When Toronto’s lights went out in January 2009, the lights went on in Brad Ross’s head. For two days, the city’s southwest was completely in the dark—not just literally, but about public transit, too. Streetcars and subways stopped running. Schedules were a mess. And as the executive director of corporate communications for the Toronto Transit Commission, Ross had to try and explain it all to the people.
“We were really starting to ramp up direct communication with customers through e-alerts and the website,” Ross recalls. “And I thought, ‘Well,Twitter might be a good way of communicating with people’…. That’s when the light went on for me. This is how we can use it.”
Today, Ross ranks among the city’s most prominent Twitter celebrities. He brings a surprising amount of personality to the transit commission, tweeting absurd retro photos and jumping onboard with hashtags in a way that, believe it or not, doesn’t make the TTC seem desperate in its attempt to be cool. In fact, Brad Ross just is kind of cool.
“I’m not a social-media guru. I use the tool in a very personal way,” Ross says in light of his upcoming How To Set Up A Responsive Social Ecosystem session on March 12 at Dx3 2015. “The notion that some organizations have, that you need tweets approved before they’re sent out, is a barrier to success. It needs to be rapid, it needs to be personal. And you have to have a thick skin.”
That’s why the TTC, in 2008, poached him from the City of Toronto, where he was head of media relations and issues management. Ross recognized the real-time necessities of commuter transit at the TTC, and wanted to help transform the commission’s reactionary public image to a proactive one.
“The notion that some organizations have, that you need tweets approved before they’re sent out, is a barrier to success.”
“Your head of communications, generally, needs to be on the executive table,” he says. “If for no other reason than to bounce things off of, to raise issues, to play the reporter, the devil’s advocate—to make sure you’re not going path that, from a communications perspective, is going to be difficult to talk about.”
The blackout was only the beginning of that manifestation. The TTC’s online presence has since grown to include specific accounts dedicated to delay notifications and customer service, as well as a YouTube channel for hosting explainer videos on things like new streetcars, route closures and subway delays. It’s hard to measure exactly how successful these social-media efforts have been—Ross considers the roughly 116,000 followers of @TTCnotices to be the most significant measurement so far—but their customer service department is more thoroughly investigating customer satisfaction, and he’s optimistic that more proof will soon appear.
“Your head of communications, generally, needs to be on the executive table.”
Of course, social media has been a two-way door for the TTC. By the end of 2014, the TTC suffered a series of public-relations crises: buses running red lights, the rise of the #grumpyrider trend, and the tragic death of 14-year-old Amaria Diljohn, who was struck and killed by a bus days before Christmas. Much of the public outcry came via social media, which, for Ross, only underscored the importance of a proactive online presence.
“You need to have an individual, like myself, who is online, who is accountable for what they say,” Ross says. “People express themselves and their grief in many different ways, and some people do it online—and that’s as a legitimate means as any other, so you need to listen to those comments and take them to heart, and we do. And I did.”