Here's the New Standard for How Big Companies Should Respond to Public Criticism on Social Media

When BART's PR team got real on Twitter, it was a window into how companies could, and should, communicate about the challenges they face.
Publish date:
March 23, 2016
social media, PR, Public relations

Last week, something started to go horribly wrong on Bay Area Rapid Transit — BART, the subway system that serves the greater Bay Area, carrying hundreds of thousands more passengers daily than it was designed for in an era when single track subway systems and slow expansion seemed like a good idea. The agency has been struggling against odds like poor funding to upgrade its infrastructure, but it can't keep pace with all the problems along its tracks — like a mysterious overvoltage that's been damaging train cars, taking them out of service and forcing the organization to use bus bridges to get commuters where they need to go. The result has been a snarl of traffic in the Bay Area, and a whole lot of complaining on social media.

Here's where things got very interesting on the night of March 16, when riders were flooding @SFBART on Twitter with angry mentions, leaving Taylor Huckaby, the PR rep on duty, in a terrible bind. He needed to say something — but he wanted to say something more, getting frank with passengers about the state of public transit infrastructure in the United States and why BART, among other municipal transit, is having problems.

Shit, as they say, proceeded to get very, very real on Twitter — leading some of us to fear that someone was about to get fired to going so far off the usual accepted beaten path: Apologize, wash hands, move on.

Far from being fired, though, Huckaby was actually praised for his work, and he's opened a larger discussion not just about public transit in America, but about how corporations and other public entities should behave on social media. The parent firm he works for clearly made some smart hiring decisions.

It started with a pretty frank comment to an angry rider, and escalated from there as people complained that BART was taking an indifferent stance to the situation. Huckaby, though, wasn't trying to put riders off or ignore their problems: He was trying to educate them about what's going on with the BART system, and why it's taking so long to implement changes.

San Francisco is an incredibly rapidly growing metropolitan area, and nothing BART planners conceived of when they were developing the system could have prepared them for this. They failed to engineer redundancy into the system, instead creating a subway with a ticking clock on its viability, and attempts at increasing funding (rider fares cover some but not all improvements and maintenance across a sprawling system) have been blocked by numerous regional governments, most of which want BART service but don't want to pay for it. Except for Marin County and San Mateo County, neither of which wanted to mingle with the huddled masses*.

Bay Area Twitter was rapidly mesmerized by what was unfolding on BART's account, and it was so frank and so very public that pretty soon it was getting picked up all over the globe. Social media, so quintessentially Bay Area, is so ideal for such communications, and perhaps it's not surprising to see an employee at a Bay Area company taking to it with such relish, but Huckaby went a whole lot deeper than that with his work, turning what could have been a PR disaster (slews of angry riders and either silence or defensiveness in response) into a victory: Everyone's talking about BART now.

"This is our reality," Huckaby wrote in a story for Popular Mechanics about the experience of suddenly being thrust into the spotlight, discussing the urgent reforms we need to improve public transit in America.

Why can't other companies do the same?

Last year, Tinder attracted universal amusement when whoever was running the company's Twitter account completely lost the plot on Twitter, going into a multi-tweet tirade. The company staunchly stood by the move, saying that "We have a passionate team that truly believes in Tinder," and claiming staffers were offended by how the product was described in a Vanity Fair article. It definitely wasn't the most heinous PR gaffe in history, but it made Tinder come off as a little amateur, like that sulky subtweeting ex who goes on a rant when you post your vacation snaps on Facebook.

In 2014, DiGiorno thought it would be a super good idea to cruise up on the #WhyIStayed hashtag with joke? Look, I love pizza as much as the next person, but latching on to any and all trending hashtags and events to hawk your product is a really terrible idea. The company claimed in a followup tweet that it didn't know what the hashtag was about...raising the larger question of why reps thought it would be a good idea to post under it in the first place.

Speaking of which, Bud Light's super rapey and creepy #UpForWhatever is still live and rolling despite numerous criticisms — showing that just because a company fails epically on social media doesn't mean it will learn from being thwacked on the nose with a newspaper.

Not just modern trending events, either: Everyone and their sister takes advantage of Martin Luther King Day for an inspiring quote and product promo, September 11 is a good day to sell teddy bears, and Pearl Harbor is a great time to promote Spaghettios.

Social media teams aren't always smart about what they post and how they respond to criticism, but it's more than that: They're not always smart about transparency and opening up to product users. During Volkswagen's emissions scandal, for example, a skilled PR team could have taken to social media to update people and provide information, but didn't.

At the same time that BART was experiencing systemwide problems, the DC Metro was shut down for emergency safety inspections, and their Twitter provided little information beyond a cursory comment, leaving commuters stranded, confused, and angry.

It could have been a great opportunity for being honest about infrastructure issues, like BART was — to talk about the logistical issues behind safety inspections, why they're so important, and how personnel are working to keep the subway safe. The decision to remain opaque didn't reflect well on the system's PR team. Government agencies in general tend to fail to leverage social media to their advantage when it comes to natural disasters and other events that disrupt city life, which just causes chaos and confusion.

No one wants to spend their day yelling about public transit being terrible or inadequate communication about traffic obstructions, but when no one provides them with the information they need, it's hard to blame them.

Individual corporations also face a big transparency problem on social media, from talking openly about recalls to responding to requests for demographic transparency from advocates interested in knowing when, and if, they plan to balance their staff to make them more reflective of the real world.

What would the world look like if everyone took advantage of the tremendous tools social media has to offer and used them for the force of good, to perform outreach and education in the name of transparency? Especially when it comes to government agencies, a great deal of frustration comes from the seeming black box of it all — tax dollars go in, mysterious internal events occur, and nothing ever seems to come out the other end.

I was struck by this as I drove down to the City recently and got held up by a CalTrans signalman. I was trying to figure out what on Earth CalTrans, one of the most unilaterally hated government agencies in California, would be doing in the pouring rain and high winds — and it turned out that they were clearing a fallen tree from the road, sparing me the trouble of fishing my chainsaw out of the trunk.

Similarly, I've spotted PG&E line crews out in pitch black, high winds, and dismal rain fixing electrical problems to restore service, but you don't read about them on the company's social media accounts — instead it's promises to restore service "soon" and apologetic comments. Everyone remembers San Bruno: No one thinks about the people out keeping the lights on.

Delays in service, things that don't work, and myriad other problems are going to be frustrating no matter what, but they would be infinitely more tolerable if we understood why they were happening and, at least to some extent, could plan accordingly. Maybe understanding BART's problems means trying to work remotely for a few days, or drives someone to start going to Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors meetings to learn about more options for direct action. Or maybe it just means cutting poor BART a break on Twitter now and then, now that they've demonstrated that they're listening.

I'll leave you with this zinger.

* The story behind this is, as always, more complicated, but actually not by much.

Photo: FHKE/Creative Commons