Rollerblades for feet or chopsticks for hands? Lessons from Southern's work experience experiment

On Tuesday, we welcomed our first work experience student of the summer, 15 year old James, and set him loose on a range of tasks to give him a taste of what we do. And on the same day, beleaguered Southern Rail took the rather bold step of letting their work experience student, 16 year old Eddie, loose on their Twitter account. Southern Rail has recently been more used to delivering unwelcome news to its customers, but this departure seems to have put the rail operator at the heart of a story that will raise smiles.

Twitter feeds from big companies are usually carefully phrased to ensure consistency with other aspects of brand messaging and their content is chosen to be relevant to, or at the very least not at odds with, the ongoing corporate narrative. But it is also a communication channel where brevity can inspire greater creativity and where speed demands a tonality which feels fresh and nimble. So we are used to Twitter being sometimes the lighter-hearted, more casual, off-the-cuff cousin of the other things we hear from big organisations.

But could anyone have predicted quite how fresh Southern Rail’s Twitter feed would be that day and how engaged their audience became, as evidenced by the nature of the conversations? To the follower-generated question of which was scarier, a 100 duck-sized horses versus one horse-sized duck Eddie thought the latter. He wasn’t sure if a boy could swim faster than a shark (although a girl might be able to – nice one Eddie!) but he was quite sure it should be fajitas for dinner, not curry.

This approach could have been a disaster for Southern Rail and it’s unlikely to undo the wrong felt by its commuters recently. But it seems to have diluted the usual stream of ‘where’s my train?’ tweets and it might reflect well on them in other ways.

Firstly, it’s the season of post-GCSE work experience and Eddie has clearly landed a job that many peers would envy. He’s busy, he’s doing something real and he will definitely have learned something (and it may feature on the personal statement on his UCAS form). Good on Southern Rail for giving a teenager an opportunity like this: they may inspire others who have a teenager sitting in the office not only give them something concrete to do but to capitalise on the things they’re already good at.

Secondly, it shows a bit of chutzpah. Yes, a cynic could wonder whether they thought ‘what have we got to lose?’ as they handed over the keys to their corporate image to a learner driver. But maybe the motivation was a more adventurous ‘let’s see what happens if…’. It’s brave to trust someone to do something on your behalf and it suggests some open-mindedness to trying new ways to engage. People like brands that are prepared to give it a go, to behave with warmth and humanity, and if takes giving a teenager 140 characters to win a little more favour then why not?

And thirdly it shows the value of disruption. Suddenly, someone you know behaves in a way that’s seemingly out of character, says something utterly unexpected, and you sit up and notice. Lots of messaging on Twitter is more and more of the same but when it departs so dramatically from the typical nature of subject matter and style of delivery it forces momentary reappraisal and potentially gives followers a reason to look out more actively for future posts.

So whilst Southern Rail’s experiment in work experience social media may just be the result of someone taking the afternoon off, it probably won’t do them any harm and could even briefly raise the temperature of feeling towards them. And it gives us a challenge too: what can we ask our work experience students to do, aside from assessing the relative merits of having chopsticks for hands or rollerblades for feet, that will make them feel they’ve had a truly worthwhile day at the office?