Public transport organisations around the globe are increasingly adopting social media strategies as they begin to realize its potential for providing updated travel information and outstanding customer service. The immediacy of social media can foster a more direct interaction with passengers and change public perception for the better. Yet, implementing an effective social media strategy is a complex exercise with many challenges for large scale organisations and networks. All the more reason for the International Public Transport Organization (UITP) to dedicate the latest edition of their members magazine to social media in the public transport industry.
In the issue Andrew Bata shares his experience as the chief for strategic improvements and best practices at MTA New York City Transit. Mr Bata sees the adoption of a social media strategy as a necessity: “For public transportation agencies as much as any other organization, using new media to communicate is no longer a side project. Agencies that have been moving trains and buses for more than a century cannot view their customers’ expectations as a distraction: smartphones and Facebook are woven deeply into our customers’ lives, and thus need to be woven deeply into our operations.”
Mr Bata also gives some insights into the cultural shifts that a move to social media communication requires. Providing travel information is no longer a matter of just putting information out there. In the era of growing smartphone ownership and communication on-the-go, customers expect a two-way conversation and a prompt response to queries and complaints. While people understand that delays and disruptions can happen, there is little appreciation for a lack of information on travel alternatives. It is also the chance for a transport service provider to convey a personality and show the travelling public that the network is operated by human beings.
“Customer information need to be accurate, clear and concise”, says Mr Bata. And there are enough examples out there for the backlash transport operators are facing on social media platforms if information is not provided in this manner.
Yet, other examples show that a thoroughly implemented social media strategy can make all the difference – even in the worst case scenario. The New York Times ran an analysis on different social media strategies adopted by transport operators in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. And some transport operators managed to shine with their communication efforts against all odds. “The Long Island Rail Road conveyed a narrative of shared pain, of workers fighting back against unprecedented damage that was beyond their control. Passengers frequently and vociferously critical of the railroad suddenly sympathized and even praised communication efforts that, if not perfect, were viewed as improved,” writes Ray Rivera.
It is a drastic example; however it highlights one of the central customer service lessons in the connected world: Using social media simply as a means to broadcast your messages is unlikely to lead to better customer service results. It takes real long-term commitment and an organisational voice that dares to engage with customers on a personal and human level to bring about an improved public perception.