Metro launches aggressive social media effort

Metro has launched an aggressive effort to spread its message via social media networks, as officials try to counter criticism that the agency is unresponsive to the public and to convince riders that it is a transparent, reliable system.

The transit agency faces increased scrutiny beneath the microscopes of Twitter, blogs and other digital venues, where riders instantly communicate about escalators that don’t move, rail cars that are too hot and waits that are too long.

Lynn Bowersox, managing director of public relations for Metro, said the agency is “building a communications infrastructure” that will enable it to be more active on social media outlets and have a “two-way dialogue with customers.”

Metro officials have used recent departures in the media relations department to bring aboard new personnel. The authority recently hired a Twitter-savvy chief spokesman and, on Friday, hired a full-time social media manager.

Metro also plans to hire two people to work in the bus control center who will send e-mail alerts about weather or traffic congestion that could cause delays, Bowersox said.

“We’re putting the people, the tools in place to give more information to more people than ever before,” she said. “It is our strategy to find out where customers are getting information and to be there. We’re putting more time and attention into those channels, where people are looking for information on their PDAs, Twitter, Facebook.”

Metro, which counts more than 1 million bus and rail trips on an average weekday, has more than 14,000 followers on its Twitter and Facebook accounts — Metro Forward and Metro Opens Doors. But many riders often complain that its alerts about service interruptions lack detail and that other services, such as its NextBus information technology, are often inaccurate.

Last month, Metro launched Metro Forward, a public relations campaign to promote a $5 billion, six-year capital program to rehabilitate the aging system. But the transit authority faces daily smackdowns in the world of social media and blogs.

Chief spokesman Dan Stessel, who joined Metro in May after serving as the senior director of corporate communications for New Jersey Transit , has discovered that there is a fire to extinguish every day when you’re running Metro’s PR shop.

While Metro has long provided e-mail alerts, it hasn’t been as engaged on social media, and riders have complained that messages are cryptic.

Stessel, 35, has waded into the conversations on Twitter, answering questions, giving details about the causes of delays and promising better alerts and overall communication, signing updates with “^DS.”

“This is about more than just getting the word out about the massive rebuilding effort,” Stessel said. “It’s about engaging customers in a two-way conversation and using every communication channel at our disposal to give customers more accurate, real-time, actionable service information.”

Most recently, he was trying to calm the storms that erupted two days last week when delays seemed to overwhelm the busy Red Line.

“Customers traveling toward Silver Spring/Glenmont, the Green Line is your better bet right now,” was one of his tweets Thursday, as furious riders complained about delays and crowds. Transit police temporarily closed the entrances to Gallery Place because of safety concerns.

“Not #wmata’s best day,” Samer Farha tweeted as the delays began to clear, “but the dissemination of information by them and others was quick and pretty much unprecedented.”

Stessel, who lives in Columbia Heights and says he typically works 10 to 12 hours a day, has become well known among those who avidly tweet every hiccup in Metro’s operations.

His engagement with social media has become so routine that some Metro followers seemed to suffer withdrawal one morning last week when he was tied up in meetings and didn’t tweet that he’d be unreachable for several hours. One Metro blogger circulated messages asking whether Stessel had left the agency.

Stessel laughed when he learned of the furor his online absence had created.

“You can’t get rid of me that easily,” he said.

On Friday, Stessel beefed up his staff by adding a social media manager. Brian Anderson, 31, has worked for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority for the past four years as manager of communications.

At SEPTA, Anderson became known for videos he made that display proper etiquette for quiet car trains and encourage commuters to not eat or drink on trains.

Anderson said he wants Metro to “keep information flowing. I want people to see Metro as a system of transparency and understand we are working for them.”

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