One of the most exciting opportunities offered to government agencies by social media was the potential to increase how well they communicated with the general public. After more than 10 years of Facebook and Twitter, and dozens of other social media channels, the question is worth asking: Are we any better at engaging with the public than we were at the turn of the century?
State departments of transportation, and other state and local transportation agencies have long used social media channels to communicate about road conditions, transit disruptions, weather impacts, project meetings and safety messaging. In fact, we celebrate many of their efforts here at Talking Transportation, highlighting the bold, the funny, the thoughtful and the impacting.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll suggest that government agencies are doing a good job of sharing information about the basic elements of operating a transportation system.
After a lawsuit was filed against the Trump Administration for blocking Twitter users, the Lansing State Journal decided to look at government accounts in its home state. It found that state agencies had blocked accounts.
A few paragraphs into the story, there was this line that pointed directly at the state DOT:
“Records show that while some government accounts didn’t block anyone, the dozen accounts associated with the Michigan Department of Transportation blocked a combined 550 individual Twitter handles.”
Transportation organizations have important information to share with the traveling public. That’s especially true during natural disasters when maintenance crews and first responders are often the first people surveying damage and assessing the status of infrastructure leading to people’s homes and businesses.
The White House is there. Departments of health have accounts. Even departments of wildlife and interior have created Snapchat accounts. But state DOTs are still not embracing the fast-growing social medium popular with teens and young adults.
The exception is Mississippi DOT, which in April partnered with a local Mississippi-based creative firm Godwin Group to engage youth and their parents at a safety fair in Jackson.
I never realized how dangerous it was for teen drivers to climb behind the wheel until recently when it was time to teach my teenage son how to drive. Not even when I was a young person did I fully appreciate the myriad distractions, and the literally non-stop decision-making necessary for someone to drive safely on our roadways.
Driving is not easy. Perhaps that’s why more than 32,000 people are killed in roadway crashes each year. That’s a staggering amount by any measure.
State DOTs and other public safety organizations around the country are doing their part to try and get all of us – the experienced driver and the young person – to imagine a future when no one dies on America’s roadways.
Under the banner “Toward Zero Deaths,” a coalition of transportation organizations have decided that our national target goal for roadway deaths should be less than one.
Many state examples of public outreach campaigns touting the target goal can be found online. Mississippi Department of Transportation recently launched its web site and it features a game show-themed video asking regular people safety related messages.
Mississippi’s video follows the lead of states like Utah, Iowa and Nevada by asking people how many deaths are acceptable on the nation’s highways. Then they ask, how many deaths are acceptable in that person’s family. Of course it’s zero.
I have always considered it clever and effective to make the issue of safety intensely personal. But nothing makes the topic as effective as climbing into a vehicle with a young driver.
The use of humor in social media spaces has for some time been an acknowledged strategy for building an audience. And, most people would agree that it is hard to build excitement or interest in dry lectures about best practices.
The Washington State Department of Transportation last month decided to leverage the holiday season to make a few points about driver behavior by crafting their messages under the guise of celebrating Festivus, the fictional holiday featured in the Seinfeld comedy series of the 1990s. Part of the “traditional” Festivus celebrations includes the “airing of grievances,” along with displaying feats of strength.
[Full disclosure: I formerly worked for WSDOT and as a former state resident generally follow their social media channels.]
So WSDOT took to Twitter Dec. 23, 2015 and announced it was celebrating Festivus 2015 by airing a few grievances. Jeremy Bertrand, WSDOT’s digital and social media guru, reported that the “grievance” airing went well and that from WSDOT’s perspective the public enjoyed the messages, and in some cases joined in by airing grievances of their own.
By using the Festivus theme WSDOT was able to highlight risky behaviors, bad habits and other actions that typical motorists sometimes use that contribute to safety concerns and maintenance issues. This is not the first time a state DOT has talked about these issues, but using humor and connecting with a pop culture event like Festivus helped communicate the messages in a more acceptable way.
It’s common throughout the transportation industry to make data available for private use. And, that data often end up presented in mobile apps. No surprise, if a department of transportation or local transit agency has rapidly, or even regularly updated data that includes route conditions, a mobile public wants to know.
The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority not only makes its data available to those who build apps, it went a step further and asked its customers which app they find most useful. Then, based on the customer feedback, established a handy summary chart, that not only lists the most popular apps, but where people use the app and the features that customers find most helpful.
Not only does MBTA seem as if it’s listening, it also is providing an additional service for its customers. Which, by the way, beats the alternative.