Creating Connection with Instagram

I saw this post on, a segment of the General Services Administration that helps federal agencies augment their online presences. They’ve got lots of other great resources, ideas, and topics for government organizations like ours. Check it out here.


By . Posted November 10, 2015.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Instagram lately.

It’s pretty big, especially among the younger populations (AKA. Millennials).

Actually, from what I can tell, it’s pretty big with lots of different age groups, genders, and ethnicities; and it’s growing every day.

Instagram users

Full disclosure: I use Instagram in my personal life. I love it. Especially now that our phone cameras have improved beyond what most people can manage with a DSLR. Especially since micro-blogging took hold.

But the question today is, how can we, as government communicators, leverage this platform to greatest effect?

There’s a couple agencies out there that have taken the bull by the horns and managed to hang on for the ride: the Transportation Security Administration (@TSAon Instagram) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (@usinterior on Instagram). They both post photographs, but the similarities, at least on the surface, end there.

U.S. Interior posts beautiful, well-composed, high-quality photos and occasional videos of our national parks and wildlife. They regularly receive upwards of 20,000 likes on their images and have undoubtedly been seen by many more people than that. They post at least once per day, sometimes twice.

TSA posts small, sometimes grainy, sometimes bland photos of the strange things people try to smuggle onto airplanes. They have expanded now to post photos of their adorable and highly skilled 4-legged employees, along with reminders of the rules for safe airline travel. They post less frequently—sometimes with several days between posts.

So what are these government agencies doing right? They’re creating content that people want to see. They are sincere. Our parks really are that beautiful! Some people really think they can smuggle “Batarangs” on an airplane! When I think about scrolling through my feed on IG, it goes something like this: baby, baby, selfie, coffee, STRANGE LOOKING WEAPON THAT SOMEONE TRIED TO SMUGGLE ONTO A PLANE, baby, food, STUNNING NATIONAL PARK PHOTO, selfie, selfie, selfie. What do you think I’m most likely to stop on?

@TSA and @USinterior don’t necessarily “engage” in the traditional sense, but their imagery CONNECTS. Their content is accessible. Many Americans have experienced taking off their shoes in the airport—now they have chuckle about it because they understand the reason. Our national parks are more accessible to most people than the far reaches of this planet. Visitors can connect these images to their own lives; feel nostalgia for them; laugh about them with friends and family.

Unfortunately, many agencies don’t have these visual resources to work with, so we need to create them. Graphics aren’t right: People visit Instagram for photos, not infographics. (although the occasional one, used where appropriate, isn’t a bad idea). So here’s my charge to you as government communicators engaged in social media—figure out how your agency can use Instagram. Post an idea here. Let’s start a conversation.

The Instagram help center is pretty robust, but here are some links to get you started:


So, what do you think? How could Conservation Districts use Instagram to connect with your constituents? FULL DISCLOSURE: MACD doesn’t use Instagram yet. But I’m thinking about it. And in my personal life, it’s my favorite social media (I’m @sturdykate).

To spur some ideas, here are a couple of Montana Conservation Organizations that do a great job with their Instagram accounts: (click on the blue name to see their full feed).

Good afternoon from the Tributary Fire A photo posted by Michael Gue (@young_men_and_fire) on

Let’s Talk About File Types

In all the activities that administrators do, we create a lot of files, and we use many different programs to create those files, which means that on a daily basis we create a myriad of different file types—often without knowing we have done so.

But not all file types are created equal, so I thought it would be useful to spend some time talking about the different types of files you’re likely to encounter, and the pros and cons of each, so that when you hit save, you can choose the settings that will keep your hard work in the best possible format.

Document Files (Letters, etc)

File Types-01 File Types-02

Database-Style Files

File Types-03 File Types-04

Image Files

File Types-05 File Types-06 File Types-07 File Types-08File Types-09

Publication Files

File Types-10 File Types-11


I hope that this has cleared up some confusion for you, and will point you in the direction of the best file type for your needs. I have also created an image with all of the document types described here if you want to download it and print it out. Download it here.


all file types-01

Make your pictures the best they can be!

