Some Advice for MBTA General Manager Luis Ramirez after His Bad Day on Twitter
He seems to have taken criticism of the MBTA's bomb cyclone transit performance hard.
Faced with his first bout of extreme winter weather at the helm of the MBTA, the system’s new general manager Luis Ramírez definitely had his hands full to start 2018.
Following the storm, his behavior on Twitter, that 24/7 wellspring of outrage and fury, didn’t inspire optimism.
First he penned a pair of defensive tweets blaming “Siberian temperatures” for the T’s woes, then he blocked journalists and critics and changed his username before unblocking them, and then, after a hail of criticism, his Twitter account re-emerged, with a message indicating he “look[s] forward to communicating with our ridership.”
The whole thing certainly drew more attention than he probably realized it would, with widely shared screenshots of the deleted posts, speculation from the Globe‘s Joshua Miller about how long he’d last in the role, and WBUR’s Meghna Chakrabarti asking, “Where’s the spirit of accountability and transparency?”
Why is the general manager of the @MBTA – and a public servant – blocking reporters? Where’s the spirit of accountability and transparency? #mapoli @CharlieBakerMA @BostonGlobe @WBUR https://t.co/2XuhRc88fJ
— Meghna Chakrabarti (@MeghnaWBUR) January 9, 2018
It certainly wasn’t a good look for the T’s newbie leader, who’s been GM only since the much-more-hospitable summer. After all, if history is any indication, he’s going to need to learn how to read his audience—which depends on the T and expects GMs to solve wintry problems, not explain them away—to make it in this job. And he’ll need some thicker skin.
After the infamous Blizzard of 1978, which unsurprisingly caused widespread transit issues, then-general manager Robert Kiley faced some familiar-sounding questions about his decision-making process. “Why couldn’t the MBTA run?” was the headline of a Q+A, which later followed up with the exact same question T officials get asked nearly every single fall: “Is there anything that can be done to improve the MBTA’s performance during storms?” Kiley took it in stride.
Flash forward to 2003, during the infamous President’s Day Storm, when, according to the Globe‘s archived coverage, irate emails were flowing in about fewer bus stops, a partial shut-down on the Silver Line, epic delays on the D Line, and inadequate messages to commuters about conditions. Then-MBTA manager Michael H. Mulhern reacted by staying humble. Even if he didn’t think the T deserved “failing grades,” Mulhern said at the time, he admitted, “We didn’t thrive.”
Two years after that, in the Blizzard of 2005, passengers on the Red Line were reportedly left stranded in the cold waiting in lines “seven deep,” Mulhern issued this mea culpa: “We let our riders down,” he said, “and I’m extremely disappointed.”
A creative approach to critiques was taken by Beverly Scott, the T’s general manager through the onslaught of 2015, who developed a reputation for unusual turns of phrase when reacting to storm critiques.
“Our people are not the Jetsons,” she said in 2013, when Boston faced its fifth-biggest snowstorm of all time, explaining that much of the T staff couldn’t show up to work until the roads were plowed. And Scott’s press conference after the T ground to a halt in the winter of 2015 became the stuff of legend. Bemoaning criticism of her leadership, she said even “God Jr.” couldn’t make the system run properly in “a perfect storm,” given the state of the ancient trains and years of chronic underinvestment. She cemented her reputation for lively interactions with press, about which there were mixed reviews, right up until she ultimately stepped down.
— Only In Boston (@OnlyInBOS) February 10, 2015
Transit activists reached Tuesday declined to jump to conclusions about Ramírez from his Twitter imbroglio, saying the best way to judge a general manager’s performance is not a pair of tweets and a bit of turbulence on social media, but how well the T performs and improves under his or her tenure.
“Anybody who comes into the job of general manager of the T is coming into the most difficult job in state government,” says Jim Aloisi, the former Massachusetts Transportation Secretary, writer, and frequent user of Twitter. That won’t get better until there’s a massive re-investment in the system, he says.
In the meantime, he says, Ramírez would be wise to leave the tweeting to the T’s full-time public relations staff, who deal with prolific levels of abuse online and are skilled at spreading information and triaging complaints. “If you’re a high-level public official, the last thing in the world you should be doing is dealing with your social media account,” he says.
And if you ask Aloisi, Ramírez could probably do without the site altogether. “There’s virtually nothing important that is said or happens on Twitter,” he says. “Twitter is just a forum. It’s an agora. That’s great. It’s informative. It can be fun. But ultimately it’s not driving anything. And so you just have to have that thick skin, let it wash over you, and stay focused on the job that you’re supposed to do.”
But Steve Koczela, president of MassInc Polling (who captured Ramírez’s widely publicized tweets in screenshots), says he welcomes Ramírez’s participation on social media and hopes he stays engaged.
“I certainly appreciate the opportunity to hear from the T,” he says. “I rely on the T. I ride it every day. So I’d love to be able to hear what they have to say.”