By Denis and Mark Eirikis
In just the past few years, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and blogging have rapidly become some of the most powerful and effective tools a transit agency can use to engage their current and potential ridership as well as other important stakeholders. In what started as a trickle, now more than 50 transit agencies in the United States have some form of social media presence. Large transit agencies such TriMet, DART and BART, as well as many smaller agencies, have leveraged social media in a way that projects a more friendly and personal face for transit to the public.
In the world of public relations, a home run used to be defined as landing a favorable article in the daily newspaper or a nice feature segment on the local television news. But that scenario has faded into the dust bin of history. Readership has declined so rapidly that now only 13 percent of Americans buy a daily newspaper. Viewership of local television news also continues to decline as the American public changes the way it learns about your transit agency.
The sea change to social media away from traditional media has been dramatic. A single social media Web site, Facebook.com, now enjoys more than twice as many American viewers daily as all newspapers in the United Sates combined.
Unique Aspects of Social Media
It is ironic that one kneejerk reaction to the new media is the misperception that an agency may lose control of the message with riders posting comments. Savvy communications professionals see things differently. “The advent of social media has helped me change my strategy as a communications professional,” states Houston Metro VP of Communications and Marketing George Smalley. “Before I had to urge the news media to carry my messages but they were always filtered and sometimes distorted. Now I have new media available to send my messages directly to my audience.”
Age-old problems of reporters getting the facts wrong or misquoting are solved by social media. This may even be more important during these days of widespread decline in the quality of reporting by traditional news media. Newspapers around the country are cutting staff and experienced reporters are being laid off. For example, one Florida newspaper recently forced its experienced transportation reporter into retirement. The replacement reporter is inexperienced, unfamiliar with public transportation issues and covers many topics, transportation being only one.
The benefits of social media to the mass transportation community include:
- Communicate directly, not filtered or distorted.
- Less expensive than traditional forms of advertising.
- Communicate in real time, transit agencies can “tweet” riders when delays might occur.
- Create an interactive dialogue with those most interested in hearing about your agency and services.
Founded in 2006, Twitter has astonished the critics and has quickly become a part of the vocabulary of most adults. Still one of the fastest growing social media services, Twitter has become an integral part of the public relations and marketing efforts of dozens of large transit agencies.
Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) was the industry’s first adopter to Twitter. Melissa Jordan of BART says, “I think Twitter humanizes our brand. That comes up quite a bit in the feedback we get from customers, they feel a more personal connection when they can communicate with us in real time, and know that we’re listening and answering their questions. So it’s helped to align with the strategic brand initiative that we have of making BART more approachable, friendly, modern and dynamic.”
The nature of Twitter allows members of the public to easily tweet a message to an agency, and the agency can tweet back a reply. The result is that the concerns of the community can be publically addressed on Twitter. This simple action goes a long way to create a more favorable public impression of the agency. People appreciate it when they feel like their concerns are heard and addressed, and not simply ignored.