Candid images, useful information: The UN’s social media plan

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sits across Juju Chang of ABC News during the global conversation with the U.N. chief on social media networks. Photo by: United Nations Information Centres

Ban Ki-moon donned his usual smile as he sat across ABC News’s Juju Chang in a studio at United Nations headquarters in New York. Yet this was no usual TV interview. It was a first for the secretary-general: a global conversation on pressing U.N. issues via social media.

The Sept. 13 event was streamed live on Facebook, Livestream, Tumblr and the U.N. Webcast. Questions, which numbered more than 5,500, were submitted via Twitter and Weibo. They were sent in U.N. official languages – Arabic, Chinese English, French, Russian and Spanish – as well as in Portuguese and Swahili.

According to Nancy Groves, the U.N. social media focal point, that global conversation with Ban is, thus far, the most popular social media event of the United Nations.

The U.N. is among the most popular multilateral organizations on Twitter. As of Sept. 23, it had more than half a million Twitter followers.

It also has a broad social media presence. Aside from the networks used for Ban’s global conversation, the U.N. is also on Flickr, Storify and YouTube.

In this exclusive interview, Groves, who works in the U.N. Department of Public Information’s strategic communications division, shares how social media allows the multilateral organization to minimize resources while carrying out global campaigns. She argues that an organization should have a dedicated, full-time staff to manage its social media efforts.

In less than 140 characters, describe your social media strategy or vision.

Demystify how the U.N. works – point followers to where the latest information is online – let citizens know how they can participate

What has your social media presence allowed you to do that you may not have been able to achieve otherwise?

Using social media, we’re able to quickly start mini-campaigns with very few resources apart from staff time and talent. For example, we just launched a new campaign “Let’s Fight Racism!” which shows how each and every one of us plays a role in either contributing to or breaking down racial prejudice and intolerant attitudes. The campaign features postcards that people can send to their friends and family, a video, real-life stories and a quiz. We’ll also have an interactive component on Twitter using the #FightRacism hashtag.

Give an example or anecdote for how you’ve used social media in an innovative way.

The fact that the U.N. has established presences on social media platforms is in some ways innovative! A few years ago, we were debating whether or not the U.N. could or should even post content online in this way and, to be honest, these debates still take place.

Normally we use social media mainly as an information dissemination tool largely because the U.N. has a huge amount of in-demand information to share with people around the world, but we have used it to solicit comments from our fans and followers. For example, around the start of the new year, we asked followers to share their anti-poverty/Millennium Development Goals wishes for 2011, which resulted in 80 Twitter posts from 24 countries around the world. On Facebook, we asked people to send in photos of themselves at U.N. offices. We expected to get a lot of photos from New York, Geneva and Vienna, but were surprised to find people sending in photos from peacekeeping missions and from field offices as well. We received over 100 photos in the span of a few days and that has been one of our most popular Facebook initiative to date. We think this campaign was successful because it put a human face on the U.N. and also emphasized that the U.N. really is more than just peacekeepers, formal meetings and reports.

Our most popular event so far was the recent live global conversation with Ban Ki-moon that just took place on Sept. 13. Also popular are behind-the-scenes photos from Ban Ki-moon’s travels around the world. Over the summer, he ended up traveling through South America on a bus because volcano ash disrupted his flight plans and we posted some cell phone photos a colleague took during this trip. People really enjoyed seeing this different, personal side of the secretary-general. This video is another example.

What do development organizations, whether bilateral, multilateral, nonprofit or corporate, need to know about social media and how it can help them?

Once basic ground rules are established, such as avoiding posting offensive content, there is no right or wrong way to use social media. Development organizations and NGOs should, however, keep in mind that social media best practices may not be the best practice for every organization. Talking to new social media users, I often hear that they think they don’t have content appropriate to post on social media platforms because they don’t want to sound too serious. If you’re working on a serious subject, a serious post on a social media platform is OK. In fact, your fans and followers want your information and they don’t want their time to be wasted with updates that are not on message.

Also, don’t leave social media to an intern or volunteer. Social media is a proven, effective tool – but one that takes time to master – so make sure a staff member is empowered to spend sufficient time on social media efforts and also empowered to make decisions about how to word online content and when/how to post it.

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    Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.