What You’ll Learn

The Corps of Engineers Portland District social media feeds that Chris Gaylord manages are full of vampires, yams on dams, celebrities and memes. It’s not what you might expect from a government agency. Chris Gaylord explains why humor can be a useful tool when he’s communicating about scintillating topics like dredging and navigational buoys.

Guest Speaker

Chris Gaylord

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: How can you use humor to build your social media audience? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host with Pioneer, and I’m joined on this episode by Chris Gaylord, who is one of the public affairs specialists for the Army Corps of Engineers Portland District. Chris, thanks for joining me.

Chris Gaylord: Hey, thanks for having me on.

Andy Johns: So Chris gave a presentation at the StoryConnect Communications Workshop in Newport, Oregon, last week. And we weren’t able to get together there, so we got together here on Zoom to record this episode. Chris, you may know him from one of the funnier utility-related social media accounts out there. If you are not following the Portland District Army Corps of Engineers, you are missing out. But he is one of the masterminds, maybe the main mastermind, behind some of the fun pieces there. So, Chris, I’m excited to dive in.

Chris Gaylord: Great.

Andy Johns: So if you follow, and I don’t know if listeners out there follow very many Corps of Engineers or other governmental agencies, but you log on to the Facebook page and the social media accounts, you’re seeing vampires. You’re seeing yams. You’re seeing the Griswolds. Your account is not the typical government agency social media account.

Chris Gaylord: Yeah. I think that is kind of an understatement.

Andy Johns: Right. Now, I like it on LinkedIn; you described yourself as a specialist in “non-boring” communications. So let’s talk about that, because you said in the presentation the other day, humor is a Trojan horse, and that you feel like humor really helps you build that audience so that people will pay attention when you need them. Let’s unpack that a little bit. Tell me more.

Chris Gaylord: Yeah, definitely. Well, I mean, you know, for me, the foundation, it kind of all starts with attention and all of the thousands of media messages that we see and posts that we see as we scroll through our various social platforms on a daily basis. And so, you know, I start with the struggle, which is how do we break through that white noise? And I don’t think humor is the only way to do it. You know, it certainly has worked for us. But really what it’s all about is we are not a very exciting government agency. You know, you follow the National Park Service or something like that, and you’re seeing all these really captivating photos of the parks and wildlife. And it’s amazing the imagery they have at their disposal. And, you know, when we’re talking about, I always use the example of like a navigation lock on the Columbia River going out of service know, I mean, some of this stuff is not that exciting and…

Andy Johns: It’s tough to compete with NASA and the park rangers when you got navigation locks.

Chris Gaylord: Yeah, definitely. And so really, you know, and this sounds very blunt and people don’t always like to hear it, but, you know, most people don’t really care. You know, social media is a unique space. You think about why you go there. I mean, I’m going there for entertainment. Most people I know are going there for entertainment. Share memes, you know, talk about, I guess, sports. I don’t know. I don’t know anything about sports. But, you know, they’re not going there for a press release about a dam safety inspection or whatever it is. And so it’s really kind of adapting to the way that people consume information in that environment. It helps, using humor captures people’s interests, catches their attention, for sure. But I try to make the writing humorous throughout to make it enjoyable not only for folks going to be likely to retain the information, but I want to keep them hanging on. And so the Trojan horse. Yeah, I mean, that’s just kind of the metaphor for it gets the foot in the door, right? It’s a way to get people reading about things that by themselves are not really all that exciting because you’re packaging them in a new, entertaining way. You know, and somebody might see, you mentioned the vampire from what we do in the shadows. And somebody might see that, “Oh my gosh! What’s this about?” And it starts a dialog. Sometimes it’s a dialog of just gifs, and sometimes it’s a dialog about the show. And then sometimes it’s a dialog about our navigation locks and the serious stuff that happens in these posts as well. So it really just gets people paying attention, gets people reading. And so many times people have told us in comment threads or in person or in direct messages on our Facebook that they’ve learned something and they never thought they’d be following an engineering account, or much less a government engineering firm. And here they are learning things and that’s not what they came here to do and a lot of people don’t.

Andy Johns: Yeah. So what are some of – for the folks who are not familiar – I’m scrolling through the feed now. I see Dexter. I see Dawson’s Creek. I see Napoleon Dynamite. I mean, you know, there’s looks like Game of Thrones shows up quite a bit. What are some of your favorites, or what are some of the more memorable ones? Yeah, yam on a dam is the first one that I had seen, which is, I think, a take that y’all did. Instead of elf on a shelf, it was yam on a dam, with the sweet potato. Like, I don’t guess they’re exactly the same thing, but the yams on top of some of the dams that you guys are are in charge of. But what are some of the ones that stand out to you, or some of the ones that have gotten the most feedback?

