Friday, June 29, 2012

Social Media Strategy for Technical Assistance and Transportation Providers

Social Media = Interaction = Lack of Control

Unlike traditional websites or blogs, the creator of a page or an account sends a message in one form or another, but does not control the direction any ensuing conversation will take. Many organizations use social media to announce events, news and resources. Others request feedback. Still others monitor in various ways how they are mentioned.

For the novices, at the end of this post please find a Social Media 101 section with advice and resources.

This social media strategy brief suggests ways to maximize and more effectively employ social media whether an organization is already an advanced user or just starting out. Please let me know how you are employing social media.

[Sculpture at St. Pancras train station in London. Multimodal access by Underground, buses and intercity rail. Across the street from Kings Cross train station, where platform 9 3/4 can be found.]

Purposes and Approaches

Social media has three primary purposes.
  1. News dissemination for promotion, outreach and public engagement;
  2. Staying informed about news, opportunities, challenges, feedback, and stakeholder activity; and
  3. Interacting with customers, clients, riders, and partners.

Most users concentrate on one or two of these, some effectively pursue all three. What most distinguishes social media use are the degree of uniformity and control that users exhibit and the individuality - or personality - of their voices.

Compare these two examples of twitter use. Each London Underground line has a separate twitter feed. They each sound exactly alike, without any personality (admittedly it is a huge, efficient and busy system with lots to do besides issuing tweets about happenings on the Jubilee, Piccadilly and other lines). Basically, the strategy is to get the word out, but not to interact. Compare that approach with Boulder Parking, which promotes various activities, multimodal opportunities, and the values of the city. There are many tweets and retweets. The feed reads less like mini-press releases from a public agency and more like a person who is excited about living in Boulder, CO.

Social Media Policy - To Have or Not to Have?

I have read various opinions on the topics of whether to have a social media policy and what to include in one. As this post covers much more than social policies, this will not be an in-depth discussion of such policies.

Entities of all types range from not having policies to having detailed rules for who may use social media and what should and should not be expressed. For those that eschew formal policies, the opinion seems to be that staff should do their jobs well, in the realm of social media and otherwise, at the very least avoiding stupid mistakes and inappropriate statements. Translation from old media: Do not post written work or visual images about or of anything you would not want to see on the front page of a major newspaper.

If a social media policy is adopted, I would advise that it be short and sweet, concisely explaining what is and what is not allowed and perhaps describing the tone that is sought. What is probably superfluous is a list of previous mistakes or obvious types of misjudgments. Most likely that staff is already aware not to use inappropriate language or images in any work-related statements, whether internal or external. (If not, a better approach might be to revisit hiring and evaluation practices.)

This is entirely a personal opinion. What I propose is that any policy be clear, to the point and easily comprehensible. I would suggest brevity so staff are not tempted to skim over important material.

Needless to say there are other opinions and these are easily found via a Google search. Any number of approaches can work well in different organizational cultures.

Social Media and Legal Requirements

This blog post does not contain legal advice.

Legal decisions lag a few years behind cultural developments because litigation is either settled (and does not produce case law) or takes time to reach appellate courts and produce rules of law. There is a lack of guidance about what record retention and freedom of information laws require of public agencies that participate in social media. One strategy would be to take a conservative approach to compliance with record retention laws and consider all content distributed via social media as “part of the public record subject to the state’s archiving requirements.” According to TCRP Synthesis 99: Uses of Social Media in Public Transportation, most transit agencies are not taking such a conservative course. More information about social media record retention policies are available in the report.

The report finds that some agencies post disclaimers to alert social media users that commenting on a blog or video or replying to a tweet, just as examples, may be matters of public record and "the privacy settings of the application host applies."

Another area of legal concern are accessibility and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The TCRP report acknowledges that this is a murky legal area. One approach offered in the report is to create alternatives for any inaccessible media. "Orange County, California, does not require its social media sites to comply with Section 508 requirements; instead, the county requires noncompliant sites to contain links to identical material on a compliant website or social media network."

More information is available online and there are other approaches. Easter Seals Project ACTION is a technical assistance center that works on issues of concern to people with disabilities. 

