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Rail News Home Passenger Rail

January 2011

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Social media: Transit agencies connect with riders in new ways


by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

Social media has created a world where real-time information on just about anything is available to anyone with an Internet connection. People communicate in sound bites and shorthand to convey their messages in 140 characters or less, as required by popular social media service Twitter. U can relay what UR having 4 dinner 2 hundreds of people, some of whom actually care, LOL. People sometimes share TMI (too much information), IMO (in my opinion). Discussions about everything — from said dinner choice to breaking news to last night's football game — R encouraged. It's about fostering a sense of community and engagement. And using new tools as UR primary source of info.

To KIT (keep in touch) with riders, transit agencies have entered the social media scene. The various tools — Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs — enable agencies 2 communicate with their riders in new ways.

On one hand, agencies use social media tools 2 quickly reach passengers. Agencies also receive feedback on service proposals and projects ... directly relay messages 2 passengers rather than going through conventional media outlets ... obtain info from passengers who notice an issue B4 agency officials are aware of it. And, social media helps give agencies a more "human" feel. Social media doesn't replace other tools — agencies still manage robust websites and offer e-mailed service alerts, as well as maintain good, old-fashioned customer service telephone lines — but it does provide another avenue for communication.

OTOH (on the other hand), the nature of Facebook and Twitter open agencies up 2 very public criticism. And, OMG, it can sometimes be nasty. Plus, once an agency launches a Facebook page or Twitter account, there's the added pressure of responding to passengers' questions, concerns and comments. In those spaces, two-way communication isn't just encouraged, it's expected, KWIM (know what I mean)? As a result, monitoring the various accounts can be a real drain on manpower and, AFAIK (as far as I know), most agencies haven't hired new personnel to help absorb the load.

But FWIW (for what it's worth), agency officials who oversee media relations and/or web-related content believe it's important to maintain open communication with passengers through various social media tools — FBOW (for better or worse). Whether it's posting service alerts on Twitter, soliciting feedback through Facebook, running public service announcements on YouTube or providing news through blogs, transit agencies are working the communication channels to give the 411 to their customers — ASAP.

(Reporter's note: As one who makes a living by using proper spelling, grammar, etc., this shorthand is beginning to give me a headache, so I'm going back to writing in the way I know how.)

As Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Website Manager Timothy Moore put it:

"This is a great opportunity for us to create open channels with our customers and engage with them. Customers are going to shape your brand and their perception about it, and you can let those conversations occur and let misinformation occur, or you can engage your customers in those platforms."

BART was one of the first transit agencies — maybe even one of the first public agencies — to use Twitter in July 2008, says Moore.

"We were really looking at where our customers were. San Francisco is a relatively tech-savvy market, and we're always looking for new ways to engage our customers, so Twitter was a natural thing to do," he says. "We kind of figured things out as we went along."

During the past two years, Moore and his colleague, Senior Web Producer Melissa Jordan, have figured it out pretty well, they believe. They currently have about 10,000 Twitter followers. BART's Facebook page, launched in December 2008, has about 12,500 fans.

The Social Media Advantage

Moore and Jordan typically use BART's Facebook page to promote contests, highlight agency news and make followers aware of upcoming public hearings. The Twitter account mostly includes service alerts.

"There's a huge advantage in the speed of getting information out," says Moore.

Another advantage: making sure the agency's message is relayed correctly.

"Media channels will filter it and put their own spin on it," says Jordan.

In addition, Moore and Jordan occasionally "re-tweet," or share, posts written by other Twitter users that mention BART in their posts.

"Communicating with riders is at the core, and then secondary is building that sense of community — informing and connecting people," says Jordan. "After you get your feet on the ground and get the basics up and running, you can have a little more fun with it and do things that give it more personality."


Here's one for the community-building and personality files: On Dec. 6, a man read a book to his daughter onboard a BART train. A fellow passenger who witnessed the story-telling tweeted about it, saying: "To the man reading to his daughter on @sfbart (including all the silly voices). You, sir, are full of win" (that's a gamer term, by the way, that means a person is a winner).

The message was re-tweeted by 36 other Twitter users. And another passenger tweeted a message of his own, saying he had been on the same train and that the man was reading "Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins." He even included a link to a video of someone reading the story, for those passengers who missed the ending.

