With Twitter wit, CIA tries to shed staid public image

The Census Bureau, the Department of the Interior, and the CIA: What do these agencies have in common? They're being humorous on Twitter, a move that experts are lauding, even in the face of controversy.

Twitter.com / Screengrab
This screengrab from the CIA's Twitter feed showcases the lighter side of the notoriously close-mouthed agency.

When you think of the Central Intelligence Agency or the Department of the Interior, chances are the word "humor" doesn't come to mind. But follow either organization on Twitter, and you might get a different impression.

The two agencies are part of a larger trend of late, in which many Washington bureaucracies have attempted to add texture to their often-staid public images via funky, zany social media accounts. The phenomenon hasn’t been without controversy, but social media experts say it’s been an effective strategy to convey important information, while personalizing agencies that rarely converse with the public.

The CIA, in many ways, epitomizes the trend.

Though the agency entered the Twittersphere only a month ago, it already has some 720,000 followers – far more than most federal agencies – in large part because of its clever use of the social media platform.  

Its first tweet in June, which was retweeted 300,000 times, set the tone.

"We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet," it read.

This Monday, the one-month anniversary of the account’s genesis, the organization again made waves with five tweets, all of which were supposedly answers to the questions most often tweeted to the organization.

In one of the five, the CIA had something to say about the whereabouts of Tupac Shakur, a rapper murdered in Las Vegas in 1996. In another, the organization joked that it could not help anyone retrieve their forgotten passwords.

Though the majority of Twitter feedback has been positive, the public reaction has been mixed. Some old-guard CIA figures haven't been on board, and some commentators have chided the organization for making light of death and computer hacking.

“The most galling part of this might be that everyone ... knows where Tupac is: he’s dead,” wrote journalist Ben Mathis-Lilley in Slate.

Still, experts say, the attempt to humanize the agency through humor can and has been a powerful tool when used judiciously.

“Anything that can humanize an organization that generally doesn’t put a human face forward is a good thing,” says David Meerman Scott, social media strategist and author of "The New Rules of Marketing and PR." “I think most people, myself included, have never knowingly interacted with the CIA.”

The Department of the Interior has also bought into the idea that direct interaction via Twitter is a positive and that light humor can be an effective tool, says Tim Fullerton, the department’s director of digital strategy.

That agency’s account, which features dramatic landscape photographs collected from civilian park users, as well as a number of silly animal photos, has garnered 188,000 followers.

“We’ve had success with humor,” Mr. Fullerton says. “We’re making sure the public knows what we’re doing since the work is relevant.”

In one tweet, on June 24, a fox appears to perform a handstand.

In another, a snake, a rabbit, and a chipmunk have a showdown in Arches National Park in Utah.

Another fan of Twitter humor is apparently the US Census Bureau. Though most tweets are merely facts, bits of humor are sprinkled throughout the account, such as in the page profile, which describes members of the bureau as "a merry band of Lovable Nerds.”

In another instance, the organization retweeted a message by Jimmy Fallon suggesting that the decennial census could be simplified if everyone merely tweeted to the bureau.

The group even made a reference to “American Pie,” a 1970s song by Don McLean, when the population of the United States reached 314 million – a triple-entendre with the mathematical figure pi, or 3.14.

“There were several well-known celebrities who saw it and retweeted it,” says Briana Kaya, a social media coordinator at the Census Bureau. “It was great that people saw it, but it was also great that we were able to convey useful information in the process.”

Being funny, says Jennifer Smits, another social media coordinator at the Census Bureau, has been a powerful way to reach audiences, though she agrees with Mr. Scott that it’s an application requiring care.

“We want to strike a balance,” she says. “We’re trying to be conversational with our data, so if something is trending, we’ll take part in it. But we have to be careful with humor because it doesn’t lend itself to some topics.”

To be sure, some agencies don’t play this humor game – think the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Commerce, among others.

Many of the most followed do, however, including the White House, which has made Bo, one of the first dogs, an occasional character in its tweets.

“The government is definitively starting to embrace social media,” says Ms. Kaya. “There are definitely some very interesting Twitter accounts out there.”

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