Mobility Services and Social Media

If you are interested in staying abreast on a daily basis with social media developments as they relate particularly to transportation and government, I recommend these sources.
  • focuses on transit and other options available to the general public, specifically on organizational use of technology and social media. On twitter @TheTransitWire.
  • Transportation Social Media, a Facebook page for transportation professionals who use social media. There are daily updates with suggestions and commentary. This is a group page and any member may post questions (which are promptly answered), ideas, news and links.
  • GovLoop concentrates on social media issues for government entities. I follow them on twitter - @govloop - because there is a limited portion of their material that is relevant to my work. (A blog post on the site recently illustrated how Amtrak's good use of twitter is an outreach success.)
  • Talking Transportation, a blog, has social media as one of its areas of concentration. There is more than one blog with this name. This particular blog author is on twitter @LLloydBrown (who is a communications professional at AASHTO).
  • LinkedIn provides group discussions about all manner of transportation, transit and social media topics. If you are involved or interested in mobility management, join the Partnership for Mobility Management and its LinkedIn discussion group.

Personal News Feeds and Managing Social Media Accounts

I suggest using twitter to follow the sources you like. You can create your own personal news feed, with each entry taking little time to read, but stating enough that it is easy to determine whether or not to follow a link and read more.  

[Paddington Bear kiosk at Paddington Station, London.]

Managing Multiple Social Media Platforms

For anyone but the social media novice, it quickly becomes apparent that managing one's social media accounts can be a job in itself. Various options are available to lighten this load by allowing one to monitor multiple accounts on a single page. I personally use hootsuite and I am very happy with it, but must admit I have not tried any other options. (I did not see a wikihow post for this, but it is very easy to use.) Be advised that these platform services do not necessarily enable management of all types of social media. Facebook, Yahoo and Google also enable various linkages among accounts. Linkage services will likely continue to be improved.

Dashboard services other than hootsuite are nambu and seesmic. These allow scheduling of tweets, sharing easily with other social media and, for a fee, offer premium analytic tools.
Develop Your Inner Harriet the Spy

For developing your approach to getting the word out, staying informed, and interacting with others, one should take the time to see how partners and similar organizations are using social media. Use relevant search terms and monitor for a few weeks. Twitter is especially useful for breaking news, but also explore blogs, youtube channels, facebook pages and other media.

For technical assistance centers, active users of social media are the National Resource Center, Joblinks, RPO America, and Easter Seals Project ACTION; they integrate social media into their core activities. Honorable mention goes to CTAA's senior transportation specialist for her impressive employment of twitter (@SeniorTransInfo).

Transit agencies and transportation providers cover the broad spectrum from social media shyness to full immersion. Read below about examples of some effective users that range from small to large transit systems.

[Old media: Bulletin board in church entry advertising for volunteer drivers in Toddington, England. See below for photo with details.]

Learning from Others

As one of my expressions is "don't reinvent the wheel," a recent guide illustrates many uses of social media by public agencies and innovative examples. The GovLoop Guide provides a wonderful introductory explanation of social media venues and includes examples of live chat use, apps for local governments, why to use Pinterest, and more. There is a discussion about measuring performance of social media use as well. Though I am conversant with different media, there was information relevant to all but the most advanced social media aficionados. (That means I learned quite a bit.)

One example in the guide that I like is the analysis that the Veterans Administration performed to analyze negative social media comments about its services, finding that health care was not the problem, rather people were unhappy with customer service at a few VA medical centers. This illustrates the value of social media to not only spread positive messages, but also to employ free tools to find out what your audience is saying about you, and what it wants and does not want.

I also like the case the guide makes for public agency use of pinterest for posting photographs, charts, plans, even poll results. Are your vehicles attractive, iconic, your drivers friendly, your public adoring, your new free wifi or real-time bus info, or new bus shelters ready to be promoted? Sometimes the best way to toot those horns is go visual.

Examples from Sectors beyond Transportation

Because transit, transportation services and technical assistance vary widely in purpose, size and audiences, here are some examples that demonstrate possibilities for creative social media use.

The Managers Guide for Using Social Media in Government is a solid guide for beginners in terms of how to proceed, marketing basics and good examples from government. A favorite is the United States Geological Survey (USGC) twitter campaign of "Did you feel it?" to engage the public, particularly amateur seismologists, to report how an earthquake felt and its actual damage. This increases USGC's data of an earthquake's impact. Another good example of the twitter newsfeed phenomenon is an agency's twitter warning to communicate by text, twitter, and other social media instead of cell phones after an emergency.

