Q&A | Talking Twitter

Talking Twitter with Carly Severn of KQED

Each month, Talking Twitter takes you behind the scenes of some of Twitter’s most interesting publishers with the social media professionals responsible for some of the platform’s standout Tweets and viral moments. This month we sat down with Carly Severn, senior social media strategist, podcast host, and reporter for KQED, PBS and NPR’s station for the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Tell us a little bit about @KQED. What makes you worth following?

Carly Severn: We're accessible, authoritative, inclusive, and local. I think there's a lot of power in locality that often gets overlooked with a global platform like Twitter, because you can reach people worldwide, but what I've seen in my over five years at KQED is how much meaning you can make from work that speaks to folks in a specific area, and communicates things of interest and relevance to their lives.


Any particular viral moment we might remember your work from?

Carly Severn: This question is well-timed, because if I were to say the words “BART Pony,” or #BARTPony, I think that might strike a chord with folks in the Bay Area. This all started back a couple of weeks ago, when a Twitter user saw a pony on BART, took a photograph of it, and put it on Twitter with the words “Retweet BART Pony for good luck.”

So BART Pony strikes this chord, and KQED is never going to be first with the story — that's not what we do, and that's not why we do what we do — but we knew that one of our reporters in the newsroom had tracked BART Pony down. So while everyone was talking about “Who is this BART Pony? Here's another photo of her!” we knew that our reporter, Dan Brekke, had an interview with BART Pony. We used all of these tactics, like teasing pictures, really jumping into that local mood, but it was all in the service of telling a bigger story, which is actually this really interesting issue of accessibility in public spaces. It turned out BART Pony was in training to become a service animal. It was such a delight to be able to jump into a local mood and to use that to bring people something bigger, something deeper, because we know that's what our audiences crave.


What does it mean to be a social media manager in 2019?

Carly Severn: You do absolutely everything, and you have to like doing it. You write, you strategize, you advise, you create visuals, you make video. I often think of it in terms of being multilingual — social media as different languages, the different platforms as different languages. And you can really tell among the social media managers out there who spend time learning those languages and visiting those countries, if you will.

It's really funny because sometimes the people who write the best stories or the best newsletters or the best Instagram copy or the best Facebook posts, they're not the best Tweeters, and that's fine. Everyone's good at different things. But I think that the job of a social media manager now is to try and be the best speaker of all of those languages that you possibly can be. You also have to be really unshy, I think, about attention-seeking.


How has social media changed since you started out in the industry?

Carly Severn: I set up the Twitter account and Facebook page for the very first institution I worked in, when I was in my early 20s. It was an art museum back in the UK — the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge — and I basically led their first social media efforts, back in 2010. It was such a different landscape — I really had to do the work of convincing people in the organization why they should be interested in communicating directly with audiences this way.

I really love that evolution of things — that I don't have to convince people why social media is important anymore — because that was a lot of labor in the early days of my career, and that's time that you could be spending doing amazing work in another place.


Describe your relationship with Twitter.

Carly Severn: Endless and compulsive. I'm laughing when I say that, but it's been really funny thinking about my morning rituals as I've gotten older. My morning ritual used to be reading the paper, then I graduated to checking my email, then it was looking at my Facebook feed, and then it was looking at my Instagram feed. I've really noticed, in the last year and a half or so, Twitter is the first thing — it has replaced my morning paper. It's very different, obviously, because it can often be one theme dominating and different branches of a conversation. Sometimes it gets to be a lot because it's my job, and I'm also on it personally. I am promoting, you know, the podcast that I work on and the stories that I write. I'm also a very enthusiastic lurker on #FilmTwitter, which feels like going into the world's best pub where people like to talk about movies as much as me, and I wouldn't get that experience if it wasn't for Twitter.


What's the most underrated Twitter feature?

Carly Severn: I do love a good poll. I've been thinking a lot about the spectrum of engagement and how I can often jump in at the deep end and think success in engagement with this will look like 150 thoughtful comments from the audience telling me what they think about the specific issue, and then I can take those comments and translate them into online content or acknowledge and reflect the audience back at itself. Often, that's asking a heck of a lot from an audience. Polls are a really good way to engender this softer engagement — a real gateway because you participate, you engage, and it doesn't even feel like you did anything.

