[Interview] How the UN uses Twitter to bring the world together one tweet at a time
With over 13 million followers across their Twitter accounts, the United Nations has a Twitter community worthy of its global presence. With handles such as the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, and the primary UN account in their social stable, a vast amount of news is delivered to its 193 member states across six different languages. For many people, their accounts are also becoming the first port of call in times of struggle, as well as a view on the widely varying work they do around the world long after news cameras have stopped rolling.
We spoke to Nancy Groves, social media team leader at the UN, about the unique challenges of delivering an effective social media presence amidst major global issues with a multitude of powerful parties involved. We also look at how social media has evolved during her five years in the role, and the part that Twitter will play in disaster relief in the future.
How is social media structured at the UN?
“It’s a very decentralised organisation. Around the UN system everyone is completely separate, with their own budgets, officials, and reporting structures. So UNICEF, the World Health Organisation, and others are all their own entities with their own communications people and that’s where most of the individual social media content will come from.”
What’s your specific role in organising the teams behind these accounts?
“I work in the Secretariat’s department of public information, which sits at the top of the UN. So our team works with the spokespeople, the Secretary-General’s team, and we also have a mandate to cover the major issues of the UN. So our main social accounts try to cover what is happening around the whole UN system, using content to try and educate people about what we are up to all across our organisation.”
How big is the team working specifically on social media with you?
“It’s actually surprisingly small, social media came into being at the UN during the financial crisis, so we couldn’t afford a team as large as I would like at the time because all of our member countries were dealing with the crisis and our budgets were cut. So a lot of our social work is still done by people as part of their role, rather than the primary part of their job. We’ve requested more positions in the future and will hopefully get help with covering other languages. I work on the English account along with one other person, plus another to help with analytics and graphics, but the accounts for other languages are currently looked after by the web teams.
What sort of content does the UN publish on Twitter?
“It’s a mix of content put together by the individual organisations, as well as our own content which is more to do with our wider campaigns or messaging. For example, this year the member states are negotiating sustainable development goals for the next 15 years, so we’re leading the whole UN system to get everyone sharing content about #Action2015 that’s relevant to what they’re doing. There’s issues around education, the environment, climate change, jobs, healthcare and more. So our team are working to get individual areas of the organisation to share content under this banner to present a synchronised UN focus. But at the same time, we’ll also support their own individual campaigns."
How does Twitter help you spread rapid awareness of issues?
"We have so many stories to tell, and Twitter is a fast way to get everything announced in a first person context. We can cover both what’s happening at the UN headquarters as well as what we’re doing elsewhere in the world without having to wait for a journalist who might have several competing stories to cover. Whereas with Twitter we can quickly get our information out without waiting for their processes or broadcasts. We can also tell underreported stories about what we’re doing, or how we’re helping, that traditional news outlets might not be interested in."
Your mix of content covers an eclectic range of global issues. For example, on Twitter recently you had a post about International Jazz Day next to one about Ebola. How do you balance the more uplifting stories next to the more serious ones?
"It’s really hard, but we try to think of what people what to know about. They do want to know about what’s happening in a crisis, how they can help, if there’s any positive news on it, and what the governments around the world are doing about it. At the same time our bosses are all of the UN member states, who have chosen various international days for us to cover (such as International Jazz Day) because they want people to focus on these specific issues. Cultural issues is just one example.
Internally, it can feel a bit inappropriate for us to be looking at something less urgent when we’re highly aware there’s a major event happening somewhere else in the world. But at the same time, those international days are sometimes our most popular content and a lot of people want to see it. So we try to take those more feel good stories and explain why it’s worth caring about. So with that Jazz stuff we’re showing how it promotes social tolerance and celebrates different arts. This coincides with our wider goals that we talk about on our accounts as appreciation for different cultures can help to deal with violent extremism."
What are some of the difficulties you experience when communicating this mix of content?
"There are some people who write to us and complain, but all of the international days are set months or years in advance. For example, we recently had Intellectual Property Day, looking at the issues surrounding music rights but it was around the same time as the Nepal earthquake. We had some people saying “there’s an earthquake happening, I think we can forget about intellectual property for now.” The earthquake was a still something we were covering, but intellectual property is important to many people - it’s their livelihood - and they deserve their day too.
Even though there are huge crises all over the world, the UN is big enough to have people dealing with all of these different issues. So hopefully with social media people can start to understand more about what the UN is and how we’re set up to deal with a wide range of areas."
How much impact do these crises have on your overall Twitter communications strategy?
Over the last two years it’s been tough. We’ve had the Ebola outbreak, fighting is continuing in Syria, then there’s all of the forgotten crises like the Central African Republic, or the situation in Darfur. We’re always assessing ourselves to make sure we’re giving enough attention to these various areas. It’s a challenge for us to not just focus on the big crises, but also all of the work that the UN does that many in the world might know about. Our economic work still continues, the human rights work still continues, and luckily the UN is organized in such a way as to be able to address major events alongside our ongoing efforts elsewhere.
