I am preparing a presentation for a public transit conference. My proposed topic is "Rider Relations 2.0". Basically, I would like to talk to them about the big opportunities for building a more responsive, transparent, and human connection with their customers using Social Media and other interactive channels.
I think the timing is right for public sector organizations, like transit commissions, to start to engage their customers in a conversation about service changes, complaints, concerns, and kudos.
For example, The Globe and Mail recently published an article about how the Toronto Transit Commission "is turning to the private sector for advice on charming customers after a fare increase and last fall's token shortage helped spur nearly a 20-per-cent increase in complaints."
Being both a member of the private sector and of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, I feel a duty to offer some free advice. And seeing as this is pro-bono work, I'm not ashamed to ask for your help.
Basically, I want to lay out for the transit people how public relations disasters, many of which play out in social media, can be turned around using those same channels and attitudes. And I want to use recent private sector consumer marketing examples.
One recent one is Domino's Pizza, who took a beating after some apparent employees posted grossout videos (since deleted, but lives on here) of what they were doing to the food.
This was part of a general brand decline, where words like "cardboard crust" have become popular brand memes.
Did Domino's quietly improve its product? Lower prices and settle for being the 'za of last resort? No, they did market research to figure out how people really felt about their pizza, and launched a viral video telling people how their product had failed, and what they were doing to rectify it:
Still very corporate, but it's a start. Now they're showing up at the doors of people who complained in the past, offering them a sample, and recording their reactions.
What's innovative about this approach is not the media, but the attitude. Brands have been treated like sacred cows by their owners for years, and in the isolation of the boardroom they got arrogant. But times have changed.
The Bush-era posturing of admitting no wrong is over. With social media levelling the playing field between people, criticism is not something to be ignored, but embraced.
Domino's has gone so far as to embed a live Twitterfeed on their campaign site. As of this writing, it includes a range of comments from "The new dominos pizza crust is crack! So delicious" to "Just had dominos new pizza, tasted like I ate 3 cloves of garlic." and "Dominos new pizza recipe is to dip the entire pizza in butter".
So, do you think a transit system can adopt this kind of gutsy strategy? To say "sorry about the fair hikes/strike/rude driver/crowded busses" or whatever, then engage riders in an ongoing conversation about what's being done to fix the problem?
Over the years, I've met many of the people behind public services at all levels of government, and for all the public cynicism aimed at them, you can always find some who are true believers in the good that they are doing. If the culture of these institutions could just evolve to a position of "we're working for you, and we'll work with you to make this as decent as possible" — instead of having a deathly fear of criticism — I think they could make real progress.
So here's my homework for you: if you know of any other good examples of brands breaking down the walls, admitting fault, and trying to make good in an authentic and transparent way, please either comment here, or on whatever channel you use to access this blog. If all goes well, I'll post video of my presentation in May, so we can all share in the results.