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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 77 · No. 6 > Transportation Gets Social

May/June 2014
Vol. 77 · No. 6

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-14-004

Transportation Gets Social

by Tom White

FHWA and State agencies across the country are liking their expanding use of social media.

Photo collage. Shown here is a grid of 12 photos showing a variety of transportation-related construction, research, and events. Examples include a photo of a guardrail, a roundabout, bridges, aggregate, and pavements.
Social media Web sites like Facebook and Twitter enable FHWA and other transportation agencies to share photos from events, construction projects, and research studies with their followers quickly and easily, improving two-way communication with stakeholders.

March 17, 2011, was a day for celebration. Not just with shamrocks, corned beef, and green-colored beverages--it was St. Patrick’s Day, after all--but also with posts, likes, and views. Because on that day, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) launched its first social media sites on Facebook and YouTube™.

Social media tools are dramatically changing the way people relate to each other and connect to the world around them. Even the most conservative estimates from 2013 put the total number of Facebook users at more than 500 million. Younger generations now view email as passé, preferring to interact via Facebook, text messages, and “tweets” on Twitter.

In addition, many people no longer print and keep photographs in glossy albums. Instead, they share them across the Internet using image sharing sites like Flickr. YouTube, a video-sharing site, is the second most popular search engine on the Internet--second only to Google™. YouTube’s own statistics claim more than 6 billion hours of video are viewed each month.

FHWA leadership recognizes the effects that social media use is having on people’s everyday lives and the opportunities these outlets afford for communication within the transportation world. Just a year after launching a presence on Facebook and YouTube, FHWA expanded its social media efforts two-fold by joining Twitter and Flickr in June 2012.

Here’s a look at how FHWA uses social media to help fulfill its mission and vision, and how the agency’s use of these sites has evolved over the last 3 years.

FHWA’s Approach To Social Media

Find FHWA on Social Media
Facebook http://on.fb.me/sECEWk
YouTube www.youtube.com/user/USDOTFHWA
Twitter https://twitter.com/USDOTFHWA
Flickr www.flickr.com/photos/fhwa

Social media outlets provide channels through which organizations can engage followers, build interest, seek public input, and encourage followers to take action. Not just for computers anymore, social media tools are available on a variety of mobile devices, including smartphonesand tablets, as well as on some television sets known as smart TVs. Once posted, information is available from almost anywhere at any time.

Before FHWA ever set foot in the world of social media, the agency considered many questions regarding the use of these services. Would social media be a good fit given the agency’s mission (or any Federal agency’s mission)? What are the benefits? The costs? How is social media useful in the work environment?

To answer these questions, FHWA formed a group of 12 individuals in October 2010 to study the impacts of social media, and to determine whether it would be appropriate and beneficial for agency use. The group consisted of representatives from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of the Chief Information Officer, and the FHWA Offices of Public Affairs, Chief Counsel, and Administration, among others. The group examined security and privacy concerns, discussed copyright issues, and consolidated agency messaging. After 4 months of planning and discussion, the group decided to move forward with Facebook and YouTube as FHWA’s initial social media channels. The group authored FHWA’s Social Media/Web 2.0 directive (FHWA Order 1370.14), and Administrator Victor Mendez signed it on March 16, 2011. FHWA officially launched its Facebook page and YouTube channel the next day.

Agency officials now have a better grasp on answers to concerns surrounding the appropriateness and benefits of social media use and have found that using social media helps to build and maintain relationships with a variety of stakeholders quickly and easily.

FHWA focuses its social media efforts on grassroots outreach, celebrating the agency’s successes and acknowledging the work of contributors, including State departments of transportation (DOTs) and other partnering organizations. The agency engages and interacts with its social media audiences by posting relevant, timely information about ongoing or completed projects and initiatives. Other uses include recruiting potential employees, promoting events, and sharing photographs and video clips from recent events and speaking engagements. The ability to share information quickly and receive instantaneous reactions from the public helps FHWA gain insights into what its audiences really are interested in.

Why Facebook?

Today, Facebook is one of the world’s largest and most popular social media sites. Among other things, Facebook enables individuals to share articles, photographs, and videos. The site also serves as a sort of news ticker service for its users. For example, a registered Facebook user can link to FHWA’s Facebook timeline simply by clicking the “like” button. The user, who can customize the kinds of alerts he or she gets, will then receive notifications each time FHWA posts something new on its Facebook page.

