Management & Operations

To blog or not to blog

Posted on July 1, 2005 by Steve Hirano, Editor/Associate Publisher

That seems to be the question these days. It’s become quite fashionable for individuals, organizations and commercial enterprises to use blogs to communicate with the rest of the world. For those of you who haven’t been following this phenomenon, a blog is a web-based journal that allows its readers to post comments about the entries. The best blogs are updated frequently and provide useful information and personal insights, rather than hot air and happy talk. Some transit systems, most notably the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), have taken on the challenge of publishing blogs. If you’re interested in how the CTA is reaching its customers through its blog, written by CTA Chair Carole Brown, visit http://ctachair.blogspot.com/. The blog is called “Ask Carole” and was launched this past spring to update CTA customers on the agency’s finances. A brave, new whirl
First off, I’d like to commend Carole for her willingness to put herself on the hot seat. As she puts it in a recent post: “People often ask me why I have a blog. Why would I want to have my name and picture out there for people to take pot shots at? Am I crazy?” I can’t pretend to know about Carole’s mental stability, but I do know that people have taken pot shots at her. Lots of them. One respondent chastised her for “manipulating public opinion by whipping every issue into a crisis.” Another accused her of “setting a pace to be the biggest squanderer of CTA assets in CTA history.” Sometimes, the comments are more direct and specific: “Can you tell me why it is that I had to wait 20 minutes for a train last night?” But Carole has also received some highly informed comments from Chicago transit users who obviously are more interested in improving the service than carping about its inadequacies. And she’s also gotten several compliments about her willingness to suffer the public’s wrath and respond to many of the complaints about the CTA. Is blogging for you?
So, should all transit systems offer up one of their board members or top executives as a blogger? That’s a tough question. I solicited input on this topic and discovered that many agencies have shied away from starting a blog because of the potential for attracting highly public criticism, both founded and unfounded. At one agency, an electronic bulletin board was created to answer questions about its paratransit service. “I found that statements were taken out of context and used against the transit authority in other forums,” the marketing manager said. In fact, some of the criticism contained in the forum was cut and pasted into a letter of complaint to the Federal Transit Administration. “That did not sit well with me at all,” he added. If you’re going to start a blog, you need to do it for the right reasons. It shouldn’t be deployed as a marketing tool to sway public opinion. That’s a certain road to failure. And you need to be prepared to invest a significant amount of time and energy. You can’t just post a note about, say, the need to cut service and not expect a slew of complaints, some of which will require a response. If you’re going to have a high-level executive maintain the blog, he or she should be the one to shape the content. Staff members may handle the actual phrasing and posting of notices, but they shouldn’t be the de facto blogger. Your riders have a wealth of great ideas about how to improve the service. Some of them are far too costly to implement; others might be worth some serious consideration. A blog can be an excellent tool to solicit feedback about the quality of your service. Just be prepared, the rants will far outnumber the raves. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good job; it means that people are, well, people.

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