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How do you prioritize the different functions of your Twitter account’s role?

Carly Severn: The function of the main KQED account, as far as I see it, is to bring the best and most relevant content from KQED to the wider audience. There are going to be some days that, because we are a newsroom as well, the news cycle will absolutely torpedo everything I plan for the day. I think one of the qualities of a social media manager is having to be nimble enough to roll with those punches, and you have to not only be comfortable with that, but actually kind of enjoy that challenge.

It always boils down to how will our audience, our local audience here in the Bay Area, be perceiving today. What can we see from our research? Are they already talking about [an issue] online? What hashtags are they using? What conversations are they obsessing over? How can we take what we know about today at any one time and bring them the best of what we do?


Tell us about a Tweet so good, you wish you'd written it.

Carly Severn: There is a Tweet [calling for tips from hurricane-savvy Floridians] from a reporter called Gabrielle Calise, who works at the Tampa Bay Times. She's asking something from her audience in this way that is so specific, so transparent, and so logical. She's saying to her audience, I see you, I acknowledge you. And now I would love your help on something you know about. It is specific, it tells you how your participation will be honored, and it emphasizes the audience's authority because often as media outlets we don't have all the answers — frequently we don't have all the answers — and those answers are with our audience.


What accounts are a must-follow for you right now?

Carly Severn: This might be predictable, but I really love NPR. I love how they're evolving their voice, and I think that a lot of that speaks to the power of identifying social media talent, writerly talent within your own organization, and nurturing the heck out of it. I am pretty convinced that I can now recognize the voice of a certain NPR staffer called Danny Nett — I can pretty much tell whenever he's Tweeting from @NPR.

On a personal tip for podcasting, I love Nick Quah. His Twitter account is fantastic and it isn't just driving to his Hot Pod newsletter, which is all about the podcasting industry. For pop culture, there's a writer for Uproxx, Brian Grubb, who I think is legitimately the funniest man on Twitter. I'm hoping that he sees this one day and likes one of my Tweets, because that would just make my day. Heather Havrilesky, I love — she's actually giving me something different that I can't get on any of her other social media accounts. Hunter Harris of Vulture, she's great. The Merriam Webster account consistently makes me gasp. I love their approach of essentially sliding into existing conversations and clearing their throat. I think it's so smart. I see Spark Notes doing a lot of that, too. Really funny, meme-based, doubling down on the dorky playfulness of Twitter.


OK, quick-fire round.


Throwing friendly shade at other account: yea or nay?

Carly Severn: As in life, read the room. I think a lot of accounts can get carried away with the idea of throwing shade, and I think that, as ever, it comes down to asking what is right for you. Think before you Tweet, basically.


Including more than one hashtag: yea or nay?

Carly Severn: Yea, totally achievable. Especially if you fold them into your copy organically. As with everything, think about it and don't go overboard — if it looks weird it probably is.


Using emoji to replace words: yea or nay?

Carly Severn: I would say nay. Personally, I trip up when people actually use emoji to convey words. It looks to me like a typo, like they deleted the word accidentally. I much prefer to use emoji for visual color, as punctuation, as a kind of visual difference in the scroll — something that's going to stop people's thumbs.


This interview has 280 characters left. Share a Tweet from your drafts folder with us.

Carly Severn: So this is a personal Tweet because again, I think it's so important for social media managers to use the platform that they are using in their professional life. With that in mind, this is a draft that brings together the intersection of all my interests.

It's a picture of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, standing in front of a poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator. He's looking very pleased with himself. And the caption is “me every time I post my own Tweets in the work Slack channel.” I think it's gonna go down well, because I do that all the time. [laughs]

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Talking Twitter

Go behind the scenes with some of Twitter’s most interesting publishers and the social media professionals responsible for some of the platform’s standout Tweets and viral moments in the Talking Twitter collection.