Picture the public meeting. It’s been a rumbustious, packed, session with strong views being forcibly expressed throughout. The meeting’s chair is desperately trying to end the acrimony, find some common cause and bring the meeting to a close.
The advice I would give the chair at this point is “Whatever else you may be thinking, do NOT say ‘Now, where do we go from here?’” I can guarantee that the audience will tell you where to go…. and the route, destination and the method of transport are all likely to be unpleasant!
It seems that British Gas and its highly-paid PR agency have not learned this basic lesson.
Ed Miliband put cost-of-living and, particularly, energy prices centre-stage in the political debate last month. Cameron and Clegg have been all over the place in trying to position their responses, at the same time as they are having a big internal row over renewable and nuclear energy. And John Major has now waded in to the fray, saying energy price hikes and record energy company profits should get the response of a windfall tax.
But what did BG do?
First, it unveiled a 10.4% rise in electricity prices and an 8.4% increase in the gas tariff from 23 November. The announcement itself was rather like lighting the blue touch-paper of a massive unstable firework. Consumers and politicians alike didn’t just stand and watch. They all exploded in response, especially as Centrica (BG’s owner) had pledged earlier this year to use windfall profits from last winter to keep prices down.
Then, instead of taking stock, BG took to Twitter and turned the dreadful announcement into a complete PR disaster as well. It invited comments from customers. Inevitably, nearly 16,000 customers told BG precisely where it could go.
BG’s stupidity and insensitivity was compounded by its inability, or unwillingness, to answer customers’ questions about the price hikes.
And, what was Liberal Democrat Energy Minister Ed Davey’s response to this? ‘Customers should shop around’, he said. Seemingly, he had forgotten that he’d made the very same suggestion a week earlier when SSE hiked its prices. Customers had followed his advice and switched to… you’ve guessed it……British Gas.
I’m just waiting for him to ask ‘where should I go from here?’