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UNDERSTANDING USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA FOR DISSEMINATION OF TRANSPORTATION INFORMATION

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UNDERSTANDING USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA FOR DISSEMINATION OF TRANSPORTATION INFORMATION

ABSTRACT

This research explores how agencies use social media and how helpful these technologies are from both the agency and social media-using public perspectives. The impetus for this is the increased use of social media among transportation agencies to reach publics using these technologies. Surveys administered to both transportation agencies and the general public, as well as information collected directly from social media accounts, are used to statistically analyze (negative binomial, logit, ordered logit) how agencies utilize social media.

Social media content analysis indicates that the content posted by agencies and the mode of the agency (e.g. transit or highway) are particularly important to the popularity of agency Twitter and Facebook accounts. Analysis of the agency survey found greater participation and engagement in social media activities leads to more successful outreach. These activities include events such as monitoring social media for service-impacting events, developing a formal system for collecting content, and establishing a formal social media strategy. Analysis of the general public survey found that those more engaged with technology and less engaged with traditional media have more specific preferences and critiques of agency use of social media.

Comparing the results of the surveys, agencies and the general public have a mismatch both in how they perceive success in social media outreach and how information is best communicated. Agencies evaluated their success with social media better than the public did. The agencies also generally thought social media was a better platform for sharing more types of information than the public did.

From comparing the results between the two sets of surveys and the content analyses, it is clear that evaluation and guidance tools for social media use for dissemination of transportation information could be helpful to improve the consistency of information shared, a critical weakness identified by the public, because social media are viewed as an increasingly authoritative and legitimate transportation information source.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

LIST OF TABLES……………………………………………………………………………………………………………. vi

LIST OF FIGURES………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. ix

Chapter 1 Introduction……………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 1

Agency Side…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 4

Public Side…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 6

Chapter 2 Literature Review………………………………………………………………………………………………… 8

Public Relations Theory………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 8

Internet, Social Media, and Public Relations………………………………………………………………………. 10

Large Organizations and Relationship Development…………………………………………………………….. 17

Social Media and Transportation……………………………………………………………………………………… 19

Summary……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 24

Chapter 3 Data Collection…………………………………………………………………………………………………. 26

Social Media Content Analysis……………………………………………………………………………………….. 26

Transportation Agency Social Media Survey………………………………………………………………………. 30

General Public Social Media Survey…………………………………………………………………………………. 39

Chapter 4 Methodology…………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 46

Model Development and Selection…………………………………………………………………………………… 46

Social Media Content Analysis……………………………………………………………………………………….. 47

Transportation Agency Social Media Survey………………………………………………………………………. 50

General Public Social Media Survey…………………………………………………………………………………. 51

Comparative Analysis…………………………………………………………………………………………………… 53

Chapter 5 Findings…………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 54

Social Media Content Analysis……………………………………………………………………………………….. 54

Facebook Data Summary……………………………………………………………………………………………. 57

Facebook Posts per Week Models………………………………………………………………………………… 63

Facebook Likes Models……………………………………………………………………………………………… 67

Twitter Data Summary………………………………………………………………………………………………. 71

Twitter Posts per Week Models…………………………………………………………………………………… 75

Twitter Followers Models…………………………………………………………………………………………… 80

Transportation Agency Social Media Survey………………………………………………………………………. 83

Agency Survey Data Description…………………………………………………………………………………. 83

Agency Survey Models: Perceived Success with Social Media Outreach………………………………. 93

General Public Social Media Survey…………………………………………………………………………………. 96

Public Survey Data Description…………………………………………………………………………………… 96

Public Survey Models: Perceived Agency Success with Social Media………………………………… 119

Public Survey Models: Agency Use of Social Media Changes Use of Traditional Media………… 123

Comparative Analysis…………………………………………………………………………………………………. 127

Chapter 6 Conclusions……………………………………………………………………………………………………. 130

Bibliography…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 138

Appendix A: Agency Survey……………………………………………………………………………………………. 141

Appendix B: General Public Survey…………………………………………………………………………………… 147

Chapter 1 Introduction

Social media are emerging as significant platforms of communication not only between individuals, but also between organizations and individuals. It is very common to encounter corporations, non-profit groups, and government agencies using social media and incorporating these platforms into their marketing and outreach. In some cases, what these entities do on social media may also be incorporated into their product or service.

The goals of social media for transportation agencies are to inform, motivate, and engage their publics (Kaufman, 2012). Traffic and transit information are products to be consumed by the public via web, mobile phone, or even in-vehicle technologies. Information may also motivate the use or purchase of goods and services (e.g., use transit as an alternative to driving or to pay tolls for access to express lanes or obtain advice on a possibly less congested alternate route). Furthermore, a key aspect for transportation agencies is that social media enable direct engagement without the need for an organized, town-hall style meeting.

Beyond the realm of transportation, more and more people look to the web and social media for any type of information. Currently this is about 74 percent of Americans (Brenner, 2014). Social media, in particular, are well suited for the dissemination of timely information. For example, platforms like Twitter are optimized for short, fast bullets of information that are particularly well suited for mobile technologies. Many social media platforms, including Facebook, also enable engagement via user comments.