Social Media Snapshot: Caltrans


by Tamie McGowen, Caltrans Public Affairs

In a world defined by a 24-hour news cycle, where every news scoop or misstep can be magnified if it “goes viral,” officials with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) understand the new paradigm ushered in by social media and how important it is to conducting business.

Since Caltrans issued its inaugural tweet in June 2012, the account had grown to approximately 2,000 followers as of February 2014. Twitter has become an invaluable tool with which the department can share relevant information in a way that has increasingly supplanted emails and merely posting content on the Web.

According to Business Insider projections, 2014 will be the first year in which the number of mobile users will exceed desktop users, which means DOT messaging needs to be tailored to how the end user wants to receive information. Long gone are the days of the clunky fax machine, and email may not be far behind. Caltrans understands these trends and is evolving its communication strategies accordingly.

Each of Caltrans’ 12 districts also maintains Twitter accounts, with many using Facebook and other forms of social media as well. The localized feeds are ideal for rapid updates on road conditions, incident reports, and upcoming closures. Just as important, Twitter also opens a window into personalized interaction with the public by engaging users when they ask questions or voice concerns. In doing so, it helps Caltrans build an online bond, as those satisfied customers then share content, becoming a magnifier for the department’s messaging efforts.

 

Screenshot of FHWA’s Facebook page.
FHWA's Facebook account was one of its first social media endeavors, and the agency continues to use it regularly today. 508 Caption: Screenshot of FHWA’s Facebook page.

 

Social Media Snapshot: KDOT


by Steve Swartz, KDOT Office of Public Affairs

The Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) has been using social media channels since 2007, when it opened an account with MySpace. At that time, KDOT used the account exclusively for safety messaging, such as the “Click It Or Ticket” and “Drunk Driving. Over the Limit. Under Arrest.” campaigns. In 2008, the department created a Twitter account and in 2009 it added a Facebook account to expand the messaging beyond safety. At that point, the department dropped its MySpace account.

Today, each of KDOT’s six regional districts has at least one account with Facebook and Twitter, in addition to the headquarters accounts. The Traffic Safety Section continues to have its own Twitter and Facebook accounts, as does the Division of Aviation. The Public Transportation Section also has its own Twitter account. In total, KDOT has 10 Facebook accounts and 12 Twitter accounts. All together, the agency had 26,500 Twitter followers and 7,100 Facebook likes as of February 2014. KDOT also has a presence on YouTube, Pinterest, and Flickr.

KDOT uses its main Twitter account primarily for project announcements, safety messaging, pre-holiday travel tips, storm tips, some live tweeting of events and meetings, blog promotion, and links to news releases. The districts use their accounts to spread the word about lane closures, weather-related road information, public meeting notices, safety messaging, and news releases. Occasionally, the accounts will all share a statewide news release or announcement, using the full force of KDOT’s collective following. In addition, most of the Facebook accounts are set up to post all tweets automatically.

Using social media has many benefits for KDOT. For example, communicating through social media provides an interactive means for the public to ask questions and express concerns. These new outlets also reach a target audience that has proactively opted to receive transportation news. Social media also provide a direct link to Kansans without the filter of traditional media channels, such as newspapers. Traditional journalists also use these social media streams to receive information from KDOT, which helps the department spread its message further through those news outlets.

“Social media provides the public an effective and efficient means of communicating with us around the clock and from anywhere,” says Ann Williamson, public information officer for KDOT. “In turn, we can quickly address the feedback and provide citizens a greater understanding of what we do and why we do it a certain way, which can lead to greater support or, at least, greater acceptance.”

 

Screenshot of FHWA’s Twitter page.
FHWA uses its Twitter account to deliver concise messages to followers looking for information quickly.

 

Social Media Snapshot: PennDOT


by Erin Waters-Trasatt, PennDOT Press Office

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) uses Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to communicate about the many ways in which the department touches the lives of Pennsylvanians. These platforms help communicate safety information, explain department operations, educate Pennsylvanians on laws and initiatives, and serve as an interface between PennDOT and its customers.

PennDOT began its social media efforts in May 2010 with the launch of PennDOTNews, its primary Twitter account. In November 2010, the agency initiated regional travel information accounts fed by its 511 Pennsylvania traveler information system. As of February 2014, the PennDOTNews account had more than 16,000 followers, and the nine regional and statewide travel accounts have more than 21,000 followers combined.

