The Social Subway Dan Stessel, WMATA's Twitter Guru, Wants to Make Washington Fall Back in Love with the Metro

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Anderson comes to D.C. from the Philadelphia region’s SEPTA, where he was a communications manager and the star of a video podcast series. In one video, Anderson can be seen boogieing to music, demonstrating something verboten inside SEPTA’s QuietRide cars. Welcome to the future, D.C. (Video podcasts, not quiet cars—the subway here is deathly quiet already by Philadelphia standards.)

Stessel says he hopes Anderson will help take Metro’s social media campaign beyond what he calls “toe-in-the-water stuff.” When I visited Stessel’s office, the words “Twitter strategy” were scrawled in blue on a whiteboard. The phrase would have made Metro watchers giggle in years past. But they’re not laughing anymore, and now they want Stessel to follow through on his commitment.

BART’s Moore says this demand isn’t unusual but can make life difficult for someone who’s trying to manage expectations. “There’s an expectation that the customer speaks and the agency jumps,” he says.

No number of funny videos or glib tweets can hide the fact that Metro still has lots of operational problems. Some troubles have been kicking around for years, such as the agency’s escalator-failure rate, which hovers around 20 percent this summer. Others, such as broken rail-car air conditioners, have been thrust into the spotlight thanks to the rabid persistence of an IT whiz known on Twitter as @fixwmata.

The 32-year-old Atlanta native, who asked not to be named because he insists the story shouldn’t be about him, began riding Metro last April. Over the summer, he noticed complaints about hot subway cars on Twitter and decided to put his analytical skills to good use. He created what’s known as the #hotcar list, a crowdsourced database tracking rail cars with broken AC.


The 2010 list collected 206 reports between July and October, but FixWMATA says it was very clear that no one at Metro was listening. He never got a response and says he was “shouting into a void.”

Things changed when he kicked off the 2011 list and got a reply from Stessel. Their courtship started innocently enough.

“One of the first responses I got back was from @metroopensdoors, which kind of blew me away,” FixWMATA says. The reply spurred him to be part of the solution to Metro’s air-conditioning woes instead of another angry voice. An informal partnership was born. FixWMATA forged ahead with the #hotcar list, enjoying a thumbs-up endorsement from Metro.

“We like this!” @metroopensdoors gushed on June 16, when FixWMATA created a search option for users viewing the #hotcar list on a mobile device.

The honeymoon ended just a few weeks later—when FixWMATA began badgering Stessel for updates on the broken AC units. (There have been 430 unique reports, comprising about a third of Metro’s rail fleet, so far this year.) He asked Metro for specific proof the cars were being addressed, but he never got a response that satisfied him.

metro only tweets white passengers and tweeters RT @metroopensdoors @thereal_SNL Good to hear. Thanks. ^DS Jul 21 via Tweet Button
@iGetZOOtED That's not true. We have responded to you before. Is there something we can help with? ^DS Jul 21 via TweetDeck

At first, Stessel kept listening. “Just want to assure everyone who’s reported a #hotcar lately that we’re listening. Our thanks to @fixwmata for compiling these. ^DS,” he tweeted on July 8.

FixWMATA hammered away (sample: “@metroopensdoors 6 #wmata #hotcars were reported yesterday. 1 was a repeat from Friday. Which ones did you fix last night?”), eventually provoking a measured response. Stessel said—and maintains today—that it’s sometimes hard to give a specific, Twitter-friendly answer to an operational problem.

“We can give a wholistic update. Something more ‘micro’ than that is not possible,” came his July 26 reply. The #hotcar lists are still monitored, but now, Stessel says, if you’re stuck in a car with no air conditioning, the best way to fix it is to get on the intercom, not the Internet. (Which, inevitably, leads people on Twitter to complain that the intercoms aren’t working, either.)

FixWMATA, who has about 1,300 followers on Twitter, isn’t buying it. And now he believes that the rosy media coverage of Metro’s latest PR effort is harmful. He called the Post “an advertising arm of WMATA” when the paper covered Stessel’s social media frenzy last month.