Greetings, administrators!

It’s been a while since I’ve written a Social Media Fridays post. Today I wanted to share a free online tool that will help those of you who have websites or use Facebook, and even those that put together printed newsletters.

We all know that it’s important to have great images to accompany your written text. Images catch readers’ attention, and can break up big sections of text. And on Facebook, images generate a whopping 53% more likes and 104% more comments* than regular posts! *according to this post

But your camera doesn’t always produce the greatest pictures on its own. Sometimes the light is bad. Sometimes the background is distracting. Sometimes it just doesn’t POP.

Enter online photo editors. We’ve all seen before and afters of what a little Photoshop can do. But we can’t all afford Photoshop. Luckily, there are lots of great FREE online photo editors that can help you spiff up your images so they really shine.

Here are a couple that are great:

I most often use Pixlr, simply because I’m used to it. Even though I have Photoshop, I find that sometimes it’s just easier! So to demonstrate just what you can do with Pixlr, I put together a couple of before and after photos.

Let’s start with this one, of some burrowing owls. Sunni Heikes-Knapton sent it to me to fix, because she wants to frame it and give it to a retiring supervisor (the photo was taken on his property, and as she said, “He really loves these little fluff balls”). The photo was taken by Ennis photographer Jayre Leech.

IMG_0033It needs some help, don’t you think?

So I went to and opened up Pixlr Express. Because it’s easy. And fast.

First item on the list, and this is something I always do, is to go to Adjustments, and click Auto Fix. Which right away made an improvement.Screenshot 2015-09-10 16.25.06

BIG improvement. But I felt like it still needed some POP to really make those owls stand out. So I added a Vibrance Adjustment, and moved that up a little. I did the same thing for a Contrast Adjustment.

Then I used a little trick to really center the viewer’s attention on the owls, and not all that distracting grass.

I added a Focal Adjustment, which blurs out and desaturates the edges of the photo, so that the center stands out the most with the most detail. It mimics the effect that a good photographer could create by changing the settings on their fancy camera.

Screenshot 2015-09-10 16.29.04


I still wanted a little more warmth in the photo, so I added an Effect. I chose Subtle, and Ian, and toned it down to about 51. I also added an Overlay Vignette (I chose “bubble”) and toned that down to 34 to subtly darken the corners of the photo, once again adding focus on the owls in the center.

Here’s the final:



Now if I wanted to make this all the way fancy, I could add a heavier effect, and some text. This would be great for putting on Facebook and such.


Let’s recap how much better these barn owls look after a little editing:

owl collage


And all of that was done in about under ten minutes! Pretty sweet, right? Just think how much better EVERYTHING will look once you get the hang of it. I bet you could make your workshop photos look a little bit more like Beyonce’s Instagrams if you tried. (That’s a good thing).

How else could you use this tool? What if you put together a quick little advertisement to remind people that you have a Soil Health Workshop coming up! This would be perfect to post on Facebook or in your newsletters to catch people’s attention.

img w txt


UPDATE: 10/22/2015

After I posted this post, Ginger Kauffman (Flathead CD) emailed me say that she used Pixlr to edit some 310 photos that a supervisor brought in that were too dark. She said, “we can now see what is in the photos!  Thanks for the great tip!”.

Sunni Heikes-Knapton (Madison CD) also emailed to say that she has been “using the heck out of Fotor” and loves it. She also said that she would add one tip:

I would add one thing to your great advice- and that’s for people to remember to give credit to the photog that took the image. Of course, a real professional has their name on the image already, but it can be a nice gesture and a way to build a relationship with a community member when credit is given to non-professional photogs.

Thanks for the feedback, ladies!


Photo & Liability Releases

This week on Social Media Fridays, I’d like to cover a question that came up at the Administrator’s Training in Great Falls. One savvy administrator asked whether she should be getting photo releases signed by parents before posting photos of kids at education events on the district Facebook page and website.