With accounts covering different languages and locations, how do you keep your posting relevant across such a diverse audience?
We have big discussions with the different language teams to try and work it out. Sometimes a colleague who covers a different language might say “this type of issue doesn’t really interest people who speak this language.” But we feel like it’s our job to make them interested because these are all priority issues for the UN. The audiences are also so wide that we can’t necessarily speak for every French or Spanish speaking person around the world. Timing is also an issue, as different people around the world may interact with content differently due to the time differences so this is something we’re always researching to see what works best.
What sort of sign-off process is there for social content at the UN?
We are lucky in that our senior officials really trust as from a communications standpoint, so there’s not as much sign off as you might expect. But a lot of that is because we’re taking already approved messages and adapting it for each social platforms. So there might be a statement put out, then it’s up to us to decide which one line from the statement might be the best one to feature in a Tweet. If we aren’t sure then we can speak to an expert internally and discuss which angle we should be putting out.
Also, we have a practice of making sure that everything we Tweet or post has been seen by at least two people. When you’re Tweeting quickly about major issues it’s easy to make a typo or leave out an important word, so we always endeavour to get more than one pair of eyes on everything before it goes out.
There’s 193 member states of the UN. If there’s an issue going on between different members, how do you balance delivering updates on the situation while also being impartial to both sides?
“There’s an understanding amongst the governments that the UN will try to be as neutral as possible, and we work to live up to that. From a humanitarian standpoint we want to do what we can to get the aid where we need to get it, or help with the human rights of the people. So as long as we stick to the UN’s messages we’re usually reasonably safe. On the peacekeeping side we tend to focus on the mandates of the mission itself and the work that the UN is doing, as we don’t want to jeopardise any sensitive ongoing discussions.
But we can’t always please everyone. There have been times when a member state has called and said they didn’t like an image that we’d used for one reason or another. One time we used an image of an older woman in a post about a human rights report. That particular country called and said it made it look like everyone in their country was old! We just thought it was a great picture that tied in with the theme of human rights issues and the convention on ageing that the country had signed up to, painting them in a positive manner. They disagreed, but it shows that member countries do look at our accounts to make sure we’re representing them in a fair light.”
What role Twitter does Twitter fulfill in assisting people affected by a crisis?
“It’s something new that we’ve been talking about. People are beginning to realise that beneficiaries of aid are going to be looking to their social media accounts to report their needs, update people on a situation or point out some wrongdoing. Then the social media responses might not be best carried out by communications people. So we’re working on solutions with the aid agencies where we can work together to use Twitter to help to deliver aid or information more efficiently.
We will still have a lot of people Tweeting to us on social media to ask us general questions, such as asking if Ebola is in their country and how they could protect themselves. Other times we might have someone complaining that they’ve not been able to vote in their country, so we’ll look to respond with details on the local organisation that’s reporting back to us on election issues. It was gratifying to see that social was the channel they chose to seek those answers, and I think that a directly helpful role is most likely involved in the UN’s future on Twitter. We’re not quite there yet, but intense discussions are happening to look at how we take this factor forward.”
You’ve been doing this job since 2010, what are the major changes that you’ve noticed about the use of Twitter at the UN during that period?
“When I first started at the UN, political content would not get much of a response on Twitter. Things about human rights or poverty would get a lot of interest, but something on the work of the Security Council or a political mission was definitely not popular but it is now.
I’ve seen representatives from almost all of the member states have a huge increase in how they’re using Twitter to directly speak with people, post photos of what they’re doing, or explain why they voted one way or another on a particular issue. That was not happening at all five years ago. Even two years ago we took a survey of individual missions at the UN which were using social media and it was only about 20, whereas now I would say there’s over 100 in New York alone.”
What changes have you noticed in the wider field of social media during that time?
“When I first started people would say “that’s for the intern” or “we don’t have anything funny to say, we don’t need to be on Twitter or social media”. Whereas now the understanding of its place is a lot more widely understood. It doesn’t have to be funny, it just has to be interesting and engaging. It’s a serious communications tool, not just something for an intern to do in their spare time. So it’s been internally professionalised a lot more, delivering a presence that’s a lot more powerful.
The other biggest change is the image component. You now have to have a visual aspect to most things you post, compared to a five years ago. So people are always wondering if we need to make an infographic, produce video content, or source a picture to go with every Tweet. Also, the rise of smartphones means it’s so much easier to get a photo from the field now. We’d prefer a professional photographer, but if someone who is already there can take a good photo we’re happy to use it on Twitter.”
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