Social media can be effective as a strategic and select part of public engagement plans, according to findings of a U of M study. Co-principal investigators were Professor Ingrid Schneider of the Department of Forest Resources and Associate Professor Kathryn Quick of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “Public engagement for transportation planning and programs is not only required, it’s a crucial component in policy and project success,” Schneider says. “Since 2000, advances in technology and communications provide opportunities to engage with more people in new ways.”
The multipronged, multiyear project investigated current knowledge about public engagement through social media nationwide and in Minnesota. It also developed guidance about how social media may be used to reach and engage diverse populations in the state about transportation planning and projects.
For the analysis, the team used multiple methods: a literature review, telephone interviews, and four case studies. “The literature review indicated social media needs to be part of a multipronged engagement plan,” Schneider says. “While 90 percent of U.S. adults are online and 69 percent use social media, a social-media-only plan may not reach people over the age of 65 or with a high school education only. Platform use also varies considerably: African Americans and Latinos, for example, use video-sharing more than other groups.”
Phone interviews of more than 800 Minnesotans found that 72 percent use social media, and 11 to 21 percent participated in some way in planning transportation programs, policies, and projects in the previous year. In addition, 36 percent expressed interest in using social media to get information, provide feedback, or make suggestions related to transportation programs, policy, and planning.
The case studies compared pairs of transportation projects in Minnesota: two with significant social media use (Richfield, Red Wing), and two with low use (Saint Paul, Detroit Lakes). Findings revealed that the two projects with higher levels of social media had more connections with stakeholders. The quality and effectiveness of those connections, however, varied. “Government social media primarily informed audiences, while community-created pages fostered deeper engagement and dialogue,” Quick says. “In addition, the quality of social media, and their combination with other outreach technologies, influenced stakeholders’ perceptions of the engagement efforts.”
The project was funded by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and the Minnesota Local Road Research Board (LRRB). “MnDOT and LRRB are committed to listening to and learning from the public,” says Renee Raduenz, MnDOT market research manager. “Social media provides a unique, efficient, and potentially inclusive tool in those efforts. This research brings us one step closer to understanding how we can maximize the power of social media to its fullest.”
Taken as a whole, the findings suggest at least four main opportunities to strengthen meaningful social media engagement:
- Integrate social media into multipronged, dynamic engagement approaches. Pay attention and contribute to community-created social media pages, and provide a regular diet of new information and updates.
- Consider the demographic qualities of the key stakeholders to determine how social media can be most useful.
- Employ best practices for social media management, such as using hashtags to organize data, posting dynamic content (project videos, live streams), and clearly stating social media guidelines.
- Expand and/or develop research and evaluation plans to understand and assess future social media engagement efforts.