Government Communication & TriMet’s Winter Weather Response

Posted on February 21, 2014


Ben Kittelson talks with the Public Information Officer of TriMet, Roberta Altstadt, and shares his views on government communication.

There is a sense of distrust and anti-government fervor in the American psyche and the negative views and anti-government movements at the national level have trickled down to local governments. Everything from recall efforts to uncomfortable and hostile public meetings are present in cities and counties. Although the topics and issues surrounding these events are different and cover every aspect of local government work the common thread throughout all of this is the need for timely, informative, and interactive communication from government. Effective communication is the solution to changing this sense of distrust in government. If government is consistently responsive, informative, and easy to work with the negative attitude about government will slowly change.

Local government is in a unique situation compared with the federal or state level, the local level of city and county government has remained popular while the approval of the other levels of government have plummeted. This is because local governments have the most direct contact with citizens and we also have the greatest impact on the everyday lives of people, from building parks to shaping how people get from place to place. Our message can have a much greater impact because of this connection, as a result we have the opportunity to change the public attitude one interaction at a time.

There are governments doing a great job of this, but more can be done and more should be done because solving this anti-government rhetoric and attitude is one of the greatest challenges of our time.  Much of what government does, especially local government, goes unseen or unnoticed, because it isn’t sexy. Governments aren’t going to get a lot of media coverage out of a remodeled waste water treatment plant, but that plant is essential to the livability and community in that City. The City of San Francisco is trying to flip the script on this by telling the story of their sewer system and its importance. Now this is all in preparation for a multi-million dollar bond measure to rebuild the system, but why can’t this public information campaign be a regular part of a City’s communications?

Governments by telling their story and informing people about the important work that they do will build a much more robust, positive support base and start to change the attitude toward government. They also need to strive to be responsive and interactive with the public. Yes this is important for elections, everything from approving a sewer construction bond to electing a productive City Council, but it’s even more important for attracting and retaining the best and brightest to work in government.

I have developed a philosophy of sorts in regard to this and I’m sure I stole parts of it from different people I have heard speak or things I have read on this issue, but I think it gets at the heart of what I’m trying to argue.

“Every time you come in contact with a citizen it is an opportunity to earn their trust and break down the stereotype that government is uncaring, slow, and ineffective.”

This grassroots solution and governments telling their story we can slowly change the attitude about government. But what does this look like? It is easy to sit here at my computer and drone one about what I think should be happening, but giving examples is much more helpful. Two weekends ago I saw the best example of this, from February 6th to February 9th a snow and ice storm hit the Portland, Oregon metropolitan region. For an area unused to winter weather this had tremendous repercussions for travel. Local governments worked long hours to get roads plowed, and we have highlighted several who communicated effectively during the storm. However, one local government, TriMet, did the best job of communicating in the a way that was timely, informative, and interactive.

TriMet, Twitter, and Winter Weather

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TriMet is the regional transportation agency for the Portland area.  It covers a three county region and was created in 1969 by the Oregon legislature. TriMet provides bus, light rail, and commuter rail services and people take 318,000 trips each weekday on TriMet lines with the service eliminating about 207,300 car trips. The transportation agency has played an important role in economic development as well with the creation of several transit oriented developments in the region, and the Portland Transit Mall which became the focus for downtown renovation.

As the snow and ice moved into the area on February 6 and as it shutdown the region over the course of the weekend, TriMet did the best job of any agency responding to citizens and answering questions. Most noteworthy was how they used Twitter as a way to communicate in a responsive, informative, and honest way. They covered everything from weather updates, service disruptions, and most importantly answered questions.

