“The Wrong Kind of Disruption: Sorry seems to be the hardest word”
How Train Operating Companies apologise using Twitter
This paper deals with the usage of apologies by a British Train Operating Company, London Midland, through the medium of the social networking and mini-blogging website, Twitter. It looks at how apologies are used during periods of delay with both short and long-term effects, and how they are constructed in both scenarios. The paper shows the breakdown of how apologies are formulated over the course of a series of “tweets” (messages sent through Twitter) and how the company is able to spin an incident, from one which they are partly to blame for, to one where they are actively helping the customer and in the process, avoid any loss to revenue or reputation.
Britain’s privatised railway system is used by over 3.6 million passengers each day, for a range of purposes, from daily commuting to one-off long-distance travel for both work and pleasure. The British media seem to take great pleasure in much maligning the railway system whenever a high-profile problem causes delays or cancellations to train services, which obviously has a negative effect on the reputation of the private companies which run the multitude of franchises covering Britain. Bad press can cause a drop in passenger figures and thus the all-important ticket sales revenue, in the competitive world of railways, so the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) do their utmost to promote good publicity for themselves, and the railway system as a whole. It is essential, in today’s high-tech world of the internet and online social networking media, that railway companies keep their passengers up to date and informed should anything go awry.
This paper aims to look at the phenomena of corporate bodies using a social networking media in order to connect with their customers; in this case, it will look at the actions of a Train Operating Company, London Midland, who have an “award-winning official account” on the micro-blogging website “Twitter”, according to their own Twitter account, @LondonMidland (2012). Specifically, this paper aims to address how the company, or rather, its public relations employees, acting on its behalf, use Twitter in order to apologise to their customers during a period of disruption in which their trains are involved.
London Midland operate a franchise which primarily serves the West Midlands, with two sub-brands, “City”, which incorporates cross-city services within the Birmingham conurbation and “Express”, which is the term for the services between the West Midlands and the southern terminus of the West Coast Main Line, London Euston. This route is shared with another franchise, that of Virgin Trains, which operate express services between Birmingham and London, providing one source of competition for London Midland, though the two generally serve different markets. Whereas Virgin targets the long-distance traveller, London Midland’s primary custom is the stream of thousands of daily commuters into London from both the West Midlands and the Home Counties. This commuter belt is well served both by frequent trains into London but also a good road system of trunk routes and motorways.
A loss of faith by the commuters in the railway company will lead to more people driving, reflecting badly upon the railways, who wish to both provide a first-rate public service, while heralding their “green” credentials as an alternative way to travel. Poor management of a franchise by the holder could see the franchise revoked by the Government, which would tarnish the reputation of the parent company, as with National Express in 2009.
But, if this paper is to address the actions of a corporate user of such a social networking website, then the following question must be posed – what exactly is Twitter?
Twitter (2012) describes itself as “a real-time information network that connects you to the latest information about what you find interesting”. It is used by millions of both individuals and companies in order to connect with each other, sending out messages online (which are known as “Tweets”), which are restricted to 140 characters. This character restriction will later come to form a key part of this investigation.
Users of Twitter have the ability to set their profile to be either private or visible to the public. The normal convention is for individuals to use privacy settings, in which case they would be restricting their profiles so that only people with their own Twitter accounts, who they know and have approved, are able see their Tweets and interact with them on the website. On the other hand, companies will, in general, have a public account, meaning that an internet user without a Twitter account of any kind can see what they are “Tweeting” about. This is especially useful for a company such as London Midland – while their Twitter account has over 10,000 “followers” (as of December 2011), who receive regular automatic updates from London Midland, the company itself provides train services to a number greatly exceeding that, so it is essential that the information that their public relations department is providing is within the public domain for all of their customers to be able to access easily. London Midland’s own website (2012) states that “50 million passenger journeys a year” are undertaken on trains which they operate.
The dataset used within this paper comes from the public Twitter account of London Midland on Twitter (@LondonMidland). There are no ethical issues raised by the use of this data, as, due to the public nature of the Twitter account in question, it is considered to be within the public domain and accessible under free use policies.
We must now turn our attention to the following question – What are apologies?
