Meet Ted. Ted is being chased through the Cretaceous Period by a T-rex, but thankfully brought his ATV for a quick escape. And he was “sure glad he wore a helmet.”
Says the Consumer Product Safety Commission in a tweet depicting this whole course of events: “Good job, Ted.”
At first glance, this tweet appears absurd, funny and perhaps a bit bizarre. Certainly not the type of content generally released by a government agency. But that’s exactly why it works.
Federal agencies are increasingly willing to think outside the box in their engagement with citizens and other agencies on social media, with some finding that a silly message can help to get across information about a vitally serious topic. But for many agencies it has taken time to navigate and find a place in an online culture that values memes and jokes over direct information.
Social media presents a low-investment method for increasing interest in an agency’s mission, if that agency is willing to take risks and let its more creative employees take the helm.
Consider the tactics of President Donald Trump, who has even taken to social media to announce policy and personnel decisions. The method gets information to citizens quickly but has also led to concerns of rash decision making in the White House.
Few would debate, however, that Trump’s more adventurous approach to Twitter has also netted him significant attention: over 64 million followers on his personal account to be exact. Former President Barack Obama, often credited as the first president to view social media as a serious medium for reaching his constituency, became the most watched account on the entire platform, with over 108 million followers.
Some government agencies have also developed into social media juggernauts, such as NASA with its 32 million Twitter and 22 million Facebook followers. And even smaller agencies have found that social media offers them an amplifier for their mission and message, if used correctly.
According to Joseph Galbo, a social media specialist at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the culture of social media offers federal agencies the opportunity to engage with the public in a way that can resonate more than traditional forms of communication, such as news briefings and press releases.
“I do think the public likes to be entertained. I think if a government agency can find a way to entertain people and educate them at the same time, that’s a really effective way to teach folks on social media,” said Galbo in an interview with Federal Times.
Under Galbo’s direction, the CPSC social media accounts have transformed to feature over-the-top and absurd messaging that includes dinosaurs, unicorns and astronaut babies.
The shift began in September 2016, when CPSC decided to run with a new idea to promote baby safety month that year.
“We decided we were going to run an experiment where we would run some normal government images that you would always see from a federal account, and then we were going to run this totally out there and wild stuff,” said Galbo.
The agency posted two new and unusual graphics throughout September: a baby with a forcefield that encouraged parents to keep cords three feet away from small children, and a baby astronaut that reminded people to keep their babies strapped in their highchairs as if they would float away into space.
CPSC’s baby tweets have since evolved into the Great Baby, an infant spirit from on high that warns of child safety concerns —and even inspired a series of conspiracy theory reaction tweets to communicate the same message.
According to Galbo, convincing leadership that a serious message — child safety — could be communicated using silly imagery was the first step.
“They were a little hesitant at first. It took a lot of talking through how you balance the seriousness of what we’re communicating … with this more fun and out-there [concept]. What we settled on was, when you want to communicate on social media, especially for a small agency like CPSC, you kind of have to be outside of the box,” said Galbo.
“To credit my leadership at the time, they were willing to kind of try it out and see how it goes. And I’m very thankful for that; I think that’s very brave, especially for leadership at a federal agency.”
Successful social media campaigns often require not just the buy-in of agency leadership, but the active support of an entire team as well.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency launched a campaign in July to educate the public about the potential for foreign governments to interfere in U.S. elections through disinformation and to goad citizens to argue about divisive topics.
To prove their point, the agency launched the #waronpineapple social media and infographic campaign, showing just how easily social media users could be coerced into fighting.
CISA Director Chris Krebs got directly involved in the action, trying to get as many people as possible to wade into the debate.
“All credit goes to Chris Krebs and his willingness to be provocative and tweet at the SEC chairman and tweet at Taylor Swift and The Rock, really trying to evoke a response,” said Geoff Hale, the director for CISA’s Election Security Initiative, in an interview with Federal Times.
Other federal agencies and state election officials got involved in the debate, seeing CISA’s example as an opportunity to expand their education and outreach.
