During the recent Hurricane Sandy emergency, New York transit agencies increasingly relied on social media such as Facebook,Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube to keep customers informed. How well did they succeed? Some did quite well, others not so well, according to reporting by Ray Rivera in The New York Times (December 15). The Long Island Rail Road did especially well, according to the report, continually updating its Facebook page with Sandy information even before the storm hit, and frequently answered customers’ questions. In contrast, NJ Transit also maintained its Facebook page, but didn’t start posting photographs of storm damage until October 30, the day after the storm passed through the area. Also, while the LIRR answered readers questions quickly, NJT’s response was characterized as sporadic, even as customers remained confused about quickly-shifting temporary schedules. NJT is said to have sometimes referred them to incorrect information on the system’s Web site.
The result of all this, says Mr. Rivera, is more than better- or less-informed customers: good communications results in a “narrative of shared pain” in which riders become part of the solution, not just an audience to be kept informed. Such heads-up communication turns anger and frustration into sympathy and praise. Although NJ Transit officials defend their actions and point to their heavy use of Twitter for instant communications, the Times article concentrated on Facebook, because that medium allowed the Times to better analyze customer feedback and comments. In comparing how well the agencies responded, the article computed how many of readers’ posts and questions got responses: for the LIRR, the figure was about 50%; for NJT, only about 18%. As recovery progressed, LIRR complaints tended to focus on overcrowding on the trains that did run, a problem on all area systems, while NJT riders remained frustrated about their inability to get basic information at all: they did not know what buses and trains were even running at all, schedules were hard to find, and were sometimes too small to read, especially on smartphones.