When social media banter hits the buffers

There’s little doubt that in recent times brands have been increasingly inclined to adopt a cheekier, edgier approach on social media.

And we are not just talking about online betting company accounts like Paddy Power which perhaps more naturally lend themselves to that strategy.

Supermarkets, fast food outlets, entertainment companies, postal services and even the police have tried to embrace the power of online banter with customers.



When it works well it can help to present a refreshing human side to an organisation and spark conversations. Posts can go viral creating free publicity.

But it is also a social media area which is fraught with danger and can quickly go horribly, horribly wrong as  Virgin Trains found out last week.

Within hours of the first working day of the new year an extremely ill-judged attempt at humour triggered a self-inflicted reputation crisis.

When passenger Emily Cole took to Twitter to complain to the Virgin Trains East Coast account that a train manager called her ‘honey’ in a demeaning manner, she probably expected an apology and a promise that the person responsible would be spoken to or that the matter would be investigated. 

Instead, the people looking after the company’s social media account inexplicably felt this was a good opportunity for a joke and responded by saying ‘Sorry for the mess up Emily, would you prefer ‘pet’ or ‘love’ next time?’.



That response not only created a Twitter storm but also a range of embarrassing headlines as mainstream media picked up on the exchange.


Virgin Trains apologises for ‘sexist’ tweet BBC News

Virgin Trains East Coast responds with casual sexism – to a sexism complaint The New Statesman

Virgin Trains treated me with misogynist disdain. Sadly, it’s hardly unusual The Guardian


While Virgin Trains deserves some credit for quickly apologising ‘unreservedly’ and deleting the tweet to ‘avoid causing further offence',  the damage had clearly already been done.

Screenshots had inevitably been captured of the offending tweet and consequently as a I write this blog it remains easy to find on Twitter.



Customer complaints are probably the most dangerous area in which a company should try to use humour in their response, as we tell delegates on our social media training courses.  That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t ever be used as it can sometimes diffuse the situation.

But laughter is not always the best medicine and a little bit of common sense would have shown that this particular example was neither the time or place for humour.

Would Virgin Trains have responded in the same manner if the complaint had been about racism? Almost certainly not, which makes it harder to understand how it came to post such an inappropriate tweet here.


On our social media training courses we tell delegates there are a few simple checks they should make before posting from corporate social media accounts and engaging with customers, particularly when they are trying to be edgy or funny, to help avoid making similar mistakes:

*Has anyone else seen the proposed response  – how did they react?

*Could people be offended by the post?

*Is this the right for our audience?

*Will the audience think what you think?

*Will people understand the humour?


Another lesson from our social media training is that sometimes it is worth just taking a bit more time to a assess a situation before you post a response. A small delay is less damaging than an offensive response – just ask Virgin Trains.


*Download our free social media eBook for more advice and tips on managing corporate social media accounts.


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 crisis communication and social media training courses.


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