A blog post from Government and Technology Solutions for State and Local Government shows how local governments are using social media, hiring social media managers, and inviting citizens to participate in tough decision making. I have also seen examples of this in the transit realm. 

Highways, Byways and State DOTs

Here are just two examples of transportation use of social media, one from the private sector and one from a state department of transportation.

Some entities allow staff or even drivers on facebook, twitter or wherever. One trucking company embraces its drivers' experiences.

The Washington State DOT, an early adopter of social media (using youtube since 2009), has created a website bulletin board of its social media use, a social room page, which enables even those who do not use any social media to visit a webpage with an instant visual of WashDOT's social media activity.  The agency has a blog and is also on flickr, twitter, and facebook - all linked to the social room page. (Thank you to Jeremy Bertrand's post on the Transportation and Social Media facebook group for this. Bertrand commented that the social room would prove useful were an emergency to occur.)

TCRP Synthesis

Many transit agencies are at the forefront of social media and public engagement. Certainly, citizens in some localities have embraced social media - particularly facebook and twitter - as channels to express their opinions about service. TCRP Synthesis 99: Uses of Social Media in Public Transportation found that there is room for many transit agencies to expand their use and the report includes the experiences of early adopters, large and small.

The TCRP synthesis report covers much more than its title suggests. The author, Susan Bregman, who writes TheTransitWire (discussed above), explores government agency employment of social media and examples that go beyond public transportation, but are always relevant to both transit and other community transportation. I will share some of the resources and case studies from this TCRP report. It is well worth reading in full, but for those who do not have time, there are the relevant highlights below. 

How Transit Employs Social Media

The following three examples are quotes from the TCRP report. There is more information about these systems in the report's case studies. These excerpts were selected for their usefulness to transit and technical assistance for systems of all sizes.

Mountain Line Transit (Morgantown, WV)
Mountain Line’s manager takes a hands-on approach to social media for two reasons. First, updating the Twitter account is not time-consuming. Second, as a small agency, Mountain Line does not have many employees who are both qualified and available to post social media updates.
• Find the best way to communicate with riders using the tools they already use.
• Make it easy for the customers to get the information they need.
Mountain Line believes that university students along with choice, or discretionary, riders constitute the primary audience for its social media communications, especially Twitter updates. Although these individuals may have bet- ter access to technology than some rider groups, the agency believes that its social media strategy does not exclude other riders. Most customers can receive text messages on their cell phones, enabling them to subscribe to Twitter sta- tus updates as text messages. In addition, customers can access real-time service updates by means of telephone, on display boards at several locations, and on the agency’s website. Mountain Line does not consider social media an effective way to reach stakeholders such as community- based organizations; overall, these groups have not adopted social media.
Mountain Line does not have a social media policy. Only two people generate the online content for this small agency, and they can easily discuss issues or concerns on an infor- mal basis. If the agency developed a policy, it would most likely focus on messaging, image, and information control. Although such a policy could be beneficial, the general man- ager questioned whether a social media policy alone could take the place of hands-on training and experience.
As with most transit properties, Mountain Line has received negative comments on Facebook and Twitter. Although the agency deletes or edits material it considers offensive, managers treat criticism as an opportunity to offer an explanation and to correct misinformation. Social media allow Mountain Line to answer rider questions in a public forum, on the assumption that if one individual has a question, it is likely that others want to know the same thing.
Metropolitan Transit Authority (New York City, Long Island and Westchester)
MTA retains electronic and paper copies of social media posts and staff members summarize social media activities for senior man- agement in monthly reports. Personnel use readily available statistics to track social media activity, to assess the impact of changes, and to identify successful practices.
On an everyday basis, social media benefit the MTA by allowing the agency to distribute its message unfiltered by reporters or traditional media outlets and provides other chan- nels for individuals to get information. This, in turn, has helped personalize an agency that many perceive as a “big faceless bureaucracy.”
       Don’t overlook the value of incoming messages— During a series of snowstorms, messages from customers helped MTA identify trouble spots in the field.
Translink (Vancouver, British Columbia)

A key benefit of engaging customers is the unparalleled opportunity to gain insight into customer attitudes and priorities. In the survey, TransLink said, “Social media is a little like having a direct line into what customers are thinking.” Agencies that know how to tap into that information can learn a great deal about “customer pain points” and how to improve service. … If you use social media correctly, the questions and comments will prompt responses from departments throughout the organization. Legitimate questions and complaints can lead to real change or thoughtful responses from the relevant departments— not just sympathy and excuses from communications or customer service staff. ...

