Social Media at the United Nations: Engagement, Crowdsourcing and Cause Marketing…in 6 Languages

It’s difficult to move quickly in social media when every post must first be vetted by an international bureaucracy and then translated into six languages. But that hasn’t fazed the United Nations, which maintains a very active presence on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr and YouTube.

The UN is committed to social media as a way of engaging its diverse constituencies and raising awareness and gaining support for a variety of causes.  Here we outline a number of ways in which the organization is using social media to drive its business goals.

193 Countries. One Social Media Strategy.

Leading the charge is Nancy Groves, social media manager at the UN’s headquarters in New York. Groves, who previously worked as a librarian at the UN, recently outlined her efforts in an interview with Mashable.

Groves is part of the UN Secretariat, the body charged with carrying out the day-to-day work of the organization. But there often are a vast number of differing opinions and points of view among the UN’s 193 member countries. Thus, it can take a significant amount of time to get permission to make her posts.

In December, four social media experts, @adamhirsch, @alecjross, @rachelsterne and @sree, trooped over to the UN headquarters in New York to offer their advice to some 300 United Nations staffers as well as students and journalists on how the UN can best harness social media tools to reach their global objectives. You can view a video of the entire session here.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Answers Questions via Social Media 

But it’s not just the social media team that reaches out to the public. Last September, for the first time in its history, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon answered questions submitted from Twitter, Facebook, LiveStream and other social media networks. The conversation was moderated by Juju Chang of the ABC television network.

According to an article in Social Times,  upwards of 5,500 questions were received from around the world. More than half came from China, including one that asked why so many people die from hunger in Africa when there’s enough food in the world to feed everyone.

Crowdsourcing the United Nations Strategy on Youth and HIV/AIDS

For the two months before Christmas last year, the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS  invited people aged 15 to 29 to help create and shape a new United Nations strategy on youth and HIV/AIDS through an online collaborative project using several social media platforms to facilitate the development of new policies to combat the pandemic.

Called, the initiative’s name alludes to the popular concept of crowdsourcing, which consists of letting large undefined groups of people collaborate and come up with innovative solutions for tasks traditionally performed by individuals (see the press release from the UN News Centre).

The Social Media Campaign for Human Rights 

Also last December, the UN launched a social media campaign to encourage people to get involved in the global human rights movement, inspired by the role played by tools such as Facebook and Twitter in the awakening that transformed parts of the Arab world this year.

“Our social media human rights campaign focuses on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and aims to help more people know, demand and defend human rights,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in a statement.

The campaign launched by the High Commissioner’s Office followed an online discussion on Facebook and Twitter called “30 Days and 30 Rights,” which counted down to the UN’s annual December 10 celebration of Human Rights Day with a daily post about one specific article of the Declaration.

Education and Awareness–in Six Languages

Turning back to the UN Secretariat: its primary goal is to get out educational messages from the world body–information about the UN’s mission and its various efforts around the world. That includes “warts and all,” not just its vaunted humanitarian work saving and improving lives. The social media messages often include details about famines, wars, genocide and other disturbing news.

It’s neither easy nor quick, as all social media posts have to go through the UN’s political review process. Groves and her team have to be careful with language and wording. To avoid offending anyone or causing an international incident, she relies on a peer editing process.

Once approved, the posts must be translated into ALL of the UN’s six official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish).

To speed up the process, the team often will re-use content that has already been approved for use in a press release or video, for example.  But the social media specialists can move quickly when needed, as they did during the earthquake and tsunami in Japan when they used Twitter to connect victims and relief centers.

Working for diplomats, Groves and her team learned quickly to deal diplomatically with people who post questions and comments that are less than flattering about the UN. Although there are many of these, the social media staff tries to respond to every question and criticism, often with links to statistics pages or other information.

Does the UN’s mandate to tweet in 6 languages and meet the needs of 193 members make your social media strategy look simple?  Or do you deal with a similar level of complexity?