Chris Gaylord: Yeah, Well, you know, you’d be you would be surprised at the nuance of sweet potato versus yam that really reared its head in that comment thread. It was pretty.

Andy Johns: Okay. All right.

Chris Gaylord: Yeah. I mean, you got to go with yams on dams, right, because it kind of started everything for us. I think I mentioned during StoryConnect that this, and maybe this is a good tactic for other people if you’re doing employee communications as well in your shop, you know, is we started with memes internally. And it was a Game of Thrones meme, and it went over really well. And then it was just like, “Okay, let’s try another. Let’s try another.” And that just became the way that we started communicating to our folks. And people loved it, and they’re still telling us that they love it. And then a couple of months later, just kind of I had been seeing the elves on shelves. “You’ve heard of elves on shelves, but have you heard of…” and then it’s like one of them was like “Lannisters on banisters.” Again, Game of Thrones.

Andy Johns: Sure. I remember seeing that meme.

Chris Gaylord: And so I was like, “Well, we can do our own.” And so we came up with this list of, and by we, I mean, like me, and I bounced some ideas off other people. But threw that out there, and the way that it was received was like, you know, I knew that it would – I had an idea that it would – perform well and that people would enjoy it. But it really just surpassed my expectations, and that was like the jumping off point. So I got to go with that. You mentioned vampires, and I think last year when we moved to our recreation blockage schedule on the Columbia River for our navigation locks.

Andy Johns: Again, very exciting news.

Chris Gaylord: Right? I know. Yes. People are like, “tell me more.”

Andy Johns: Tell me more.

Chris Gaylord: So rather than start that post with news release in all caps, which is so common, especially across our agency, which is really gripping. I, you know, I thought, well, okay. Somebody made a comment about like vampires can’t pass through. That’s genius. And I just took that one comment. And what we do in the shadows, I think arguably the most well known and popular vampire sort of pop culture reference out there at the time. And I think we’re as well known for Photoshop jobs as we are for humor. And that was one where like I spent, and this is going to sound insane, but I spent probably like two and a half to three hours making that image. Some of them take a few minutes. Some of them take up to a few hours because I made it nighttime. It was a daytime photo. I’m adding in all the characters, like all these little nuances of like making the color balance for all the layers match and putting a moon behind some clouds and stuff in the sky and putting stars and just really making that image, so it just like pops and that is perfect. And the navigation lock gate was up, and I had to close it. So I think like just from a standpoint of making something that was like my favorite thing to make. Gosh, they’re just so many.

Chris Gaylord: And I’ve got to go with a couple of the, two of our most popular posts ever on Facebook, one of which was a post last July. We’re basically encouraging people to celebrate the 4th of July without fireworks because we were coming off of a really, really, really bad wildfire season, and we were going right into the same exact conditions. Dry. It was like a tinderbox. So we actually across the corps, we don’t allow people to have fireworks on our lands at all. And we also were having a burn ban. The whole state burn ban at the time. So I came up with, my wife actually made this comment. She’s like,”You should do a video about other ways that people can celebrate the 4th of July without fireworks,” and say that’s kind of a good idea. So I just came up with this random crazy list of other things that you could do, like, you know, like run through a field in your underwear screaming “The Star-Spangled Banner” and all of that. And I use the pants from Napoleon Dynamite, the martial arts instructor on it, because they’re like America pants or whatever. And the way that that took off, it was incredible. We had coverage just from that post in, I think, Louisiana and other parts of the country. There were other parts of the country like chiming in and sharing it. Like it was such a communal just thing. Everybody doing the right thing.

Chris Gaylord: You know, it’s dry in California, too. It’s dry over here, too. Same story in wherever. And so the way that that took off and the impact that it had was just really inspirational. And again, I don’t think that that would have happened without the use of humor. And I’ll only bring up one more, and I know I talk a lot. I know I get winded. Our single highest performing post. We have jetties that we manage, these big stone jetties up and down the Oregon coast. We built them, some of them, as early as the late 1800s, and we’re still repairing them every so often, every decade or couple of decades today. And so we like to occasionally put out messaging about those jetties, telling people to stay off them. A lot of people like to fish on them, go out and walk on them. And a lot of times it’s tourists who don’t really understand how dangerous it is to be out there on a giant rock finger extending out into the ocean, especially when the weather is really, really bad. And so we have king tides on the coast, too. And you probably don’t know that because you’re kind of landlocked.

Andy Johns: We do not have king tides here in Tennessee. No, we don’t.

