APTA | Passenger Transport
October 25, 2010

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Agencies Discuss Responsible Use of Social Media
BY SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor

Social media—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube—are becoming facts of life that public transportation agencies must now harness, or they run the risk of being left behind. Agency representatives reported on how they use these technologies for outreach and communication purposes as part of a session during the APTA Annual Meeting.

Paulette Tonilas, FasTracks public information manager for the Regional Transportation District (RTD) in Denver, described how she brought together traditional media and new media for the purpose of adding value. FasTracks is the comprehensive RTD program that ultimately will provide 122 miles of new light rail and commuter rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit, 31 new park-and-rides, enhanced bus network and transit hubs, and renovations to Denver Union Station.

Because FasTracks is such a vast and many-sided program, Tonilas said, RTD needs to keep the public informed through numerous media. Beginning in 2007, the agency began posting videos about the project on YouTube; created a Facebook page in early 2009; and followed that up with the launch of Facebook and Twitter accounts this year.

“We had to ask ourselves a lot of questions before going live,” she said. “Was our purpose to provide information or encourage interactive communication? What was appropriate for a public agency to post? How should we create guidelines for deleting posted comments or content? What staff resources would be required and what level of commitment? How can we archive posted information?”

RTD established a few basic rules for its social media accounts before going live internally on Feb. 1 and to the general public on March 1. The agency posts something fresh on the Facebook site each day and includes a policy disclaimer regarding the removal of inaccurate or inappropriate information. At the same time, Tonilas acknowledged the support of more than 1,100 Facebook fans—many of whom post “some really amazing shots” of RTD stations—and about 550 Twitter followers.

She laid out the following guidelines:
* Set goals early in the process. Know what you’re doing and why.
* Manage resources effectively. RTD devotes eight hours per week to social media and coordinates efforts every two weeks.
* Reassess activities monthly.
* Learn from those who have come before you .
* Know how to measure your success—for example, count the number of Facebook fans or retweets by Twitter followers.

Chad Saley, public relations specialist with the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) in Salt Lake City, noted that the agency had to overcome its fears before entering the world of social media.  He asked: “Are people going to use these tools against us? What’s worth spending our time on?” UTA began feeling more comfortable when it launched a Flickr account to post photos and discovered “a huge society of transit fans already posting UTA photos.”

After UTA introduced its Twitter feed, Saley said, “we were lurkers on the site, watching what people were saying about us.” After receiving a post with questions challenging UTA, “we decided to start responding. Soon we were having conversations about UTA salaries, service, what people saw as the general inconvenience of transit.”

The result? Surprisingly positive, according to Saley. “People started out just angry and mad at us, but we saw a change in their tone. Instead of just criticizing UTA, they began conceding points,” he noted. “A lot of them—who had been regular detractors of us—just stopped posting once they realized there’s a human face behind the agency. One actually said: ‘Thank you UTA for posting back to us.’”

Ultimately, he said, UTA realized that social media—now including Facebook and three blogs—provide many benefits for a transit agency. It’s an opportunity to monitor the conversation, gain customer feedback and opinion, address critics and respond to negative press, disseminate information to the public and traditional media, and provide emergency updates.

Carolyn Young, executive director, communications and technology, for Portland’s Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet), reported on an incident related to a post by a TriMet bus operator on his blog, “TriMet Confidential.” The poster referenced in graphic terms a bicyclist he said had acted unsafely around his bus.

Other blogs immediately picked up the driver’s post, Young said, and within two hours the operator had been removed from his bus and placed on administrative leave.

The driver subsequently posted an apology, saying: “Let me tell you what I would do if I met this guy right now …. I would tell him… ‘I would never willingly harm you but brother it’s so unfair for you to use me to harm you. If I had been one moment slower on the breaks [sic], I would have never been able to drive a bus again.’” He shut down the blog and did return to work at TriMet, which disciplined him for the incident.

Young stated that “TriMet believes in employees’ right to freedom of expression, online and elsewhere.  At the same time, employees should exercise that freedom in a manner consistent with TriMet’s philosophy of transparency, integrity, and mutual respect.”

“You’re on the forefront of a new world,” said Richard L. Ruddell, president/executive director of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority in Fort Worth, TX, who moderated the session. “We all need to learn more about these media.”

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