British Gas scrambled to apologize today after hosting a Twitter Q&A with its customer services director, Bert Pijls, on the very day that the energy company coincidentally announced a 9.2% price hike for customers.
The public response was just as bad as British Gas should have expected. The company tried to placate angry customers by issuing a hasty statement this afternoon: "Our announcement today is difficult news for customers… We know people are worried and they want to talk about this… If you are worried about covering the cost of your energy bill, please visit our website for information."
But the move is unlikely to appease the legions of Twitter users who responded to British Gas's previously planned appeal for questions between 1pm and 2pm this afternoon. By 3.18pm, there had been 11,466 tweets using the #AskBG hashtag, peaking at 12.54pm, with 160 tweets in one minute. Many of the messages were inspired by news of the price hike coupled with British Gas's poorly-timed social media outreach.
Comments included: "Looks a bit cold in Bert's office. Can't you afford to heat it?" "What is the best temperature to thaw an elderly relative at and what seasoning would you use with this one?" "Hi Bert, which items of furniture do you think people should burn first this winter?" And, "Is it true your top shareholders heat their homes by burning £100 notes they've got from excess profits?" British Gas replies mostly referred customers to a phoneline.
The most re-tweeted response came from a fake account, purporting to be Ian Smith, a Member of Parliament and Secretary for State and Industry, which suggests a new British Gas logo featuring the message, "Freezing pensioners, not prices!"
Robin Grant, global managing director of We Are Social, said, "Brands need to learn the lesson that all areas of their comms need to work in a joined up way, and they need well-rehearsed crisis plans in place. Too many are still making crises worse for themselves through easily avoidable mistakes like this."
The official account of the Labour Party also weighed in with a question for customer services, "Does today's @BritishGas price rise show it's time to #freezethatbill?"