We frequently look to other government agencies for inspiration and guidance while building our own projects or thinking about how to communicate their value. One of my favorite projects is the U.S. Department of the Interior’s work on social media. Their Instagram feed boasts almost 900,000 followers and features stunning landscapes inside America’s national parks. Their Twitter account has half a million followers and quickly replies to queries.
What I like about these accounts, aside from the stunning imagery, is how adept Interior is at sharing their policy-related content in between the photos of volcanoes and snow-covered mountains. People are just as likely to find out about climate change or supporting America’s small businesses as they are to catch a beautiful sunset at Glacier National Park.
Both the Instagram account and the Twitter feed are managed by Rebecca Matulka, the senior digital media strategist for Interior. I asked Rebecca if she wouldn’t mind sharing what she’s learned while running an online community that helps Interior achieve its larger strategic goals.
MK: What do you do in the federal government?
RM: I’m the senior digital media strategist for the Interior Department. I manage Interior’s social media accounts — that’s everything from Instagram, Twitter and Vine to Tumblr, Facebook and Snapchat. I develop the strategy for these accounts, create content and evaluate the success of the accounts.
MK: You run one of the most popular Instagram accounts for the federal government. Could you describe your workflow for selecting images for the Interior Department’s Instagram and then posting them?
RM: A lot of work goes into finding great photos for Interior’s Instagram account. We try to share pictures of what it currently looks like on the ground at national parks and other public lands.
At the same time, we try to balance the different types of photos (sunrise, night sky, wildlife, etc.), geographic location and type of public lands. We not only want to showcase well-known national parks but also hidden gems like Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge in Maine or St. Anthony Sand Dunes in Idaho.
Once we’ve found a great photo, we make sure to get permission to share it on our accounts (especially if it’s from a visitor). For the captions, we make sure to include interesting facts about the location or stories from the photographer about what it took to capture the photo. We like to vary the format and length, so that the captions aren’t all the same.
We typically share two photos a day during the workweek (around 11:30 a.m. ET and 6:45 p.m. ET) and one a day on the weekends. Before posting, we use Mappr to change the geolocation of the photos to ensure we are geotagging the right place.
MK: What kind of feedback do you get from people and how do you respond? I know you’ve responded to me directly on Twitter, which was unexpectedly awesome.
RM: So many people have great connections to public lands — these are places they’ve visited with family and friends, or are on their bucket list. We’ve also heard from people that look forward to our daily photos because it’s their moment of zen for the day.
The majority of the comments are people tagging their friends and talking about their trips to the place we’ve featured. But when someone asks us a question, we always try to respond. If we don’t know the answer, we reach out to people on the ground to get it for them. We also like to respond when people share their photos or stories about visiting places — it’s all about acknowledging that we saw their tweet and we appreciate that they’re spreading the word about all the amazing public lands that Interior protects.
When people provide us feedback, we let them know we’ve heard, and try to incorporate it into feed posts. This allows us to turn what might have been negative feedback into a positive response. This conversation on Twitter is a great example of this type of result:
MK: How does working with the public in this way help the Interior Department when it wants to share information about policy decisions?
RM: Interior is known for it’s stunning landscapes and cute wildlife photos, but the Department’s mission includes more than just those things. It’s the photos that draw people to our accounts and allows us to share all the other great work the Department is doing. The result is our policy-related content reaches a much larger audience than most other federal government agencies.
MK: Where do you look for inspiration, offline and online?
RM: National Geographic is a big inspiration for me — I’d love to see Interior’s Instagram account be at that level someday. I also look to BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post.
Personally, I like to unplug to recharge my creative juices. I love to cook and spend time outside with family, friends and my dog. I also enjoy curling up with a book. Photo captions are just as important as the image itself, and I want to make sure our captions don’t become formulaic. In reading other people’s writing, it gives me new ideas of how to develop Interior’s photo captions.
MK: How do you share what you’ve learned with other people?
RM: It can be hard to share what we’ve learned because right now a lot of it is anecdotal. We’d like to get to a place where we have hard data to backup the decisions we make on social media.
Internally, we are trying to set up processes that not only allow us to share our best practices, but also let the social media leads at the different Bureaus that Interior manages share their successes. We all have something we can learn from each other.
MK: What’s the best part of your job?
RM: The best part of my job is seeing the positive responses from the public about places we highlight. People love to share their story about memories from childhood trips to Grand Teton or how they honeymooned at Yosemite. Interior protects America’s special places so that past and future generations can enjoy them. It’s really great to see this connection.
MK: What’s one thing that you’ve learned that might help others working in the federal government?
RM: Always keep experimenting. Just because it’s always been done that way or it didn’t worked in the past, doesn’t mean that is still the case. Social media is always changing, and we need to keep reevaluating what we are doing to ensure that we are providing taxpayers with the best service possible.
MK: It’s probably hard to pick, but can you share a favorite photo or story from the stream?
It’s definitely hard to pick a single favorite, but I really love this photo of burrowing owls from Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. It’s from a population study, right before they were released. I love looking at all the owls’ different expressions and trying to figure out what they are thinking — I can’t help but laugh.
I also really like this tranquil photo from Glacier. It’s our most popular photo of all time on our social media accounts. I thought it was beautiful, but it’s not the normal type of photo we share. I was really surprised at the response — I like it because it’s a reminder to try new things.