If you follow local politics, you may know the D.C. Council has a Twitter account under the handle @councilofdc. In itself, that’s pretty unremarkable: So does the office of Mayor Muriel Bowser (@MayorBowser), the Metropolitan Police Department (@DCPoliceDept), and pretty much every other District agency (congratulations, @AGKarlRacine—the account of the D.C. Attorney General’s office—on joining the pack last week). But there’s something different about the D.C. Council’s Twitter feed, which doesn’t speak for individual councilmembers but rather the political body as a whole.
It’s strong in the ways of the Twitterverse:
— Council of DC (@councilofdc) December 27, 2015
It also has a distinct voice that makes what it shares (details about Council hearings, D.C. history, etc.) more than purely informational—and often witty:
Whereas last fall, we had low expectations Whereas we made the playoffs Whereas there’s always next year Resolved “We STILL like that!”
— Council of DC (@councilofdc) January 11, 2016
— Council of DC (@councilofdc) January 8, 2016
Don’t trick or treat here. It’s on 13 1/2 St., there are 13 CMs, & both architects died before it was built. pic.twitter.com/9kQDuIwLBV
— Council of DC (@councilofdc) October 31, 2015
Papal Visit Fun Fact: Vatican City and Washington, DC have the exact same number of votes in Congress pic.twitter.com/zLHQFiQ9u8
— Council of DC (@councilofdc) September 21, 2015
The force behind the account is a man named Josh Gibson, 43, whom Council-watchers may recall as Chairman Phil Mendelson‘s campaign manager for the 2012 special election (which took place because ex-chairman Kwame R. Brown had resigned). Gibson started his current job as the Council’s public-information officer in May 2014, after (successfully) running Mendelson’s primary campaign that year.
As for the account: The number of its followers has grown nearly threefold under Gibson’s tenure—reaching more than 12,500 today—and it finally achieved Twitter verification last month. On Friday, City Desk chatted with Gibson about his insider’s view of the Council and what he sees as its role in communicating with the public. A condensed version of that phone conversation follows below.
Q: How did you end up in D.C., and what did you do before working for the Council?
A: I grew up in Montgomery County from about age five on, but I’ve been in D.C. since 1997, living here in Adams Morgan. I got started doing a summer job with the Latino Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit that used to be in Adams Morgan. I fell in love with the neighborhood through that job, ended up buying a place, and have lived there ever since.
I had the good fortune, or misfortune, of attending an [Advisory Neighborhood Commission] meeting early in my time here. I was fascinated and disturbed by the way ANC politics worked. I was getting a public-policy degree at the time, but I hadn’t really focused on local D.C. politics. Once I started going to those ANC meetings, I felt like I had found my home. It was a long time ago, but my vague memory of an early meeting is it was one of those epic ANC meetings where someone resigned during the meeting, and there was either violence or threat of violence. But I loved it. I just thought it was extremely useful. And the fact that it’s citizen government—what the country was founded on. You have a bartender next to a lawyer next to a florist, and they’re all in the ANC, all there in their free time, and not for money or for glory.
I served that ANC for two-and-a-half terms before moving out of the [Single Member District]. Before working for the Council, I did a crazy mix of stuff. I started a business improvement district in Adams Morgan. I worked with Flexcar, a precursor to Zipcar. And then I ran the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s charitable arm that did job training for the industry. Then, I was campaign manager for Phil Mendelson for his 2012 race.
It was really sort of just a happy coincidence that that worked out. A mutual friend mentioned my name. I had started the Adams Morgan Yahoo! group listserv, which strangely was one of the only neighborhood listervs Phil subscribed to, not as a preference, just as a vestige of history. He kind of knew of me through that. We had a conversation that went well. And lo and behold I was a campaign manager. Then I repeated in the role for the 2014 primary. But then I accepted the [public-information officer] job with the Council after that so I wasn’t in the campaign-manager role for general election in 2014.
Q: So do your personality and voice match up with the Twitter account’s?