"It's so neat to think this group of people noticed and the story got passed along in a way it never could before without these channels," says Jordan.

And it's a positive reflection on BART, which, like other agencies, retweets postings from people that mention BART in their tweets. Again, it's about fostering a sense of community, and showing the part that transit plays in people's everyday lives.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) also has been using Twitter and Facebook for several years. In addition to the typical news and service alerts, the agency uses the tools to obtain feedback on projects. With dozens of transportation projects under way or on the drawing board following the 2008 passage of the Measure R sales tax, there are plenty of projects that LACMTA wants the public to have a say in, says agency spokesperson Marc Littman. For example, LACMTA recently solicited comments on the proposed Wilshire subway extension on its Facebook page.

"Thanks to Facebook, we've had thousands of people participating during the environmental planning process," says Littman. "Early on, we tapped into social media to engage the public in projects."

The agency also uses YouTube to profile new employees or board members, and for crisis communication.

"This is starting to transform us from a faceless bureaucracy," says Littman. "It's another tool we can use to reach out to the various stakeholders."

The latest tool in LACMTA's social media arsenal: a blog called "The Source." Launched in October 2009, The Source is written by former L.A. Times reporter Steve Hymon, who's been charged with writing about LACMTA projects and issues, and putting them in context for the readers. The blog helps compensate for the reduced newspaper coverage, says Littman.

"The dynamic of mainstream media has changed. We used to have a half-dozen beat reporters covering us for the daily papers, city news service and various wire services, and that's gone by the wayside. We wanted to fill that vacuum," he says, adding that the L.A. Times now has only one full-time transportation reporter, and he divides his time between all the various modes.

The Source isn't your typical corporate blog, says Littman. Hymon has been given a lot of license with his postings, which focus on providing context on top issues and explaining how they affect passengers.

"He's not our PR mouthpiece. It's a difficult concept for our attorneys and executive staff, but we had to give him some creative room to maneuver," Littman says. "It's one thing to have a corporate blog, but if you're only putting out Pollyanna stuff, no one will give it credibility. We want The Source to be where people get the full story."

Staying Consistent

For Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), credibility begins with making sure passengers receive consistent information across all forms of media. That's why the agency directs people back to its website when it posts information on Twitter and Facebook.

"While the new media tools give you the ability to engage many voices, it's important as an organization to continue speaking with one voice," says DART spokesperson Morgan Lyons. "It's particularly important for a public agency, so we can say, ‘This is our position on a construction program,' or ‘This is our position on an incident or policy.'"

The agency primarily uses Twitter to post service alerts and Facebook to highlight promotions. Customers also use Facebook to give the agency feedback on a service or problem that they typically wouldn't call customer service about.

"One of the key lessons we've learned from this is there's no silver bullet," says Lyons. "Some people use Facebook who will not use Twitter who will not use subscription-based e-mail, or some will use all of them."

Sound Transit launched Twitter and Facebook accounts in 2009 as it prepared to open the Central Link light-rail line.

"We started directing people to our Twitter feeds and made an effort during the months leading up to the opening to put out quick blurbs about the service," says Sound Transit spokesperson Bruce Gray. "It's really taken off since then."

Today, the agency uses social media to relay service information and rider alerts, and highlight agency promotions. Gray uses the tools to distribute interesting tidbits he hears during agency board meetings that don't necessarily warrant a press release.

"At one of our executive committee meetings, our CEO mentioned that we're looking at running our Link trains 24 hours during snow emergencies," he says. "I posted that on Twitter and people were chirping about it all day long. I can take that to our operations folks and tell them there's a lot of interest."

Keeping in tune with customer comments is key to the success of agencies' social media strategies, managers say.

"It's helped us become more engaged with our customers," says Jennifer Jinadu-Wright, marketing director for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, which has been using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube since April 2009. "We've found a lot of value in not just having conversations on there, but listening to what people are talking about. It helps us see what they're thinking and then we can talk to people within the agency about making a change."

Passengers also will ask questions through social media channels, particularly on Facebook. If the question is fairly straightforward, MARTA's marketing department will respond via Facebook, providing answers sometimes within minutes rather than having customers go through the traditional customer service channels.

