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An interview with the realest social media managers in public transportation

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'Our system has reached the end of its useful life'

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Wednesday, San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) experienced an electrical issue that took out a portion of track, forcing the agency to use a fleet of loaned buses to transport passengers and causing massive delays. Naturally, riders took their frustrations to Twitter, complaining about the near-constant service disruptions and the nagging feeling that things are only about to get worse for transit customers. But then a strange thing happened: BART started talking back.

The tweets weren't bland or automatically generated. They were super real, and sometimes super dark. The agency's communications team behind the tweetstorm said it was a tactical move to both acknowledge the deplorable state of San Francisco's underfunded subway system and prove to residents that their government was aware of the issue and doing everything in its power to fix it. Alicia Trost and Taylor Huckaby, BART's communications team, spoke to The Verge about using Twitter to engage angry riders directly.

So what preceded this tweet frenzy? What were you responding to?

Trost: We had to shut down a portion of the track and run buses instead, and BART doesn't own buses. We have to borrow them from other transit agencies. And it's really rare for us to close down sections of tracks and offer buses. I know it happens a lot in other areas of the country. We run trains until literally there's an emergency and we can't run trains. We had this bus bridge because we had damaged 50 cars because of an electrical issue.

Huckaby: Fifty train cars.

Trost: The media was obviously very interested. I realized our Twitter feed hadn't acknowledged it. We have a Twitter feed that's dedicated solely to service advisories. And it's automated. There's no human behind it. Because people say, "We don't want to hear from BART. We just want to know if the train's delayed." So we keep it a separate feed for those who just want that information, plus it doesn't clog up our Twitter timeline of messages we want to put out. But we want to at least acknowledge that something massive is going on. Once we realize we hadn't acknowledged it, Taylor jumped on and just started responding to people.

So Taylor, what happened?

Huckaby: This isn't the first time we responded this way. During crises, I'm usually in front of the keyboard responding to people individually in that tone of voice. It just so happened that one tweet about a large portion of our system reaching an end of its natural life is our reality now got over 600 retweets. And it took off from that one particular tweet. It's sort of the secret sauce of virality. I'm not really sure how it happened, but it did, and I'm glad it did. It sparked a conversation about the state of infrastructure in BART and in America as well.

It doesn't seem like a lot of transit agencies engage users this way on Twitter.

Trost: They're doing basic customer service, like "Thank you, we've passed this along to our team member." Of course we do that good old fashioned customer service as well.

Huckaby: The standard, say-nothing stance from government comes from a very deep seeded risk aversion. They don't want to put any tone or voice or personal response. There's just a lot of institutional reservedness from government. And the side effect of that is it makes government look incompetent. Whenever government doesn't respond quickly out of risk aversion, we're trying to keep ourselves from looking incompetent, but then inadvertently doing it anyways. So for a government agency to reach out and talk to people, it was definitely a fireside chat kind of moment. We have the technology that allows us to reach the people where they're at and give a new dimension to government. I think government organizations need to take that opportunity and do that. It doesn't do the public any good to not have a responsive government.

How did the conversation unfold? Did you have to censor yourself, since you were tweeting from a government-owned Twitter account?

Huckaby: Not particularly. A lot of people doing social media for government right now are one step above interns. They don't have the institutional know-how to really engage customers in a way that's relevant and answers their questions. As a spokesperson for BART, we pow-wow pretty frequently and talk about BART's tone, what BART means to people, what our brand is, how we're supposed to sound to the public. I'm relatively new but I've worked here for a year. I feel comfortable talking candidly. BART's infrastructure is complicated. Our needs are complicated. Our funding structure is complicated. Our political structure is complicated. So it takes a long time to learn the ropes here and do it in a competent way where you can engage customers honestly.

The tweet about "reaching the end of its life," that's a brutally honest way of looking at it. What inspired you to take that tone?

Huckaby: We've been using that phrase for years now.

Trost: Even on Twitter.

Huckaby: I did see people saying that was "nihilistically honest" which was amusing because the whole point of this was, public transportation is necessary, investment in public transportation always pays off. But that wasn't a particular tone choice. We've been using that phrase for a very long time. The right people were listening at the right time and thought it was poetic enough.

What were you able to accomplish by jumping in at this moment and responding to people? Do you plan on doing this during non-emergency settings?

Huckaby: We plan on continuing the conversation. People are starting conversations on their own about the importance of infrastructure and what it means to them. That's the most exciting thing for me is having been part of or sparking a latent conversation about infrastructure needs in the United States. It's very humbling to have been a part of that. Infrastructure isn't sexy. It's only interesting when it's new or falling apart.

Speaking of sexy, did you remember to logout of the BART Twitter feed before you started tweeting sexy pictures again?

Huckaby: [laughs] I don't tweet sexy pictures. My accounts are all separate.