In addition to Twitter, the department joined Facebook in September 2012 and has more than 33,000 likes today. PennDOT continues to see spikes in the number of new likes during weather and emergency events. Department officials report that Facebook has been a useful venue in which to engage customers.

PennDOT also maintains a YouTube page, which launched in May 2013. The YouTube account has more than 140 subscribers, nearly 23,000 views, and features 28 videos as of February 2014. Videos cover topics including pedestrian and bicycle safety, distracted driving, and seatbelt use.

PennDOT officials see social media tools as vital assets in furthering the department’s communications mission, and social media tactics factor into all communications plans. For example, during a recent effort to bring attention to much-needed transportation revenue, the department encouraged the public to share images showing support for funding transportation in the State. Throughout the image-driven campaign, PennDOT saw an increase in shares, likes, and conversations debating the issue of transportation funding. In the end, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a transportation funding bill.

In addition to sharing information, PennDOT responds to questions and concerns submitted through social media. In an era of escalating customer expectations, and with everything from vehicle registration to pedestrian safety to discuss, the loop of customer feedback and PennDOT responses is continuous.

 

Photo. A commuter train is shown stopped at a station with overlays on the photo that read “800,000 people use transit every day in Pennsylvania” and “I support funding Pennsylvania transportation!” The PennDOT logo is in the lower right corner.
PennDOT posted images like this one on its social media outlets to garner support for transportation funding in the State.

“It was one of the first social media platforms that we joined back in 2011, and it continues to be one of our most popular efforts,” says Diana Williams, manager of the Office of Public Communications, which is housed within the Office of Public Affairs and oversees FHWA’s Web and social media activities. FHWA shares various types of information with its Facebook audience, including news items; event details; information on new technologies, publications, and reports; employment vacancies; and other hot topics. Facebook users can comment, like, or share this content and leave feedback on FHWA’s Facebook timeline.

Why YouTube?

YouTube offers an opportunity for FHWA to share videos with both broad and targeted audiences. FHWA can share videos publically with an Internet-wide audience, or it can share videos on unlisted channels for private, targeted messaging (such as for training classes). YouTube uses a standardized video codec, a device capable of encoding and decoding a digital data stream, to reach more viewers. In the simplest terms, that means users no longer have to download multiple media players (for example, Windows® Media Player®, Apple® QuickTime®, or RealPlayer®) to watch videos created for different platforms. Instead, anyone with a computer or a smart device--smartphone, tablet, or smart TV--linked to the Internet and running on Windows®, Apple® iOS, Android, or Linux operating systems can watch a YouTube video.

Screenshot from FHWA’s YouTube video on accelerated bridge construction. The screenshot reads “Accelerated Bridge Construction” and “Slide Into Place.” A photo in the center shows a bridge under construction.
The “FHWA Works” video series is available on FHWA’s YouTube channel. The first video in the series demonstrates accelerated bridge construction techniques.

The FHWA YouTube channel has nearly 150 videos available to the public, covering topics such as National Work Zone Awareness Week, modern roundabouts, and road safety audits. FHWA also creates and shares video series, such as “FHWA Works,” which showcases how FHWA employees help and benefit the American public through the work they do.

YouTube also enables users to interact with FHWA’s content in several ways. Users have the option to subscribe to the channel and receive notifications when FHWA posts new videos. From FHWA’s YouTube page, users can watch and rate videos, leave feedback, and share or embed links to the videos on their Web sites. And, all of FHWA’s YouTube content is compliant with Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act (that is, it is captioned for the hearing impaired).

Why Twitter?

Twitter is a social networking and microblogging service that lets users broadcast messages of 140 characters or fewer to their networks of contacts or “followers.” This service enables FHWA to reach a larger audience with its messages, interact with stakeholders in new ways, answer questions promptly, and provide vital information quickly.

“Expanding our social media presence to Twitter just made sense because it is an almost expected companion to Facebook,” says Williams.

Through Twitter, FHWA posts messages to and receives messages from its network of followers. Instead of sending dozens, or even hundreds or thousands, of emails or text messages individually, Twitter sends one message to all of FHWA’s followers simultaneously. The character count limitation demands brevity and enables FHWA to disseminate quick, concise updates and brief snapshots of information.

Twitter also is the perfect outlet for information that may not be suited for Facebook, such as road closures, because Twitter is often the social media tool of choice for individuals who just want quick pieces of information. The outlet also enables followers to share FHWA’s “tweets” with all of their followers (known as “re-tweeting”), reaching an even wider audience with the messages.

Why Flickr?