"Sometimes, other customers will respond to questions because they already know the answer," says Jinadu-Wright. "Others can engage in the conversation."

Adds Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) Webmaster Karen Gronberg: "It opens up a means of communications and people feel it creates an openness. It shows our riders we want to hear from them and respond to them, and that's huge."

Eyes and Ears

Riders also can help serve as extra sets of eyes and ears. Gronberg occasionally receives Twitter or Facebook messages from passengers alerting the agency that a seat on a particular train is broken or the temperature in a rail car is too warm or too cold. Gronberg then forwards the information to the maintenance department.

MTA began testing the social media waters in June 2010, when it launched Twitter and Facebook accounts. Down the road, the agency plans to expand its social media communications beyond service alerts and information.

"When we're ready to do that, we'll need to be able to staff it," says Gronberg. "We don't want to provide a feature if we can't provide the benefit. You can't have a one-way Twitter or Facebook account because it will die."

And therein lies one of the biggest challenges with managing the various social media tools. If the point of launching Facebook and Twitter accounts is to provide immediate information, and generate feedback and comments 24/7, how can agency web managers leave passengers hanging? As Gronberg says, "I feel like we set a level of expectation."

DART's Lyons feels that pressure firsthand. The three-person media relations department he oversees manages the agency's social media outlets, though they do receive help from the information technology, customer service and marketing departments when it comes to solving problems or answering passenger questions. Still, reading and responding to tweets and Facebook postings often extends their days — and nights.

"If a customer sees something on a Saturday night and they send a tweet, they are usually expecting at least an acknowledgement that their message was received," says Lyons. "It's really shortened the response time and put some new pressures on us."

Chain of Priorities

Social media management can be a challenge even during business hours.

"The nature of the tools are to be disruptive and interrupt what you're doing," says Lyons. "You have to make a conscious decision as an agency how you're going to respond."

At DART, officials have chosen to respond as quickly as possible, even if it means addressing a tweet at 11 p.m. on a Saturday, says Lyons. Other agencies, such as BART — which has several thousand more followers than DART's 800 — only monitor and respond to Twitter and Facebook postings during office hours.

"You need to manage customer expectations about how you're going to engage them in the platform and at what times," says BART's Moore. "And, you need to prioritize within the pantheon of all your other work."

Regardless of when or how various agencies communicate through social media channels, they all have a similar approach when it comes to monitoring the content on their sites: keep a close eye without censoring, unless content is profane or offensive.

"A lot of people have said a lot of nasty, negative things, but it's how people felt so we didn't take [them] down," says MARTA's Jinadu-Wright. "We really want people to see it as a tool where they can have a conversation with us, whether we do a great job or not as good of a job."

And there will be plenty of negative comments, agency spokespeople say.

"I would love to say that every comment we field is positive, but that's not reality," says Moore. "I think part of the approach in these channels is to be open to these types of negative comments. When you acknowledge those things in a public way, it lends some credibility to you as a listener."

And while it might be tough to take the criticism, it's important to be part of the conversations — especially the negative ones.

"The negative people are going to be there whether you're responding to them or not, and being able to have a voice in the middle of a gripe fest is great," says Sound Transit's Gray.

Keep in Touch

All in all, the benefits of using social media far outweigh the disadvantages, officials say. Having a venue to relay information instantly to a large portion of your customer base is invaluable, as is the ability to distribute information directly and obtain feedback — good or bad — from passengers. But it isn't just about conveying messages, it's about remaining relevant and keeping in tune with customers.

"In today's world, this is how you communicate with people," says LACMTA's Littman.

The various social media tools will continue to evolve and change the way information is sent and received. Agencies need to continue evolving right along with it.

"Facebook and Twitter are pretty cool, and while they'll stay around for awhile, they'll also grow and evolve in some way," says DART's Lyons.

As for what may lie ahead in the social media realm?

"People keep coming up with new tools, but you have to find the ones that seem to have the best results for your customers and are the most widely used and focus on those," Lyons says. "It's really tempting to go rushing into these, but it's important to take a minute and see how these tools fit into your overall strategy of providing good customer service."

We'll continue to follow the ways transit agencies use social media tools — current and future. As for this story? CID (that would be, "consider it done"). Thx for reading.


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