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No Industry Is "Too Boring" to Have a Good Social Presence
Just ask the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The US Consumer Product Safety Commission’s social presence really shouldn’t be as good as it is. After all, it’s a very serious government agency that protects the public from risks of serious injury or death from thousands of types of consumer products. But, as their Social Media Specialist Joseph Galbo points out, a “just the facts” approach doesn’t work anymore on social—you need to make safety messages relevant to people in fun and unexpected ways. Like, you know, creating a Marvel-esque cast of made up characters including a fake retired CPSC spokesdog named Barks McWoofins and a fox aptly named Quinn the Quarantine Fox. (Yes, fan art has been made.) Or even, say, writing a psychological thriller noir about…sentient dryer lint. It’s ridiculous and it’s working: on Twitter alone USCPSC has almost 200k followers.
For this week’s newsletter I spoke with Galbo about this unique and effective strategy. My biggest takeaway was this: there’s no excuse for a boring social presence. With the right strategy, no matter what industry you work in, you can create a fun, engaging, and delightful social presence. In fact, your brand’s limitations can be the exact thing that propels you to figure out a how’d-they-think-of-that strategy. If you want to feel inspired, I highly suggest reading this full interview with Galbo. It’s one of my favorites.
Rachel Karten: First, can you tell me about your current role and any past social (or not!) roles you've had?
Joseph Galbo: My first job in advertising was at McCann in one of their smaller healthcare agencies. The leadership was fabulous. I was put on remarkable creative teams with brilliant people and learned as much as I could from my more experienced colleagues.
My next role was as a Social Media Coordinator at a non-profit science museum in Jersey City, NJ called the Liberty Science Center. It’s a really wonderful mid-sized science museum just outside New York City. It was a great role where I learned all about how you can use fun to communicate complicated scientific topics.
Working at Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has been a nice blend of my time in advertising and my time at the Science Center. I’ve been able to take the creative skills I learned in advertising and mash them with some of the techniques used at the Science Center to make serious safety subject matter fun. Right now, I split my time between three primary job duties: co-running our social media accounts, managing the content and design across our websites, and acting as the lead manager on our public relations agency contract. It’s a very busy role, but it’s a lot of fun (usually), and gives me an opportunity to work across dozens of communication initiatives a year. Every project is in the service of CPSC’s mission—protecting the public and saving lives.
RK: What would you say the goal of CPSC's social media presence is?
JG: Overall, our social media work has two goals:
Share important and lifesaving information—get people what they need to know about dangerous products, important safety alerts, data, regulatory action, and all the other CPSC actions that keep them safe.
Build a deeper connection between the public and CPSC.
That second goal is where I think we’re trying to do something different than a lot of other government agencies. Many agencies still operate as if providing accurate information is enough and doing the work of emotionally engaging audiences is not necessary. For me, that “just the facts” approach doesn’t work anymore. Even if you think your facts are highly relevant, posts that only communicate information can come off feeling distant from people’s day-to-day lives. You need some emotional engagement, too. People want to feel that their federal government lives in the same world they do. It’s the big reason we’ve committed to our current strategy. Our approach helps us make our safety messages relevant to people in fun and unexpected ways. We get to blend education and entertainment, and so far it’s been working really well.
RK: And how would you describe the strategy you've implemented to achieve that goal?
JG: It’s been described as many things over the years. Some nice and some not very nice at all, haha. Internally, we’ve come to describe it as “unconventional”.
When we started this strategy in 2016, it was not the kind of content people expected from the federal government. That was definitely purposeful. As a small agency with very low name recognition, I knew if we went out there and tried to do what everyone else was doing we would fail.
Our limitations as an organization actually helped us a bit in finding our way. For example, when I first started, our video production specialist also doubled as our graphic designer. I decided to teach myself Photoshop so that I wasn’t always bothering him for graphics, and that’s how our safety memes ended up with their, “so bad it’s good, but also sometimes it’s just good” visual aesthetic. We’re also the only federal agency that has to adhere to a law we refer to as 6b. This law basically makes it so that if we want to use someone else’s intellectual property—like a meme template, for example—we have to reach out to the original content owner first for their permission. That kind of restriction effectively means all of our graphic work has to be original. Thankfully, the law doesn’t say anything about not being weird.
RK: What was the first post that you remember really taking off?
JG: In September 2016, we ran some meme-inspired graphics for Baby Safety Month that got some decent engagement. That encouraged us to keep trying the strategy. In February of 2017, we ran some meme-inspired graphics for Valentine’s Day that let people know how to show each other love by cleaning out their dryer lint filters and changing their smoke alarm batteries. That campaign got us our first BuzzFeed placement, and I think that’s when the higher-ups realized we were onto something. For me, the BuzzFeed article was definitely great validation that this strategy could work—as long as we kept up with great safety meme content.
Remaining consistent has been one of the biggest challenges. I’m creating 50 or more graphics a year and try to make every one of them unique. I joke that I write more headlines and generate more visuals in a month than some ad agencies do in a year. But, you know, I get paid to make safety memes for the federal government. It might be the best job in the history of the American Experiment and I put a lot of pressure on myself to do a good job on behalf of the public.
Also, because our subject matter is so niche, for a lot of our messages there aren’t any other voices out there. It’s on us to make sure we keep the safety conversation alive and that’s why I try to make every graphic count. When the public hears CPSC is getting involved in an issue, they should feel as though we are taking it on with everything we’ve got. That means the best social media content I can put together—every crisis, every hazard, every time.
RK: Like you mentioned, the information you're trying to get out there with CPSC is really important, vital, and potentially life saving. What are some tactics you use to get eyeballs on your content, especially during a time when that's harder and harder to do organically?
