The social media manager for Virgin Trains East Coast has had a rough start to the year.

A passenger complained on Twitter about a “hideously patronising” conversation with one of the rail firm’s colleagues, during which she was called “honey” in a way that was neither “familial or affectionate.”

In an apparent attempt at humour, the response was the almost Alan Patridge-esque “Sorry for the mess up Emily, would you prefer ‘pet’ or ‘love’ next time?”

Seriously, when you’re in a hole, stop digging.

As my retail marketing colleagues have discussed before, there’s a place for light-hearted repartee and countless customer service accounts get social media banter spot on. 

But when the very nature of a complaint is about a customer feeling belittled, common sense dictates a more tactful response.

Making people laugh can diffuse a tense situation, and so it follows that there will be times when humour is an appropriate response to a complaint.

Virgin Trains East Coast has since apologised “unreservedly” for their tweet (which was meant to be an apology in the first place, remember).

Sometimes social media is managed by junior staff who are unaware of just how much damage can be caused by saying or doing the wrong thing. On one of the main channels for a brand’s public interaction you simply cannot afford to make these sorts of mistakes. 

By all means, never miss out on an opportunity to promote your brand and put forward a human side to the company by making the customer laugh.

But the golden rule is common sense. Always ask yourself “Is it appropriate?”

If a person was standing in front of you, complaining of sexist/racist/bigoted behaviour of any kind, would you really expect them to laugh if you followed up with more of the same?

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