More than half of all social media use occurs on a tablet or mobile device (Brenner, 2014). Attempts to obtain travel or transit information with these devices is going to occur. But it is also a wellpublicized fact that mobile phone use, particularly texting and use of text-based smart phone functions, are extremely dangerous if done while driving (Wilson and Stimpson, 2010). While many agencies have always stressed “know before you go” in the launching of their 511 Traveler Information Systems, it is not currently possible to prevent drivers from seeking out information when it is not safe to do so.

Traffic and transit information enables travelers to make educated decisions about where, when, and how they should travel. If a driver knows, prior to leaving work, a major crash has closed down the freeway the they normally travel to return home, the they are able to safely make decisions about their commute that afternoon. They may decide to use a different route, leave work at a different time, or decide to run some errands to delay their encounter with the area currently affected by the closure.      Fundamentally, social media sites are those driven primarily by user-participation and usergenerated content (Waters et al., 2009). But social media truly encompasses all internet-based technologies that enable individuals to mutually obtain or collect data. In the communication and receiving of transportation information, those characteristics are represented by two entities: the public and the transportation agency.

The social media platform offers the structure by which this mutual information interaction occurs, such as Facebook or Twitter. In the nonprofit sector, social media have developed as a means to interact with volunteers and donors as well as educate the public about their organization (Waters et al., 2009; Briones et al., 2011). Furthermore, social media are not just about communicating with the public, but also a means of communicating with allies, such as local news media or related agencies. The ability to gather or give information quickly to the media can facilitate prompt interventions in addition to the right kind of attention (Briones et al., 2011). Transportation agencies have the same opportunities to gather and give information via social media as other groups.

In transportation, social media offers two major opportunities to agencies. The first opportunity is an open dialogue with the publics they serve. The second opportunity is the dissemination of timely traffic and event-related information. More emphasis has been placed on the development of relationships between agencies and publics in the literature on this subject, both related to transportation and general business. But these opportunities are related. For example, if an agency develops a strong, trustworthy social media presence they may be more effective in broadcasting timely traffic information (Kaufman, 2012).

The virtual ubiquity of the Internet and growing popularity of social media (Brunner, 2013) means public relations practitioners regularly have the opportunity to communicate with thousands of individuals and many publics that, combined, have multiple interests in an organization at the same time (Kent & Taylor, 1998; Briones et al., 2011). The platforms of communication offered by the Internet are more customizable than traditional media for both producers and consumers. For example, a member of the public can choose to specifically follow news of organizations that interest them on Twitter rather than having to sift through an entire newspaper for a handful of articles that may be of interest.

There are two sides to the social media relationship, the account-holder side and the public side. The account-holder generates and disseminates information via social media; in the context of transportation information dissemination they are the transportation agencies. The public side consumes the information disseminated via social media by reading it and sharing it. Understanding the behavior of both sides is important in considering not only how useful social media is currently for disseminating traffic information but also how useful it can be.

Gathering information from both the public and agencies regarding the use of social media in

transportation enables a clearer understanding of what is useful and desirable. The goal of collecting this information is to understand the characteristics of social media sought after by agencies and the public, and to understand how these characteristics and social media complement a greater program of information dissemination and public engagement by transportation agencies.

This analysis examines the use of social media by transportation agencies and the perception of their use of social media by members of the general public with the aim to better understand how agencies are using these media and what the public wishes to obtain from these media. The specific goals and hypotheses of each the agency and the public analyses are detailed in the following sections.

Agency Side

Transportation agencies develop and disseminate traffic information for the benefit of their system users. Traditional dissemination media include radio, television, print materials, as well as traditional websites. Given the increasing popularity of social media, there is an opportunity to disseminate information relevant to their publics and develop strategies that can be implemented as well as modified over long periods of time. The degree to which this opportunity is important to agencies is examined by this research in terms of the time dedicated to social media outreach, how or if agencies feel social media affects traditional media outreach, and public perception of agency activities.

In 2010, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) began surveying state agencies, plus the District of Columbia, about their use of social media. The initial survey yielded only 32 respondents (31 states and the District of Columbia), of which 26 used social media (AASHTO, 2010). The most recent published results, the 2014 survey, 47 entities responded (46 states and the District of Columbia) and only one of these agencies indicated they do not use social media (AASHTO, 2014). In each of the AASHTO surveys, the two social media platforms with the highest usage were Twitter and Facebook (AASHTO, 2014). This experience is similar to that found in nonprofit organizations, such as the Red Cross and its component chapters (Briones et al., 2011).

