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November 2013



Rail Industry Trends Article
Freight railroads use Facebook, Twitter to expand communication options



Rail Industry Trends

By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

On Oct. 10, Indiana Rail Road Co. (INRD) marked the opening of the new Senate Avenue Intermodal Terminal in Indianapolis. The facility will enable the regional, along with partner CN, to serve Indiana shippers that move goods to and from Asia.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony involved INRD President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Hoback and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence driving a locomotive through a ribbon. INRD Manager of Intermodal and Economic Development Eric Powell used Twitter and Facebook to post details and photos of the ceremony. CN, the governor’s office and local dignitaries who attended the event tweeted about it, as well. Using hash tags such as #INRD, #intermodal, #shipCN and #GovPence, the Midwestern regional railroad’s terminal opening gained attention from people and organizations spanning the interwebs.

“Social relationships provide an opportunity for you to send out information that reaches a greater audience,” says Powell, who manages INRD’s social media accounts. “Building these relationships, along with effectively managing social media, can really help build a brand.”

Like many other companies, railroads began using social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn several years ago to share news, events, human interest stories, photos, videos and job openings. Those who manage railroads’ social sites find social media is a quick and efficient way to communicate with employees and their families, shippers, news outlets and the general public.

But social media does more than provide another communication outlet. It has changed how organizations communicate. Railroads are using social sites to reflect a corporate personality and engage with followers. And, in so doing, railroads can show they’re more than just a train that rattles your windows or stops you at a grade crossing — they’re part of your community, they’re approachable and they’re open to two-way communication.

“We’re all seen as the big, bad railroad,” says Fiona Murray, vice president of corporate marketing for CN. “But social media makes us more human. It’s a medium that shows the warts if there are warts, and good stuff when there’s good stuff. To me, it’s a much more real and credible way to communicate.”

Murray wasn’t always so sure. When CN officials first started talking about getting involved with social media several years ago, she admits she was uncertain how it could be used to benefit an organization. Other CN senior officers were, too. That’s why sales and marketing, public affairs and human resource officials tested the social media waters before jumping in.

“I told my staff, ‘Just go lurk, see what people are talking about,’” says Murray. “By ‘listening’ to conversations, we gained a better understanding of the key influencers in our industry ... and what our supply-chain partners are interested in. Stepping back and educating ourselves was as important as coming out with meaningful and real content.”

In summer 2011, CN opened its first social media account, a LinkedIn group used primarily by the human resources department for recruitment. The public affairs department created a Facebook page in February 2012 and a Twitter account in August 2012, and the sales and marketing department established a separate Twitter account in October 2012.

CN's social media approach

Because CN has multiple social media accounts managed by a handful of people from various departments, it’s important that all messages be consistent.

“CN is very careful and deliberate in the communication we do, and social media is not any different,” says Vice President of Public and Government Affairs Karen Phillips. “This takes a fair amount of resources, so we want to make sure it’s worth the effort and that we get what we want out of it.”

The Class I uses its LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook pages to provide live updates from events, advertise open positions, highlight CN’s community involvement and charitable initiatives, and provide outreach on rail safety and other issues. In the past two years, social media has proven itself to be useful in helping CN engage with various supply-chain partners, provide solutions to problems and convey the value in what the railroad does — results that can’t be achieved through traditional communication channels, says Murray. It also can help organizations reach a wider audience and cover a wider range of topics.

“[Social media is] a good opportunity for people to get a better and fuller perspective on what CN is, who we are and what we’re doing,” says Phillips.

For example, on Sept. 19, CN President and Chief Executive Officer Claude Mongeau participated in a roundtable discussion on the food value chain at the Port of Halifax’s annual Port Days event. The Class I, Nova Scotia port and other event participants used Twitter to promote the discussion, tweeted snippets of it during the event and posted links to videos afterward. Those posts were retweeted dozens of times over.

As a result, Port Days attendees were aware of — and engaged in — the roundtable discussion before it even began. Those who couldn’t attend had near-real-time access to information being presented. Ideas were exchanged in the days leading up to and following the event. And, through retweets, the event received recognition far beyond local media coverage and conference attendees.

But to reap the benefits from social media, account managers need to find the right mix of content and present it in a personable manner.

“If you’re constantly the one giving the insight, people find you boring,” says Murray. “But if you interact and it becomes a forum for exchanging ideas, it can be very exciting. ”

Stacey Hugo agrees. For the past three years, she has served as manager of community outreach for Norfolk Southern Corp., which created the position after recognizing there was a need to communicate with the public in a different manner than the public relations department could.

“We didn’t have anybody that was able to take time away from the office, and go out and meet folks,” says Hugo. “So while other PR folks handle media calls, I’m the one trying to figure out how to get you to say our name, to make connections where there aren’t any, and reach out and show people we’re part of their community.”

Managing NS’ social media accounts is a large part of Hugo’s job. She oversees the Class I’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit and Flickr accounts, and is the sole person who posts to the various sites.