Chris Gaylord: So they are the biggest end, or the highest and lowest tides of the year. And they come around in the wintertime. And so that is the crucial time where it’s like, this is our infrastructure. We need to tell people, “Hey, stay off these jetties, and here’s why.” And every time I’ve ever done it, it’s been in a funny way. And these jetty safety posts just like blow up. And this one.

Andy Johns: Of course they do.

Chris Gaylord: This one, we got almost 3,000 shares. So for an organization that at the time had like 8,500 people following it, it’s just I mean, that’s almost as much as, you know, a third to half of our follower base, which is crazy. And it was shared all up and down the Oregon coast and into Washington, too. And small businesses were sharing it. The city pages were sharing it. The Chambers of Commerce were sharing it. And it was this really cool moment where, like, the timing was so good because the king tides were rolling in the next day, and I put it up there. I think it was like maybe 24 hours prior to that. So it got like, I don’t know, like 50 shares that afternoon. And the next morning I woke up, and it had like 400. And I was like, “Oh my gosh. What the heck happened?” And it was, and it was funny, right? It was. It was funny throughout. Like I made a Steve Winwood reference. You know, it was just funny writing. Serious subject, but funny writing. And it really just took off. I mean, everybody again, everybody out to spread a positive message about doing the right thing.

Andy Johns: Yeah. I mean, as I’m looking through the feed here, you know, you’ve got a post about dredging 330 reactions, 36 comments, 16 shares with the, “Wove bridge. Get out the way. Get out the way, Bridge. Get out the way.” You’ve got a post about lifejackets safety, which I’m sure every corps region does, but this has got looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face on it. “Come with me if you want to live.” And it’s 163 likes with 20 shares. I mean, the numbers speak for themselves. It’s pretty impressive there. I do want to talk about, now that we’ve run through some of the fun creative “un-boring” communications work that you do, let’s talk through the brainstorming process. So you mentioned there one time, I think you gave your wife the credit for coming up with one. But where do these ideas come from, or what kind of brainstorming process do you have?

Chris Gaylord: Yeah, they come from everywhere. You know, you alluded to like a team being behind, who was behind this. And, you know, I’m not an ego thing, obviously, but it is definitely just me doing it, and it has been for the past three years. But like I said, you know, my wife will mentioned something, or somebody on my team will mention something. I think 90% of the time it pretty organically comes from my own brain. But really, 100% of it comes from somewhere else. That’s art, right. You know, we’re always getting ideas from other sources. I follow a lot of meme pages. I’m always checking out. I’m always trying to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s trending, like what is, I think like probably the most recent meme that really took off was that girl explaining meme at the concert. And I don’t remember where it was, but what are those things that we can kind of jump on to and be a part of in our own way?

Andy Johns: Then that was my other question. That was my other question. Is how much TV do you watch to know all that?

Chris Gaylord: Do you know what? I’m going to reveal a secret. I don’t watch much TV at all. Outside of “Bluey” and (inaudible) that’s it. You know, I like to watch the same movies on repeat 472 times a week because I’m a dad. In all seriousness, I don’t, I probably watch, like, anywhere from 15 minutes to 40 minutes of TV a day, max. And so the really funny thing is, a lot of these shows, I’ve never even seen. Or I’m not that familiar with. I probably shouldn’t even say that. But I’ve never seen a single Star Wars movie. So you can kick me off the…

Andy Johns: Wow, That’s interesting. Yeah. Maybe a whole side discussion here.

Chris Gaylord: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Invite me back, so we could talk about that. Yeah, but it’s just like, sometimes I am faking the funk a little bit. And again, that’s not something I like to publicly admit, but no one can be up on everything, so someone’s got to have that idea.

Andy Johns: Yeah, the next step. So you come up with the idea. You’ve got it moving along. I know one of the questions that a lot of people asked at the workshop last week was, how do you get buy-in? How do you, I mean, because a lot of these ideas, if you had the wrong supervisor or the wrong other folks in the chain, they can never see the light of day because they’d get squashed right there. How have you gone about getting people okay, if not with the specific individual posts than with the overall approach to having some fun?

