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When Blunt Engagement on Social Media Can Help (and Hurt) Transit Agencies

A passenger rides a Bay Area Rapid Transit train Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, in Oakland, Calif.

A passenger rides a Bay Area Rapid Transit train Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, in Oakland, Calif. Ben Margot / AP File Photo

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Being transparent with dissatisfied passengers about operational challenges can have pitfalls, but one official notes: “The old corporate communications technique of we speak, you listen, doesn't really work.”

Alicia Trost, Bay Area Rapid Transit’s communications manager, arrived at the North Concord Station, about 25 miles northeast of San Francisco, in the late afternoon on Wednesday, March 16, to brief news media about a major rail service disruption that was about to unfold.

Around that time, she realized staff members in her office had not posted anything yet about the disruption on the agency’s Twitter account.

Voltage spikes had damaged components on about 50 of the agency’s 664 train cars, knocking them out of service. The electrical problem was affecting a section of track between North Concord and the Pittsburg-Bay Point Station, at the far northeastern end of BART’s system. To avoid damaging more train cars on that stretch of track, the agency decided to shut it down.

From Pittsburg-Bay Point station, BART trains pass through Oakland and into the heart of San Francisco, continuing south to the city’s international airport. While BART would offer “bus bridges” to shuttle people along the closed segment of the rail corridor, the disruption was poised to cause delays and complications for thousands of commuters, and the out-of-service train cars would lead to crowding throughout the system.

“I was in a little bit of a panic, you know, we have to acknowledge this is going on on Twitter,” Trost said, as she recalled that afternoon. “So Taylor Huckaby jumped on, and you saw the results of it.”

‘He Just Started Replying to People’

The results involved Huckaby, a 27-year-old BART spokesman, firing off a series of tweets over the course of about six hours on that Wednesday night. One of the first included a link to a news release about the service disruption. After that, comments quickly started to fly at @SFBART on Twitter, many from irked riders taking swipes at the agency for providing shoddy service.

“He just started replying to people,” Trost said. “We weren’t asking for the attention.”

One of the earlier, and more notable exchanges went like this:

As the night went on, Huckaby won praise for the frankness he used as he parried with critics, and shared details—in 140 characters or less—about how BART’s aging rail system had been strained by a sharp rise in ridership amid the Bay Area tech boom.

Detractors chimed in as well.

Criticism aside, the BART tweets were successful at focusing regional and national attention on information the agency was trying to communicate. The tweets also highlighted some of the challenges transit agencies face as they continue to weave Twitter and other forms of social media more deeply into their customer service and communication programs.

Central to those challenges are questions like: What is the right level of engagement on social media? What are the risks of that engagement? And are those risks worth taking?

‘We Speak, You Listen, Doesn't Really Work’

Communications employees at other transit agencies in California, and in New York and Pennsylvania, generally expressed approval for Huckaby’s BART tweets. Although some also said they would not be willing to engage in similar, fast-paced, back-and-forth Twitter dialogues with riders, viewing the interactions as either too risky, too time consuming, or both.

“It’s absolutely the right tone to take on these accounts,” Anna Chen, a public information officer who helps handle social media at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said last week as she discussed the BART tweets. She said that L.A. Metro tries to take a similarly conversational tone with its Twitter account, but that it is distinct from the one BART uses.

“I think, a lot of times, a lot of government agencies are very scared of what they put out on social media,” Chen added, “because people might take it in the wrong way.”

That said, agencies throughout the U.S. are viewing Twitter, and other social media channels, as increasingly crucial tools for providing customer service.

“It's where a lot of our customers are going, it’s where the younger generation is going,” said Kim Scott Heinle, assistant general manager of customer service at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which serves Philadelphia and other nearby areas. “If you can’t communicate with them how they want, then you’re going to be viewed as obsolete.”

Heinle, who oversees a social media team at the authority, noted: “The old corporate communications technique where we speak, you listen, doesn't really work.”

