Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro strains to talk but struggles for clarity among many channels

May 25, 2012 - 09:43 AM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

WMATA promised a revolution in its communications a year ago. The transit agency was in the midst of rebuilding efforts under new General Manager Richard Sarles and one of the major talking points was the creation of a "two-way conversation" with the system's riders. Sarles brought in chief spokesperson Dan Stessel from New Jersey a year ago and social media manager Brian Anderson from Pennsylvania a few months after that. The City Paper ran a cover story around that time on how the agency was positioning itself to kick open dialogue. So where are we now?

Metro communications is far richer than it frequently had been in the past and yes, more open — but the strategy also tends to be messy and not tightly coordinated in any real sense. The Riders' Advisory Council has challenged the effectiveness of this communication in a letter to WMATA, presented to the Metro Board of Directors yesterday, with suggestions that Metro create a periodic CEO Report, WMATA monthly newsletter, and Monthly Chairman's Report, as well as an outlet for riders' questions. But would these experiments really help WMATA communications? The agency's greatest sin appears to be its desire to experiment without necessarily following through. We see that most clearly in the number of different communication channels, in large part inspired by the challenge of how to convey the six-year Metro Forward campaign. Let's review.

BLOGGING

WMATA maintains three blogs on top of its regular series of press releases and media alerts. Yes, three ... and they're updated rather infrequently at best. The reasoning behind the three is fuzzy. First there's the Metro Forward blog on the WMATA website itself, which ceased posting updates in fall of last year. These posts presented a playful tone directed at the regular business of WMATA and the headlines display a marked difference from any press release: "We know single tracking slows your roll," "Metro’s Addressing an Escalating Problem," or a post about how shoes and other items get caught in Metro escalators ("Yes, they’re hungry, but they have highly specific dietary needs and shoes have no nutritional value"). What voice was this now? People following the transit agency saw a change when these posts began appearing last summer.  The last blog post here was Aug. 18, 2011 out of about a dozen total.

Then came the Metro Forward blog on Posterous, which launched on June 14, 2011. WMATA has posted 49 updates on Posterous, mostly in 2011 starting in the fall and sporadically in 2012. The Posterous posts focus on, sensibly enough, the Metro Forward track work, with details on what was happening, promoting the explanatory videos, and so on. Up until Thursday of this week, the Posterous blog had received no updates since March 14. Perhaps the Riders' Advisory Council letter prompted WMATA communications to resume these posts? "The Council encourages the Authority to more fully utilize its already-established blog, which, as of April 14, 2012, had only six posts written since January 1, 2012 and was last updated in mid-March," Kelsi Bracmort, RAC chair, writes in her letter. "Considering the breadth of operational, budgetary, policy, and customer-service issues the Authority faces on a day-to-day basis, the RAC feels that there is no shortage of content of interest to customers." Today, as if by magic, a Posterous post on Red Line track progress appeared. The third blog is PlanItMetro, which belongs to WMATA's Office of Long Range Planning and like the Posterous blog, exists on its own website. It's wonky, fun, sporadically updated, and has a voice distinct from the rest of WMATA as it delivers posts on the agency's biking and pedestrian plans, thoughts on how to expand the rail in decades future, and other studies since it began in October of 2010.

Although PlanItMetro may continue to thrive as its own quirky destination, the other two blogs should receive a little more focus and unification if Metro plans to use them to communicate what's happening on the system. Why bother if not? They feel half-hearted in their current incarnation but have real potential with the right commitment. If WMATA intended to switch its Metro Forward updates from the WMATA site to Posterous, fine. But link to the Posterous blog. Tell riders who come to the WMATA site. If you search for Posterous on the WMATA site, guess how many results you come up with. Spoiler alert — it's zero.

TWITTER

My God, what to say on Twitter? The RAC advises splitting up WMATA's Twitter functions "to differentiate between service advisories and news updates, agency information, and additional staff commentary and information" but I'd suggest the bigger problem involves the way WMATA splits its @WMATA primary account (28,282 followers) with its @MetroForward account (2,349 followers) as it is. Like the Posterous blog, the @MetroForward account has been dead since mid-March (last tweet: March 21) and failed to serve much purpose beyond the more robust @WMATA account that far more people pay attention to. In February of 2012, the @MetroForward account tweeted a total of two times! Why not fold the broader promotional mission of this account into @WMATA? One virtue, speaking of handles, is that the new WMATA communications team did nix the old @MetroOpensDoors handle in favor of @WMATA in the past year.

And does WMATA engage with riders on Twitter? Not always consistently but yes. The agency doesn't treat the account as a 24/7 customer service outreach, which given the staffing, makes sense, but the agency responds on occasion despite prominent failures of use in the past. The rare glorious moment occurs. Staff attempt to stir the crowd, too, as with a Rush+ Twitter photo contest this spring. The biggest challenge of Twitter is that this social media channel drowns, quite frankly, in aggression and bile. Many rider complaints are legitimate — the recent "uncommanded" door opening on the Red Line train was alarming, for instance. But the #WMATA hashtag has, increasingly over the course of the last half year, devolved and made any hope of conversation all the more difficult. That said, WMATA should continue to make every effort to monitor and respond to its riders. These conversations are a key part of accountability, which is sometimes lacking.

YOUTUBE and FACEBOOK

Here's where WMATA has truly developed a new and stronger presence and shined in the last year. The Facebook page successfully offers its fair share of track work reminders and videos as well as more playful engagement like providing old Metro photos from years past. Brian Anderson has delivered a variety of useful, fascinating videos that do help illustrate WMATA's projects, such as the recent Bike & Ride facility at College Park. The Riders' Advisory Council rightly lauded the several Rush+ videos the agency released this spring. In the past year, the Metro Forward Facebook page has risen from zero followers to nearly 3,500 and for good reason. It's hard to believe that WMATA only joined Facebook on June 13, 2011.

VERDICT

In the past year, WMATA has successfully raised awareness for its Metro Forward campaign and presented an array of new updates. These updates, however, are inconsistent and what WMATA needs more than new CEO Reports and Chairman's Reports is a commitment to its existing channels in a way that riders can trust. There's always more experimentation possible — why not create Pinterest and Tumblr accounts while the agency's at it, right? But any effort should receive the appropriate level of commitment and not wind up abandoned for months. Overall, WMATA's deeper problems concern how its service flails amid its repairs and a lack of accountability, and the past year has included a complicated mix of events — uncovered corruption and neglected defibrillators come to mind on the one hand, and on the other a new responsiveness, evinced in the quick reception to sexual harassment concerns (and what seems to be an active, engaged response executed in good faith). But the slow, evolving communications revolution is a valid dimension of the D.C. transit agency's past 12 months. Clearly the efforts are still messy and ongoing but they're demonstrably there (if sporadically), with a growing number of followers across all these accounts to show for it, not to mention the half dozen town hall meetings before the fare hikes, meetings on bus lines, fanfare about surveys and rider feedback (recall how Farragut Crossing got its name?), and public events designed to share Metro news. Other little stabs at transparency have followed, too, as WMATA again releases a monthly police blotter of transit crime and daily listing of rail problems as of early 2012. The agency attempted to set up a new alerts system with MetroAlerts. The communications staff have attempted to make the WMATA site more user-friendly. Good steps.

Yet a transit agency's communications is tricky. Sometimes these moves leave people shaking their heads at the impression of marketing and PR, not walking away feeling any more connected or understanding. WMATA now needs to tighten its commitment to specific channels and really develop a human, open, and consistent voice that convinces its riders that the agency is listening and engaged and not entirely a PR flourish. What remains is a deficit of trust.

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