“We’ve made a conscious decision to make sure we had one voice,” says Hugo. “It’s like having someone else write you a love letter. If your boyfriend always does it and then has someone else write you one, you’re going to know it’s not coming from your boyfriend.”

Hugo does rely on other NS employees to help feed her content. She’ll post information about family events or grade crossing safety days being held in any of the 22 states through which NS trains operate. Other content includes quizzes on railroad terms, contests or facts about the railroad.

Making the railroad more approachable

No matter what she’s posting, Hugo tries to describe how NS is a part of people’s everyday lives. It’s important, she says, to inform the general public that railroads don’t just ship coal and materials — they ship the clothes people wear and the food they eat.

For example, on Thanksgiving, Hugo might use Facebook to wish people a happy holiday, adding that the railroad likely played a role in shipping their potatoes to the local grocer. Or on National Coffee Day, Hugo might tell people that NS shipped the glass their favorite coffee mug is made of.

It’s also important that NS be seen as approachable. More traditional forms of communication might be useful for relaying news and messages to the media and stockholders, but social media provides an opportunity for NS to reach out to community members, rail fans, employees and their families, and retirees — and do so in a personable way.

“Social media allows us to show that we’re real people here — we’re not just a machine,” says Hugo. “We’re eating at the same restaurants as you. We’re taking our kids fishing in the same ponds.”

They’re interacting, too. Hugo responds to everyone who communicates through NS’ social media accounts. Whether it’s answering a question, addressing a problem or complaint, or simply thanking them for commenting, Hugo says she wants people to know the railroad embraces two-way communication.

BNSF Railway Co. officials believe two-way communication is important, as well. The Class I has found that social media enables faster communication with community members, customers, employees, retirees and rail fans.

“Technology has made two-way communication faster, easier and more impactful than traditional media,” says Zak Andersen, BNSF’s vice president of corporate relations.

The railroad is active on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as YouTube, which it uses to showcase videos.  

“It’s a way to show the different types of jobs here,” says Andersen. “We use it as an internal communications tool, too. During the floods of 2011, we used video a lot to keep people informed.”

Friends of BNSF

BNSF has its own social media site, as well. Friends of BNSF was launched in 2011 as a way for the Class I to communicate with employees, retirees and rail fans. BNSF feeds the site — which has more than 40,000 members — with historical material, as well as updates on current projects and developments.

The Class I employs a digital manager responsible for the day-to-day management of social sites and content feeds. Marketing and human resource officials might offer input when they want to post something specific, but all content has to go through the digital manager.

“We have one point of contact to make sure we have consistent messages and that we’re not overloading people,” says Andersen, to whom the digital manager reports.

At INRD, Powell handles all social media-related tasks, in addition to his responsibilities as manager of intermodal and economic development.

Prior to joining INRD in early 2011, Powell spent 15 years in public relations. In his experience, Powell has found social media to be more effective than press releases at reaching large audiences.

“If you send out a press release, you’re at the mercy of the local or national news outlets picking up your story and running with it,” he says. “With social media, you can provide instant information to thousands of people, and it costs you nothing but a few seconds of your time.”

INRD uses Facebook and Twitter to highlight news, events, awards and grants the railroad provides to communities along its route. Like his Class I social media counterparts, Powell believes he can use the mediums to show there’s a lot more to the Indiana regional than operating trains.

“It’s a great opportunity to tell our story. We move the economy, we support jobs and we’re giving back to the community,” he says. “It shows the public we’re a company with a heart.”

At the heart of every company are the employees, and that’s who the Watco Cos. L.L.C. tries to showcase in many  Facebook and Twitter posts. Workers and their families are important to the Pittsburg, Kan.-based short-line holding company, says Communications Director Tracie VanBecelaere.

So when a team member’s child performs well in school or a sport, or when employees from one of the company’s 30 railroads participate in a community or charitable event, the company wants to make sure those people are recognized.

“We’re a family-oriented company, and we want to reflect that,” she says.

Internal communications

With railroads in states spanning from Idaho to Texas to Florida to Pennsylvania, Watco uses social media to help connect staff internally, as well, keeping workers up to date on what their colleagues are doing throughout the country. VanBecelaere, who oversees Watco’s social media accounts, will highlight not only news, events and community engagement, but also occasionally hold contests that help her better gauge who is following the company. That, in turn, helps VanBecelaere get a better handle on what she should be sharing through social channels.

As railroads gain more experience in the social media world, they’ll gain an even better understanding of what their audience wants to learn and how they can engage them. In the meantime, many railroads already have grasped an understanding of why it’s important for them to communicate through social media channels.

“We’re embracing the change of how we’re communicating,” says NS’ Hugo. “We’re not just doing the monologue of a press release anymore — this is dialogue. If you want people to listen to you, you have to talk to them.”

Email comments or questions to Angela Cotey.



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