“Not having a response from Metro last year actually worked out a little bit better,” he says. “Because Metro last year also wasn’t really talking to the media. So we had the media on our side last year, and we had a lot of reports—both on TV and on the Web—from journalists interested in what’s going on.”

He’s not the only one who thinks the local media have fallen for Metro’s tricks. The journalist behind the Unsuck DC Metro blog—complaint central for disgruntled riders since 2009—calls Stessel’s effort “Band-Aids on the public image” for a reactive agency that lacks accountability. He thinks Metro’s campaign is better than nothing but doesn’t address the malaise he says afflicts the agency’s middle management.

Our Readers Say

Nick, excellent article. I learned so much that I did not know. You let all sides have their say and the readers are the better for it. I certainly have a lot more empathy now for all these people who work on the Metro. To put it mildly, it's not an easy job (is any job involving the public easy?) Obviously you did a lot of research on this and put it together very well and very readable. It kept my attention. I also liked the graphics. It's also a topic that's been around for a long time and will continue to be. Perhaps your piece will help improve the communication and even understanding on both sides. Thanks for an interesting, insightful, and balanced article.
Great history of metro. It sheds so much light on our current predicament. Seems like Dan Stessel has his work cut out for him, although he clearly cannot be successful in his position unless the higher-ups are going to give him the resources he needs to do his job. Great article!
I've posted complaints about Metro on Rants in Raves in CL under the title "I hate METRO when..." title as a take off on the meme of "I hate it when..." Someone (WMATA?) flags all my postings (specific escalator problems, lack of ac at some stations, consistent break downs... etc). Is that part of his "communications management" strategy?
By the Way - Pics of station managers (allegedly) sleeping On the Clock/Job were posted and the agency is (allegedly) now investigating. (Probably more effort to "manage" pr than make any changes or to discipline employees for infractions...) But hey, we're in DC and so what if serve in both public agencies and businesses is c*#ppy.... Right?
Cody rejected the title of Public Relations in favor of the Office of Community Services. That says it all.
You didn't mention Metro's biggest failure – its inability to keep ATO (automatic train ops) working properly. That was the cause of the Red Line crash, and that's what needs to be fixed in order for Metro to add capacity at rushhour (the ATO is capable of 90 sec. headways with some minor upgrades). Furthermore, in the long run, that's what's going to allow them to go driverless and save a ton of money on labor. ATO is the prize – not working escalators.
Metro suffers from the same failings as the DC Govt.:

Failure to recognize that DC is an INTERNATIONAL CITY.

DC Tourism is for us who live here as much as it must for visitors. Signage is terrible, staff in place to direct visitors and to alert them to simple things like 'stand on the right, walk on the left' on escalators would help greatly. Visitors are so busy trying to find out where they are/want to go that they stand smack in the middle of walkways and create flow problems. It's not their fault...Metro/DC has never addressed this issue and metro been around since what, '78 or so?

Instead of worrying about underground shopping, arts and music inside the stations, etc. keep the system clean, orderly and user friendly.

Accomplish THAT, how bout it?

Then of course, the rowdy knuckleheads must be dealt with before another Bernie Goetz situation pops off.

The best way to facilitate communication between WMATA and riders is to eliminate parking at the Jackson-Graham Building and to have riders on the board--a board that consists of riders who are elected by riders.

DC Doug
Cathedral Heights
The best way to facilitate communications between WMATA and riders to give up some of those board of directors' seats to ACTUAL DC, MD, and VA riders.

How about it, WMATA?
A clear connoisseur. Nick DeSantis, your writing style is direct, to the point, and I feel like I'm reading about a subject that you have sought out information on for years. If I die, please note that Nick DeSantis is to write my obituary...

On the subject itself, public transportation is the way of the future, the attempted way of some of our pasts, and the only way several of us get to work. Hopefully this article will provoke those in charge to come up with ways to make it a convenient way for us to get to
How about Mr. Stessel start his initiative by not having the WMATA twitter account block the users who aggregate failure data, like FixWMATA, who was blocked either yesterday or this morning.

This sounds like more rose-water scented sewage from WMATA's public affairs department.

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