Brown and Levinson (1987) pose that to accept an apology would be a Face-Threatening Act (FTA) to the receiver of the apology’s negative face. Apologies also damage the speaker’s positive face. They describe these two notions of face as –
“negative face: the want of every ‘competent adult member’ that his actions be unimpeded by others.
positive face: the want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some others.” (1987: 311)
In that case, what is the linguistic definition of “face”? The Goffmanian idea of “face” is that
“The term face may be defined as the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes-albeit an image that others may share, as when a person makes a good showing for his profession […] by making a good showing for himself.” (1967: 5)
Goffman mentions the idea of responsibility being central to apologies. He says that apologies are “a gesture through which an individual splits himself into two parts, the part that is guilty of an offense and the part that dissociates itself from the delict and affirms a belief in the offended rule.” (1971: 113)
Holmes goes on to define apologies as “a speech act addressed to B’s face-needs and intended to remedy an offence for which A takes responsibility, and thus to restore equilibrium between A and B (where A is the apologizer, and B is the person offended).” (1990: 159 emphasis added) This idea of “equilibrium” will form a key part later in this investigation.
Clark adds that “Language is used for doing things.” (1996: 3) Apologies, as speech acts, are very much at the forefront of maintaining the equilibrium between A and B, mentioned by Holmes. An apology is usually an explicit way in which we can claim responsibility for our threats to face, in order to reclaim our image in the mind of the hearer.
But do they necessarily have to be explicit?
Word such as “sorry” or “apologise” are explicit speech acts which are used to illustrate an apology by the speaker. They fall under the category of “Illocutionary Force Indicating Devices” (IFIDs). But is it necessary for these speech acts to be present in speech at all times, for the idea of an apology to be conveyed?
Through the medium of a social networking website, such as Twitter, with its 140 character limit, can messages be sent without the inclusion of an explicit apologetic speech act, and yet the meaning of an apology is still present within the speaker’s sentiment?
The Data Set – usual explicit apologies
These tweets are examples were collected from separate, isolated “incidents” in the week running up to the main extended data set.
• Apologies - 1917 Bham-Rugeley will be c.15m late this eve and will be extremely busy as now 1 carriage shorter than usual re: train fault.
• Aston update: signal has now been repaired, so trains running normally again. Sorry for any hold ups this morning.
• Bham New St update: points fault now repaired so trains can use all platforms again. Sorry if you've been held up.
These are all unconnected apologies, as a precursor to the main period of disruption which will be discussed. This is to illustrate the usual apologetic style of tweet published by London Midland – an explicit apology speech act and a form of account to inform the reader of the reasoning behind the apology. These are used for one-off incidents, where the length of time that the disruption will be in effect for is short.
The main part to the data set which will be assessed was tweeted by @LondonMidland on November 5, 2011. It is a series of tweets concerning delays to trains in the Wembley area, just outside London Euston station. The period of disruption lasted for several hours over the course of the afternoon, with all trains at a standstill and thousands of passengers travelling to or from London stranded onboard the trains until the damage done to the overhead power lines, which power the trains, could be repaired and the trains were allowed to move safely once again.
For the purpose of this paper, the series of tweets has been split into two “waves”. The first wave concerns the start of the disruption, where the London Midland public relations employees, who are doing the tweeting, are unsure as to how long it will be before trains are on the move again, though as the events unfold, they obviously realise that the disruption will remain for quite some time. The first wave will be referred to, for the purposes of this paper, as “accounts”.
The Data Set part 1 – the start to the disruption, “accounts”
• Due to damage to overhead power lines at Wembley, fast lines are currently blocked between Euston and Harrow.
• Wembley update: 2 lines still open through Wembley, so trains will be able to run but with delays due to congestion.
• Wembley update 3: special timetable now in place which means Eus-Tring services won't run, but extra stops on Eus-MK svcs to compensate.
• Wembley update 5: bad news I'm afraid. Problems reported on both northbound lines. All services now suspended from Eus until fruther notice.
• Wembley update 10: Trains from the north starting to terminate at Watford Junction. Please take London Overground from there.
These are all accounts, describing what has gone wrong. The only feature which could be described as an explicit apology is “I’m afraid”, though this is not as clear-cut or definite as “sorry” or “apologise”, and it could be argued that it would depend on the reader’s point of view as to whether this was a form of apology or not.
What is interesting is the use of the first person pronoun “I”. London Midland has a small team of its public relations employees whose responsibility it is to keep the company’s Twitter page updated throughout the day. They introduce themselves by name upon “signing” on, and have obviously been instructed to refer to themselves as individuals, rather than the company as a whole, making the account seem less impersonal to the customers and readers, and more like they were speaking face to face or over the phone with one of London Midland’s customer service representatives.