“They had awareness that we wanted to discuss topics like this, and actually several of them, secretaries of state around the country, said, ‘Pineapple on pizza is not a huge thing in my area, but I want to take the same concept and adapt it to a divisive issue in Rhode Island or Pennsylvania,’” said Hale.
“Nowhere did we really expect them to jump in the fray the way they did.”
Hale said that the CISA team came up with their strategy while teasing each other over flavor preferences at lunch. What started as a debate on the merits of salt and vinegar chips soon landed on pineapple on pizza as the most wildly divisive food topic.
In the three years since CPSC has pursued its unorthodox social media approach, Galbo said that public affairs personnel, who each have their own areas of expertise within the agency, will come to him with basic ideas of the message they want to convey and then collaborate on how to approach it in tweets and posts.
The agency has recurring characters, including Potato the dog and Butterscotch and Dennis the unicorns, that feature throughout the agency’s social media.
The unicorns are not only hilarious in their own right, but also call up a famous internet trend of old — the Charlie the Unicorn series that became famous on YouTube all the way back in 2005 — which adds another layer of humor for those that have been online long enough to remember early internet fame.
Galbo and his coworkers also developed storylines for their posts, such as the man that travels back in time while riding his ATV to promote various aspects of vehicle safety.
Creating a serious-ly funny strategy
CISA and CPSC address hugely serious topics, such as saving lives and keeping the integrity of the U.S. election system. But both Galbo and Hale said that the seriousness of the message does not prevent social media teams from targeting a laugh.
“It has been a difficult topic for us to necessarily talk about, because people have such an emotional response. So we’ve been looking for a way to discuss the tactics being employed in a much more safe tone,” said Hale.
“What our adversaries are doing is exploiting our genuine, heartfelt opinions and emotions, and exploiting those to really fan the flames of a divide. We were able to use a divisive issue to talk through these tactics so people can begin to recognize when they are being inflamed in such a way. We’re aware that this is not the be-all, end-all way to counter foreign interference and secure the elections, but it’s a good first step in spreading public awareness.”
Investment in a funny social media message can also mean that the more serious messages are heard as a byproduct.
When Galbo started working on social media for CPSC in 2016, the agency had approximately 30,000 Twitter followers — a number that has since doubled. He calls the approach “something kind of crazy,” but notes the most important point: it works.
For the most part, Galbo said he believes CPSC is still an outlier; he sees other agencies using funny social media approaches more on holidays than the every day.
“There are government agencies that are having a lot of fun on social media. But it doesn’t look like ours does, with talking dogs and unicorns and flying raccoons and stuff like that,” said Galbo.
Dangers still abound in the world of social media, with “troll” accounts looking to actively start fights or deride certain posts behind the anonymity offered by the internet. For the most part, such accounts are ignored, but they pose a risk of muddying up the comments on a post with pointless arguments.
“It’s worth incurring that cost for the potential benefit of spreading awareness about the risks of these issues,” said Hale.
Looking to the future
Agencies are likely going to have to reckon with a new approach to getting their message out to citizens, as tight budgets make it that much harder for smaller agencies to afford the sorts of expansive engagement tools that larger agencies may be able to access.
“For small agencies, especially, it can be a real challenge to keep up, and I’m thankful here that I’ve been given a lot of leeway to try some new stuff. But not everybody is that fortunate,” said Galbo.
According to Hale, pushing social media messages is ultimately a “low investment” strategy. A few moments of engagement with a good post can result in the message getting reposted and spread further than the agency could otherwise manage. But agency social media experts may have to fight for the importance of their work to make it stick.
“You have to advocate as a social media person for a culture of innovation,” said Galbo, who added that his next ambition is to update his agency’s website to be more accessible and in line with CPSC’s social media style.
Agencies will also have to keep pace with a mercurial public, that may eventually decide that certain social media platforms — or humorous forms of communication like memes — are no longer interesting to engage with.
“I like that this approach to social media that we’re trying is working, and I like that the public is responding to it,” Galbo said.
“But also, I always want to be doing what works, so if one day this doesn’t work anymore, it will be time to do something else. And that’s OK.”
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.