[I]n the short term, social media also provide the agency with an opportunity to have fun. Free from the constraints of traditional media, The Buzzer [the Translink blog] “tackles all kinds of stories about transit history, the SkyTrain chime, oddities of the system, and more.” [Editor's Note: The blog currently has questions for riders about what they do while riding transit.]
Other examples abound. Phoenix Metro not only uses social media to promote its own services, but also to publicize businesses along its light rail line.This system has a social media staff person in its communications department. More information is available in this article from Progressive Railroading.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has a youtube series, Bus Buzz. In its inaugual video, PSTA's driver of the year introduces the series. Other videos explain different modes, express services, serving people with disabilities, and more. A blog post announcing Bus Buzz explains PSTA's intentions for the video series.

[Kansas City Union Station with the American flag.]

Opportunities for Improvement

The TCRP report identifies opportunities that transit can take advantage of to better serve the public. These include:
  • Reaching out to potential riders.
  • Coordination with other customer information services, including 511/traveler information, 311/citizen information, and 211/human services information. 
  • For urban systems especially, "integrating social media with mobile applications, automated real-time information, special promotions, and other web-based activities.”

If you or your organization are using pinterest, youtube, SharePoint and other new offerings, please contact Sheryl Gross-Glaser ( We can learn from and possibly share your experiences.

Social Media 101

This section is intended for those unfamiliar with social media. Social media are interactive online opportunities, including, but not limited to, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Youtube, Instagram, and Flickr. Literally each day social media is evolving and new options are being created. Feel free to let the early adopters of each medium work out the kinks and provide models for how to move forward effectively and without consuming too much time.

For a quick summary of how different social media are used, read this amusing guide.
Each social medium has its purpose and the goal is to advance your agenda, not to fill out an imaginary dance card to show how many different media you use. Out of the office much? Not to worry, pretty much everything is available on smartphones, sometimes with a better interface than on a computer.

National RTAP has a brief entitled Leveraging Social Media, available from its resource library. While this brief only covers twitter, facebook, youtube and blogs, (the primary social media when the brief was released last year), it is a concise and usable introduction to the basic media covered.

For a quick introductory lesson for many social media, visit and enter in the search box the social medium you are curious about, followed by the word "account," for example "youtube account." Ads will show up first, followed by search results. I looked up pinterest and wikihow explained how to sign up, use, find resources, and link a pinterest account to facebook and twitter. There are also advanced how-to posts. Google is also quite helpful in this regard. Any question you have has probably already been answered. Just type it in. I have discovered amazing solutions.

[Multimodal London at bikeshare station.]

For those new to social media, TCRP Synthesis 99: Uses of Social Media in Public Transportation offers a glossary of social media types and terminlogy as well as the case studies quoted above. Especially well done are the examples of making engagement with transit fun for riders, such as posting transit music performances on Youtube. The Long Island Railroad “mind the gap” rap music campaign illustrates the point. Remember to use various media as well as webpages to draw attention to such campaigns.

It is not difficult for transit agencies and technical assistance centers to use social media. Particular uses are the youtube examples above. LinkedIn can be useful for publicizing  employment openings and to communicate with individuals. Some agencies tweet a contemporaneous record of meetings open to the public. Some agencies tweet for all routes and services, while others have separate accounts for each line. Facebook pages are used for whole transit agencies or for specific transit or other transportation projects. Flickr, pinterest and instagram can be used for photographs and other visual aids. Any of these can be used in conjunction with other social media. 

For specific instructions, use Google, wikipedia or wikihow. Or contact us at the National Resource Center.

[Ad for volunteer drivers in posted on a bulletin board of a church in Toddington, England.]