UN’s Department of Political Affairs in 140-character bursts
The Department of Political Affairs’ presence on social media is relatively new but clearly growing. DPA joined Twitter, the platform that now counts the vast majority of the UN’s 193 Member States as participants, in 2012. The Department, along with the ever greater number of government officials active on Twitter, are all staking a distinct claim in the burgeoning digital diplomacy universe.
As the DPA Twitter account nears 100,000 followers, Politically Speaking looks at how some in the UN use this powerful platform.
In the middle of the 19th century, British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston’s reaction to receiving the first diplomatic note by telegraph reportedly was: “My God, this is the end of diplomacy.” The first-ever tweet by a diplomat may not have provoked the same reaction, but Twitter and other social media are revolutionizing the conduct of international relations today.
A case in point is how today the world learns of breaking diplomatic news. When a new round of United Nations-facilitated Libyan Dialogue convened at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on 26 January, there was no press conference. The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) tweeted photos and soundbites within minutes apart in Arabic and English. In the evening, UNSMIL (@UNSMILibya) tweeted a minute-long YouTube video of Special Representative Bernardino Leon saying the atmosphere was “very positive” and “constructive.”
On 29 January at 6:26AM Baghdad time, Special Representative of the Secretary-General Nickolay Mladenov tweeted from his personal account (@nmladenov) calling for an investigation into an alleged massacre in Diyala, Iraq. The Mission he heads, UNAMI (@UNIraq), tweeted out a full statement at 10:16AM; the UN Spokesperson at the UN Headquarters summarized the statement to the UN press corps at its noon briefing, nearly 10 hours later.
Tweeting under the DPA umbrella
The DPA Twitter account (@UN_DPA) has increased its following by more than 66 per cent in the past six months alone, surpassing 93K followers. Among the Tweets that attract the most attention are those relaying Security Council discussions in real time.
In the field, nearly all Special Political Missions are active on Twitter. In Somalia, like in Iraq, the UN Assistance Mission (@UNSomalia) communicates through an official account and a separate, personal account for its Special Representative, Nicholas Kay (@Somalia111).
The new Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Sigrid Kaag (@SigridKaag) joined Twitter in August 2011, and continues to tweet, providing a personal complement – in Arabic, Danish and English – to the official @UNSCOL account. The Special Adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, communicates through @Jamal_Benomar.
In Cyprus, meanwhile, the main account @UN_CYPRUS highlights the latest news on the peace talks and the UN peacekeeping force, while the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser to Cyprus, Espen Barth Eide (@EspenBarthEide), writes about both Cyprus and issues related to his parallel role as senior member of the World Economic Forum.
Other Missions communicate through one account, such as the UN Mission in Afghanistan (@_UNAMA_) that updates its account several times a day. In Burundi, the latest addition to the DPA family, the UN Electoral Observation Mission (MENUB) tweets in English and French under the newly created handle @menub2015.
Tweeting from the top
“A personal tweet is very different from one coming from an institutional account – it allows you to express your emotions and attitudes, not just put out information,” Mr. Mladenov said by email from Baghdad.
“I like using Twitter for three reasons: it is an instant source of news on the go, so it helps me stay on top of things even when travelling; it helps me get my message across to people quickly and precisely; and it forces me to focus on what is the core of what I want to say.”
Mr. Mladenov added that Twitter increasingly allows him to stay in touch with decision makers across the world – such as ministers, ambassadors and journalists – who also tweet.
He noted the importance of UN social media to provide transparency and a more personalized experience of the Organization’s work: “Public diplomacy is often just as important as our behind-the-scenes work. At the end of the day we work in the public interest.”
“Once you start accumulating a following, you have to start nurturing your audience,” he noted. Mr. Mladenov has more than 15K Twitter followers and over 30K friends on Facebook. “At some point tweeting becomes part of your daily routine.”
Numbers in the Twittersphere
The majority of the 193 UN Member States have a presence on Twitter, at least 83 per cent, according to the annual Twiplomacy Study 2014. The research, conducted by Burson-Marsteller, also found that 68 per cent of all heads of state and government have personal accounts.
There are only around 30 Member States that do not micro-blog, according to the study. These are mainly found in Africa, Asia and in the central Pacific.
UN Social Media Day
“It only makes sense to be on social media if you enjoy it,” said Isabella Poeschl, UN Public Information Officer and one of the organizers of UN Social Media Day. Held on 30 January, the day-long event featured UN Permanent Representatives and social media experts, who
extolled the wonders of digital diplomacy and its cyber dangers.
She cautioned, however, that not everyone should jump on the social media train just because it is available. Thinking about your audiences, available resources and what material you have to share – photos, videos, or text – will decide which networks you join and how you utilize the accounts.
“We are seeing a tremendous shift in power. Fifty years ago, messages were centralized. Now theoretically everyone with access to the internet has the power to publish,” Poeschl said.