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How the 5th largest rapid transit system in the United States is using social media to connect with riders

A couple of weeks ago, I organized and moderated an educational session titled, “The Connected Citizen: Redefining Transportation” at the ITS America 2016 San Jose conference with an amazing group of speakers from SFMTALyftTransform  and BART.

In the session, we briefly touched on how social media has transformed the relationship between public transportation agencies and citizens. There is still a lot of discussion in the transportation industry on the limited–or sometimes lack of—social media use from government agencies. Why is this?

We live in a digital and social world:

  • 65% of adults now use social networking sites. (Pew Research Center)
  • 54% of millennials would like to see transportation options that ensure Wi-Fi or 3G/4G connectivity everywhere they go. (APTA)
  • The millennial generation, which will make up 50 percent of the workforce by 2018, chooses social media and internet/web chat as their first choice to contact a business. The telephone is their fifth choice. (Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet Trends Report)

As a marketing executive running social media marketing programs with my team, I often get asked by our industry associations to share best practices with the public and private sector on how to do social media right – [Note: check out the replay and slides of the IBTTA webinar on Website & Social Media Strategies and Analytics I helped put together last year]

But, what is better than a public transit agency sharing their experiences with social media to connect with their riders?

Meet Taylor Huckaby, spokesperson for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART). Taylor is one of the communications and public relations experts behind @SFBART, more often than not ending up

as BART’s voice on social media. And that’s a lot of responsibility: BART’s estimated average weekday ridership for 2015 was 421,000, with 127 million annual trips – making BART the fifth largest rapid transit system in the United States.

Taylor accepted my invitation to represent his agency on my panel, and one could say he’s cracked the code for how public institutions should behave on social media. He was recently featured in the New York Times, Vox, Wired, the LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other media outlets that reported on BART’s humanized, honest, and successful communication strategy on Twitter.

I’m delighted that Taylor agreed to share his experience with us in this blog post. Below is our conversation:

How does BART use social media to connect with riders every day? What is the communications strategy at BART?

Government has two main priorities when it comes to communication: 1) Getting information to the people who are using services. 2) Articulating the value of those services to the rest of the population who could potentially use it, benefit from it indirectly, or contribute to it via their tax dollars.  And generally speaking, government tends to do all of these things breathtakingly poorly.

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At BART, however, we have an unusually robust external affairs department which combines on-the-ground community relations, media relations, and marketing under a single strategic communications umbrella.

In this era of increasing media fragmentation, we cannot afford to ignore any particular medium – thus, digital communication is our default alongside traditional media.

The old model of communication – where government organizations send out anodyne, pre-packaged messages into the void – is in my view not viable in an era of widespread mistrust across the demographic spectrum, but especially among millennials.  Engagement in conversation with the public is both necessary and possible – and if you aren’t speaking for your organization, someone else will fill the void. (Often people who either want your market share or perhaps wholesale destruction.)

Twitter isn’t so much a bullhorn as it is a chatroom, and that’s how the spokespeople at BART use it during crisis: to clear up confusion, and to answer difficult questions.  Beyond that, Twitter has enormous customer relations benefits for us as it lets us know when and where things are going wrong in the system, and as a means to share original human interest content.

To that end, we have a fantastic in-house production team which is certified to be out on the rails taking video of the work we do and how our system functions. It’s catnip for the “How It’s Made” crowd, and our YouTube channel is a great resource for media that is always hungry for b-roll.

What has BART learned about their riders through social media? Is there a “right way” to engage with citizens on social media? What is your perspective on this?

Our riders are savvy enough to know the difference between run-of-the-mill canned answers and true engagement – and there’s a reward for taking the time to actually talk with them.

At BART, we’ve taken the time internally to answer questions about who we are, what our tone is, what our goals are in how we communicate, and – just as importantly – who we aren’t.

People don’t want a deluge of cute from their public transportation organization, because when there’s a problem with us, it affects people’s lives in extraordinary and disruptive ways.  You can’t have cat videos and pepe memes or over-the-top emoji messages right next to police activity or a suicide.  Sarcasm doesn’t work well over the internet due to most people not picking up on it, so that’s out too.

BART is optimistic, not exuberant. BART is human, not elitist. BART is competent, but not cerebral.  BART is accessible and welcoming, but not edgy.  It’s a branding exercise worth taking, and everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to who has access to public-facing media, social or otherwise.

That is not to say you can’t have fun every once in a while, but it has to make sense. Friday afternoons on a slow news day is the time and place for a bit of lightheartedness – not really any other time.

What is most critical, long term, for government communications?

Engaging people in the political process is one of the most important communications goals any civic institution or government organization can have.  If government is unable to demonstrate its value (or “tell its story,” in buzzphrase parlance) or show people how it can be an extraordinary tool for change, other people will own the narrative of what government is, and I’ve seen firsthand how that plays out. (Badly.)

Millennials have not been immune to loud voices in the media and elsewhere that have relentlessly beat into us the message that government is bad, broken, inefficient, or outright malicious. Various news outlets have pegged what millennials care about the most in affecting change, and that’s transparency and accountability.  This is an age of the immediate fact-check, and the authoritarian structure of governance (and the expressions of that authoritarianism through bullhorn-style government communications) fosters mistrust and apathy.

If millennials don’t feel like government cares about them, or that government can’t engage with them, they will sit out of the political process and we will lose a generation of local leaders who would otherwise have the motivation to deliver on innovation.  All the transportation innovation in the world means nothing if the political structure isn’t there to accommodate it.

What advice would you have for government agencies to engage with citizens on social media?

Know thyself. Take the time to workshop and determine who your organization is. What, generally, are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your company or agency’s opportunities and threats? What words describe you? That’s your tone, and you should stick to it – and be human and honest about your shortcomings without being vapid, mean, sarcastic or provocative. Perception is reality, so perhaps bring in an outside perspective.  Also, don’t try to rebrand yourself as something you’re not.  BART is not and will never be Taco Bell or Kim Kardashian- and that’s FINE!  I’ve seen so many examples of brands and organizations trying to sound like over-eager teens on Twitter, and utterly fail at it.

Train your social media managers to have a deep understanding of how your organization works, from the ground up. Make them experts in everything, constantly training and going out into the field, and give them the ability to speak on behalf of the organization within the parameters of the brand. Hire people who have experience in public relations and/or political campaign strategy, people who are cautious yet confident, who are able to work under pressure, and who understand it’s OK to say “I don’t know, but I can find out.”

About the Author

Vice President of Marketing for Public Sector

Profile Photo of Cecile Thirion