When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Real

In March 2016, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system experienced significant service delays that had its users tweeting in frustration. The thoughtful, conversational responses from the @SFBART Twitter account prompted responses, from the appreciative to the astonished. We asked BART Spokesperson and Communications Officer Taylor Huckaby to share his views on responding to crisis.

Steph: How long have you been doing social media for BART?

Taylor: Part of BART hiring me as a spokesperson was an understanding that I’d contribute to the social media aspect of our public relations/communications outfit—so I’d say I’ve been doing it since they hired me back in January 2015.

However, I’m not the only one who has the keys to our accounts. BART’s customer service department also has access (to triage complaints or compliments), while my fellow spokespeople in the media department handle policy questions and crisis. Personally, I’ve had quite a bit of involvement in digital media campaigns / brand messaging / online ad buys in the past, and years of experience managing high-profile accounts with international impact. Improving government communications is my niche, and as such I’m happy to be at BART.

What would you say Twitter’s role is for the agency? What purpose does it serve?

Government must communicate clearly and concisely. Twitter is an enormously powerful tool we use to speak directly to those we most affect, providing a space for conversation where there previously was little opportunity. Responsive government isn’t an option—it’s necessary, and in an age where Twitter drives the news cycle it gives us the ability to directly present our information to people, unfiltered. It’s a conversational tool that connects us to our fans, riders, and nay-sayers.

How would you define a communications crisis?

A communications crisis is any urgent need for information, precipitated either by an organization proactively identifying a risk or reacting to an event. When the who, what, when, where, and why of a situation is unknown, people naturally try to fill the void with whatever comes along. A good crisis communicator must fill gaps in knowledge calmly and truthfully, with context—and in cases where things remain uncertain, provide assurance that steps are being taken to fully explain things.

You responded to a major service interruption back in March in a way that surprised folks. Did you feel you were doing anything out of the ordinary?

Government is generally not very good at communicating, and when it does it’s usually bland and in a canned manner. The need to be all things to all people partially drives this trend. So when responding to folks back in March, some people were surprised there was someone able and willing to answer questions at a greater depth than what people expect from government social media.

In many publications, the surprise was framed as government ‘finally being honest,’ which I find unfair, as it implies government’s default communications position is to lie. Yet despite its unfairness, this frame didn’t come about accidentally—when government only gives canned responses or isn’t available, people fill in the gaps with their own prejudices. If you’re not telling your story where people are listening, someone else is doing it for you—and the people who want to paint government as the root of all evil are both very well organized and loud. In order to be effective government communicators, we have to speak to people where they are.

If you were to give advice to other organizations or agencies navigating crisis communications via Twitter, what would you tell them?

Hire people with experience in public relations and politics, then make them experts in everything your organization does. Never stop training. Never stop involving them with people at all levels of the organization from the factory floor to the boardroom. Then, give your spokespeople the power to speak on behalf of the agency. Never give your social media accounts to the intern—give them to the highest ranking communications official possible. Don’t use Twitter as a bullhorn—use it as a conversational tool. Be human when talking to people online—i.e., sympathetic but not trite, competent but not cerebral, optimistic but not cloying.

How are you preparing for the next potential crisis?

I’m learning as much as I can as often as I can—knowledge is power in a crisis. If you’re a spokesperson, anyone in the media can ask you any question about anything at any time. So why not be an expert in everything? And never forget—if you don’t know the answer, there’s no shame in saying you’ll find the person who does.

Taylor Huckaby
Taylor Huckaby is Spokesperson and Communications Officer for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District. He coordinates press conferences, provides a voice for the organization, conducts media (television/radio broadcast, print) interviews both proactively and in response to crisis, and helps generate creative communications campaigns to ensure Bay Area residents have access to responsive government and effective transit.