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A State's Sassy Approach to the Social Media Game

Wednesday, December 18, 2019  
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Kate Elizabeth Queram - December 18, 2019 - Route Fifty

On any given day, you may see the official New Jersey Twitter account making a butt joke, doing a state-specific version of Spotify’s end-of-the-year wrap-up feature or going to war over the sanctity of New Jersey bagels.

There’ll be some government info mixed in there, too—facts about the state reptile, for example, or encouraging New Jerseyans to sign up for health insurance during open enrollment—but always with a little flair, and sandwiched between old tourism ads and, occasionally, a “your mom” joke.

“There were thousands of comments and quote tweets on that one saying, ‘This is so Jersey,’ ‘This is making me miss Jersey,’” said Pearl Gabel, digital director for Gov. Phil Murphy and one of two women who run the @NJGov page. “And that just came straight from a New Jersey middle school cafeteria. ‘Your mom’ is ubiquitous. We felt it when we posted it.”

Gabel created the state’s Twitter account shortly after Murphy took office in 2018 and used it in a largely straightforward way—disseminating press releases, info and photos—until Megan Coyne was hired as a digital assistant in June. The expanded manpower, and the addition of a second born-and-bred New Jersey woman to the staff, allowed the team to venture into sassier waters, Gabel said.

“With Megan, we were able to do more, and that’s when we were just kind of like, ‘Let’s just let our Jersey girl flags fly,’” she said. “So that’s what happened. The administration gave us a green light to just be more open, and that was it.”

Broadly, the account aims to embrace many of the jokes people make about New Jersey, building an audience of current residents and Garden State expats who tune in for updates from their homeland. 

“New Jersey has a reputation, and that reputation is to be the butt of the joke,” Coyne said. “People make fun of New Jersey a lot, so part of what we wanted to do was reclaim that identity and embrace it and bring people together in New Jersey and around the world, so they can look at this page and be reminded of home and of things that are very distinct to New Jersey.”

The result is a mix of retweets of government agencies and loyal followers, information for residents and, of late, a handful of controversies that make sense only to people who are from or reside in New Jersey, such as the dispute over the name of a particular meat product (are you Team Taylor Ham or Team Pork Roll?). More contentiously, there was the question of whether it’s OK to include Central Jersey when dividing the state into regions (some people, Gabel said, prefer only two: North Jersey and South Jersey).

“In this state, people have very, very strong opinions and they fight for those opinions,” Gabel said. “I happen to have grown up in Central Jersey, so I have no doubt about it.”

Murphy has long been a Central Jersey loyalist—he mentioned it in his inaugural address, Coyne said—but he took it a step further on Tuesday, proclaiming that the region exists and tweeting a map of its borders. That, Coyne said, “was huge.”

“We’ve talked about it a lot at @NJGov because we know it matters to New Jerseyans,” she said. “So it gets a lot of engagement, and people are happy to interact with it.”

Other times call for serious and straightforward engagement. Following Tuesday's shooting in Jersey City, for example, the account tweeted condolences, urged residents to band together and retweeted updates from the governor and the state Department of Homeland Security.

As the account’s audience grows, Coyne said, so does the number of people who can easily access information from the state, including messages from Murphy himself.

“Kind of by doing the fun stuff, we’re able to build up our following and that helps us get the information out,” she said. “Our engagement with our more policy-focused stuff is improving consistently, which shows that the governor’s message is penetrating and reaching people and resonating with them.”

Generally, the duo don’t approach the account in a calculated way, Gabel said. There’s no grand content strategy or storyboarding of potential tweets, and Twitter is, ultimately, a small part of what the digital team does each day.

“This is not like a marketing ploy, this is a really, really authentic voice. I can’t state that enough,” Gabel said. “If there was any specific pitch that I recall giving, it was that we were just hoping to be more human with this page. I haven’t always worked in government, and I know that government can look like kind of a brick wall from the outside. But working in government you see that it’s people, and people who really care about the people they represent. It’s very human here, and together, we wanted to show that this is New Jersey.

"It’s people."