How Josh Shapiro’s Social Media Skills Turned the I-95 Rebuild Into an Online Party

Keen on memes and collaborating with up-and-coming influencers, Shapiro is “meeting people where they are,” his press team says.

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Governor Josh Shapiro (left) addresses the media near the I-95 rebuild … and celebrates it on social media with Bill Hader dancing (right). / Photograph via Getty Images (left) and Josh Shapiro’s Instagram (right)

On Friday, June 23rd, after a fire truck holding a city’s worth of mascots made the inaugural journey across a repaired patch of Interstate 95, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro held a press conference. Flanked by politicians and construction workers and state employees, Shapiro looked out into the crowd and noticed someone.

“Is that the guy who was passed out? You were the one passed out, right?” he said, appearing almost starstruck. “We got your road reopened, man!

Shapiro was talking to Peter McLaughlin, a.k.a. the “Mayfair Mayor” — the guy who went viral after appearing on the news with a thick Northeast Philly accent the morning after the collapse. The governor saw the viral interview himself, just like many other Pennsylvanians, according to a spokesman, so an invite to the reopening seemed only natural. It was a lighthearted moment that brought some comic relief to a stressful event, one that, it shouldn’t be forgotten, took a man’s life. And it reminded Pennsylvanians that Shapiro is in tune with the same content we’re all seeing online. 

Platforms like Instagram, Twitter and TikTok provide avenues for politicians like Shapiro to connect directly to the public. But just as important, they also bridge the gap between citizens and their leaders. 

Although Shapiro uses Twitter most frequently to release information in real time, the governor’s TikTok feed was very active during his gubernatorial run, tapping into the TikTok vernacular: using Parks and Rec soundbites while ripping up abortion ban signs, playing a Drake song in the background of a video of him next to a viral 3-D blank-staring character named Horace meant to represent Doug Mastriano in a debate, dancing along to the Hi I’m Dory, let’s go! sound mimicking baby Dory swimming because “Gen Z likes it” — a soundbite with over 842,000 videos posted by others using it. 

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Josh Shapiro getting social media advice from Gen Z / Photograph via Josh Shapiro’s TikTok

Sometimes, Shapiro could even be seen lip-syncing viral sounds on other accounts with Gen-Z voters attending his rallies, landing on the pages of young users from other states who commented “slay!” with blue hearts. And he’s even mentioned BeReal, a popular app among Gen Z — “Don’t just BeReal… BeAVoter.”

These efforts demonstrate Shapiro’s ability to adapt to emerging trends, and in a way that comes off not as inauthentic or cringy, but as humorous and genuine. Outside of election season, the governor still uses TikTok every so often for engagement with the public. And it’s clear he recognizes the value of relating to younger generations in digestible ways. 

Shapiro has embraced collaboration with influencers and creator-community members to foster inclusivity and reach a wider audience as well. Philadelphia TikToker Alex Pearlman (a.k.a. @Pearlmania500), who frequently rants about current events from his suburban Philly home, was invited by Shapiro’s team to an earlier I-95 news conference. Pearlman’s brand is streamlining issues with a side-splitting dose of profanity, making the action of receiving news less a snooze-inducing chore and more an engaging endeavor  — all while documenting his journey of quitting cigarettes. On his 13th day of cig sobriety, Pearlman posted live videos of the active construction site to his million-plus followers, generating hundreds of thousands of views of him walking around the construction site in the midst of the press conference. 

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Philly TikToker Alex Pearlman praises Josh Shapiro on social media while walking around the I-95 construction site. / Screenshots via TikTok

“The governor has always, both as a candidate and as governor, been really focused on bringing people together and getting things done,” says Shapiro press secretary Manuel Bonder. “A really important part of that is communicating directly with them about the things that matter the most, like the issues that they’re worried about, the policies that they care about, the things that the Commonwealth and the administration are doing.”

Shapiro’s guiding principle for his media strategy is “meeting people where they are” to unite people for tangible action, Bonder says. And he does this by connecting with them around the clock on the very platforms they use daily, showing them that the government is a productive force for change. 

“Meeting people where they’re at is an important part of that, because it’s how you are able to communicate with people in a way that they understand and in a way that they feel brought in by your message and what you’re doing,” Bonder says. “And collaborating with content creators is a helpful component of this form of communication.” 

Shapiro’s approach extends beyond situations of crisis. On Earth Day, he met with TikTok creators to discuss crucial topics in environmental sustainability — an opportunity to engage with popular influencers with extensive audience reach to amplify these commitments. 

Josh Shapiro speaks to members of the media near a collapsed portion of Interstate 95. / Photograph by Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

Shapiro’s initiatives showcase his and his digital team’s utilization of media for meaningful conversations, transparency and education on various topics of significance. Through embracing interactive media, the governor engages with diverse audiences, thereby building trust that’s essential for action. It’s important to note that Shapiro prioritizes conventional media coverage to convey information through local news, radio and TV, too. “It’s important to be able to do kind of an all-of-the-above strategy to engage with Pennsylvanians,” Bonder says.

How people receive their news is changing, especially when new platforms like TikTok are surging in users. (Shapiro recently joined the nascent Threads app, too, and is already posting.)  Not everyone has access to televised news or has the time to research on their own. And that’s when social media comes into play to provide accessible, important messaging. The more culturally in tune leaders are, the more their messages to constituents will resonate in a sincere way. With leaders like Shapiro driving their initiatives through social media, the strategy becomes yet another tool for politicians (both new and old) to reach new audiences — and voters.

Riane Lumer is a Philly Mag editorial intern and deputy opinion editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian.