Just a few minutes into the start of rush hour in New York City on Thursday afternoon, Aaron Donovan, who runs the Twitter account of the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was thumbing through photos in his e-mail of the destruction and debris on train tracks and subway tunnels throughout the storm-ravaged region. While stopping to answer calls from reporters and call into a radio show to share the latest news, he picked out the best ones to upload to the MTA's official Flickr page. Then, as he has dozens of times since Hurricane Sandy knocked out the largest subway system in the country, he tweeted.
"Our @MetroNorthTweet employees are busy removing trees from the Hudson Line in the #Bronx," he wrote.
Within minutes, it had been retweeted 49 times and favorited seven. "@MTAInsider you guys have been fabulous and I thank you for doing the best you can, safely and efficiently! #MTA," one follower tweeted.
With many of its subway tunnels more than knee-deep in water and a city in distress looking for answers, a small team at New York City's MTA communications offices found a long-lost empathetic connection with customers during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The agency, long criticized as a giant, opaque source of consumer frustration, had drawn little attention before the storm for its forays into social media that, at a moment of crisis, turned into a central source of information — and, at times, wonder — for stranded New Yorkers.
The key factor, said Adam Lisberg, the MTA's director of external communications: honesty.
"We can't fool anyone about what we're doing and we're not trying to," he said. "We're not trying to tell people that everything's great when it's not."
Indeed, many train lines Friday were just beginning to creak to life, as the agency scrambled to restore crucial services for commuters from Brooklyn and Queens. But the agency — perennially criticized for its failures to communicate — has, for once, largely avoided public blame for a disaster obviously not of its own making, and a response that the press and public can follow from moment to moment on the social web.
The MTA's feed, @MTAInsider, is mostly run by Donovan, a former New York Times desk assistant and five-year MTA veteran who has been operating the feed since it launched in 2010.
During the storm the @MTAInsider feed has more than doubled its audience from around 26,000 followers to more than 65,000 in the course of four days.
"I thought [before the storm] that it would get to maybe 30,000 followers," Donovan said.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, Donovan operated the feed from about 1:30 p.m. to well after midnight. In the mornings, it has been operated by Ben Kaplan, the speechwriter for MTA chief Joe Lhota (Lhota, it should be noted, maintains his own Twitter account). It seemed useful from the beginning of the subway shutdown on Sunday for shooting down false rumors and helping confused riders.
"Reports that the RFK Bridge is reopened are inaccurate. Motorists should not drive to the bridge at this time," Donovan tweeted as rumors swirled on Tuesday.
A few minutes later: "Again — the MTA has no timetable for restoring bus, subway, and train service."
If this sort of rapid response is increasingly common for government agencies, @MTAinsider's most widely shared foray is more unusual. The account has been posting unvarnished, often deeply worrying, sometimes gorgeous images from subway and train lines around the New York region. While the MTA has an official photographer, the pictures posted on the Twitter feed during the storm were taken by MTA, Metro North, and LIRR employees who snapped them on their Blackberrys before sending them to Donovan and the rest of the public relations team.
"I think the fact that we're getting so much content tells me that the people [sending them in] appreciate being able to tell the world about the work they're doing," Donovan said. "They're facing huge challenges, as you can see from the photos, and in some ways it's probably cathartic and it's also informational."
The department also has an official videographer, JP Chan, who has a graduate degree in urban planning and worked in other capacities at the MTA for 11 years while developing a passion for film on the side. Three years ago when then-MTA chief Jay Walder, in a meeting, said that he wanted someone to do more video and social media for the agency, Chan quickly volunteered to step in. Now it's his official job as a one-man band who shoots video and operates the agency's YouTube channel.
Few of his videos have had more newsworthiness than the videos he shot in about 45 minutes using a Sony FS100 camera (he also uses GoPro cameras on shoots) in flooded subway stations since Sandy came through and then edited on Final Cut Pro 10 software in the office. The most shocking one, a video of the flooded South Ferry train station, has 400,000 views (it still is only third on the agency's all-time list).
"I was surprised that people stuck around for a six-minute video," he said, noting that most of his videos aren't raw footage but instead slickly edited packages. "But it's so compelling, what's happening down there."
The most common reaction from viewers is, "Wow, we didn't know the MTA had a YouTube channel," Chan sighed.
The agency is embracing social channels for a variety of reasons: It's easier to connect with customers, there are a growing number of media requests, and it appears to make the agency more transparent. Lisberg, a former Daily News reporter who went to the MTA in April, said it's all part of his push to make the agency more transparent with information through social and traditional media channels.
"Whenever I'd be reporting on an organization that they wait five hours and give you a canned statement, I'd say, 'OK, so what's the real story?'" he said. "But if there's an organization that's talking about what's going on, you know you tend to think they're on the ball more."
"So I'm hoping people think we're on the ball."