The art of asking the public their opinion, part one (British Gas)

The art of seeking public opinion and engagement has undergone a lot of change in the past decade, as the internet and social media have opened up the variety of ways in which we can ask people what they think, and the ease at which they can now tell us their thoughts. It’s got many advantages for the world of public engagement, but some organizations forget about the basics when planning an engagement campaign, and have seen disastrous results.


Take the case of British Gas. A couple years ago, they decided to get on board with Twitter and hold a “Twitter town hall”, where Customer Service Director, Bert Pijls, would answer questions from the public. They used the hashtag #AskBG.

It seems like a good idea on behalf of the social media team, but they forgot one basic rule of engagement — timing. The same day they launched #AskBG, they also hiked their rates by 10%, which was not a popular move. The hashtag quickly filled with some very witty put downs of the gas company:


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Needless to say it didn’t go well for British Gas, and after an hour they gave it up.

Had this been timed better, BG might have been able to have true engagement with customers. But their timing was way off. And under the circumstances, they failed to use this surge of public participation to their own advantage. Some key messages, tweeted out, about their rationale for charging what they do (they must have had them!) might have helped. Or could they have directed tweeters to check out tips for fuel efficiency, maybe even in a cheeky way? Instead of letting the hashtag overtake them with negativity, they should have looked for ways to turn it around to advantage as quickly as possible.

Today’s lesson: When your organization wants to ask the public its opinion, be sure you know what you might hear and how you’ll deal with it before you open yourself up to public input.

Generation X is ready, baby boomers take note

justin-trudeau-20140220Canada has a new prime minister, 43-year-old Justin Trudeau, and he’s the first Generation X-er to take power on the federal stage. The recent long (11 weeks!) election campaign played out in many strange ways, but let’s focus in on the generation issue and mistakes that were made in media campaigns targeting the generational divide.

Trudeau is 43, and his opponents for the Prime Ministerial job were 56 and 61. So it was the GenXer against the baby boomers. If you’re Gen X, or if you follow Douglas Copeland or others who highlight the limited role GenXers have had in business and power due to their demographic bad luck in following on the heels of a baby boom, you’d know that we (yes, I’m a proud, card-carrying GenXer) have spent our careers following in the shadow of boomers. Boomers got to the job market before us, and then didn’t move up and leave. There were so many of them that GenXers got cut out of a lot of opportunities. The same thing had been happening with corridors of power (and tv series and music, but don’t get me started). That’s why we’re bitter and resentful of the generation that preceded us.

So it wasn’t overly surprising that one of the big themes of Trudeau’s opponents was the he was “just not ready” to be prime minister. Because he’s too young, was the implied theme. Because only those older and wiser than him could accomplish anything substantial. Because only a boomer could be trusted to manage the economy. The television commercial that stands out in this campaign was the one where a bunch of boomers sit around a table talking about how Trudeau is too new and young to be trusted. Yet.

This theme may have played well with older voters, but given the results, it seems to have backfired with anyone younger than 50-something. Trudeau and his party swept into power and he’s just appointed a cabinet full of GenXers and even younger Millennials (and a few boomers). And in perhaps the best comment on why using a media strategy of pitting generations against each other is a bad idea, here’s Trudeau on why his cabinet is made up of equal numbers of men and women:

The lesson here is don’t discount those younger than you, understand your audiences better, and make sure your messages play to all generations without insult. It’s 2015, after all, and a new generational reality is taking hold.