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It's social media best practice: be authentic and honest.
But when it comes to telling your followers what they probably don't want to hear, is there such a thing as too much candor?
Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, is a public rail service that serves the San Francisco Bay Area. More than 400,000 use it every day, and the public transportation system has seen ridership surge in recent years thanks in part to the booming tech-driven Bay Area economy.
Unfortunately for BART's riders, BART has been ill-equipped to handle the surge. The organization has inadequate infrastructure and while some relief is said to be on the way, like many public agencies, BART has been grappling with budget problems for years and it blames many of its shortcomings on these.
But unlike many public agencies, BART riders who vent on Twitter about their experiences have been receiving candid responses from the agency's official Twitter account.
@shakatron BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality.— SFBART (@SFBART) March 17, 2016
Those tweets come courtesy of Taylor Huckaby, a 27 year-old spokesman who has worked for BART for a little more than a year.
In a New York Times article, Huckaby, who previously worked as the new media director for a state governor's re-election campaign, explained...
Most government social media folks are not really given the leeway to respond to people in a way that’s authentic. They give the canned response, the ‘we’re sorrys', the automation.
They’re afraid of looking incompetent by saying the wrong thing, so they end up saying nothing, which ironically leaves them looking incompetent anyway.
BART has supported Huckaby's candid approach, which is based on his belief that the people using public agencies supported by taxpayer dollars deserve a responsive government, even if it has to tell them things they'd rather not hear.
Too much candor?
Not surprisingly, Huckaby's responses haven't pleased everyone. Many of the negative responses to BART's candid tweets come from individuals who question the competence of BART's management. Some suggest that the transit agency is largely responsible for its own woes. Indeed, like many public agencies, BART is no stranger to criticism over how it has handled its fiscal affairs.
For years, we've had a breakdown in BART's financial management, so it is no surprise to see a breakdown in their cars and systems. 1/2— Steve Glazer (@Steve_Glazer) March 17, 2016
@SFBART This is what BART has been saying for years. Wait for the plan! That and a pile of excuses. Your incompetence is clear.
— T. Donald Kerabatsos (@KerabatsosT) March 17, 2016
@SFBART Why did BART spend $600M for OAK connector, if Transbay Tube needs so much maintenance + serves 100x as many riders?— Alyssa Vance (@alyssamvance) March 18, 2016
Ultimately, Huckaby and BART are in a difficult position: even those who are sympathetic to the agency's challenges in addressing its shortcomings are left with words and future promises, not immediate fixes. This offers little relief to those who have to bare with lackluster experiences, including delays, as they try to make their way home after a long day at work.
So should BART ease up on the candor? That's not an easy question to answer.
On one hand, it would be unwise for BART to respond to negative Twitter chatter with empty promises. Honesty is required, and sometimes that does require admitting that an immediate solution is not available. To the extent that BART can explain why an immediate solution is not available, it's arguably doing the right thing.
On the other hand, too much candor coupled with too few remedies is unlikely to satisfy anyone and by repeatedly calling attention to its shortcomings, BART runs the risk of looking like an organization that's better at complaining about what it doesn't have than trying to provide good service with what it does have. Furthermore, it opens itself up to the very critics who suggest it hasn't used its resources wisely.
A place for silence
Ultimately, BART's dilemma is less about whether candor should be embraced and more about when silence should be embraced. In social channels it's easy for organizations to focus too much on the conversation and neglect the fact that when it comes to negative buzz, it's hard to engage meaningfully in conversation without action.
When it's not possible to provide a product or service that doesn't suck, sometimes strategic silence is a better approach than unrestrained engagement.
For more on social media and reputation management: