Extremely online

How the Department of Natural Resources Won Social Media

A Washington state agency's Twitter and Instagram are going viral with wholesome memes.

By Allison Williams September 21, 2022

On Instagram, screenshot of a text conversation—someone named "Boss" requesting responsible recreation messaging. The texter's response: "How about respect our lands or catch these hands." Wait, what? "Poach a clam, we'll go ham." Welcome to the uproarious social media of the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

In recent months, DNR's posts went viral on Twitter too. A reminder about fire safety—a cutesy pink rainbow image under the caption "Graphic design is my passion"—garnered more than 35,000 retweets in early September. On Facebook, images comparing local foraged plants to astrological signs garnered almost 600 shares.

Across the internet, people share the posts (and their earnest educational messages) and compliment the agency, one commenter saying, "Imagine you get hired by the DNR to make the most fire State Sponsored Memes out there." Someone else proposed marriage to the anonymous social media staffer. But the meme savvy behind the DNR's new internet fame actually belongs to a duo.

Mary Watkins, social media manager, and Rachel Terlep, senior social media manager, brainstorm ideas together, whether it's comparing derelict boat decomposition to Britney Spears's "Toxic" or riffing on seal puns. Their job is to make a government agency not particularly known for its personality (not that any really are) grab the public's attention.

"We have key messages that we try to get out as an organization, whether it's fire safety, or geological hazard safety information, or just best practices on trails," says Terlep. Most citizens don't really know DNR's purview, confusing them with the national parks (they're federal) or the department of fish and wildlife (they oversee animals, not lands). DNR manages, as the name suggests, natural resources, like forestry, but also protects wetlands, nature preserves, and natural heritage sites. And crucially, they're the state's fire department for wildfires.

Yes, Watkins and Terlep say, sometimes the higher-ups need a joke explained, like when the "She's a 10, but..." meme went around. But the pair say that their slow burn of adding sass to their social media has gotten support from within the department, especially when they can show increased engagement with their information. 

The days of pawning off the company Twitter to an unpaid intern have long past, and besides balancing both the art and science of social media, Watkins and Terlep study other successful agencies with a strong online game. They like the conversational tone from the National Park Service on Instagram, and the state Department of Transportation, which mixes a personal voice with traffic alerts. And while they're not yet on TikTok, they follow it closely to stay up on trends.

Their work is paying off, and in surprising ways: After comparing road closures to Star Wars, they saw Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker, like their tweet. "People see this stuff," says Terlep. "It has a reach."

As they look to fall, the pair is considering messages about bears (expect a gag about giving them space and practicing self-care), and Watkins's love of the spooky season will probably show up in trick-or-treat jokes about nature. They plan to mine what will likely be the biggest thing on the internet this fall: Taylor Swift's new album.

"We're a government agency, but we're also people who watch Mean Girls and Stranger Things and interact with the internet the way that everybody else does," says Terlep. "I hope that people can understand that even government accounts can be funny."

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