Social Media in the Public Sector session at Rail~Volution 2011

Last month I was pleased to be able to attend the Rail~Volution 2011 conference, primarily because it was held here in DC. One of the most useful sessions for me was a panel entitled Social Media in the Public Sector. I only took a few brief notes but the lessons I took from the panelists–however fragmented–are relevant to being a planning practitioner and a social media practitioner these days, and to the work where those roles overlap.

Mary Beth Ikard, Communications Director, Nashville MPO: (@marybethikard and @nashvillempo on Twitter)

With donations as a metric of mobilizing on social media, for example, Save Darfur pages on Facebook rank very low. But they are not only intended to raise funds; success also translates to fans that attend events, get the word out about the issue at hand, and so on. This is more like word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM). People using social media for political/civic activity are more likely to participate in in-person political activities than other internet users, which makes sense.

Content management for the 2035 Nashville-area Transportation Plan consisted of three major policy initiatives: a bold new vision for mass transit, support for active transportation and walkable communities,  and preservation and enhancement of strategic roadways (a “fix-it-first” approach). It’s important to think like the reader and narrow your focus when undertaking this task: “the verb is the story. Think short, simple, active, positive.” Don’t assume that everyone is super interested in your topic.

On Facebook pages, Mary Beth offered the following advice: 1) Think broadly: a national and international audience is on Facebook even though her organization serves only Middle Tennessee, so she posts policy initiatives and other topics that can apply broadly to other places. 2) Don’t be a bore: be conversational and entertaining and humorous when necessary; don’t use jargon. 3) Don’t be afraid to get wonky for the self-selected people that do want to delve deeply into transportation topics, including technical details. 4) Tell people you’re actually on Facebook at every opportunity, including unlikely advocates. 5) Tag organizations and people, to increase your exposure on the medium. 6) Have a Web 2.0 policy in place before you begin, because abusive/spam/off-topic posts are very likely to come. Don’t feel the need to respond to abusive posts,  but moderation is okay and even beneficial to your page.

On Twitter: 1) Take the pulse on what’s being said about your organization, e.g. rankings of Nashville as “city with the worst commute” will translate to specific conversations about that. 2) Identity matters: have the spatial place in your handle, and explain in your biography line how that’s relevant. 3) Who’s tweeting? Someone with a PR/communications background helps to get the right tone and know the value of news. 4) Stroke egos: tell people what’s in it for them if they follow and engage with this account. 5) Twitter works well for breaking news so use it as a medium to get quickly word out about newsworthy items, with details to follow later via URLs. 6) Accessible + authority = trust 7) Be timely and active, and no automation! Users can tell when tweets are automated, and tend to be turned off by this lack of a human touch.

If you need to prove the value of social media, metrics are useful. In bit.ly, you can do this effectively to track clickthroughs (as can similar tools). Using the official Census hashtag during a press conference, for example, helped get her more. Google Analytics also help you figure out your readers’ likes and behavior on your website.

Katie Sihler, Program Director, goDCgo: (@goDCgo on Twitter)

goDCgo is an initiative of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), promoting transit (especially the relatively new Circulator bus routes) and the Bikeshare system to get people to change their behavior when they travel. Keys to success include: identify your voice, capture people that don’t have anything to do with your topic (to make as broad an audience as possible), be timely and efficient, contribute something new, and always consider social media part of your brand identity.

Katie mentioned that goDCgo has marketed days like Walk to School Day and Take Transit to Work Day, plus released new bike maps and other newsworthy items via Twitter. On their Facebook page, there are 1-2 posts a day but they also have other content, like photos and events, intermingled with these. Negative information shouldn’t be deleted if it’s accurate; truly listen to what it is and try to deal with people one-on-one and take that conversation offline.

Tauni Everett, Senior Social Media Specialist, UTA: (@taunitweets and @rideUTA on Twitter)

Five social media best practices from Tauni, including lessons learned from the private sector:

1) Dedicate time and resources, 2) Claim your space: UTA has three blogs so there’s somewhere to point to, including the general “Trains of Thought,” the “Mom Aboard” blog geared toward stay-at-home moms and families using transit, and the “Urban Ticket” blog on things to do and see via trains. On some social media sites, someone else had claimed the usernames “UTA” and “Utah Transit Authority” before them, so UTA started with “RideUTA” instead, and the Youtube account for “RideUTA” taken by a Japanese band so they have “UTARide,” 3) Listen and observe: they use HootSuite to track the conversations online about , 4) Engage your audience: UTA engaged in an online Twitter chat as a new type of public hearing, and has held social media news conferences, 5) Use metrics: influential blogs that link back, RTs, @ replies, and responses, and FB shares + “people talking about this” all give you important data on your followers and fans.

Finally, of note is that the UTA uses Foursquare, the location-based social media tool. When users “check in” to transit stations, UTA offers information about it and nearby attractions. This is an innovative way to get engagement with transit riders while people are using the system, rather than after they return home and might not be thinking about it.

I asked the panelists a question on how to move beyond superficial participation into true engagement when using social media. Katie mentioned that it can be a good way to receive public comments, but the concern is how you catalog and track interactions with users on social media, i.e. is it put in a different database than other public comments? Is there a follow-up strategy? Tauni mentioned that UTA already engages with users on social media to the point where customer service is the main goal, and they use a tone that encourages people to come back and engage with them for that purpose. UTA has a customer comment management system, which always tracked phone calls and emails and formal comments, but also incorporates social media now. This success may be dependent on the agency’s IT policies, so hopefully they’re not too draconian. UTA uses targeted ads to find new hires, because they need younger workers as much of their workforce ages and retires.

I have additional posts on Rail~Volution coming up, and with luck they will be a bit less scattered than this one. However, I’m still reflecting on all that I learned from this panel and I intend to refer back to this post frequently as I build a new social media presence for my employer.

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2 responses to “Social Media in the Public Sector session at Rail~Volution 2011

  1. Jonathan, a wonderful summary here of my Rail~Volution session comments. Sorry I’m just now seeing this! Thanks for paying such great attention, and for being so thoughtful & comprehensive in sharing my Web 2.0 riffs with your online community. I see you’re doing quite well as far as “thinking like a reader.” Please let me know if I can ever be of additional help to you in your [important!] work.

    Cheers,
    Mary Beth Ikard.

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