‘Sounds Like It's Been OKed by 20 Bureaucrats’

The same day BART was preparing for its disruption, the Metrorail system in Washington, D.C. was entirely shut down. Officials with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had announced the unscheduled closure the afternoon before, saying that it was necessary to inspect power cables throughout the rail network that posed possible fire risks.

WMATA declined to comment for this story, and did not respond to a follow-up request for an interview with someone at the agency about their social media efforts.

But two people who act as watchdogs of the agency on Twitter did offer up their views on the BART tweets, and some of WMATA’s social media practices. One of them operates the Twitter account @unsuckdcmetro, a clearinghouse of sorts for rider complaints and other information about WMATA. He requested to remain anonymous, but signed an email “Unsuck.”

As he discussed the BART tweets by phone last week, Unsuck said he believed people were tired of "focus group" communication "that sounds like it's been OKed by 20 bureaucrats.”  

An example of this type of communication, which he pointed to, were past tweets from WMATA’s @Metrorailinfo account that refer to “fire department activity.”

“A minute later someone will tweet a picture of billowing smoke and a bunch of fire trucks,” he said. “A lot of the stuff is just so vague you don't have any idea what really to expect. Is this going to be a little hiccup and everything’ll be fine in five minutes? Or is this a major meltdown?”

Chris Barnes runs the @FixWMATA Twitter account. “BART leveled with the riders and said, ‘look, here’s the deal, this is what’s happening, this is what we’re up against, we're not giving you crappy service because we hate you,’” he said. “I think riders appreciated the bluntness and the straightforward attitude that they got from a human being on the BART Twitter account.”

‘Having It In 140 Characters’

Trost said Huckaby’s tweets were not the first time officials have tried to say BART’s rail system is worn down, and maxed-out in terms of rider capacity. “The same stuff we were saying on Twitter is what we’ve been talking to the media about for a year or more,” she said.

In other words, the tweets were not the work of an employee gone rogue. Huckaby was on message. Last week, he was unavailable for an interview because he was on vacation. His email away message stressed that he had not been fired, or put on leave over the tweets.

“What we did Wednesday night, probably, in terms of educating the public, is more effective than a year's worth of media it seems like,” Trost said of the tweets from the agency’s account.

According to Trost, a reporter asked her after that Wednesday if she agreed with the tweet Huckaby wrote saying much of BART’s system was nearing the end of its usable life. Her reaction: “Yes. I’m pretty sure I used that exact sound bite with you last month.”

“Having it in 140 characters is what it took,” she said.

There’s another factor she points to as well. “Part of it also is just that Taylor is a really good writer,” she said. “Let’s give him the credit he deserves. You have to have that ability to connect to people with words, with the right diction, and he’s got it, that’s for sure.”

While BART’s message came through loud and clear, some are skeptical of what was said.

One charge is that the agency is using the electrical problems—which were not resolved as of last Friday—as a ploy to promote a $3.5 billion BART bond measure, which voters in the Bay Area are set to decide on in November.

In the Contra Costa Times last week, editorial writer Daniel Borenstein derided comments Huckaby has made, and argued that BART had “shamelessly floated the outdated-infrastructure narrative” without clear evidence that aging equipment was to blame for the voltage problems.

The “communications department has cranked up its propaganda machine,” he wrote. “In coming months, it will likely walk right up to the legal line barring use of taxpayer funds and staff for political advocacy.”

Borenstein’s criticism offers an example of the kind of slippery territory agencies can easily find themselves in when tweeting, or publishing other social media posts.

‘That Seems a Bit Risky’

“It was definitely bold,” Meredith Daniels, a press officer with the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said as she discussed the BART tweets. Daniels is one of the people in the MTA’s press office that oversees the authority’s main Twitter account.

“The back-and-forth was the most surprising thing for everyone I've spoken to,” she added.

