UN Under Secretary General embraces Twitter and social media, but also cites its perils

WASHINGTON – “It’s a huge elephant in the room.”

That was how U.N. Under Secretary Cristina Gallach described the promise and peril of social media, in a briefing last week at the USC Washington Center.

“How do we ensure that we take the maximum out of these technologies?” she asked, adding a comment about the benefits of social media. “It allows us global communication. It’s a challenge; I think it’s a great challenge.”

Gallach said her department, which coordinates all United Nations communications, information and public diplomacy, is fluent in such traditional tools as news conferences, press releases, brochures and broadcasting. But for digital media, it is still a steep learning curve.

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Left: Stefania Piffanelli, Deputy Director of the United Nations Information Center in Washington, D.C. Right: U.N. Under Secretary Cristina Gallach. (Photo credit: Yingqian Chen)

“We are learning by doing it,” she explained. “”Our presence in twitter is much more like sending a link, you know, a caption, and a nice title, and now we realize the tweet demands a lot of work, and content for social media is critical to have a good social media impact.”

One challenge with Twitter is how much should be centralized and how much can be dispersed throughout the organization, she said. And the U.N. has six official languages which must be served: French is essential for much of Africa, she explained, and the U.N. has millions of followers in Chinese.

“It demands a constant upgrade,” Gallach said, adding that constant training is also required.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other digital tools must also serve a number of departments and agencies, including UNICEF, U.N. Development, and U.N. peacekeeping forces, which total 100,000 soldiers in uniform. And her department has 63 regional offices throughout the world.

Social media are essential and powerful tools, said Gallach, but with numerous U.N. workers posting on Facebook and Twitter accounts worldwide, the downside is “cacophony and mistakes.”

“We have very pro-social media member states, including ambassadors,” she explained. “The Netherlands ambassador to the UN is a great Twitterer, he does a lot of things. Samantha Power, the US ambassador [to the] UN, she’s very pro-social media, directing these social media engagements, not to have to go through a journalist.”

Meanwhile, traditional legacy media must also be served, because social media have low penetration in many U.N. member states.

“We have a big digital divide,” Gallach cautioned. “U.N. Radio is very important. We need to continue having the UN [broadcast] products, so that the local radio in Central Africa can download, and then they can broadcast them.”

And she said print also remains critical, so her department produces two print quarterlies, UN Chronicle and a new publication on development in Africa.

Gallach made her remarks immediately following a ceremony at the National Archives marking the 70th anniversary to the day of the U.S. Senate ratifying the U.N. Charter.