LONDON - Eurostar has been forced to adapt its social media presence from marketing to crisis communications as the frustration of customers hit by the weekend's massive delays played out visibly on Twitter and Facebook.
More than 2,000 people were trapped in the Channel Tunnel on Friday night after five trains broke down due to temperature variations, with some stuck on trains for up to 16 hours. Many complained about the lack of information and supplies such food and toilet paper, while the heat and close conditions led to some to force open doors to get more air to breathe.
At least one passenger (who works in PR) used Twitter to provide updates about her journey once out of the tunnel, expressing shock at how unprepared and uncommunicative Eurostar was. Those due to meet passengers and some of the 31,000 people due to travel on Saturday also started tweeting about the situation using the hashtag Eurostar.
Mirroring some customers' experiences of uncommunicative train staff and understaffed phone lines, there was no information coming out of the company in social media outlets between Friday evening and Saturday morning.
The Twitter handles 'eurostar' and 'eurostar_uk' turned out not to be related to the company, and the account it does own is called 'little_break' because it is linked to its marketing campaign 'Little break, big difference'.
The account is run by social media agency We Are Social to a word of mouth marketing brief, though it was given the go-ahead last week by Eurostar to put forward an additional listening and responding programme proposal for its 2010 activity, claims the agency's managing director Robin Grant in a blog about We Are Social's role in the crisis.
The first tweet about the delays was made around midday on Saturday, and four members of We Are Social's team went to Eurostar's St Pancras offices to work with sales and marketing director Emma Harris and feed through what information they could via the account.
Harris, it is worth noting, reacted to Eurostar having to run less than a full service for five months after a September 2008 fire in the Channel Tunnel by suspending marketing - a decision she later acknowledged may not have been right with hindsight.
There is an official Eurostar Facebook group, which received the first complaint about the lack of information about the delays at 8.40am on Saturday and the first post from a Eurostar representative at 11.25am, announcing the cancellation of all trains scheduled for Saturday.
We Are Social is now interacting with that group and also got Eurostar chief executive Richard Brown to spare time between television interviews to write a blog post and record a video clip detailing the company's response.
The blog and video have not been posted on the main Eurostar website but were up on the Little Break Big Difference campaign website by Saturday evening.
Today a Google search for 'Eurostar' reveals a sponsored link to the company's website headlined 'Eurostar from £69', with news about Eurostar topping the organic results.
Google's new real-time results section in the middle of its results page is dominated by tweets detailing past and present negative experiences with the company, which is expected to face competition on its routes for the first time after the EU liberalised train lines with effect from January 2010.
With trains cancelled today too, and still no answer to why exactly the trains failed, the tone of tweets remain vitriolic:
No Eurostar services on a Sunday now - it's still too cold for Thomas the fcukinguseless Electric Engine.
Eurostar have completely failed in their customer service! They've blamed temp diff! Has it never been that cold before in the South East?
Eurostar farce is getting worse. Not sure I'd ever travel with them now!