Social media sites are so popular that even our children admit they need more time offline. For those state DOTs that are considering how to use social media sites for formal public involvement, there are a few things to consider.
First, acknowledge that at least for now, social media tactics are likely complementary to a good core program. After all, we still have to consider those who are not online. And even with more than 750 million Facebook accounts, there still are a few people who resist the urge to read their friends’ status updates and look at cute pictures of their nieces and nephews. Good social media plans rest atop solid traditional outreach programs, enhancing and enriching the opportunities for public input and, eventually, public decision-making.
It also is important for every good social media public involvement plan to be as specific as possible about what it is trying to accomplish through the use of social media. For instance, maybe the DOT project only wants to a use a Twitter account to help publicize traditional public meetings and generate interest in the project? That’s fine, but say so up front so people are not misled into thinking their pithy post on the Facebook page is going to be included in the project’s administrative record. Maybe even include a disclaimer in the account profile that includes a link for people to follow if they want to include a formal public comment.
And, for the sake of the project team, be clear about roles and expectations for teams or individual team members regarding what is acceptable to post on behalf of the project and what is not. It is never fun to change strategies in the middle of the plan, so manage the expectations. Finally, make sure and discuss what will happen when someone posts a negative or derogatory comment on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube (note: It will probably be on YouTube …). Waiting until the heat of the moment to make a decision about snarky comments is asking for trouble. Having a plan ahead of time is the best play.
If you want to take a look at a unique use of social media in formal public involvement, check out the Utah Transit Authority blog. The UTA public involvement staff used a Twitter chat to collect public comments about proposed changes to a free transit fare area in downtown Salt Lake City. The half-hour Twitter chat, which used a specific hash tag that people could follow, generated than 200 comments from 45 Twitter accounts. As a former newspaper reporter who has sat through seemingly hundreds of public meetings and hearings, 200 comments in a half an hour is pretty darn good.
The UTA also used a traditional public meeting to gather comments on the proposal. And, you can see from the blog post that the UTA does a nice job of managing public expectations by stating clearly that blog comments will not be included in the formal public record.
Editor’s note: Thanks to Tauni Everett and @RideUTA for sharing information on their public outreach program.
Also extra special thanks to Meghan Makoid and Stephanie Camay for their research into the use of social media in the NEPA process. Meghan, Stephanie and I last year co-authored a paper, “Assessment of Social Media in the NEPA Process,” that will be published in TRNews, the quarterly Transportation Research Board magazine, sometime later this year. You can view the poster version of the paper at the TRB website.