Human Beings in Communication

Gerald Baron had a great post the other day about a study that said that Facebook was found to be a useful tool in a crisis. He reviewed the conclusions and was less than impressed (and rightfully so). Apparently, the researchers took what is good communications work and put it next to poorer communications work and then ascribed the good work to the medium through which it was transmitted. Gerald came away with the following key message:

Direct messages sent in a human voice that provide in-depth information are effective in a crisis.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who reads me, though, because I regularly talk about being a real person when communicating (from bears to About Us pages).

The thing is, we’re still not very good at it. So when I see stories about a government agency that are all impressed with a minor effort to seem human, I get a huge kick out of it. Like, we’re still learning this?

There are some folks, though, that have taken that engagement, that being human, to another level. They’re no longer including, “Be sure to empathize,” on their checklist of how to deal with the public. The classic example of this is the Los Angeles Fire Department’s @LAFDTalk Twitter account, but a bit closer to home, there’s another success story:

SEPTA has an @SEPTA Twitter account for alerts regarding the whole system. Then there is the Twitter account for SEPTA buses, one for each regional rail line, an account for the Broad Street Line and one for the Market Frankford Line, a Twitter account for each trolley line and one for the Norristown High Speed Line. Each of these shoots out updates about the given line.

The one that is turning heads, though, is the @SEPTA_Social account. Run by the customer service team, @SEPTA_Social is all about engaging with customers, having actual conversations, and at times, even being a little sarcastic.


Now, Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., these customer service reps watch what’s happening on Twitter. They respond to inquiries, complaints and praise directed to the @SEPTA_Social account and watch what people are saying about SEPTA.

The rationale?

“When you think about a traditional call center, that’s me talking to you,” Heinle said. “That works, but social is me talking to you and maybe 500 other people, so the impact or the potential impact, both good and bad, is significantly more.”

What this means is so much more than an “Attaboy!” for SEPTA (though they do deserve one). This is more about your agency. SEPTA is setting the bar for interaction and openness and approach-ability. After the public has a great experience with SEPTA then turns to your agency, are they going to be disappointed? Usually, that’s not a terrible thing. As Ms. Heinle says above, usually it’s just one-to-one; I had a bad experience and now I’m going to stew.

But now? Are they going to be more likely to talk with their friends about their experience with you? Is their unhappiness going to be shared with 500 people or more?

And just think: all of this can be avoided for the low, low cost of being a human being. Dropping the “government automaton” voice, getting over yourself and actually respecting your publics.


2 thoughts on “Human Beings in Communication”

  1. Jim, are too kind in praising for our sophomoric efforts @LAFDtalk on Twitter. Ours remains a work in progress, and but one of many platforms giving LAFD the ability to listen and learn from those we proudly serve. We’re quite impressed with SEPTA’s social media endeavors, and along with your inspiring blog, look forward to the many great things to come from The Keystone State’s digital community.

    Respectfully Yours in Safety and Service,

    Brian Humphrey
    Public Service Officer
    Los Angeles Fire Department

    1. Brian:

      You, and the rest of your crew, command, firefighters and paramedics are an inspiration to us all.

      Sophomoric does your efforts no justice, because while it might seem like fun and games, the work you do engaging with the public will be paid back in spades when the time is right. Your “sophomoric” efforts are no less than THE best practice and, once the rest of us come around, will be the standard.

      All the best, and thank you for stopping by,

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