It started with finger condoms, as so many things do. The night before early voting was set to begin, social media consultant Sara Cress received a text from her boss at the Harris County Clerk’s Office: the now-infamous Covid-19 preventative looked awfully familiar to, well, another … precautionary device.
“She was like 'Hey, do we lean into this and make a joke about it?'” Cress recently told Houstonia as she click-clacked away on her computer, searching for the perfect GIF to include in her latest Twitter post (It was a good choice. We checked). “And I was like, 'Oh yeah, I’m on it.'”
See, back in August when the Heights resident was brought on to manage the official social media accounts of the Harris County Clerk Office, the posts followed a more standard informational structure. There’d been a lot of changes to how the upcoming election would run, and the goal was to reeducate voters about their increased options, she says. Then the finger covers—as the clerk’s office pointedly calls them—made its presence known on October 12, and everything changed.
“That tweet took off,” Cress recalls, “and people were like, 'Oh this person has personality.'”
So, she kept it up, tweeting out quippy comments; promoting #HarrisVotes pumpkin carving contests and #TacoTuesdays; and sharing submitted photos of residents’ furry friends wearing “I Voted” stickers, under the watchful gaze of her rescue dogs, Beans and Fig, and cats, Boxie, Caper, and Juniper (her husband was technically there, too, but he’s not as tough a critic).
Us, trying to like all of your excitement tweets. pic.twitter.com/RVnWSF1rq8— Harris County Clerk (@HarrisVotes) October 30, 2020
At first, the attention stayed local, says Cress, but as Harris County continued to break early voting records day after day (after day, after day, after day), the tweets began to reach folks well outside of the Bayou City area. In fact, Cress has grown the Harris County Clerk’s Twitter account from 5,000 followers to 20,000 with her blend of cheeky-yet-charming wit with bite-size bits of crucial information on early voting protocols, voter locations, and general election info. The GIF-fueled waggishness that’s made her tweets the highlight of voter’s days comes from a lifelong love of comedy.
“I think it's just the spirit of improvisation,” she explains, “being open to every moment that's happening and being alert for everything that's happening.”
And of course, it also doesn’t hurt that she’s used to the pressure of relaying vital information at lightning speed in make-or-break moments. After being laid off from The Houston Chronicle in 2010, Cress was hired to launch Houston energy company CenterPoint Energy’s social presence, a job she was still doing in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey hit.
Still incredibly modest despite her new-found fame—fame that we at Houstonia predicted two years ago when we named her one of our must-watch social media influencers—Cress attributes the account’s success to those at the clerk’s office who supported her unconventional tweets. Plus, she adds, "People are really excited, and they’re grateful. They’re happy to be laughing and not having to dwell on the contentiousness of everything.”
We chatted with Cress about balancing the funny with the educational, sharing that contentious aspic pic, and saving Will Ferrell for her biggest voting record announcement.
Since you're basically a GIF-picking wizard, if you had to describe 2020 in one GIF, what would it be?
There's something about her complete commitment to the sadness, and disappointment, and tantrum, that makes it so compelling for this year in particular.
You’ve managed to walk this line between keeping followers entertained while also keeping them in the know. How do you strike the balance between funny and informational?
There’s a cadence to it. You don’t want to do too many funny things in a row, and you also want to make sure everyone’s staying engaged with the information. I try to do two informative things and two funny things each hour. That seems to be how I’m striking a balance.
What’s been your favorite post?
Announcing that we had surpassed 2016 with the Will Ferrell, “More Cowbell,” GIF was a real highlight. That was sort of an inside joke for people because I got married on a comedy show, and Will Ferrell was our best man. For real. It’s on YouTube somewhere. The show's not on the air anymore, but it was called The Chris Gethard Show; Will Ferrell was a producer on the show. The show asked people to email them if they wanted to get married on the show, and I thought, this is the perfect way for me and my husband to get married. So I emailed them, and they were like, "That sounds good. Your best man's going to be Will Ferrell hope that's Ok." It's one of the highlights of our lives, so I wanted to keep Will Ferrell for the most special moment I was going to tweet for.
Is there anything you won’t post?
We can't post anything that advocates for a side. So, if anyone sends us a selfie that has a candidate’s thing on their shirt or anything like that, I can't use that. I'm not trying to offend anyone—although I really upset people by posting a photo of this egg and pea aspic a couple of days ago. People were like, ‘What is this??’ But I love grossing people out in that way, because it’s not that gross; it’s just kind of weird. People enjoyed laughing at it.
You started off getting local attention, but by Election Day, you were drawing a national audience. Which celeb did you freak out over when you realize they were keeping an eye on @HarrisVotes?
On the last day of early voting, I sent this tweet where I was asking people to text their exes, and it also blew up. I was just thinking, who are you not talking to? Probably your ex. Rachel Maddow retweeted the exes thing, but she made a joke about her phone playing “All My Exes Live in Texas.” I was like, “Woah, that’s crazy,” because she retweeted me like immediately after. I was like, “What is happening?” Also, John Cusack retweeted something, and he was like my biggest crush growing up.
My buggy phone randomly started playing this song when I was driving back from fishing yesterday morning. NOW I KNOW WHY. https://t.co/gt9PFQldXe— Rachel Maddow MSNBC (@maddow) October 30, 2020
Is it nice being the person who’s making everyone laugh after this awful year we’re having?
It is. It’s really unexpected; I’m not particularly an optimistic person, and this year’s been tough for me—tough for everyone. So, having this kind of fall in my lap has been amazing. When I first got the job, it was sold to me as four to six posts a week, and it really was an educational campaign. They didn't know what they had gotten when they got me, and I don't even think I knew that I can be this person.
What’s next for you after all this?
Sleep! I’m going to sleep. Also, I’m going to enjoy some time off, and then just see what happens.