Sassy or Unclassy: Using Humor in Government Social Media

We're taking a deeper dive into when humor does and doesn’t work for government agencies.

by / March 1, 2017
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Who doesn’t love a sassy tweet? Well, in my last column, we saw how a sassy tweet from an official school district Twitter account cost the social media manager her job. There were a lot of issues to examine in that situation, including whether the use of humor was appropriate.

It can be tricky for public agencies to use humor on social media, especially when trying to find the balance between being playful and remaining “official.” This time we’ll dive deeper into when humor does and doesn’t work for government agencies.

Let’s start with a government social media classic.

Back in 2014, the CIA used humor in its very first tweet by playing off a well-known “meme” regarding the intelligence field. With more than 300,000 retweets and 250,000 likes, it’s clear that the joke went over well and resonated with the audience. After all, who wouldn’t get the joke? There was no room for misinterpretation, and because it was a clear self-reference, no possibility of offending somebody else.

A more recent example is the Lawrence, Kan., Police Department’s Super Bowl tweet about a new tortilla chip bag that acts as a breathalyzer. This post relates a core agency message (don’t drink and drive) to a trending news story. By using humor, the tweet comes across in a very human way; you could imagine a friend saying this to you in exactly the way it was written. Like our last example, this message had a low risk of being misinterpreted or seen as offensive. We have to give them bonus points for picking on something that itself is funny to visualize.

The Federal Student Aid Office also used current events to relay a core message in its Super Bowl tweet. Not only does it tie into current events, but it’s also a great use of an animated gif (from Lady Gaga’s halftime performance), which is a very strong trend in social media right now. Let’s run this post through a set of tests:

  • Is there room for misinterpretation? Nope.
  • Will the audience get it? Yes, especially if you watched the Super Bowl.
  • Does it relay a core agency message? It sure does.
  • Could it offend anybody? Can’t imagine how. Although one potential concern with this post is around the rights to the image since it is from an NFL game and involves a celebrity.

Last, let’s look at an attempt at humor that didn’t turn out so well.

The Atlanta Police Department recently made a strange tweet about Beyonce’s pregnancy announcement. While it attempted to connect the timely news story to its core message, it’s quite a stretch to make gunfire relevant to a pregnancy. This lack of clarity left the door open for interpretation, with many critics thinking there was some type of racial undertone to the post.

Image via The Kansas City Star

The department deleted the tweet (for which we hope they kept an official record!) and then apologized. The department surely had the right intentions, and was trying to tie its message with current events. However, as a golden rule, any room for interpretation in an official government post — intended to be humorous or not — is probably bad news.

If you’re looking for another example of bad humor, check out our video this month ;)

Anil Chawla
Anil Chawla is the founder and CEO of ArchiveSocial, a civic tech company that specializes in risk mitigation and open records management of government social media. The parent company of Government Technology is an investor in ArchiveSocial through e.Republic Ventures.