To get another perspective on the UN’s use of social media in communications campaigns, I thought it would be worth talking to a colleague who has a unique perspective on the issue, as she arrived to work for the UN in New York just as the whole issue of ‘new media’ was becoming a preoccupation, and then actually worked on a number of campaigns herself. As such, she has seen how attitudes have evolved towards new digital platforms within the Organization.

 Because of the tight rules governing UN employees’ participation in interviews – and the current lack of clarity on the issue of blogs – I will not identify her by name (although it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to work out who she is).

 Q: How long have you worked for the UN?

A: I have been working at the UN for almost three years. I started in January 2007.

 Q: Which communications campaigns have you worked for at the UN?

A: I first only worked on UN photos. The next project was a campaign to mark UN Peacekeepers Day 2007, which included an exhibit and a documentary explaining UN peacekeeping in general, both of which were shown at the UN Secretariat Building.

 The following year I co-organized the celebration of 60 Years of UN peacekeeping at UN Headquarters. I was part of creating a branding for this occasion, an exhibit about peacekeeping, coordinating the editing of a documentary, setting up a website and organizing the celebrations.

 I also worked on celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 15th commemoration of the Rwanda genocide, which included event planning. I also worked on the observation of the International Day of Peace in 2007, which was simply setting up a website for the Day.

 In 2008, we created an actual campaign around the Day – TXT 4 PEACE – and in 2009 I was part of a big 100-day countdown campaign leading up to the International Day of Peace called ‘WMD-We Must Disarm’, a Secretary-General’s campaign on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

 Q: Which of these campaigns used social media?

A: Last year’s International Day of Peace TXT 4 PEACE was based on text messaging. People in the U.S. and from other countries around the world were able to send us a text message about what world leaders should be doing for peace. The messages were then displayed to them at the opening of the General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York. We also tried to raise awareness about the Day via a Facebook group, pages on MySpace and Hi5 as well as Twitter in 2008.

 The ‘WMD – We Must Disarm’ campaign was almost completely based on social media, mainly Twitter and Facebook. We issued one reason ‘why we must disarm’ on Twitter every day, which made up a 100 on the International Day of Peace, 21 September, completing the 100-day campaign.

 Over the weeks, we issued more and more information on Twitter such as photos, videos and news articles on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. On Facebook we set up a cause page that contained the essential information about the campaign including several links to additional material and gave members the option to contribute by posting messages, links and videos. We did the same with MySpace.

 Q: Can you describe some of the challenges you faced in trying to incorporate social media into a campaign at the UN?

A: The difficult question was how to use social media tools at all, e.g. how much information should conveyed and what kind of language should be used. In addition, we also wondered what these tools offered us. Could they do more than just providing information?

 Q: Have you encountered opposition to using social media?

A: I have not encountered any opposition to using social media per se, but the overall sense and importance of it is still partly not being recognized by everyone, as well as how the social media platforms work and what kind of resources are necessary to work with these tools. I had a few difficulties explaining to my UN colleagues that the language for them should be simple and catchy, even more so than for a website, as well as how much work it involves.

 Q: Have you seen changes in the way that the UN in New York uses social media?

A: Yes, I have seen a lot of changes in the way the UN in New York is using social media. First of all, it is being used for many campaigns now. For example, just about every new campaign has a Facebook page now and even some small offices have one or think about setting one up.

 The way my colleagues use these tools is also changing bit by bit. They are beginning to recognize that these are ‘live platforms’ and not as static as a website. They were created as an interactive tool which is the actual reason why many people use them – you can get in touch and communicate with people very easily, not only friends, but also people who have the same interests and share information and opinions.

 Real communities are being built through social media. When they sign up for a campaign people get the feeling they can actually do something, be part of something. This means that these tools have to be fed with new information to keep members interested and engaged. Also: The more you do that the more people become interested and sign up because there is actually something happening on your social media site. My UN colleagues are more and more aware of that and starting to do that slowly but surely.

 Q: Where has the UN been successful using social media and where has it been not so successful?

A: The two campaigns I worked on that used social media – TXT 4 PEACE and ‘WMD – We Must Disarm’ – were successful, but could have been even more successful I would say. It would have been great to be able to invest more time and thinking in them because that is what is really important to make it really work and therefore make it successful.