Will the approach Huckaby used influence the MTA’s Twitter posture going forward?

“I think it's something that we found interesting, and we certainly all went ‘hmmm, could we be doing a little bit more of that?’ And it was kind of like, ‘I-ehhh don’t know,’” Daniels said.

Daniels noted that she rarely replies more than once to tweets directed toward @MTA.

One reason why she doesn’t engage more is that the various divisions of the authority, like the New York City subway and the Long Island Rail Road, have separate Twitter accounts for fielding customer service-related tweets. The main MTA account is geared toward distributing news. So if someone tweets at @MTA about a broken MetroCard machine, or lewd behavior on the A Train, Daniels would typically loop in @NYCTSubway and let them take it from there.

But there are other reasons she avoids lengthy Twitter dialogues as well.

One is that she has other press office responsibilities besides social media. Another is that she worries going round-and-round on Twitter could lead to an exchange that reflects poorly on the agency.

Referring to prolonged Twitter conversations with customers, Daniels later said: “I think, for us, that seems a bit risky.”

Asked why she thought some agencies are reluctant to engage more with customers on Twitter, Chen, of L.A. Metro said that “part of it is just the nature of government.”

“Before you are allowed to put anything out there you have to go through a lot of levels of approval,” she explained.

“Being on social media, it’s a real time thing,” Chen added, “Once you put it out there you, kind of, can’t take it back.”

‘What Happened, Sam?’

Heinle, with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, doesn’t see the typical risks in social media exchanges as exceedingly high for agencies.

“Every once in awhile,” he acknowledged, “it really is once in a blue moon, you go: ‘darn, I really said that, that was dumb.’” But he added: “If you say something that you regret you said, you know what? It’s old news in six hours, it just goes down the stream.”

Heinle said that SEPTA started building out its social media program about six years ago.

These days, it includes a four-person team of specialists who, among other duties, field customer inquiries on Twitter between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. When a specialist begins their shift on Twitter, they typically post a tweet greeting customers, with their first name, letting people know they’re available. They sign tweets with their initials.

People tweet @SEPTA_SOCIAL with a wide variety of complaints, concerns, questions and, occasionally, compliments.

A typical series of tweets might start off like this one on Friday:

That same day, people also tweeted complaints about bus delays, profane cellphone chatter on a quiet-car, urine odors on another train, a smashed television in a subway entrance.

In each case, they received replies to their tweets within minutes.

One exchange began with a tweet that wasn’t directed toward the @SEPTA_SOCIAL handle. It read: “Septa regional rails are honest to god the biggest waste of time and money that philly has to offer.” A specialist, Andy, replied: “@samquigley23 What happened, Sam?”

The interaction went on for a couple more tweets. Another person weighed in with concerns about “a very smelly and rude conductor.” Andy asked for more information via direct message.

If there are especially prickly tweets that specialists don’t want to answer, sometimes Heinle will jump in and respond.

The @SEPTA_SOCIAL account has never blocked anyone, he proudly noted. “And I don’t plan to,” Heinle added. That’s because the agency has found another way to deal with out-of-line people on Twitter.

“Ignore them,” Heinle said. “They see the conversation is taking place around them.”

The social media team fulfills another role in addition to responding to customers, he explained. They also contribute to what Heinle called SEPTA CIA, or Customer Intelligence and Analytics.

“One of the things that they’re responsible for is having that social radar spinning all the time to see if there’s anything out there that’s developing as an issue,” he said. “A service-related issue, any type of customer issue, a facility issue, a safety issue.”

What did Heinle think of the BART tweets? “He didn't mince words,” he said, referring to Huckaby. “Things are going to break. We have the same thing happening here all the time. We run over bridges that were built in the 1820s,” he added. “That’s our reality.”

But riders, he noted, don’t want to hear excuses. “The reality is one thing,” Heinle said, “and getting people to understand it, and maybe give you a little bit of a break, is something else.”

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Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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