Using social media in UN communications campaigns – a unique perspective

November 18, 2009

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.


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