By using the company Twitter account, the employees are informing the “followers” or (potential) customers of the company’s activities, in doing so, taking on the voice of the company, though in a more personified and approachable way, though the use of “I”, to suggest that it is indeed a real person, but speaking on behalf of their employer. In today’s society where much mass-communication is now automated, consumers still prefer the idea of contacting or dealing with another human being, especially in the case of problem solving. This public “face” of the company (not too dissimilar to that defined by Goffman) helps to retain customers, by presenting the company as customer-centric and –focused.
The Data Set part 2 – But-Justifications – so, you say you want a resolution
• Wembley update 12: tickets also now being accepted from Paddington to Reading / Reading to Birmingham.
• Wembley update 18: Just a reminder, tickets being accepted on alternative routes from London. Happy to help if you're unsure of best option.
• If you haven't been able to travel today due to the problems on the Euston line, you're welcome to use your ticket tomorrow.
• Wembley update 33: engineers expected on site at 2230hrs and will work thru night to repair damage in time for normal service tomorrow.
• Sorry if you've been delayed on the Euston line today and thank you for your patience. Compensation available: http://bit.ly/adKIhw
After the lengthy series of accounts, as more information about the incident becomes apparent, London Midland realise that they need to restore the equilibrium after the imbalance caused by the disruption.
The second wave of tweets takes on the role of “resolutions”. They are what are termed as “but-justifications” by Davies et al (2007). But-Justifications are defined as a situation during apology where the speaker notes that “I may have done something for which I need to apologize, but I’m doing other things that make me a good […] person.” (2007: 57) They differ in their nature from the accounts, which appear in the earlier tweets – “Accounts are used to demonstrate why the apologizer was unable to avoid the offence: it is a way of saying that full blame should not be attributed, and thus it mitigates the damage.” Instead, Davies et al speak of but-justifications in that they “work through enhancing the apologizee’s opinion of some aspect of the apologizer’s identity.” (2007: 58) In short, they are concerned with resolving any threats to the face of the hearer, by in turn augmenting the speaker’s positive face. The but-justifications here have been presupposed and positioned so that the information which they contain is presented as the company being helpful and a “good company”, in the same sort of vein as the “good person” which Davies et al refer to, rather than it being a series of apologies, which could do more harm than good to the company, by showing them as weak and unable to actually remedy the face-threatening situation. This spin, very much reminiscent of that used in the political arena, is key to modern-day companies’ marketing and public relations strategies.
At first glance, it seems quite extraordinary that the first (and only) explicit apology within the lengthy series, “sorry”, comes in the final tweet of the sequence! Though, taking the rest of the tweets into context, it is very obvious that this is quite evidently not the first time where the company is actually trying to appear apologetic towards its customers, or showing that it cares about the level of service which it should be able to provide.
Also of interest in the series of but-justifications is the use of the explicit speech act “thank you”, showing gratitude. It seems that the concepts of apology and gratitude could well be interlinked and this could provide further scope for investigation. Much like the sincerity involved with the use of apologies, it is only possible for a company to thank its customers if they genuinely believe that the company is indeed grateful for their custom and if the customers will actually accept the thanks which have been given.
Within this second wave of tweets, the there are glimpses of the compensation culture of today, which is quite evident, especially in the privatised rail industry. Train delays cost companies millions, in fines, refunds and potential future lost revenue. It is in the company’s best financial interests to give as many incentives to keep their faith in using the company’s services, in order to thereby retain its customer base. The London Midland website has a section devoted to the various forms of “delay repay” compensation available to inconvenienced passengers after trains have been delayed or cancelled. This could be considered to be “hidden in plain sight”, as it is very easily accessible on the website, suggesting that the company is keen not to see any of its customers needlessly out of pocket. This is akin to the tweet which deals with any passengers interested in pursuing compensation claims – by going out of their way to demonstrate how they are happy to reimburse inconvenienced customers, the image of the company, in the eye of its current or prospective customers, is brought back into the state of equilibrium, thanks to this deployment of “positive face” tactics, in order to counteract the “negative face” of apologising.
On review of both “waves” of tweets from November 5, it seems that the company was very much apologising implicitly throughout the period of disruption. But is it the case that explicit apologies were not included due to the 140 character limitations of tweets? However, one could argue that multiple tweets sent consecutively could be used, with a message (and an explicit apology) being split across two tweets (and therefore over 280 characters), but this does not occur through any of London Midland’s tweets. It could be due to the perceived nature of the severity of the problem. If, for instance, the problem was a one-off incident, such as a single train being cancelled, then a one-off tweet explaining and apologising would suffice. Conversely, a problem which can be for-seen as long running can generate a series of tweets, in which the implicit apology speech act is constructed through the various tweets but only completed by the final explicit speech act, to save on the repetition of each tweet being signed off with the words “sorry” or “apologise”.
