By Julie Sneider, Assistant Editor
State departments of transportation (DOTs) are getting savvier with their social media activity, using sites such as Facebook
to communicate with the public they serve, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials
For the past three years, AASHTO has surveyed state DOTs on their social
media activity. In that time, social media has become a standard method
of communication with the public, says Lloyd Brown, AASHTO's director
of communications. According to the 2012 survey results, 88 percent of
the 41 states and District of Columbia that responded now use Twitter
and 76 percent use Facebook.
Brown also has observed a significant change in how state DOTs use their
social media presence. No longer do they use Facebook and Twitter
accounts only for computer-automated status updates; instead, they've
assigned staff members to personally post content and engage in dialogue
with the public on those sites, he says.
"We used to be very rigid and formal in all our responses," one agency
commented on the 2012 survey. "Now we're trying to humanize the feed. We
post pictures of ourselves and answer the feed as people, instead of an
State DOTs' communications officials tell him the public seems to
appreciate their efforts, says Brown, whose professional interest in
governments' use of social media began during his tenure as
communications director at the Washington State Department of
(WSDOT). While in Washington, Brown was recognized by
AASHTO for his innovative efforts to develop and use social media
strategies. He was named AASHTO's communications director in June 2010.
"I think the benefit to state DOTs for using social media is that, any
time you can help someone who needs information find that information,
they will feel better about your agency," Brown says. "The idea is that
you're building your credibility one customer at a time."
State DOTs' social media activity shifts beyond 5-1-1
Many state DOTs' initial reason for using social media was to report news from their 5-1-1 systems, the Federal Communications Commission
designated three-digit phone number for travel information. Now, the
state DOTs are using social media to share things like feature and
human-interest stories on Facebook.
Thirty-two out of the 42 survey-responding DOTs said they have a
Facebook account, up from 14 DOTs that had one in 2010, according to an
AASHTO report on the social media survey. Half responded this year that
they are changing their Facebook pages to make them more personable.
Many also indicated they're using more photos and video on their pages
to inform the public about department-associated special events.
Wrote one survey respondent: "We have been making an effort to keep the
content fresh and to post more multimedia content. It does seem to have
engaged more people."
While Facebook use is increasing, Twitter is the most used social media
tool for state DOTs: 37 out of the 42 DOTs rely on Twitter to share
information. About half of the 42 use Twitter differently in 2012 than
they did in 2011, "with a stronger emphasis on personal messages that
help build an online connection" with the people who follow their state
DOT's Twitter account, according to the survey.
Also popular are online video services, which agencies indicated they
use to communicate with their employees and the public. About 80 percent
of the departments said they use YouTube
or a similar service. "We've started using video to highlight all of
the great things (DOT) is doing," wrote one department official.
Popularity of new social media sites such as Pinterest
is increasing among state DOTs, while the use of certain older tools —
podcasts and Linkedin
, in particular — is fading, the AASHTO survey
found. For example, 9.5 percent of DOTs are using Storify and 16.7
percent are using Pinterest in 2012, compared with 0 percent in 2011.
Meanwhile, 21.4 percent are using Linkedin and 16.7 percent are using
podcasts in 2012, compared with 50 percent and 23.6 percent,
respectively, in 2011.
State DOTs' monitor social media effectiveness
In the future, state DOTs likely will expand efforts to measure how well
their social media activity is reaching intended audiences and engaging
them, Brown believes. As of 2012, about 70 percent of state DOTs are
using analytics or other measurement tools to gauge social media
Brown also anticipates more agencies will use social media to generate
public participation in community and corridor planning studies and
projects. The Iowa Department of Transportation
(IDOT) already has moved in that direction. This summer, IDOT staff
used Twitter to help drive public involvement in the process to draft an
environmental impact analysis for the proposed Chicago-to-Omaha
passenger-rail planning study, says Amanda Martin, IDOT's freight and
passenger policy coordinator.
IDOT was looking for as much feedback on the route alternatives as
possible — without putting further strain on the department's tight
budget. Martin and her colleagues developed a multi-approach
communications strategy that included in-person and online public
meetings, a website dedicated to the project, traditional media and
Twitter. For example, whenever IDOT had information it had to get out to
the public about the project and the environmental process, it sent out
"tweets" to IDOT's 6,000 Twitter followers.
Martin believes those tweets helped generate as much attention, if not
more, from the news media and the public than the traditional method of
buying paid advertisements in local newspapers.
"It's hard to know how the news media get their information, but I think
it helps when people see things on Twitter or Facebook,” she says.
Martin sees potential in expanding IDOT's use of social media to engage
Iowans in initiatives such as the department’s passenger-rail planning
study. Currently, the agency is drafting a departmental policy for how
it will use Facebook once it launches a page.
"We are getting a lot more public responses than we would on a typical
environmental impact statement," she says of the department's existing
social media efforts. "Part of that could be because we're talking about
passenger rail, which is more exciting for some people than the
traditional highway project. But we've also never before used social
media for a traditional environmental impact statement, so this was
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