As floods hit, R.I. delivered updates via social media

Here’s a piece I wrote for Ragan.com about the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s use of social media during a flood crisis:

Published: 4/12/2010

As floods hit, R.I. delivered updates via social media
By Ari B. Adler

State’s DOT posted road closings and other essential info and saw a surge in fans and followers

When the East Coast got hit with torrential rain recently and flooding occurred at levels that hadn’t been reported in 200 years, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) turned to social media to help clean up the mess.

The department used the front page of its Web site for a constantly updatedlog of road closures and other transportation related issues caused by the massive storms. More important, they used outlets such as Twitter and Facebook to stay in touch with motorists directly.

At the peak of the flooding, nearly 100 roads were closed in Rhode Island, including I-95, according to Dana Alexander Nolfe, chief public affairs officer for RIDOT. About a dozen roads remain closed, but in some cases that’s because bridges need to be replaced.

“The staff was able to use social media from home, sending links about the RIDOT home page as it was updated,” Nolfe said.

RIDOT got involved with social media in January 2009, but they’ve never seen it put to the test until recently. Nolfe’s happy to report it passed with flying colors.

The flooding has resulted in triple the number of fans for the department’sFacebook page and its Twitter account, @RIDOTNews, has nearly 1,000 followers.

Nolfe said that by consistently using the same Bit.ly-shortened URL for the link to its updates, RIDOT tracked more than 8,000 hits to its home page in a week via social media links alone. The RIDOT home page normally picks up about 2,100 hits per day, but because of the flood of both water and information, it recently peaked at more than 83,000 hits per day.

“Social media is where the public is looking today for information from state agencies. Where would those 83,000 people visiting our Web site every day have gone otherwise?”

Part of the success is attributable to Nolfe’s six-person communications team, which continually posted fresh information on the home page. Two team members handled all relevant social media announcements, working around the clock from work and home. They soon had the public and the media listening to them. Those listeners then took the time to retweet and repost status updates and links, helping to spread the information even further and faster.

“This is a successful test of what’s going on in the world of social media,” Nolfe said. “It’s the way the average motorist is getting messages in the easiest way. There is no filter—people could get what they wanted when they wanted it.”

Besides passing along information, many residents passed along notes of thanks, as well.

“We’re a service agency. People usually get what they need and move on,” Nolfe said. “When they get what they need and take the time to say thank you. That’s when we know we’re doing a good job.”

A tweet from Martha N. McClellan of Providence, R.I., is a good indication they did the job.

On April 1, she tweeted to @RIDOTNews, “You guys KICK ASS!! Thank you for all of your hard work, the whole state appreciates it whether they say it or not!”

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