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Rail News Home Passenger Rail

May 2012



Rail News: Passenger Rail

Phoenix METRO's social media strategy helps agency better connect with riders



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By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

When Phoenix’s Valley Metro Rail Inc. (METRO) entered the social media scene in 2009, it did so cautiously. Agency communication officials set up a Facebook page and Twitter account with little fanfare; they were unsure of the type of response they would get from followers and the resources it would take to manage the accounts.

“We kind of wanted to tiptoe into the pool, if you will,” says METRO Public Information Officer Hillary Foose.

But during the past couple of years, METRO has jumped in with both feet. Today, Facebook and Twitter are an integral part of METRO’s light-rail communications strategy, and like many other agencies, METRO is using them to communicate with riders in a friendly, casual way.

Social media is the ideal way for METRO to communicate a service issue (“It’s a fantastic tool for us to be able to talk on the fly, and in this business, things can change in a matter of seconds,” says Foose) or relay information that isn’t necessarily worthy of a press release, such as tips to riders.

The agency also uses Facebook and Twitter to promote businesses and events taking place along its 20-mile line.

“We’re only as good as what our line has to offer, so we promote different restaurants and retail along the line that are accessible by light rail,” says Foose. “That’s a lot of our content on Twitter — we’ll retweet something but add a transit-related message to the front of it or tell what station they can get off at.”

And, when METRO plans its own events, campaigns or contests, social media is factored into the communications strategy.

METRO’s social media accounts are overseen by Foose; a part-time media department worker also posts to Facebook and Twitter. The two spend several hours a week (“Five minutes here, five minutes there,” Foose says) managing the accounts.

“It’s important to have someone in the communications division overseeing this, because you need to keep a certain tone — that comes from someone who’s putting out the communications material for the agency in general,” says Foose. “I think it’s important for us to respond to everything — good, bad or indifferent — and it’s important for us to engage. We’ve taken the approach that we will be as prompt as we can in our management, and honest and transparent in our engagement.”

Although METRO does receive the occasional complaint through its Facebook page and Twitter account, the forums are mostly being used by riders or potential riders to ask questions or share experiences, and communicate with each other, says Foose.

“I can’t stress how critical a tool it’s been for us to be very communicative in a very dynamic environment, and build a sense of community around our system,” she says.

Going forward, social media will play an increasingly important role in METRO’s communications strategy as it begins to expand its light-rail system, which opened in 2008. The agency recently launched a new Facebook page that will house rail-related construction information as METRO prepares to begin building its first extension — the 3.1-mile Central Mesa line — in June. METRO communication officers will use the construction-specific Facebook page to post lane restrictions, road closures and upcoming meetings.

“We wanted to have a consolidated place where stakeholders could find pertinent information without having to weed through more social, casual messages we post on our Facebook page for the current operation,” says Foose.

Meanwhile, METRO officials are looking at new ways to keep riders informed through social media, such as by holding public meetings through Twitter or streaming live video of groundbreaking ceremonies.

“All these social media channels provide an opportunity to engage others and expand your reach,” says Foose.



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