Agencies that use Twitter to respond to users’ complaints or answer questions get more positive Twitter reaction and more civil discourse online, according to Lisa Schweitzer the author of a recent study analyzing tweets of public transit agencies.

“It’s about the marketing potential of social media — a lot of public transit agencies are simply tweeting their problems to the world by blasting out late service announcements. That’s not a good use of Twitter,” she says.

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“Transit agencies can influence the tone of the discussion by interacting with patrons online,” Schweitzer explains. “It gives people something to respond to, and it reminds people that somebody is listening.”

'The hardest job in Boston’
Interacting with patrons online is a practice that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) is well-versed with. In a six-week period during this winter’s snowstorms that battered the Northeast, close to 200,000 tweets have been published with the @MBTA handle or using the #MBTA hashtag, up from 40,000 in the same period last year, according to a story, which deemed managing MBTA’s Twitter account “the hardest job in Boston.”

The @MBTA Twitter account is currently managed by three public information officers who cover the account from the early morning to the late evening seven days a week. I reached out to MBTA’s Public Information Officer Lisa Battiston to find out their strategy for dealing with complaints and negative tweets.

The comments tweeted to MBTA’s account run the gamut, she says. “We respond to service- and safety-related issues, questions about service in general, maintenance issues on vehicles, and safety concerns.”

While they do receive negative comments, they also receive lots of positive comments and commendations about frontline staff, Battiston adds.
Turning negative into positive
Negativity can be challenging, but it’s been important for the agency to view negative comments as something they can help with — this is true both during the storms and during regular operations, she says.

“For the @MBTA account, we’ve found that a huge number of our customers are on social media, letting us know exactly what they’re experiencing as they’re experiencing it,” Battiston says. “We find it really rewarding to engage with our customers as it’s happening — even if/when the exchange begins with some negativity — and be able to affect their commute in a positive way.

When asked what advice she had for transit agencies dealing with negative comments via Twitter, she says, “My advice would be to join the conversation!”

The social media team at SEPTA is in agreement on that point and suggests the following Twitter etiquette for social media managers:

•    Stay conversational
•    Answer individual questions
•    Respond as quickly as possible
•    Be transparent
•    Differentiate people complaining from people who have problems that you can fix
•    Use two-way communication
•    Don’t just send out service announcements

(This was originally published in the April 2015 issue of METRO Magazine.)

About the author
Janna Starcic

Janna Starcic

Executive Editor, METRO Magazine

Janna Staric was previous the Executive Editor of METRO Magazine.

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