I talked with Roberta Altstadt, the Public Information Officer at TriMet to explore how they approach communicating using Twitter and what they communicated during this winter storm. She said they have a team of people who post to the account including:

They have been using Twitter since 2008 and Roberta had this to say about what prompted the use of social media:

“Originally, our tweets were very basic unplanned service alerts. Now, despite limited resources, we have been able to expand it slightly to include planned service alerts and support some of our rider news. While we have only been able to mainly use this as a one-way communication, occasionally we have been able to interact with customers. We are evaluating how we can move forward to make this a constant two-way communication channel.”

twitter convo

Even though they only use the program occasionally for two-way communication with riders the agency was responsive and timely with information during the storm. Take a look at the conversation to the right. This citizen posed a question and within five minutes someone at the agency had responded and within 30 minutes had answered their specific question. Notice they did not just answer the question with a link to general information on bus routes and times, but gave a personal response. The power behind this type of communication is hard to measure, it puts that person at ease and even for those not involved in the conversation they know that if they have a question it will be answered. This responsive interaction is the way to change stereotypes about government.

Take a look at this next interaction over Twitter and pay attention to the time stamps on each tweet. This person is forced to travel on a day when there were not many safe routes because of ice formed after freezing rain and accumulated snow. He asked his question at 8:16 am and by 8:28 am TriMet had given him all the information he needed to travel that day. Once again they used a personalized response to this citizen and it may not have been the answer he wanted or have solved his problem, but by responding quickly and honestly TriMet shows how effective and responsive government is.

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This was exactly the approach Roberta said TriMet wanted to take with Twitter. Here’s what she said about interacting with citizens on Twitter:

“We kept a close eye, monitoring tweets that had TriMet in them. When we saw an issue, we tried to get information to the person as quickly as possible. As weather worsened, it became more important than ever to help people who were out in the conditions know when the next train or bus would be coming, or give them an alternative bus or MAX line that could get them where they needed to go.”

This philosophy behind communication is exactly what is needed to change the general attitude and feeling about government. The information and communications we provide should be just as important and timely as the services we provide. Twitter can be an effective medium for this as TriMet showed. I asked Roberta a few more questions about TriMet and here was our interaction:

Talk about how you used Twitter during the winter weather. Weather updates? Road closures? Hours of operation?

hillsboronowsmallDuring the storm, TriMet activated our Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which is based on the Incident Command System that the Federal Emergency Management Association has developed. As the EOC, we had a communications lead, known as Information Officer (IO), in the EOC. The main lead in that position was Inessa Vitko, customer information manager (also an ELGL member). Jessica Bucciarelli, senior coordinator of employee communications, also spent time in this role. With the IO based in the EOC, she was able to feed information to two other vital positions: PIO and electronic information lead (EIL). Jennette was the lead on EIL and tweeted service impacts, answered customer questions, helped with trip planning, etc., from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dave Whipple and Jonathan Hendryx filled the role from 3 p.m. through 9 p.m.

Do you feel Twitter was an effective/efficient way to get in touch with citizens about weather related issues? What other ways did you get out the message?

Twitter definitely was both an effective and efficient way to reach our riders who use it. We would like to do more customer service interaction via Twitter, but resources currently do not allow that.

In addition to pushing out information on Twitter during the storm, we posted on Facebook and emailed and texted alerts to our subscriber groups. We have groups who subscribe to alerts for all TriMet bus and rail service, just for MAX service, or for individual bus lines. We also posted service alerts on our website service alert page and through our on-street digital displays at MAX platforms and some bus stops. Our PIO team sent numerous updates to media throughout the storm, in an effort to reach more of our customers.

Give us two tips for using Twitter during a winter weather event.
  1. Listen to what people are asking for. When someone was standing out in the cold, we did our best to get service information out to them as quickly as we could. Our focus was on getting everyone to their destination safely. We also passed along information from the riders to our operations team and that helped inform some of the service decisions being made.
  2. Continous updates were important since information changed very quickly, especially as bus routes detoured or switched to snow route, and MAX lines experienced delays or disruptions.
What are your favorite Twitter accounts to follow?
What was your favorite snow related hashtag?

The team is a big fan of #pdxtst and the crowd-sourced weather info and, on the light side,  #snowpocalypse and #snowlandia.

Sr. Budget & Management Analyst at the City of Durham, North Carolina. ELGL Board of Directors. Producer & Co-Host of the GovLove Podcast. Would rather be walking his dog Franklin.

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