The answer is yes. (did you really think I would write a post about something you don’t need to do?)


There are two reasons for getting a photo release before taking photos.

The first is that we all know that there are some parents out there who are concerned about having photos of their kids posted on the internet for all the world to see. It’s a valid concern, if a bit paranoid in my opinion. However, considering those concerns, it is important to ask permission before posting photos of the kids online.

We discussed this at the administrator’s training, and someone brought up the possibility of posting the photos without tagging the kids or their parents. As I told the administrators, I still recommend getting permission to post them, because they’re still online and probably easy to recognize in our small communities. Plus, by tagging the people in your photos, you’re inviting a much wider audience to view you posts, and definitely increasing the engagement potential of a post, which is why you’re posting in the first place.

The second reason for getting a release is that technically, if a person’s face is recognizable in a photograph, they could be considered a model. If you’re using the photos as advertising, they could very reasonably ask to be paid for their photo. Using a photo release is a great way to remind possibly greedy parents that you are a non-profit organization, and that although you may use those photos to promote your organization, you’re not exactly getting rich doing it. Likelihood that anyone is going to ask for money? Slim to none. Should you still cover yourself? Yes.

But we host so many events and this is so much work!

Agreed. This is another thing we discussed at the EO training. Getting the releases to the school a few days before the event, making sure the teachers hand it out, and making sure the parents sign it and the kids bring it back (who here has tried to obtain something from a second grader’s backpack? It was perfectly straight and not crumpled, right?)…. That’s a lot of work! Not to mention keeping straight who is supposed to be photographed and who’s not while you’re running event…kinda makes you want to throw that digital camera in the creek and be done with it.

That’s why I recommend creating a more general form that you can pass out at the beginning of the school year. Schools often send home a bunch of liability releases and other packets of information on the first day, and this is a time when parents are looking for that info and are ready to sign. So it’s a great time for you to get yours out of the way too. There’s even the possibility that your school asks parents to sign a photo release for their purposes, and so as a partnering education provider, you could ask to be included on that form. That means getting back with the school to check about who can be photographed and who can’t, but it’s a lot less work than trying to do it yourself for each individual event. Plus, you’ll already have permission if you’re at the school for unscheduled events.

Sample Release

So, without much further ado, I’d like to present a sample photo release for you. This was created with the intent of co-opting with the school and sending it out at the beginning of the school year. Download it and insert your organization’s information.

Download Sample Photo Release

A Note From Don McIntyre

Before writing this post and creating the sample release, I checked in with Don McIntyre to make sure that what I wasn’t totally off the wall on this. He said this:

“The answer to your question is that I do provide districts with a photo release (usually specific to the event) when I am requested by a district to do so.  It is not just a good idea; it believe it should be done in connection with every event sponsored by a conservation district in which school children are involved – this would involve home schoolers as well.  The form you provided is a good one  – it is reasonable and it is legal. While I believe that a general photo/video release form signed at the beginning of the year as a “school and other organizations partnering in school activities” is sufficient, the fact is that the districts should be requiring waiver of liability  forms for most activities especially when the activity is related to ag operations.  In such cases I generally recommend the CD include a photo/video release form with the waiver of liability form, since the parent or guardian must sign the liability waiver there is no practical reason not to sign the photo release waiver at the same time.”

He wanted me to stress that a photo release is not the only release that you should be getting–a liability release is also a good idea, especially if the kids are participating in ag-related events. (Think if a cow kicked a kid, or a kid fell in a stream. We don’t want it to happen, but we need to recognize that it could, and you want to cover the district so that you’re not liable if it does.)

Don graciously provided me with a sample liability waiver that you can download and edit. However, he also wanted to make it clear that these are SAMPLE forms, and that you should have it reviewed by your county attorney before using them.

If indeed you use a liability form as Don suggested, it would be quite easy to combine the photo release on a second page of the form and have the parents sign them together. Two birds with one stone!

Sample Liability Releases:


Release Forms on Ranch