Flickr is an image-hosting service that enables FHWA to share photos and embed them in other social media and Web sites. The images can be in varying resolutions--lower for onscreen viewing or higher for printing.

Flickr is a valuable social media site for FHWA because images talk. Research shows that social media posts and news stories accompanied by images attract a lot more views than text-only posts and stories.

FHWA has a large archive of photographs from projects across the country that it shares on Flickr, as well as high-resolution photos of events. Flickr enables FHWA to upload photos from events quickly--sometimes within an hour after completion of an event, or in some cases during the event. With the capability for the public to download the photos, FHWA can direct members of the media looking for an image from a particular event to a Flickr download link instead of clogging their email inboxes with large image files or having to upload the images to a secure file-sharing site.

A Snapshot of 3 Years Later

As of April 2014 FHWA’s Face-book and Twitter accounts have approximately 4,500 and 5,000 followers, respectively. FHWA’s Facebook audience is quite diverse--45- to 54-year-olds make up 44 percent of the audience, while 35- to 44-year-olds make up another 20 percent. Sixty-five percent of the audience is male; 35 percent is female. Followers mostly consist of engineering students and highway engineers. Out-side of the United States, FHWA’s top international followers are from Australia, Canada, India, Malaysia, Republic of the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom.

FHWA’s YouTube channel has a total of 375 videos, with nearly 150 of them available to the public. Many of the videos are for internal use only--for specific target audiences such as training classes, meetings, and remote greetings. Among the public videos, FHWA’s YouTube channel has had more than 82,000 unique video views and more than 450 subscribers who have signed up to receive notification when new videos are posted.

FHWA’s Flickr page hosts more than 1,300 photos, most organized in sets based on event or project for easy browsing.

Most social media marketing specialists agree, however, that pure numbers do not always equate to successful messaging. The important thing is getting the right message to the right people at the right time.

Working with Partners

FHWA often works with the Office of the Secretary of Transportation and State and local DOTs to disseminate information that pertains to shared or similar audiences.

One example is National Work Zone Awareness Week, which traditionally occurs in April each year. National Work Zone Awareness Week promotes safety in work zones and asks motorists to slow down while traveling through them. To support the campaign in 2013, FHWA shared tweets, posts, and video clips from events held by the State DOTs in Iowa, Michigan, and Washington State to broaden awareness of these States’ efforts. The U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shared FHWA’s tweets and Facebook posts on their accounts.

What the Future Holds

Currently, FHWA’s Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and YouTube accounts are the only social media tools sanctioned by the Office of the Secretary (OST). However, FHWA and OST are open to exploring other social media applications.

As the Internet and its myriad social media tools continue to grow, the agency and the department will continue to monitor trends and adopt new applications as appropriate to support their missions.

Key Findings from AASHTO’s Social Media Survey 2013


The fourth annual State DOT Social Media Survey, conducted by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), reports that transportation agencies across the country are embracing various social media platforms.

  • Nearly 90 percent of State DOTs use both Facebook and Twitter to share information.

  • Seventy percent of respondents use Facebook for emergency notifications, and 63 percent use it for traffic alerts.

  • Nearly 60 percent of respondents use Twitter for emergency notifications, and 93 percent use it to send traffic updates.

  • Respondents use YouTube primarily for public outreach (75 percent) and overall agency branding and messaging (78 percent).

  • Newer tools, such as Pinterest and Storify, saw broader adoption by State DOTs in 2013 than in the previous year.

    • Pinterest, a site that enables users to collect and organize visual bookmarks, is now used by 27 percent of DOTs, an increase of 11 percent over the previous year.

    • Storify, a site that enables users to create social stories by browsing social media streams and dragging and dropping photos, videos, and updates into a story, is used by 23 percent, up from 9.5 percent in 2012.

  • The survey results reveal consistent growth in the adoption of social media as standard communica-tion tools.

Source: Fourth Annual State DOT Social Media Survey. September 2013. AASHTO.

 


Tom White is the social media/Web coordinator in the FHWA Office of Public Affairs. White maintains FHWA’s social media presence and provides daily materials for posting. He helped author FHWA’s social media directive and received the 2011 Federal Highway Administrator’s Superior Achievement Award for helping to establish and run the agency’s social media program. White has an associate’s degree in multimedia from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and a B.A. in professional writing from Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, WV.

For more information, look for FHWA on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and YouTube or contact Tom White at 202–366–6522 or tom.white@dot.gov.

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