Chris Gaylord: Yeah, that’s the best question. It’s a really hard one to answer, though, because there’s no like I was saying in Newport the other week, there’s no like be all, end all answer to that question. Here’s the thing that you do to get buy-in. And and some of this goes back to another point that I made, which is, you know, we’re the communication experts. And, you know, my boss and I arrived at the same time on our team, and we’ve been through a lot. We’ve really demonstrated to our leadership that we are an office. That we know what we’re doing, and we’re going to get the job done, and we’re going to get it done well. And in the humor stuff kind of came later. But honestly, we didn’t get any buy in. I mean, I guess for a lot of people, you’d still have to get that supervisor buy-in. So I did have a chief who empowered me to do it, and who trusted me to take that chance. And but I mean, outside of the public affairs shop, we didn’t get any buy-in. We didn’t run it by HR. We didn’t run it by legal. We didn’t check with our commander. We didn’t check with our district corporate board. Because think of the likelihood of someone outside of communications, a legal person, like they’re still giving us grief for some of this stuff. And that’s another part of the answer, too, is I haven’t got buy-in for a lot of folks. I have on almost a weekly basis, I have conversations with people who tell me they’re not happy with what I did on Facebook. Again, this is strictly internal, I’m speaking. Or they sent me photos, and they didn’t like that I photoshopped a bunch of zombies and stuff onto them or something. You know, it’s but it’s…

Andy Johns: Just your typical emails. Why did you put zombies on the pictures I sent you?

Chris Gaylord: Right, Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And it could be very uncomfortable. But, you know, I think one of the things is it comes back to you’re the communication expert. And so I guess to the extent that you need buy-in or else it’s just not going to happen, I guess there’s not much you can do about that. But when people mention outside agencies like, or outside sections like their HR or, I mean, they don’t need buy-in. I mean, we don’t get buy-in from them. We just do it. And then over time, when our leadership did really start to catch on to what we were doing, it was actually when our division commanding general was coining me, giving me a challenge coin to tell me he basically to recognize me for how much he loved and how much he thought others loved our Facebook. And then our commander was just kind of like, okay. And he hated this in the beginning, you know? But part of it, too, is like showing we’re kind of a unique office because we’ve, over time, become our own supporting evidence for doing it. And now our leadership is totally behind it. But, you know, you can always bring in evidence. Like I said, I mean, I don’t think I have a Google Scholar account that I can access anymore or but, you know, you can always jump out there and find these actual scholarly journal articles on humor in different types of communication. Like health care communication, to demonstrate the major points of humor, for example, that it helps with retention. It increases attention to a message. You know, it captures the tension. Right? It often increases the liking of the source of that information. Things like that are out there. And so you can show that kind of research. You can, I mean, gosh, there are countless accounts out there on all the platforms that are doing this stuff so well, like TSA on Instagram.

Andy Johns: Interesting.

Chris Gaylord: Really funny presence. Yeah, TSA, right?

Andy Johns: Somehow I didn’t follow TSA on Instagram. Yeah.

Chris Gaylord: Oh my gosh. You got to. It’s great. There’s a lot of puns, though. So if you groan at a pun…

Andy Johns: I’m here for it.

Chris Gaylord: Yeah, that’s great. So, yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of success that other similar accounts are having out there. And so I think that you can show some of that success as a case study. And I think, you know, so that’s kind of the nuanced complex answer.

Andy Johns: Yeah. And it goes back, and I wrote this quote down from your presentation the other day, that you said you “take your job so seriously that you don’t take it too seriously.” I mean, unpack that for us a little bit, but it sounds like that goes in to supporting exactly what you’re just talking about.

Chris Gaylord: Yeah, exactly. I mean, that just gets at the idea that, you know. I mean, let’s use water safety or life jacket safety, right? I mean, how condescending and boring is that to be telling 35 year old males that they need to put on a life jacket? Or dam safety or any of these number of boring topics. People have this idea, especially in government and across our agency, that, like you talking about this, it needs to be straightforward, and it needs to be serious. And again, these are people that don’t and sometimes I just say this. These are people who don’t do our job, and so they they see it through that internal lens. Sometimes you have to turn that back around on people. I just had a talk the other day about we were coming into flood season, and so we have flood preparedness, some flood preparedness and flood risk management communications that will do. And most of those will probably be serious. If a flood happens and there’s actual flooding going on, that’s going to be serious. But it’s case by case, you know. If there’s just a general preparation message that we can send to people, and we can get more attention with something that’s funny or a pop culture reference or something like that, then by all means, we should always try to do it. But back to that quote. I mean, what I want is I want the most people to be seeing and engaging with our content. And if you take it too seriously, it just falls into that white noise, and people don’t notice it.

