Serious government agencies use jokes, puns, and sick burns to connect on social media
When you think of the TSA, the Seattle Police Department, and various branches of government, you don’t generally think of fun. But historically serious organizations like these are attempting to connect with the public through humor on social media.
“Someone had tweeted at us and said, ‘Who let New Jersey have a Twitter account?'” said Megan Coyne, social media director for the Office of Governor Phil Murphy in New Jersey. “And I was like, ‘That’s so rude. We have to respond to it.'”
So Coyne and her colleague responded professionally and maturely with a simple, “Your mom.”
“Which is a classic middle school insult, but it’s hilarious,” said Coyne. “It blew up. It got about 500,000 likes, it got us 100,000 followers in one weekend. After that there was no turning back.”
In 2013, the Seattle Police Department was looking to build up its own social media presence.
“I had been a cops reporter for awhile,” said Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, former writer for The Stranger and Publicola and current SPD public affairs officer. “SPD kind of said, ‘Hey, we have this sandbox. Do you want to come play in it? Because we don’t really know what to do with it.'”
SPD tweets like this earned compliments from followers like:
A+ trolling Seattle PD, SPD has a sense of humor! and I love this so hard!
“People don’t interact with their police departments unless they’re having a really bad day,” Spangenthal-Lee said. “There needed to be a way people couple ask questions or find out about resources. We were trying to be approachable and also pointing to some of the bizarre things that happen everyday in a city. Not necessarily poking fun at a situation, but just highlighting, like, hey this thing happened in this way and it’s truly bizarre.”
“The purpose of shifting the account is to increase engagement,” said Burl. “Our theory is if we can engage with the public and have fun and still get out our message, then if something bad really happens and we need to get a message out to the public, people will be listening.”
Coyne, Burl, and Spangenthal-Lee all say balance is key. You want to make it fun, but stay credible.
“A great example is the coronavirus,” said Coyne. “For the last two years, that @NJGov account has been used to get important, life saving information out to people. But we’ve also infused our own tone into it and embraced New Jersey humor. When there was a big emphasis on staying six feet apart, we used New Jersey things as measurements, like ‘Stay one Bruce Springsteen apart’ or ‘Stay one Bon Jovi apart.'”
SPD was one of the first in the country to try this lighter social media tactic, but the fun and games have since quieted down. A quick scroll through its Twitter page reveals nothing but shootings, homicides, stolen items, and missing person reports. I asked Spangenthal-Lee what changed and he let out a big sigh.
“There are a lot of factors there,” said Spangenthal-Lee. “Things in the department are very different from when I started. I know it wasn’t entirely popular, internally. There were some folks with very loud voices who had a lot to say about it and didn’t think it was appropriate or didn’t like the way it reflected on officers. It was something that was very popular externally but some [internal] people complained about it enough times that you can only keep that up for so long.”
But the T.S.A. continues to post funny photos and punny captions relevant to pop culture and trending stories. Burl says you have to reach people how they like to be reached, and today that is through social media.
“[We want to] let them know that, yes, we might be the government but we’re people too,” said Burl. “From my personal perspective, America has loosened up a bit.”
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