Transportation agencies can find big audiences and opportunities in winter emergencies

As the nation recovers from this week’s arctic blast, it seems like a good time to reflect on how we fared getting around on frozen roads, tracks and trails.

Departments of transportation – whether at the local or state level – found themselves the focus of much attention, as did most transit agencies. When the weather turned brutally cold, the questions from drivers and transit riders really came down to this simple question: “Can I get where I need to go?”

Some agencies rise to the challenge more easily than others. While we can debate the many reasons for that, it is clear that over the past six or more years increasingly the tool of choice for getting out the message is social media – and primarily Facebook and Twitter.

State departments of transportation have noted for years a significant spike in followers and likes during and immediately following major weather and traffic events. Illinois Department of Transportation Community Relations Manager Brian Williamsen noted that IDOT’s Facebook page picked up more than 10,000 likes in three days due to interest in the storm and its impact on the transportation system.

Illinois DOT Facebook Photo

Illinois DOT uses Facebook to keep their customers updated on current conditions and what the agency is doing in response. Note the Facebook follower who wants to know how to send a thank you note.

“We’ve been adding posts around the clock since early Sunday morning and as a result, went from about 5,700 to more than 15,800 likes during this time,” Williamsen said in an email this week.

Washington State Department of Transportation, my former employer, saw similar spikes during storm events. Many DOTs shared the same experience in their responses during the annual AASHTO Social Media Survey.

I think there are a few things we can assume based on the public reaction during major events.

First, despite myriad options for peer-to-peer information and almost limitless social media updates from news outlets, transportation agencies – whether focused on the roadways or the rails – remain a trusted resource for information. The general public might argue about taxes or project details, but they still value public service and, for the most part, the people who dedicate their lives to keep communities moving during major events.

Communication teams must then capitalize during these events on the larger than normal audiences and the generally positive good will they enjoy. This is exactly the time that transportation agencies should turn their focus toward the people in the plow, behind the wheel of the bus or keeping the rails clear of ice and snow. This is exactly the time to emphasize the planning that goes into the event response. It is absolutely time to talk about innovation and creative thinking that can keep the system working even in the most daunting of conditions.

And, finally, social media will only grow in importance. Its ubiquity and convenience go without saying. Transportation agencies must increasingly recognize the critical nature of real-time information as a key aspect of their overall event response. That means bringing the social media staff into the room, sitting them at the table and trusting them to get the information to the right audiences.

Take a look back over the last several days of weather. If you did not think so before, it seems definitely clear now that transportation agency social media teams are serious tools for disseminating not only invaluable operational information, but also the brand building opportunities that can translate into greater overall public goodwill.

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About Lloyd Brown

I am the director of communications for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. I enjoy running marathons and triathlons, playing guitar and spending time with family. My professional interest is in how social media and new technology shapes the communication relationship between government and the general public. I have a Master’s degree in Communications and Leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Washington State University.
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2 Responses to Transportation agencies can find big audiences and opportunities in winter emergencies

  1. Reblogged this on Brian's Blog and commented:
    Some PR guy for IDOT named Brian Williamsen was mentioned in this blog post :) Had to share…it’s a look at the power of social media during weather emergencies.

  2. Thanks again for the mention, Lloyd! It is definitely appreciated.

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