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‘Town Hall to Twitter’ session tackles social media benefits, obstacles

Posted on October 5, 2011

Social media’s benefits and pitfalls as tools for transit operations to connect with the public were discussed in the “From Town Hall to Twitter: A New Era in Customer Communications” session held on Tuesday.

Linda Watson, president/CEO of Austin, Texas’ Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, moderated the session, sharing her agency’s experience with using Twitter to make CEO interviews available to the community online and received an overwhelming response. “As the new CEO, I understood immediately that I needed to engage in traditional and non-traditional ways in the community,” Watson said.

Panelists weighed in on ways they have successfully employed social media and the challenges they encountered. Richard Davey, Secretary/CEO MassDOT, discussed the agency’s “GM for a Day” program on Twitter, which invited tweeters to shadow MassDOT staff for one day, and turned some chronically complaining posters around with a new understanding of the complications of a transit system. 

Davey added that Twitter “saved the MBTA” last winter, when a severe snow storm crashed the agency website. The staff was able to tweet updates on service changes to riders.

Bill Velasco, board member Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), holding up his smart phone, underscored the point that, with social media, “All the stuff you can do is right here.” Jacqueline Lewis Halldow, chief of staff, NJ Transit, agreed, adding that the results of the agency’s most recent customer survey showed that out of the 19,000 customers surveyed, 87 percent use the mobile devices.

Reaching out and getting feedback from Twitter and other social media works best when used along with face-to-face interaction with the community, Lee Kemp, board member Denver Regional Transportation District, said.

A Twitter audience can be particularly helpful to a transit operation, Davey said, by providing another set of eyes and ears on the system. MassDOT, he explained, encourages riders to tweet photos on the trains and buses to help draw attention to maintenance issues.

Joe Calabrese, CEO/GM Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, said that the downside to connecting with the public through social media is the expectation that communication will be “24/7” which can be a challenge for staff. Additionally, panelists agreed that Twitter and Facebook have not reduced print communication or phone calls.

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