 You also have to know the platforms very well – how they work and what are they useful for and what not. For TXT 4 PEACE in 2008, we did not know much about them yet. For WMD we struggled a bit with MySpace, because nobody in the team really uses it and we therefore did not know how to promote it properly. Also, you need html to create a nice site on MySpace, so setting it up is more difficult than with Facebook.

 Q: How do you think the UN should use social media in the future?

A: Wisely. (laughs) You can do a lot with social media, but first you have to think about what your goals are and then think carefully if social media is the right method to achieve these goals. If yes, the question is which platforms are the best for these specific goals. All UN offices who think of using social media should put a lot of thinking into this before getting started because working with these tools cannot be done on the side. It is a full time job which should be taken seriously and done thoroughly.

 Q: How should communicators persuade managers of the benefits of social media, while at the same time addressing some of the concerns they might have?

A: The biggest benefits with social media in my mind are that you are in direct contact with the public. This means that you can deliver your message exactly the way you want to. There is no journalist acting as a middle man who might change it a bit or does not get across what you want to say. Furthermore, you can engage people in a campaign, as well as your organization or company with social media tools. Many people like to ‘do something’, take action, especially when it is about a good cause, but most of them who are ‘normal’ people do not know how. Social media platforms offer a great opportunity not only to involve them, but to allow them to actually take part.

Many thanks for your time.


Have you wondered how your country votes at the UN on a particular subject? What position are the diplomats (that your taxes pay for) taking in debates and discussions on the issues that concern the maintenance of peace and security around the planet? Well now you have a tool to help you keep better track of the hundreds of thousands of documents generated by the UN’s work.

It is called ‘UN Member States: On the Record’, and it provides “direct access to official documents reflecting the views of United Nations Member States. It links to the website for the Dag Hammarskjold Library, which is also a tremendous resource reflecting the scope of information the Organization has generated over its lifetime.

Not the headlines you want…

November 17, 2009

While many at the UN are trying to grapple with the rapid evolution of digital communications and exploring ways to incorporate and leverage it in public information campaigns, the message the organization sends out on the issue free speech on the Internet is not always as crystal clear as it could be. Yesterday, the BBC reported the unfortunate chain of events that unfolded at the Internet Governance Forum in Egypt under the headline ‘UN slated for stifling net debate’. You can read the full report here.

 This led to the following exchange and clarification at the UN Spokesperson’s noon briefing in New York:

 Question:  One more about the freedom of expression question.  At this Internet Governance Forum (IGF), there has been an incident in which a poster about Internet censorship in China, about what they call the “Great Firewall” was taken down by the United Nations after the complaint by an unnamed delegation.  It may seem like a small thing to you, but I’m wondering, given what you just said that the Secretary-General’s focus was on freedom of expression, does he think that that type of removal is consistent with his position?

 Associate Spokesperson:  Well, in terms of that, I do have the facts of this from our colleagues in Sharm el-Sheikh.  The Internet Governance Forum secretariat approved the request by a group called the Open Net Initiative for a room on the first day of the Forum to promote a book, and a room was allocated for that purpose.  Subsequently, United Nations officials were alerted to a flyer being distributed at the event promoting a film on Tibet, which was not mentioned in the original request for the room.  Officials from the Forum secretariat requested the organizers not to distribute the flyer or show the film, as this was not what the room was requested for, and concerned a political issue not related to the Internet Governance Forum.  The IGF secretariat requested the organizers of the event not to distribute the flyers and they agreed. 

 Subsequently, other delegates complained to the Forum secretariat about a large poster displayed outside the room, which again was not pre-approved for posting outside the allocated room.  In response to this complaint, officials from the Forum secretariat went to the room to discuss the issue with the organizers.  Officials found that the poster was already on the floor of the room lying face up.  No United Nations official was involved in throwing the poster on the floor.  Following repeated requests from the IGF secretariat to remove the poster from the floor, United Nations security removed it from the floor and folded it undamaged.  The organizers were told that they could pick it up anytime later that evening.  And so that’s where we stand on that.  But, the point to reiterate on that is that the request was made to the non-governmental organization involved not to distribute the flyers and they did agree to that.

 Question:  From the way that you say it, do you acknowledge that the poster had to do with Internet censorship in China and not Tibet, an issue that was related presumably to Internet governance?

 Associate Spokesperson:  These are the details that were provided by colleagues in Sharm el-Sheikh.  That’s what I’ve got.