Despite the lack of a social media guidebook, agency forays into social media were sometimes very successful. Washington State (WSDOT), for example, developed a Facebook page as a way to connect to a younger audience on a small scale but by late 2009, as a result of its popularity, it developed into a hub for the agency to disseminate information on projects that may impact travel in the state and, for better or worse, to directly communicate with their publics. On May 23, 2013 their social media use was tested when the I-5 Skagit River Bridge collapsed. Despite the off-hour of the event (6:55 pm), it took just over thirty minutes for the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team, and then WSDOT, to take to Twitter to communicate what happened and how travelers could cope with the disaster (Deyerin, 2013).

As indicated by the growing numbers of social media users in AASHTO’s annual social media survey (AASHTO, 2014), more transportation agencies have taken to social media as a platform for disseminating information. But agencies are not developing a social media presence in the same ways or with the same goals as each other, and they are not finding equal levels of success with their social media outreach. Though some characteristics of the challenges and responses agencies encounter are consistent (AASHTO, 2014).

Research indicates organization-public relationships are best facilitated through a dialogic process where both parties communicate with each other directly as equals. This means that the results of this process may not necessarily be predictable (Theunissen & Wan Noordin, 2011). Such a process demands an organization actively engage the public during communication (Brunning et al., 2008). Active engagement is where information is disseminated in a manner where the public is not only able, but also feels invited and welcome to respond back and engage in some type of dialogue. Social media, indeed, offers a platform by which the public may actively engage with an organization. Although the research has also identified that a lack of dedicated time and staff may interfere with the successful execution of active engagement within a social media program (Briones et al., 2011). Social media activities may exist without active engagement, but the capability of active engagement is what sets social media apart from more generic websites.

Analysis has been performed on the social media presences (e.g. Facebook and Twitter) of nonprofit organizations (Bortree & Seltzer, 2009; Briones et al., 2011; Waters et al., 2009), which help describe a framework that can be adapted in the analysis of transportation agencies. This is particularly important because social media is more flexible and offers more features than more traditional mediums may. The following questions form the foundation of what is sought from each agency participating in this research:

  • What is the rationale behind the establishment of your agency’s social media accounts?
  • Do you have a formal strategy or plan for your social media outreach?
  • How do you decide what information to share via social media? What information do you share?
  • Generally speaking, is your organization satisfied with your social media use?
  • Do you foresee social media taking over traditional media as the primary method of dissemination in your agency?
  • Do you monitor your social media feeds for potential developing transportation issues? (This could include traffic, weather, police, special events, and other non-traffic incidents)
  • What tools do you have for evaluating your social media outreach? What tools do you need? Fundamentally, a complete concept of how agencies are currently using social media is sought because in the coming years it will be important as an evaluation tool to look back at how use of these media have changed over time.

Public Side

The traveling public, in general, is interested in information that will help them get between

points as safely and easily as possible. Interest in this type of information is understood and is evidenced by the continued operation of privately operated radio stations that broadcast nothing but traffic information in urban areas or traffic information in frequent intervals (e.g. every 5 or 10 minutes) as well as advertisement-supported websites. Examples of each source are: AM730 (http://www.am730.ca/) in Vancouver, British Columbia, which broadcasts traffic, ferry, and border crossing information 24 hours per day, and Total Traffic LA (http://totaltrafficla.com/) which has a geographic information system (GIS) that uses colors to illustrate speeds on different roads and symbols to indicate traffic incidents and construction.

Given the existing outlets of traffic information, it is not entirely understood if social media has a niche. Or if it does have a niche, what specific practices or means of presenting information are more effective than others at engaging the public. As social media plans and strategies are developed by agencies it is important to understand which members of the public use social media, whether individuals prefer social media to traditional media, how trustworthy individuals find information shared via social media, and what characteristics of social media make them preferable to existing mediums of dissemination.

A 2012 report published by Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 67-percent of Americans polled regularly use at least one form of social media (Brenner, 2013). Because of the high rate of social media usage, this research is interested in how social media users interact with transportation agencies via social media. It is likely that many people who use social media do not use it to obtain transportation information. Two broad questions addressed to the public emerge.

The first question: are social media an effective means to communicate transportation information to the public already engaged in social media? Effective, in this case, would mean that a majority of social media users are aware of and able to obtain travel information in their area and prefer or at least like social media as much as traditional media. Despite the ubiquity of the Internet and growing popularity of social media, some users may simply prefer traditional forms of media to obtain travel information. There are numerous reasons why an individual may prefer more traditional outlets ranging from comfort with the technology to the individual’s access to social media near and during the time of travel.

The second question is whether or not the public believes information disseminated via social

media is credible, transparent, intended for their benefit, and applicable to their community. Each of these characteristics is found to be fundamental to a successful public relations outreach according to prior research into social media use by the nonprofit sector (Brunning et. al., 2008). Understanding how individuals perceive the information shared on social media could direct agencies to focus on characteristics that are critical to the public already engaged with social media. A related issue that has been identified with other intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technologies is reliability (Rama & Kulmala, 2000). For example, if a variable message sign (VMS) broadcasts a false alarm or if it fails to warn of a serious traffic event ahead, how does this impact the effectiveness of this technology?

UNDERSTANDING USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA FOR DISSEMINATION OF TRANSPORTATION INFORMATION

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