A: I think they’re pretty close. I don’t think I’m putting on a different personality when I’m doing social media for the Council. I’m very interested in D.C. history, for example, so D.C. history makes an appearance on the feed. I am passionate about D.C. statehood and voting rights. And one of the limitations of the account is that, because we’re speaking for the whole Council, we can’t take political positions on legislation. That’s just the nature of the legislature: People vote for and people vote against. But the one issue that we know there’s unanimous support for on the Council pretty much always is D.C. voting rights and D.C. statehood. There’s the fact that that’s something we can be vocal and passionate about without violating this core principle of sticking to things that the whole Council would support.
Q: How’d you get good at Twitter and what’s your strategy for managing the account?
A: You can go crazy reading how-to advice on social media, down to what is the most-productive number of characters in a Tweet. Of what I’ve read, it’s almost always contradictory, and it seems arbitrary. But one of the things people write constantly about is the number of Tweets you should be putting out per day to keep people interested. If we were just doing the basics—meetings, hearings—we would be nowhere near the right number. We needed material to build an audience. And one of the things I came up with was weekly features. I’m not even aware of how many people are aware of this.
On Monday we do #UnexpectedJAWBVignette: photos and quirky pictures of the Wilson Building, or something funny happening, with an artsy theme or close up. On Tuesday we do #OdDCode, where I wander through the D.C. Code and find some wacky elements, of something that’s been banned, or something that’s allowed. For example, you used to not able able to throw cantaloupes into the Potomac. And then Wednesday, I do #Pinsday: pictures of old political pins. Thursday is #ThrowbackThursday. That one I glomed onto whatever everyone else was doing. Friday I do a trivia question and Monday I do the answer to the trivia question.
Q: How do you decide when to engage with other users?
A: Fortunately, the fact that this is not a political role helps me on that front. Generally, if people are trying to pick fights on political issues, it’s better that they do that with individual councilmembers, who can and do and should speak out on vexing ideological issues. But with anything divisive, I’m not able to speak to the substance. However, if someone writes to me saying something about the schools and a problem they have with the schools, I pass them on to the councilmember who has that committee. Generally, I find that folks are just happy to be heard and responded to. So everyone who follows us on social media gets a [direct message] back as a thank you.
Speaking of the science behind social media, I follow back pretty much everyone who follows us that seems to be a real account. And then I do my reading of Twitter through lists. I’m following more people than are following us, around 13,800 people. If I can create that sense of engagement, it’s well worth it.
Q: What have some of your top Tweets been?
A: I’m fascinated at how well the history stuff does, even if it’s just history with no joke or political tie-in. The D.C. voting rights stuff always does very well. If you can kind of marry two or three things, if you have history and D.C. voting rights together with a funny line, that’s the kind of stuff that tends to do the best. When Pope Francis was in town, I put up a tweet that basically said, “Do you realize the Vatican and D.C. have the same number of votes in Congress?” Connecting to an issue, adding in the statehood angle, which is heartfelt and resonates with people, and trying to make a joke: That’s what I’m aiming for.
Q: Is there much oversight or editing of your Tweets before they go out?
A: Remarkably, no. I think because I’ve established trust and have had success, I don’t think that’s been necessary. And the longer I’ve been around, the better feel I’ve gotten. I’ve pretty much internalized the inner voice that would warn me about different things. And by and large it’s been fine. If I ever started to lose my sense of what was appropriate and to go against the core principles of why we do what we do, maybe the process would change. For now, it seems to be the right person with the right mindset helping to create the role, and that’s been a success.
It’s funny—when I’m at a party or meeting friends of friends, I’ll say I do communications for the Council, including social media or whatever. And a minute or two later they’ll say, “Wait, are you @councilofdc?” It’s low, low, low level D.C. celebrity status when you’re recognized for your Twitter handle.
Then I yell at them that they don’t favorite and retweet our posts enough: You’ve got to prove you’re enjoying it! It’s the whole tree that fell in the woods thing…
Photo of Wilson Building by Darrow Montgomery. Photo of Gibson courtesy of Josh Gibson