While use of social media has now been fully embraced by most, intergovernmental organizations continued to face challenges adapting to the “digital first” world, which is now widely expected by their fans and followers. While using the term “digital diplomacy” for the type of work carried out by international civil servants who take an oath of impartiality and neutrality may not be a perfect match, it is an important component of the larger diplomatic efforts undertaken by the member states of these organizations. The following is a short overview of my impressions of the social media landscape in 2016 and outlines some questions currently being debated among social media practitioners.
It is important to note that all of this 2016 work was undertaken in the midst of a series of global crises including, but not limited to: crises in Burundi, Central African Republic, Haiti, Iraq, South Sudan and Syria. Communicators feel immense pressure to effectively cover these crises as multimedia producers, too often without adequate resources while living in crisis zones. In 2016, humanitarian workers were asked to put themselves at risk of injury, emotional stress, kidnapping and even death in conflict zones and serious illness in the case of the zika virus and other dangerous health situations.
— ICRC (@ICRC) December 31, 2016
Explaining the impact of international organizations
Being able to manage narratives is one major reason why social media was seen as indispensable in 2016. Traditional journalists at media outlets facing staffing and budget cuts may have to choose one (if any) story about an international organization on which to report. More often than not, these choices skew understandably towards crises-related stories or news produced at Headquarters locations such as the UN Security Council in New York CIty. This means that important stories, often success stories, are not being told. In some ways it’s easier to report on casualties than to calculate the number of lives saved or crises averted. Social media can often be a compelling way to show work that doesn’t make headlines. One example is aid deliveries targeted for people with disabilities or the life saving work being done by organizations such as UNFPA.
— UNHCR Iraq (@UNHCRIraq) December 20, 2016
— UNFPA (@UNFPA) October 8, 2016
Along these lines, social media is a key way for organizations to be transparent about their actions, budgets and mandates. While the selection of the United Nations’s ninth Secretary-General was ultimately decided, as expected, through the mechanisms outlined in the UN Charter through candidate endorsements by the Security Council and General Assembly, the 70th President of the General Assembly Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark (Related link: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=54877#.WGrlb8MrKVM), made it a priority to open the process up to the public. In 2016, the General Assembly held several debates and information sessions with candidates. A key partner in the process was the UN’s Non-Governmental Liaison Service, which works to increase engagement between the UN and civil society.
In 2017, the World Health Organization will select its next Director-General and in 2016 it showed signs it was also following suit (http://www.who.int/dg/election/en/) by openly posting about the process on its social media platforms.
Declining confidence in multilateralism
Perhaps the biggest challenge in 2016 was dealing with the perceived decline in confidence in the work of international civil servants and multilateralism in general in the wake of the “Brexit” referendum in 2016. International organizations were also seen an easy political target in several election campaigns, including the United States. As a result, international organizations began to rethink their strategies, perhaps pivoting more to how the work of organizations benefits individuals and away from the still needed information awareness strategies. One effective example of an organization focusing on the basics, is the International Committee of the Red Cross which had a series of engaging graphics on the Geneva Conventions (https://www.icrc.org/en/war-and-law/treaties-customary-law/geneva-conventions).
— ICRC (@ICRC) December 7, 2016
Working together across organizations
The 2016 official launch of the Sustainable Development Goals served as a catalyst for organizations, along with member states, civil society and NGO partners, to come together around a shared communications objective. Working together is increasingly important given the very crowded digital landscape. The much negotiated branding materials put in place in September 2015 meant that high-quality and engaging materials were ready to be widely shared throughout 2016 without the need for organizations themselves to invent their own campaign materials from scratch. Some of the best examples of adapting these broader materials to specific mandates come from the International Labour Organization, which adapted the materials for its ongoing calls for “Decent Work,” and from UN Women, for engaging content on how gender equality is key to meeting all 17 goals.
Learn why decent work is so important to achieving each of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development: ilo.org/globalgoals
— UN Women (@UN_Women) October 13, 2016
The Paris Agreement, which entered into force in November 2016, was another cross-cutting issue widely embraced across international intergovernmental organizations. In addition to tying climate action to the Sustainable Development Goals, organizations were able to embrace the facts and tie their work to the opportunities presented by coordinated climate action at the individual and global levels. One example launched in 2016 is the “Breath Life” campaign led by the World Health Organization with support from other UN entities like the UN Environment Programme.
Air pollution: the invisible killer. It may not always be visible, but it can be deadly.
Across the board, international organizations are struggling with how to create “digital first” content in all the languages expected by member states and online fans and followers. Many organizations follow the UN’s lead and attempt to put out content in the six UN “official” languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. In the case of the EU and its related entities, the challenge is even harder with 24 official languages. But which version of the language is considered the international standard? And how can organizations write engaging posts when a fair amount of original content contains highly-sensitive legal terms or language written by committee? And, do other languages, like Portuguese or Japanese, for example, also merit staffing and resources due to the large numbers of online speakers of those languages even though they haven’t been designated as official languages by member countries? No international organization seems to have fully answered these questions yet.
Since social media as a mainstream communications tool started coming of age when many countries were facing financial crises, communications budgets shrank for several years at the exact time when critical investments in digital strategies and staffing should have been made. While some countries have shown steady support for digital communications, only in 2016 did some member countries start to realize the potential social media provides and finally began to expect and support changes in organizations such as the United Nations Secretariat. Additional details are outlined in the annual reports of the General Assembly’s “Committee on Information.” http://www.un.org/en/ga/coi/documents/gareports.shtml
Lackluster and, in some cases, nonexistent budgets allocated for social media means organizations teams haven’t fully harnessed the opportunity social media presents in terms of a larger listening tool. In the case of the UN Secretariat’s Department of Public Information, from a communications standpoint, we mainly focus on reviewing and analyzing the comments sent directly to our social media platforms. Although sometimes we do ad hoc “listening” exercises on specific topics, we are not staffed to routinely scan the full social media landscape to see what other issues related to our mandates are being discussed online. (NOTE: There are other UN entities looking at the use of social media hate speech, by violent extremists, and other issues). Creating this kind of service for our organizations would require large investments in both staffing and tools. The rapid changes in technology and tools available, coupled with procurement, legal and planning challenges mean this will likely be a lost in-house opportunity for some time.
Another major challenge still being faced by international organizations in 2016 is the definition of each organization’s audience. In many cases, the audience is expected to be defined as “everyone, everywhere.” In practice, reaching everyone everywhere is an impossible goal. For example, humanitarian organizations have several audiences: donors and member countries who support their work, beneficiaries and the public at large. Can and should content be tailored to these different groups? And if so, how? While some beneficiaries are located in specific geographic areas, given the current refugee and migrant crises, they are more likely to be spread across borders. This means that geographic targeting alone is rarely enough. For example, a cursory look shows that fans of the “United Nations” page on Facebook list their location as being in Turkey and that that a third of these fans list their language preference as Arabic. As Turkey currently hosts a significant number of refugees from Syria and Iraq, one may guess that these Arabic speakers are refugees and interested in a different type of content than others living in Turkey. Widespread use of VPN (“virtual private networks”) which allow people to connect to the internet through other locations makes this challenge of defining audiences even more difficult.
In conclusion, while there were bright spots across international organizations in 2016 when it comes to social media usage and effectiveness, many challenges remains.