On the other hand, it could be that but-justifications may be used instead of an explicit apology speech act. Perhaps further investigation could lead to a more definite answer; if London Midland and other corporate bodies had their tweets monitored over a period of time, to see whether, during a lengthy period of “face-threatening-ness”, their tweets were sent as individual messages sans any form of explicit apology speech act, or if messages were constructed of several consecutive tweets, allowing a longer, less constricted message, featuring “sorry” or “apologise”.
It is, however, very obvious that the company does care for its customers (i.e. their negative face), and moves on from accounts of the disruption, keeping the customers informed of the disruption to their travel plans, to the but-justifications of how they are helping the customers, by directing them to alternative transport or compensation claims. But they also care a great deal for their own positive face, and how they appear to their customers as a resourceful organisation. This sort of spin is evidently employed throughout the public relations departments of corporate life today.
As part of the conclusion to the paper, the following cliché, or a variation of it, incredibly familiar to anyone who has worked in a customer service position at any point in their life, must be considered - “the customer is king” or “the customer is always right” (Selfridge, 190x). The public relations employees of London Midland are well aware that it is the travelling and thus spending habits of their employer’s customers that is keeping them in a job, so it is of vital importance to them that they keep the customers informed at all times. A customer that feels that the company takes their wants and feelings into account is more likely to both make more use of the company’s services and will also be more likely to recommend the company to other potential customers.
Another slogan or mantra used by corporate management which seems very much applicable to the idea of public apologies involving accounts and but-justifications is the idea that –
“an excuse is an admission of failure.” (Anon, n.d.,)
A series of accounts (or in this case “excuses”) naturally seem to progress to but-justifications, as they show that the company cares about any damage it has done to the negative face of its customers. Through the use of these but-justifications, the company is able to show its passengers that it is attempting to minimise disruption for their daily lives. It appears that in this context, they can be constructed and used instead of an explicit apology speech act, in order to successfully imply an apology. Surely, a company which was not apologetic for an incident in which it was involved would not bother at all to keep its valued customers regularly informed – they know the importance of keeping their customers on side.
In today’s money-obsessed compensation culture, blame shifting and damage limitation is at the forefront of public relations department’s remit. Within their purview, London Midland managed to distance themselves from the period of disruption which the tweets concern, in this case by not actually mentioning what they are doing to resolve the problem, but instead mentioning, in a passive form, that something is being done. Network Rail is the owner of the railway infrastructure, such as the overhead power lines which were brought down, and so the problem was their responsibility, and until they had affected such a repair, then London Midland would be powerless (quite literally!) to do anything about it. The “engineers” referenced to in the but-justifications are not employed by London Midland, but Network Rail, however, conveniently, at this point, London Midland do not mention this, which leads the reader to make up their own mind as to who is resolving the problem. It is also interesting to note that it was damage caused to one of their own trains that was partly the cause of the lines being closed for hours in the first place!
Through this use of Twitter, we can see that London Midland have very much borne in mind the idea that there is no such thing as “bad publicity”, or, at least, not if one is able to successfully spin one’s way out of such negative sentiments. Cleverly constructed apologies are employed with an aim to keep the customer on-side by demonstrating, through but-justifications, the various resolutions that the company is offering or doing to put right the imbalance in the face equilibrium. With the shift in modality through indirectly pointing the finger of blame away from themselves and working to otherwise distract the attention of an annoyed customer base with but-justifications, a bad situation can be turned into a publicity opportunity for the company and ensuring that the company coffers are unaffected by an event for which they may or may not have been responsible. To apologise without doing any sort of face work would be to share a portion of the blame and have provided an account, or an “excuse”, reflecting badly upon the company, who would be made to look relatively powerless. It appears that an explicit apology is used once the company considers the equilibrium to have been restored to its balanced state.
To conclude, it is interesting to note that the following notice appeared as a preface to every working timetable and appendix of the County Donegal Railways. It applies equally today to the employees of Britain’s railway companies –
It is well for each member of this organisation to bear in mind that goodwill based upon years of conscientious effort may be entirely destroyed by a moment's carelessness or indifference towards a customer.
(County Donegal Railways, 1906 cited in Butterell, 1994)
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