Serious government agencies use jokes, puns and burns to connect on social media

When you think of the TSA, the Seattle Police Department, and various branches of government, you don’t usually think of fun. But historically serious organizations like these try to connect with the public through humor on social media.

“Someone had tweeted us and said, ‘Who let New Jersey have a Twitter account?’ said Megan Coyne, director of social media for Governor Phil Murphy’s office in New Jersey. “And I was like, ‘That’s so rude. We have to respond to that.

So Coyne and her colleague responded professionally and maturely with a simple, “Your mom.”

“Which is a classic college insult, but it’s hilarious,” Coyne said. “It exploded. He got around 500,000 likes, he got us 100,000 followers in a weekend. After that, there was no turning back.

In 2013, the Seattle Police Department was looking to develop its own social media presence.

“I was a crime reporter for a while,” said Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, a former writer for The Stranger and Publicola and current public affairs officer for the SPD. “The SPD kind of said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this sandbox. Want to come and play in it? Because we don’t really know what to do with it.

Through the SPD, Spangenthal-Lee tweeted ironic jokes about hemp party and The Seahawksand responded to tense tweets with levity to deflate a situation, like this exchange:

SPD tweets like this have earned compliments from followers such as:

A+ trolling Seattle PD, SPD has a sense of humor! and I like it so much !

“People don’t interact with their police departments unless they’re having a really bad day,” Spangenthal-Lee said. “There had to be a way for couples to ask questions or find out about resources. We were trying to be accessible and point out some of the weird things that happen every day in a city. Not necessarily making fun of a situation, but just pointing out, like, hey, this thing happened this way and it’s really weird.

TSA social media manager Janis Burl and her team use puns and jokes to get important messages across to their one million Instagram followers.

“The whole point of account switching is to increase engagement,” Burl said. “Our theory is that if we can engage with the public and have fun while getting our message across, then if something bad really happens and we need to get a message out to the public, people will listen.”

Coyne, Burl and Spangenthal-Lee all say balance is key. You want it to be fun, but still be believable.

“A good example is the coronavirus,” Coyne said. “For the past two years, this @NJGov account has been used to provide important and lifesaving information to people. But we’ve also infused it with our own unique tone and New Jersey humor. When the emphasis was on staying six feet apart, we used New Jersey measures, like “Stay a Bruce Springsteen apart” or “Stay a Bon Jovi apart “.

The SPD was one of the first in the country to try this lighter tactic on social media, but the fun and the games have since died down. A quick scroll through his Twitter page reveals nothing but shootings, homicides, stolen property and missing person reports. I asked Spangenthal-Lee what had changed and he sighed heavily.

“There are a lot of factors there,” Spangenthal-Lee said. “Things in the department are very different from when I started. I know it wasn’t entirely popular, internally. There were people with really loud voices who had a lot to say about it and didn’t think it was appropriate or didn’t like how it reflected on the officers. It was something that was very popular outside, but some [internal] people have complained about it enough times that you can’t go on like this for long.

But the TSA continues to post fun photos and punny captions relevant to pop culture and buzz stories. Burl says you have to reach people the way they like to be reached, and today that’s through social media.

“[We want to] let them know that, yes, we may be the government, but we are also people,” Burl said. “From my personal perspective, America has slacked off a bit.”

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