Those who fly with his airline and pay for his broadband also reacted angrily to the tweet.
I took a contract with @virginmedia for broadband, promised 1 week appointment but then 3 weeks late, had to cancel, agree it's annoying— darren (@Darren1705) September 12, 2018
My @virginmedia broadband was activated a day late, spun me a line that I needed an engineer, turned out activations could not keep up with installations. #lies #coveringtracks #late #unorganised #Hypocrisy— Ryan (@sparkiesdream) September 12, 2018
Exactly. Just like our Virgin flight back to the UK last month that was late by nearly 3 hours annoyed my family & I. #peopleinglasshouses— Simon Channon (@Jawida76) September 12, 2018
The tweet could been seen as showing that Mr Branson is distant from the problems on the ground and doesn't really know how his companies are performing against punctuality.
It’s worth saying that Virgin Trains does score pretty well for passenger satisfaction, but that was before the boss upset everyone by carelessly sharing his thoughts on lateness.
Sir Richard is the latest high-profile boss to shoot himself in the foot on social media. Tesla boss Elon Musk, for example, seems to be trying to do it on a weekly basis and would be well advised to hand over complete control of his social media accounts to his comms team.
But that doesn’t mean that CEOs shouldn’t use Twitter and other social media channels. On our social media training courses we explain that while there are pitfalls, there are also many benefits.
Having a CEO who is active on social media can help raise the profile of the brand and can position the boss as a thought leader and sector expert.
It can also be a great way of them displaying visible leadership during a crisis media management incident.
Sir Richard once said that: “Publicity is absolutely critical. A good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front page ad.” But I’m pretty sure this was not the publicity he was hoping for.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
Click here to find out more about our journalist-led social media training.