It is the stuff of nightmares for mobile phone operators. The network upon which many of your 23 million customers rely suffers a blackout leaving almost a third unable to use their handsets. Within minutes customers start to complain about the outage on social media platforms. Crisis management experts would traditionally recommend responding with apologies and regular information updates but when O2 suffered a social media backlash after its network suffered an outage on 11 July 2012, the mobile phone operator adopted a rather different approach. When one irate customer tweeted F**k you! Suck d**k in hell!, the official @O2 in the UK account responded Maybe later, got tweets to send right now.
Similarly, when another ranted Oh @O2 have said sorry. Nice. So when I don't pay my bill for another month will a sorry do? How about a**e-f**king your mothers you twats?, @O2 responded She says no thanks.
And when one customer tweeted I haven't had any problems!, the team responded I've had 99.
But Nicola Green, director of communications and reputation for Telefonica, parent company of O2, points out that the stance adopted by the mobile phone operator's staff on social media was not new. 'This was not a step change for us,' she says. 'We had already developed a tone of voice that was Be human, be functional and be fun - if you can. We do this, day in, day out, but this was a big moment for us, there were a huge amount of eyes watching us and monitoring the way we responded.'
But, she adds: 'We have to be able to help people, and make sure that we can help people. We can't just be funny.'
The @O2 account currently has more than 118,000 followers, and marketing agency Wunderman has calculated that the number increased by an average of 55 to 13,500 per day after the outage occurred, with a 4,836 per cent uplift in people talking, replying and retweeting in the Twittersphere. While one single tweet which quipped You've got 99 contacts and you can't text one, was retweeted and mentioned at least 37,000 times. Indeed, in the three weeks since 10 July, O2 has gathered an additional 60,000 followers on social media.
Customers were just as active on Facebook; more than 7,000 commented on O2's statement regarding the problems. 'We had 200,000 mentions of the blackout on social media. We had to keep on top of that and some of it is not very nice,' explains Green. 'We hope we responded in a way where customers didn't get annoyed and that we calmed them down. The important thing was to make sure that we didn't irritate them any more.
'We had to be careful about phrasing. We had to stay focused and not cross the line. We did not want to appear arrogant by being cocky and funny. We had to relate to people and the issues they were facing.'
It did not take long before comments on social media highlighted O2's approach. @Carole29 tweeted As much as I really don't like @O2 you really have to give whoever handles their twitter, massive credit lol, prompting the O2 response Thank you for the massive credit! We' ll hang it on the massive credit wall.The company's unstuffy approach helped to change the sentiment of @O2 tweets quite quickly.
Wunderman estimates that the reach of tweets expressing 'love' for O2 exceeded those expressing 'anger' or 'sadness' less than 24 hours after the outage occurred.
Green says that engagement by O2's social media team 'created more conversations', adding: 'We found that followers of people who we had been tweeting with started getting involved in conversations and there was a great banter.'
For example, when O2 had managed to get its 2G network operational, customers on Facebook started to share advice on turning off 3G systems to get mobile phones working. Some even criticised customers seeking compensation, highlighting O2's 'terms and conditions'.
When the network was operational again, O2 was still actively engaging with customers. @Sultan_ George tweeted My cousin said if you don't get it working, he will hunt you down, to which @O2 replied That won't be necessary, I believe. Tell your cousin to enjoy the beautiful weather outside as we're back in business.
But despite the positive response to its approach on social media, Green concedes that O2 has learned some valuable lessons from the crisis. She says: 'It was the worst outage I have ever seen. What is really important during a crisis like this is teamwork. It becomes the whole team's problem rather than individuals.'
O2 was lucky in that it had crisis plans in place having practiced a full-scale scenario about a network going down last summer. 'We knew who was looking after what and what job everybody would perform,' says Green. 'I hate to say it, but crises are what communications people live for. Everybody was raring to go and to deal with the situation and get the information out there.
'Everybody was involved. We had people from internal communications managing our Facebook account and answering tweets. Nobody said This is not my area. Every single member pulled together and performed roles that weren't in their job descriptions.' Green was first made aware of the issues at 1.30pm on 11 July when she received a 'P1' alert, indicating a network failure. 'The press office are the first people to get told,' she explains. 'We then have to work out whether this is a blip or will be an issue for a long time. Any press office needs to be linked in well enough to get alerted immediately about potential issues.' Within minutes, however, customers were starting to comment on social media about the failure, and the phones started to ring 'non stop' with media enquiries, totalling almost 200 requests in 24 hours, according to Green.
At a recent 'debrief' on the lessons learned from the crisis, Green and her team recognised two areas where they would adapt their approach in the event of future issues.
'For four hours we didn't know what the problem was and we were being bombarded with questions from the press,' she explains. 'We have to learn how to say something [no matter how small]. We put a holding statement out early on, but we recognise now that it is important to keep putting out some facts behind that. For example, saying something like We have got 200 people on site who are looking into the problem is important. There are rolling news sites who have regular update bulletins and we needed to have something to say to them.' Another lesson relates to ownership. While Green and her team had rehearsed the roles they would play in a network outage, they had not fully understood the ownership of key content platforms.
'There was general confusion because the communications team does not own either .co.uk [O2's customer facing site] or .com [O2's group site]. We would create a message for release only to find that the .co.uk site was owned by the online team, and we didn't know who the right person was to seek permission to put that up. We need to make sure that we know who are the clear owners of different channels.'
From the outset, Green decided that O2's chief executive Ronan Dunne would be the company's only public spokesman. Within a short time after the outage started, mobile broadcast units and journalists camped outside O2's Slough headquarters. But rather than accede to all their requests for interviews, Green needed to select the opportunities that allowed O2 to get its message across to as many people as possible. It chose to use the BBC and Sky News, although Dunne also appeared on the programme presented by influential business journalist Jeff Randall.
'You will always get people who are really annoyed about the disruption, particularly as so many now live their lives on their mobiles,' adds Green. 'They were really angry and continued to be really angry even though we replied to them. What this crisis has shown is that the lines between customer service and social media are blurring. We are on that journey but the key is to join up all parts of the organisation to ensure that there is a consistent message. The core message came from the communications team.'
Less than a week after the situation was resolved, O2 announced a special compensation package for customers directly affected by the network failure equivalent to three days of service, or ten per cent of their monthly charges. All customers, including those unaffected by the disruption, will receive a £10 voucher to spend in O2 stores during September. 'In order to prove we were genuinely sorry, we had to offer some form of compensation,' concedes Green. 'We are saying thank you to people for bearing with us during this difficult time. We went over and above what we could have given, but we have received a lot of 'thank you' tweets which show that this action was valued.'