Chris Gaylord: People don’t care. It doesn’t capture anyone’s interest. People are bored after reading the first line. And so delivering a message in a non-serious way that I believe is even enjoyable to consume and interact with is a way to honor that serious side of our job. I do take it seriously. I want it to get out there. And speaking of jetty safety, you know, and that post in particular, there were some people internally who were like, I don’t like this. This is not  a responsible way to talk about safety. But it’s important to distinguish, and most people can, the difference between we’re joking about this thing. Why would we ever joke about jetty safety and people drowning? That’s not funny. And so the difference between that and using humor as a delivery method to get that really important information out there. And most people are totally clued in on that nuance and understand that and appreciate that. But there are some people who don’t. So that’s what it’s about, is like, if I take it too seriously, odds are it’s going to go the way of most of our other districts across the Corps of Engineers. And people just aren’t really going to show up, and they’re not going to care. And that’s, I believe, that is our that’s imperative for us to try to reach as many people as we can. You know, all kinds of people, different demographics, live in and around our projects and are impacted by the work that we do, so.

Andy Johns: Definitely. The last question that I had for you. What advice would you have for somebody who maybe they run their social media account for their utility or whatever organization it is that they’re with? What advice do you have for somebody who’s like, you know, maybe I’d like to try to be funny on there, too. What are some tips You have to get folks started?

Chris Gaylord: Yeah, that’s probably another sort of nuanced answer. But I mean, I think first and foremost. Look at, and again, this is most of my inspiration. And I would say the same is true for probably these other pages as well. We’re all taking ideas from other places, from the really popular meme pages on Facebook or from other agencies or Wendy’s or whatever, you know. Go out there.

Andy Johns: Wendy’s is a good follow, for sure.

Chris Gaylord: Yeah. Go out there and get a feel for how other brands or organizations are doing it that are doing it really well. Like some of the ones that I mentioned during the workshop are National – I was really, I couldn’t believe that no one raised their hand when I asked if anyone followed National Park Service. It is a great national level agency just putting out some really humorous content on a daily basis. I would say that person is ten times better at their job than I am. Or TSA or US Consumer Product Safety Commission, Washington State Department of Natural Resources. There’s a Washington State Department of Transportation. There’s a lot of departments of transportation across the country that are doing this stuff really well. There’s all kinds of just random, weird government agencies that are doing, that are kind of doing what we’re doing, that are popping up more and more all the time. But go out and look at what others are doing and their style and how they kind of execute it first. You know, and then I think the buy-in piece is important too. But I mean, sit down, and I know it depends. People at the co-ops have anywhere from like one person to – I don’t know how big the teams get, but I know there’s a lot of one person shops.

Chris Gaylord: And so you mentioned the brainstorming sessions, which I actually didn’t touch on, and I think that’s applicable here. That, you know, sit down with some folks. Sit down with some your teammates and start cranking out some ideas. The day that I put yams on dams up on Facebook, I grabbed one of my teammates who was kind of like me. And I was like, let’s go get some coffee and talk about content. And we jammed out like 70 something ideas and just taking notes rapidly in Microsoft OneNote. And I think I ended up fleshing out like probably half of those. And one of them was that like yams on dams, like candy canes on cranes, type of thing, teddies on jetties, all that that we did throughout the month of December. And so it’s amazing what you can just come up with when you just sit down with other people and get, you know, because we’re all watching different shows. We’re all clued in on different current events, and so yeah, bouncing ideas off people is really helpful.

Chris Gaylord: And then, you know, I mean, like lean into it, you know, because if you don’t really lean into it, it can just be kind of cringe sometimes, if you don’t really commit to it. But, you know, you can always kind of start small. I mean, one of the first things I did when I took over our social media was just be a little bit more personable and casual with the language, not only because that’s good for the average person to be able to understand what we’re talking about, but also just because it’s a more enjoyable to read. It’s not so stuffy and official. So take small steps into doing stuff like that or even test it out like we did. We kind of, it wasn’t the way we planned it, but we kind of test it out. Humorous content internally. And again, you’re not making content for your internal audience when you’re on social media. And it’s a really important thing that I tell people all the time. You are not the target audience, but it couldn’t hurt to try things out in that space. And I don’t know how much employee communications y’all do, but.

Andy Johns: Sure, a lot of it does involve memes. Memes from TV shows. Yeah, we’ve had entire conversations with gifs and memes from “Schitt’s Creek” and other shows like that. So.

Chris Gaylord: Yeah. Yeah.

Andy Johns: Excellent. Well, Chris, thanks so much for taking the time. That’s good insight. And keep doing what you do. It’s entertaining, and it’s a lot of fun for folks.

Chris Gaylord: Yeah. Thanks. We’ll always keep doing it. So I appreciate you having me on.

Andy Johns: Yep. He is Chris Gaylord. He is one of the public affairs specialist at the Army Corps of Engineers Portland District. I’m your host, Andy Johns with Pioneer. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Outro: StoryConnect is produced by Pioneer Utility Resources, a communications cooperative that is built to share your story. Storyconnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.