This post was originally written for Comms2Point0 and was published on https://comms2point0.co.uk/comms2point0/2022/3/30/april-fools-day-for-the-public-sector. A massive thank you to Darren Caveney for publishing it.
I have reproduced it here with the tweets embedded as part of my own personal archive of my work.
I am a big fan of social media pranks – especially on April Fools’ Day.
I am not talking about the escalating arms race of two 20-somethings trying to out-do each other as they humiliate and hurt each other in the hunt for “Like’N’subscribes” on YouTube.
A really good April Fools’ Day prank is clever, subtle, almost artistic. It shows that a brand or public sector organisation has humility and humanity. It is an opportunity to raise a smile and generate a really positive discussion and appreciation from the audience.
Here are my guidelines for a good April Fools’ prank – shared in the hope of reclaiming the word “prank” and returning some of the artistry to the day. None of these are hard and fast rules, but they are based on my experience over the last 10 years working with a team to create social media posts for Surrey Police.
Oh. And it is too late for this year – you need time to create a great post, and you need time to brief your senior leaders. Over my career I’ve been lucky enough to have a really supportive senior leadership team who have embraced the madcap ideas we’ve had, and allowed us to create some really fun moments.
Planning your stunt
Be “oooh!”, but not “boo!”.
You want the core idea to surprise and entertain your audience by being unusual or unexpected, but you can do better than using a jump scare to get a reaction! Save the jump scares for Halloween.
The best April Fools’ are on the edge between believable and unexpected – brand extensions into unlikely areas:
and new technology:
are both fertile hunting grounds for ideas.
Consider what is going on in the wider world, and what is your organisation’s reaction to it? When Apple watches were “the new big thing” we created a Police Smart Watch. This idea literally came from a conversation about a colleague’s new watch. Likewise when we unveiled olfactory testing for police officers, it was because police fitness tests were in the news the previous week.
Sometimes it just isn’t the right time. In 2020 we dropped April Fools day completely because we knew it was inappropriate in the early stages of the pandemic. It was a shame, but it was the right decision.
Ideally pick a “call to action” that is true
When I announced we were giving all our officers feather dusters, the underlying message was to keep your CCTV cameras (and especially video doorbells) clean and maintained. The idea came after I was sent some truly awful CCTV footage to release as part of a media appeal – the camera was pointing in the right direction, but the cobwebs meant it was unusable.
The humour got our audience thinking about the subject, but it actually gave them something to do as well!
Be very clear who is the subject of the joke – and ideally make it your organisation.
As tempting as it is to use the stunt to make a subtle political point, don’t. It is not always easy to work out who the subject of a joke is, but there will always be one. Punching down is not a good look. Punching up is likely to lead to trouble – so punch yourself instead!
The key to appearing human as an organisation is to be able to laugh at yourself. You can show you understand the public perception of the organisation and, by subverting it (or playing up to the stereotype), that you are human as well.
Know where the audience trust in your organisation lies
As a rule it’s OK to take the mickey out of the organisation, but not your spokespeople. In my first year at Surrey Police I was approached by one of our Inspectors who’d been asked to provide a quote about a “big cat” sighting for a local journalist’s April Fool.
While the Inspector thought it was a great idea, I felt it would undermine his personal credibility. It was much better to use a fictional “disposable” spokesperson who would not be needed after the event. Chief Inspector Avril Bouffon would have done the honours for us if the journalist’s editor hadn’t got hold of his story and spiked the whole thing!
Executing your stunt
Your stunt needs to be (and be perceived to be) cheap
“Don’t you dare use PUBLIC FUNDS to have fun!”
While I would love to have done a “physical” April Fool one year (police patrol unicycles? flashing lights on top of a police station?), the public perception would be that it was far too costly and wasteful – and so we always carried out our April Fools’ on social media.
Last year I created a Wearable Matrix Board to go on the back of an officer’s stab vest, and we demonstrated it in 1970’s Open-University-Style video shot by my very talented videography colleague Alex.
I wasn’t going to waste taxpayers money, so the post cost Surrey Police nothing except time (I paid for the light up message board myself and all the other equipment was already owned by the Force, or we borrowed it for free). Unfortunately Alex’s videography work was too good – the video looked too professional and at least one person assumed we had hired someone in to make it – so the next day I was dealing with an FOI from the militant wing of the Taxpayers Alliance…DOH!
Take the time to drop hints
I love to reread April Fools’ day posts and spot the subtleties I missed the first time round – acronyms (especially when they are only spelt out) and people’s names (hello again Avril Bouffon!) are a particularly good hunting ground for dropping subtle hints or clues. They also give the reader an opportunity to show off in the comments highlighting bits they found particularly clever or funny – leading to greater engagement.
Timing is everything – plan when to land it, plan your exit and how to come clean.
I’ve always found that posting first thing in the morning (just before 7am) lands best – it gives the post a good deal of time to be out there before the 12 noon cut off, and gives you time to be picked up by the media and shared widely. If you can get your local media either involved, or give them an early viewing of the post, they are guaranteed to be doing a “local April Fools’ Day” feature – so you may as well take the publicity!
As a trusted public institution you need to come clean at noon – ideally linking to the original post to make sure it is clear for people who are late to see it (the non-time based algorithms play havoc with prank reveals!).
Be prepared for confusion even when you have come clean!
One of Surrey Police’s most popular social media posts ever was just after Easter 2016. A group of kids out hunting eggs had become mixed up in a police helicopter pursuit. The children laid on the floor to form a human arrow to point to the suspects and guide the cops to make the arrest.
It was a great story, but we didn’t get the video from the helicopter until April 1st…Despite releasing the video after noon, we spent most of the afternoon trying to convince journalists that this was a real event NOT an April Fool. Sometimes, you can’t make it up!