How the National Park Service Gets Their Captions So Good
Matt Turner, Social Media Specialist for the National Park Service, breaks down his caption writing process, why a striped skunk video went viral, and much more.
Anthony Hopkins in a Loewe campaign. A language learning app that has a freaky owl for a mascot. CAVA pairing up Emma Chamberlain and Claire Saffitz in a YouTube video (full disclosure: I worked on that campaign). A government Instagram account writing some of the funniest, weirdest captions online right now. There’s a word that defines a lot of the best things happening on social media right now: unexpected.
For today’s newsletter I am interviewing Matt Turner, Social Media Specialist for the National Park Service. Matt nails the whole unexpected thing by pairing fairly standard National Park photography with absolutely hilarious and weird captions. Think: “What a squirrel wants. What a squirrel needs. Whatever makes you happy and sets you free…”. It’s content you simply wouldn’t think would come from an old government agency. But by hooking you in with very funny caption intros, it then gets you to read important safety tips, learn about animals, and ultimately appreciate parks and public lands. Here Matt breaks down how the Instagram strategy has evolved over the years, his caption writing process, why a striped skunk video went viral, and lots more.
Rachel Karten: Can you tell me about your current social role and any previous social (or not!) roles you've had?
Matt Turner: Since 2018, I’ve worked as a social media specialist in the National Park Service (NPS) Office of Communications based in Washington, DC. I manage the agency’s national-level social media accounts.
I began my NPS career out of college as a Visitor Use Assistant at Fort Pulaski National Monument in Georgia. Basically, my first job was working in the park entrance station handing out brochures. This evolved into presenting interpretive programs, including guided tours (perfecting the backward tour guide walk), and living history demonstrations. (Think 19th Century musket/cannon demonstrations.) I’ve also worked as an interpretive ranger at Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Illinois and Harry S Truman National Historic Site in Missouri. It’s at those parks where I first started to utilize social media as a means of expanding the way those historical-based parks engaged with the public. My experience working in parks continues to inform how I use social media. It’s still interpretation, but instead of standing in front of a group of visitors in a park, I’m sharing stories and experiences virtually.
RK: Got it! And how big is the social team? What are the various roles?
MT: We’re a small but mighty team! The national communications team is made up of digital and public affairs specialists and strategists that handle everything from maintaining the website, developing the NPS app, to working with the media. While there are between 15-20 of us total, I’m the only social media specialist. Unless something goes wrong, then it was…what’s their name again?
As the social media specialist, I never sleep. Just kidding. Maybe not. But I’m responsible for the day-to-day management of our national-level channels. (Many of our individual parks, I.e., Yellowstone, Grand Canyon have their own managers.) Along with creating content, campaigns, and graphics to share across our top-level platforms, I also work on service-wide messaging initiatives, developing social media strategies, and provide best practices to managers in the field. I also help troubleshoot technical issues for park accounts and collaborate with others on the communications team when crafting more policy-oriented or national-level messaging. Otherwise, it’s just me, my phone, and endlessly scrolling through park pages.
RK: Love it. How has the NPS Instagram evolved over the years? Has it always been so funny?
MT: A picture is worth a thousand words. As an organization, the National Park Service certainly hasn’t had trouble sharing pretty pictures and has always had a dedicated following. In a lot of ways, I still believe in the picture telling the story, but over the last couple of years, a little boost from a quote or a funny caption never hurts. Just like a ranger in a park, our Instagram is another storyteller that looks to inspire and engage, as well as educate the public on why these places are special, what they can do to help us preserve them, and why jumping on the back of a 2,000 lb. bison and yelling “yee haw” is not the best way to earn frequent flyer miles.
RK: Why do you think the account resonates with so many people? NPS is one of the most requested Link in Bio interviews!
MT: You mean besides posting an awkward video of a striped skunk dancing while on a handstand to intimidate would-be aggressors?
I think people resonate with the account because it’s a mix of beautiful images and iconic places, combined with a bit of humor and personality that keep people coming back for more. Especially for a government agency—which people may think of as being a bit stuffy—the use of humor, and bit of friendly snark (we’re all friends here), has brought in a lot of new followers, while maybe catching a few others by surprise. The National Park Service said what? We did.
RK: I'd love to hear a little about your caption writing process. Does the caption come first? Or the photo? And what roles within the org work on photo/caption selection and writing?
MT: Sometimes there’s just a great photo of #RestingOwlFace, or three kids dressed as “Jawas” while on a Star Wars movie tour in Death Valley that just writes itself. Just from looking at an image, you immediately think of a quote or a reference to a meme or pop culture moment. Or the inner monologue just kicks into gear and good luck to us all. Then you just look for ways to package it together in a fun, informative way. (For the Jawas, we made sure to remind visitors to wear comfortable shoes and stay hydrated.) Other times, I have a quote in mind or an idea for a caption pop into my head, then begins the great search across park accounts and through our online photo galleries to find that perfect visual to bring it home.
RK: What's a post or campaign you're particularly proud of?
MT: It’s hard to choose just one. We often run with a wildlife safety theme. When will they learn? Probably one of our most viral “campaigns” on Facebook/IG involved a tongue in cheek reference about encountering a bear and how pushing your slower friend down, even if you think the friendship has run its course, is not a viable safety tip. We did include actual bear safety information in the post. I think a lot more people read all the way through, and hopefully learned some important tips along the way. And maybe we saved a friendship or two?
Obviously, 2020 brought new challenges on how to welcome visitors to parks and keep them safe. We put a lot of effort into the messaging around social distancing but also incorporated the wildlife theme when possible. We reminded visitors to stay six feet away from each other, but much, much farther from the fluffy cows (bison). We also shared some handy wildlife “petting charts,” which pointed out that no matter where you pet the animal, your trip is going to end poorly.
RK: As we hear more and more about Instagram prioritizing Reels, how are you thinking through that? It seems, as of now, NPS is a very photo-heavy feed.
MT: Video does get a lot more engagement these days. We’ve been exploring opportunities to utilize Reels more. We’ve already got lots of cool pictures, but there are great opportunities to share amazing video content, whether it’s captured by rangers on the ground, taken from wildlife webcams, or through creating original content. We’ll continue to expand our use of Reels and look to see what kind of engagement works best for us.
RK: Related—how are you thinking about your TikTok strategy?
MT: The Department of the Interior under which the National Park Service is managed, does not currently have a Terms of Service (TOS) with TikTok. But with any new approved platform that comes along, we want to make sure that it’s a viable tool that we can utilize in the most meaningful, creative, and accessible way. We’re a government agency. Typically, we dip our toes into new things a bit slower than other companies or brands, so maybe one day. In the meantime, have you seen our MySpace?
RK: What do you love about working in social media?
MT: The hours are amazing! Actually, social media really keeps you on your toes. It’s changing all the time which can be exciting to navigate your way through the challenges of sustaining an audience, looking to expand your offerings, and staying on brand and message. If you’re a creative person, it allows you to try new things, explore different ways to communicate and really see what sticks. You can also watch in real-time when something awkwardly stumbles out of the gate or, on the other hand, goes viral in a positive way because people really resonate with that skunk video. Who knew?
RK: Are you hopeful about the future of social media?
MT: I can always go back to giving tours, right?
Social media has changed the way we communicate and is a great tool to bring people together. As far as parks go, it’s given people the opportunity to learn about, engage, and connect with their parks and public lands like never before. I think as social media continues to evolve, I’m hopeful that it will still be a place where people can come together, share their stories and interests, experience the world around them in new ways, and at its most basic, be a place for meaningful conversation...and a home for the annual #FatBearWeek competition to crown Alaska’s fattest bear.
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