 Question:  Can you ask them what the poster… just to confirm that the poster was about Internet censorship?

 Associate Spokesperson:  Sure. 

 It would be good to think that the UN will be able to avoid controversy like this in the future, but as long as it has to balance the positions of all 192 Member States and their (in some cases restrictive) attitudes towards Internet use, there are bound to be incidents borne out of the various sensitivities at play.

21st Century

November 3, 2009

Perhaps the flagship program for UNTV is their ‘21st Century’ television series.

 As the 21st Century web page states, these programs put a

 “spotlight on the world’s most underreported stories. Each episode features 2-3 character-driven, human interest stories that reflect some of the most important issues affecting the world, and our lives today. Our cameras offer unique and often unparalleled access to people and places and stay to bring you the stories as they unfold over time, long after other news outlets leave. From the child labor situation in Tanzania to the woman’s struggle in Afghanistan, from the poverty streets in Somalia, to the frontline of the guerilla war in Colombia, this series brings home the stories viewers care about, but rarely see.”

 Unlike UNIFEED, that offers footage featuring the UN’s work around the world, 21st Century is presented as a fully-packaged programme with a professional anchor, similar in style to a TV feature series you would find being offered by an international broadcaster.

 This format, incorporating “narrative storytelling with balanced, accurate reporting” and which is adaptable to local languages has proved very successful – currently 50 international broadcasters air the magazine monthly, including BBC World and RTVE

UNTV at 60

November 3, 2009

So, why have my last few posts showcased the UN’s digital communications platforms specifically for television? The answer is that this Thursday, 5 November, UNTV will celebrate its 60th anniversary.

Over that period, UNTV has documented events that changed the history of many parts of the world, such as the end of apartheid in South Africa, the restoration of peace in Central America, the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and the birth of a new country, Timor-Leste, to mention a few.

At UN Headquarters in New York, UNTV covers live meetings in the Security Council and the General Assembly and press encounters and concerts almost every day, with its work sometimes involving over a dozen cameras at any one time.

A recent development has been to enable New Yorkers to receive UNTV through Time Warner cable on Channel 150. However, thanks to the digital communications platforms set up for the service, people around the world can watch UNTV coverage wherever they are. 

As I have mentioned previously, the channel is also interactive with a presence on YouTube, engaging a new generation of viewers, and regular series are produced to tell the UN story in programs such as 21st Century and UN in Action (see posts below). UNTV’s work over 60 years has generated more than 150 prizes from the international broadcasting industry. I wonder what the next 60 years of UNTV will bring, or if it will even exist in another 60 years…

‘UN in Action’

November 2, 2009

The UN’s use of video and television is far broader than the UNIFEED platform that I described in my earlier post.

 It also produces ‘UN in Action’, an award winning television series, that “reports on the work of the UN and its Agencies around the world.”

 Each of the pieces in the series are approximately 3- to 5-minutes in length and illustrate “UN peacekeeping efforts as well as projects aimed at reducing poverty and human suffering, fighting disease, providing humanitarian assistance and stimulating economic growth.”

 There are 57 ‘UN in Action’ pieces produced a year and, like UNIFEED, the material is available free of rights to broadcasters.


November 2, 2009

The United Nations has long recognized the value of video to depict its various operations in action around the world, however, it is only relatively recently (in the last few years) that it has been able to create a digital platform for the showcasing and distribution of video footage taken by the UN to news providers around the world.

The system, known as UNIFEED, enables TV media outlets to cover important global issues by offering timely broadcast-quality video from throughout the UN system.

All of the material made available through UNIFEED is free of charge and rights-free. According to the UNIFEED webpage, “video material is currently available in two formats: web-quality Windows Media and broadcast-quality MPEG-2 PAL and NTSC for broadcast use. All material is also accompanied by shot lists and story synopses.”

Stories come from the global network of UN specialized agencies, funds and programmes, peacekeeping operations and UN Headquarters. New stories are posted on the UNIFEED website as soon as they become available on a daily basis.  

UNIFEED also delivers stories through Associated Press Television News (APTN) to its clients around the world in a 10 minute package transmitted by satellite twice daily.

It will be interesting to see how UNIFEED fares in a world where the sharing of video in high quality formats is evolving quickly. Will technology render it redundant?