JG: Great question. A lot of times we use stuff people like…to tell them things they don’t want to hear.
For example, people don’t like it when the government tells them to wear a helmet while riding their ATV. But, people do like dinosaurs and adventure. If I make a graphic where an ATV rider is on an adventure with dinosaurs and it just so happens that there’s a little safety tip about wearing a helmet in there, well, now we’re getting somewhere. Even if they don’t appreciate the safety tip, hopefully they’re on board for the dinosaur adventure. If I’m not convincing them this time, maybe the next adventure will.
We also try to stay as relevant as possible. One of the benefits of this strategy is that we feel like we can do almost anything from a creative standpoint. That’s a huge asset. It makes us very flexible. At any given moment we can leverage multiple online conversations.
We’ve also put some guardrails in place for ourselves to make sure we’re keeping diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind when creating our content. For example, we make sure to include LGBTQ+ families in our graphics, we just completed a photoshoot featuring disabled Americans using common home safety devices such as fire extinguishers and smoke alarms because our content to date has not included enough disabled representation, and you won’t see us using African American Vernacular English or other terms that go viral and then suddenly are everywhere. While our outreach efforts for some campaigns have been culturally responsive for a long time, we have ground to make up on others and we are moving as fast as possible to do it.
In times of crisis, like during a hurricane or other natural disaster, we’ll switch our social tone entirely and unapologetically. The memes go away, and we run simple and easy to understand graphics that communicate exactly what people need to know to keep their families safe.
RK: Talk to me about the recurring characters like "Ted" that you've created...
JG: People love narrative and we try to inject as much narrative into our graphics as we can. Characters are obviously a great way to build narrative, so we have a whole cast at this point. When I first started, the characters were meant to parody the classic government spokes-characters and mascots everyone knows. I would create our characters almost on the fly, because they were just temporary. We’d use them in one or two graphics and then make a new character. This approach worked really well with one of our earliest characters, a fake retired CPSC spokesdog named Barks McWoofins. We used Barks for a week, got some great engagement for the campaign, and then retired him again when it was over. Then, something weird happened. We started reusing some characters more often mostly out of necessity (small team, I’m very busy, etc.) and people started recognizing the characters. Then, people started requesting the characters. Suddenly, the temporary characters had fans, and that changed everything. Handsome Ron, Copernicus Jackson, Potato the Dog, and later Quinn the Quarantine Fox all became mainstays along with Ted and a few others. It was awesome, because I realized we could do more than just have one mascot or spokes character—we could have an entire universe. Slowly, that’s what we’ve built. An entire universe of USCPSC characters.
My embarrassing admission for this interview is that my “dream job” is to be a showrunner on an animated series. That’s not in the cards for me at this point, so to get it out of my system I now try to execute a similar vision with our characters on social. It’s not an accident that so many of our graphics seem like they would be good concepts for videos or that they have so much dialog and exposition. A lot of times our graphics are the micro version of what I would turn into an entire episode of TV if I got to play in that sandbox. I’m sure there’s a parallel universe version of me out there showrunning right now, and I hope he’s having a blast.
RK: What does your approval process look like?
JG: Being a small organization means our approval chain is very short. My Deputy Director of Communications and Director of Communications have to sign off on the creative and then… that’s it. No more approval chain. It’s great. Short approval chains. Everyone should have them, all the time.
RK: Don't take this the wrong way, but I think a lot of people would say that running the CPSC Twitter account would be boring or hard to gain traction. Do you have any advice for people who maybe think they aren't in a cool enough industry to have an amazing social presence?
JG: Stay hopeful! Any organization, in any space, can have an amazing and engaging social media presence. If it can be done at the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, it can be done anywhere. It’s definitely less about your industry, and more about your leadership.
One of the most important things to know about our social strategy is that nobody asked for it. Nobody. Nobody said, “You should use surrealism and wacky characters to promote safety.” Nobody said, “The people want their holiday safety tips to look like memes.” Nobody asked for talking dogs, or cats, or smoke alarm spaceships, or a carbon monoxide geese brigade, or dinosaurs chasing people on ATVs.
Six years in, the strategy seems like it always would have been a success, but at first the only thing my leadership knew was that they wanted things to be different. That’s huge. If your leadership is satisfied with the status quo, you’re fighting a much harder battle than, “our industry is very serious. This is inappropriate. Etc. Etc.”
I have to give my leadership all the credit. It is not easy to have someone walk into your office, throw down a picture of a scorpion in a Santa hat popping out of a present box and say, “Ma’am, I believe this is our best option,” and yet that is exactly what I do to my leadership multiple times a week.
RK: Any final thoughts?
JG: It is a tremendous privilege to work at CPSC. I am grateful every day that I have the opportunity to serve my fellow Americans. With a staff of about 500 people and a budget of about $135 million, we are one of the smallest federal health and safety agencies, but the work we do touches the lives of every person in the US and has global implications. I play just one small part in that work. The rest is done by safety professionals, engineers, lawyers, researchers, scientists, and my colleagues in our Communications office both at our HQ in Maryland and at stations across the country. It’s an incredible community working to protect people. For anyone reading this who feels dissatisfied with their current job, all I can say is that there is absolutely nothing like working in public service. It is the most rewarding kind of work you can imagine. I used to think, “How could anyone stay at a job for 30 years?” but now I get it. If you’re considering a career change, take a look at the government. You won’t be sorry, and I’ll be rooting for your content the whole way.
Also, everyone reading this subscribe for our recall emails so you know when there’s a deadly product in your home and if you think you found a dangerous product, report that thing to CPSC on SaferProducts.gov. Lastly, stay safe out there, and thank you for taking the time to learn about what we have going on with our social media at CPSC.