Energy & Environment

Interior changes the nature of government social media

The Department of the Interior seems to have found the key to social media success in the federal government: cute animals and beautiful landscapes.

Interior has amassed more than 1 million followers on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, mostly by sending out photos of breathtaking landscapes, wildlife, sunsets and the occasional bear belly-flopping into a stream.

In the federal government, where social media is usually limited to press releases and meeting notices, Interior stands out, with a following approaching that of the White House and NASA.

“How many people actually know what the Department of the Interior is? I’m not sure that many people do,” said Rebecca Matulka, the department’s senior digital strategist, who maintains its main social media accounts from Interior’s headquarters two blocks from the White House.

“So in learning that we manage so many beautiful places, it helps create a positive association with us,” Matulka said.

The department’s social media prowess relies largely on photos and videos taken by park rangers and land managers at individual federal properties managed by the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. They own key public areas such as Glacier National Park, the Grand Canyon and the Florida Everglades.

The content often goes viral, either on news websites and blogs publishing listicles of breathtaking landscapes or with individual posts, including one in May of bear cubs wrestling at Yellowstone National Park.

The strategy was the brainchild of Tim Fullerton, Interior’s digital strategy director from 2010 until May, when he left to joing Everytown for Gun Safety.

Fullerton said then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar tasked him with writing a social media strategy in 2010.

“I developed a strategy in which we were looking for the type of content that people wanted to engage with. It’s not press releases and policy related stuff,” Fullerton said.

He said the strategy came about simply by taking better advantage of the agency’s vast assets and staff, many of whom were already taking great photos.

Fullerton said it’s paid great dividends for Interior and fits well with its mission of managing the public’s land and getting the best return on it.

“It’s been a strategy that’s worked incredibly well for Interior,” he said.  “It tells the story about how important these places are and why Interior manages them and protects them.”

Matulka, who reads every comment Interior gets on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and other platforms, said people in the United States and elsewhere are using Interior’s social media to plan and remember trips.

“In creating these accounts and focusing on what people want, it generates a positive branding for the department and helps educate people about what we do,” she said.

Matulka maintains close relationships with land managers around the country and then often plans postings around weekly themes, daily park focuses, holidays or subjects that are becoming viral.

For the Super Bowl, the agency posted a photo of baby owls at a wildlife refuge in Utah, calling them “superb owls.”

And the day after actor Robin Williams died last year, Interior posted a photo from Glacier National Park along with a quote from him that read, “If it isn’t God’s backyard, then he certainly lives nearby.”

“When we can, we definitely try to make a connection to what’s popular and happening on social media,” Matulka said.

Interior has used its social media status to experiment as well. As live-streaming app Periscope started to take off earlier this year, Fullerton used it to broadcast the view from the top of the Washington Monument to the world.

John Della Volpe, chief executive of social media consulting firm SocialSphere, said Interior is one of the leaders among federal agencies in terms of social media.

“What the Interior Department does so well is that they understand that social media isn’t just about technology, it’s about psychology as well,” Volpe said. “They are not afraid to engage with regular Americans on things that they care about.”

Volpe, who recently visited the Grand Canyon with his family, suggested that Interior post signs suggesting hashtags for visitors to use when posting their own photos at national parks and other sites.

“The idea of tying the offline experience — which the Interior Department is all about — with the online experience, could make everything more powerful,” he said.


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