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Promoting ‘game-changing’ social media

Forget flattery. For international organizations, it is social media — some of it paid promotion — that will get you everywhere.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres' Twitter page
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres' Twitter page (AN/J. Heilprin)

GENEVA (AN) — Forget flattery. For international organizations, it is social media — some of it paid promotion — that will get you everywhere.

By the start of 2018, the governments of 92% of the United Nations' 193 member nations belonged to the Twitterverse. Their participation helped turn the social media platform into “the indispensable news wire” for international organizations, a PR firm’s global study concluded.

All 97 of the international and non-governmental organizations studied by PR firm Burson-Marsteller kept active accounts on social networking sites Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but Twitter was by far the most popularly used as of the end of November.

“It is fair to say that without social media, the work of international organizations would probably go largely unnoticed,” Matthias Lüfkens, the study’s lead author and co-founder, said of the rise in so-called “Twiplomacy” among world leaders and international organizations. Newly merged PR firm Burson Cohn & Wolfe is taking over the study and expanding on it.

Twitter played a crucial role in the elections of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to lead the World Health Organization and Audrey Azoulay to the head of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, the study found. Most of the candidates actively campaigned on the platform, where international organizations such as Greenpeace International and the World Economic Forum, or WEF, have been active for more than a decade.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was quick to join Twitter at the end of 2016, in preparation for his new job at the start of 2017, and he has since amassed more than 370,000 followers.

“The explosion of digital communications platforms has been a game-changing opportunity for us to bring people along the conservation journey,” said Sid Das, head of digital engagement at environmental advocate WWF International.

Many international organizations now routinely post their activities on news-oriented Twitter. On the flip side, international organizations mostly followed The Economist, New York Times, BBC and Reuters on Twitter.

But the regularly updated study led by Lüfkens, who advises international organizations and formerly headed digital outreach for WEF at Davos, found international organizations have their biggest, most engaged audiences on Facebook.

The median average number of followers for international organizations on Facebook was triple that on Twitter: 139,274 on Facebook versus 42,371 on Twitter.

Almost three quarters of the international organizations were active on Instagram. YouTube was used by most of them for long-form videos, but the trend was towards the use of short videos optimized for mobile devices. With help from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies published a guide on social media.

Some of the more popular visual tweets came from the executive directors of Human Rights Watch (commenting on the proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall) and U.N. Environment (commenting on the scarcity of wild tigers).

With more than 10 million followers, the United Nations is the heavyweight among international organizations on Twitter. Among the U.N. agencies, UNICEF leads with more than 7 million followers. World Health Organization has more than 4 million. Outside the U.N. family, WWF International has 4 million and Human Rights Watch has 3.7 million.

The ICRC soared to 2.4 million with the addition of 1.2 million new followers on Twitter in a year, but that was helped by a paid promotion strategy. The World Bank, with 2.8 million followers, also promoted some of its accounts.

Beware the bots

International organizations tend to boost their posts with Facebook promotions, but paying for growth sometimes can be problematic.

“The challenge of promoting accounts is targeting quality followers, and some accounts suffer from large masses of small accounts,” the study found. “Given the sheer size of many accounts, it is difficult to estimate with certainty how many of an organization’s Twitter followers are automated accounts, also known as bots.”

For example, Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, experienced a mysterious surge in followers last year. It turned out to be apparent Russian bot attacks. She wrote about it for the PR firm’s study.

“New Twitter followers are not always a sign of surging interest in what NATO does. In August 2017, thousands of new followers for my @NATOpress account were evidence of a developing front in hybrid warfare: bot attacks,” Lungescu wrote.

“The tell-tale signs of automated 'bot' accounts were clear: little or no owner identification; very few followers or following very few accounts themselves; erratic or alphanumeric handles. Close to 9,000 handles were registered as ‘Russian language,’ most had less than 20 followers, and many had lain dormant for years.”

She offered some words of caution for others.

“We followed best practice by not engaging with the bots individually, temporarily postponing new tweets and flagging to Twitter. But my account is not the only one to have recently experienced a bot attack,” wrote Lungescu.

A University of Southern California and Indiana University study found there could be as many as 48 million bots on Twitter. Some are benign, others malicious. Lungescu said the "malicious sort are used to amplify fake news, intimidate users, or even abuse Twitter’s own anti-abuse regulations to block real people whose accounts register suspicious activity due to bot attacks.”

The study found that having a large number of followers does not necessarily translate into better engagement on Twitter. What was more telling, it found, was the total number of interactions — likes and retweets — though this can also be misleading because of commerce in promoted tweets.

Measured by the average number of retweets, UNICEF had the most effective social media strategy. In terms of connectedness, the U.N. Development Program had the most — 87 — to other agencies.

At least 74 heads of international organizations had personal Twitter accounts, but they were mostly managed by staff.

One of the most popular, Luis Almagro, secretary-general of Organization of American States, has over 800,000 followers. The U.N. spokesperson and NATO secretary-general each have about a half-million followers.