It’s OK for government to joke around on social media sometimes, comms leaders say

Social media is a place where agencies can engage "as real people" and show empathy.
(Getty Images)

When it comes to citizen outreach, social media can be a place to bring the human out from behind the bureaucracy.

During a panel on “multichannel outreach” at Adobe’s Digital Government Symposium Thursday, communications leaders from the Department of Interior, National Science Foundation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives discussed the respective benefits of different media channels.

“I think social media is where people now prefer to engage,” said Jennifer Plozai, lead of external affairs at NSF. “We are engaging as real people, we are showing empathy, we are joking with people when they are joking with us.”

Before joining NSF, Plozai worked at the Transportation Security Administration where she helped launch @AskTSA — a social media-based customer service effort to answer people’s questions about travel and safety requirements. Plozai gave an example of how @AskTSA has used humor to its advantage.


“We had people asking us what they could bring on planes,” she said. “And they just started sending us photos — it wouldn’t have any text with it, just photos, because a picture is worth a thousand words. So they’d send us pictures of like a lightsaber, you know, ‘I’m going to ComicCon can I bring my lightsaber on the plane.’ And rather than just giving a typical government response…. we would say, you know, ‘Your lightsaber is good to go, but we’re afraid you’ve just told the Jedi you’re coming.'”

The team at TSA, she said, worked at being “really being engaging, and making that OK to do as a government agency.”

A few government agencies have managed to create truly unique social media presences, and humor often has a lot to do with it. The Consumer Product Safety Commission‘s Twitter account, for example, leans heavily into weird memes. And meanwhile, TSA’s Instagram account, which is mostly dedicated to pictures of the very strange and surprising things people try to get through security checkpoints, also often includes funny captions.

“People don’t come to a government social media account and expect to see humor,” the late Bob Burns, the brains behind TSA’s Instagram, said during a Facebook Live appearance in December 2017.

Joe Galbo, who runs the CPSC twitter account, also sees value in surprising people. “Doing the serious messaging constantly — people will tune you out,” he told FedScoop in an interview last year. “You have to mix it up a little bit.”

Latest Podcasts