On Monday morning, the official traffic-monitoring Twitter account for the Washington State Department of Transportation greeted its 20,000 followers with the following message:
“Good morning! Monday is back to no one's surprise. Hope everyone enjoyed their holiday weekend. Let's get back to the fun!”
The fun, of course, being Monday morning's commute.
Operated by two former members of the media (with the help of a communications manager and a control room full of very-intelligent engineers and former service-members), @WSDOT_traffic has captured the hearts of commuters across the Puget Sound, who look to the account for the most up-to-date, accurate information about the roadways from the Canadian border to the Pierce County line -- mixed in with the occasional “South Park” reference, funny screen capture or chuckle-worthy note about a blocked lane.
And it’s that humor that has garnered attention, both at home and from elsewhere in the world.
“A lot of our followers aren’t even from around here,” admits Michael Allende, who, in addition to writing press releases and updating relevant WSDOT messaging, also runs the Twitter account for the morning commute. In the afternoon, Allende, a former sportswriter, hands the reins over to Harmony Haveman, who used to work in television news.
“You can definitely tell the difference between the morning and the afternoon tweets,” Haveman notes.
“I’m more sarcastic, Harmony is more empathetic,” Allende laughs, “but sarcasm doesn’t always translate in writing, so I just try to make sure our followers know I’m a real person.”
But, says WSDOT manager of media relations Bart Treece (also a former journalist), the account is never making fun of the commuters.
“We’ve all been there,” says Treece, who emphasizes that the account isn’t directed at drivers, but rather transit commuters, passengers or those who are about to begin their commute.
“We want to make it clear that we are with people -- we’re not making fun of people who are stuck in traffic, and we’re not encouraging them to be unsafe,” he explains.
It was Treece who first started to add some humor to the Twitter account.
“Two years ago I started here because they really wanted a personality behind the tweets, then earlier this year, I got a promotion and we brought in Harmony and Mike,” Treece explains.
“Mike is a really quiet guy, and then he just busts out with this stuff. I don’t even know where it comes from, but it’s working.”
Treece says the @WSDOT_traffic account delivers the “most accurate, most timely” traffic information available, including offering solutions to cut down wait times and help with the overall flow of traffic. Which makes sense, considering the tweets and press releases are sent from a bustling, 24-hour control room lined with screens showing WSDOT’s traffic and tunnel cameras.
In addition to offering alerts (and one-liners), @WSDOT_traffic also helps direct commuters’ questions to the most useful or helpful source of information, whether it be local police, the Seattle Department of Transportation or another WSDOT branch.
Operated with assistance from flow managers and other WSDOT employees -- who do everything from change the lighted signs drivers see on the freeway to reporting incidents to first responders -- @WSDOT_traffic is also careful not to poke fun at serious situations.
In the event that there may be a serious injury, “we check,” says Allende, “and until we know for sure, we hold off” on making jokes.
WSDOT’s points of communication -- including their website, press releases and text alerts that commuters can sign up for -- are critical in times of emergency, when the Skagit Bridge collapsed into the river earlier this year. Fortunately, the WSDOT communication team works well together.
“Traffic impacts everything,” Treece notes, pointing out the changes that the communities of Mount Vernon and Burlington had to make following the bridge collapse, “but we know what we’re doing.”
“We have relationships with established communities,” he says, “and emergencies are when we’re at our best.”
But coupling the important information with humor is also one of WSDOT’s notable skills.
“I had a tweet about a chicken coop in the road one time,” Allende laughs, “or I’ll do a song parody and make it about traffic. People seem to like that stuff. It makes it a little less terrible.”
The WSDOT public information team also has some insight as to what causes the Seattle area’s gridlock.
“Get your car checked!” Haveman emphasises with a smile. “One stalled car can impact thousands of drivers.”
The most important aspect of WSDOT’s community outreach and communications? Letting drivers know that someone is with them when they feel frustrated and alone. And that someone is capable and paying attention and doing everything they can to make the situation better.
“We’ve got people who are really smart,” Treece says, “and they do this for a living...We don’t mess around.”