Back at the end of the last millennium my biggest preoccupation at work was how to secure more column inches for my employer. As a press officer it was my job to feed carefully crafted press releases into the fax machine and get on the phone to pitch in the story. My success or failure to engage bored sounding interns manning the phones of busy news desks with a new report or announcement determined my organisation’s ability to set the news agenda, engage the attention of policy makers and raise profile. Ten years on social media had firmly established itself as a channel through which you could tell your stories and engage key opinion formers. But this was a slow transition and an organisations’ ability to pitch stories into traditional media outlets remained of paramount importance.
However, last June, the balance seemed to tip. Perhaps in other sectors and in other contexts this has occurred many times before but at least here at the Institute of Development Studies it felt like a significant moment. IDS was busy launching the Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI). The index provided scores for donor countries on their commitment to reducing hunger and undernutrition in terms of their aid spending, policies and endorsement of international agreements. Our strategy had been to coincide with the high profile UK hosted Nutrition for Growth summit to maximise media interest. Results were mixed. Despite around twenty pieces of media coverage many of the most highly valued outlets we had hoped would cover it ignored us. Save the Children and the big NGOs, who were busy promoting their own stories for the hunger summit, with their enormous resources and access to media friendly human interest stories and celebrities had the likes of the BBC pretty much sown up.
The tipping point: Social media versus traditional media
But all was not lost. Our social media strategy was having a real and immediate impact in terms of engaging policy makers with the index. We had carefully targeted key influencers on Twitter and key bloggers. Some of these were project partners, others were organisations we had identified through our stakeholder mapping as having a shared advocacy or research agenda. We shared with these networks advance links to our assets including an infographic, a website and a short animated film. We met with them, briefed them in nutrition network meetings or simply fired off an email a few days ahead of the launch asking them if they could help. Once the launch was underway we also tweeted messages to some of our key followers. The result of this strategy was that even if HANCI failed to make the grade in the news room it was an instant hit on Twitter and in the blogosphere.
Within hours of HANCI going live a shout went up from our Digital Communications Officer: “Canada’s just tweeted HANCI”. Sure enough Julian Fantino, Canada’s Minister of International Cooperation tweeted Canada’s HANCI score. This was followed-up by the Canadian government’s Nutrition Coordinator contacting IDS directly to get the full data. “The Dutch just tweeted” went another shout. Head of Food Security and Financial Sector at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Dutch Government Marcel Beukeboom tweeted: “disappointing 16th place for Netherlands. We are more ambitious than that. Interested in indicators to learn how to improve.” By the following day the Index received an official response from Irish Aid, with a press release quoting Ireland’s Minister for Trade and Development Joe Costello welcoming the index.
In none of these cases could we find any obvious link to traditional media. There had been no Canadian press release, Dutch or Irish media coverage. It was Duncan Green’s influential blog and retweets from key development and nutrition influencers like DFID, Oxfam, ONE, Concern, Action Against Hunger, Save the Children and the IF campaign that had really stirred things up. The top five tweets and re-tweets alone received more than 134000 potential impressions. The most popular content was the infographic swiftly followed by our animation which was watched a thousand times in just a few days. Weeks later, the reverberations continue. Just in, the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition have tweeted about the HANCI animation: “This video gave me goose bumps.”
Targeted social media = real engagement
Am I heralding the death of traditional media and its usurpation by Twitter, Facebook and Google+? Absolutely not, but this is still a watershed moment for me because it has provided such a blatant example of the primacy of social media in engaging relatively niche audiences with our research. In this case Twitter was providing us with direct responses to HANCI from our target policy makers. This is exactly what we had set out to achieve. We want HANCI to be taken seriously by governments, and used in the advocacy of those that seek to hold them to account.
The news room intern and the Today Programme night editor are no longer the only means of getting government ministers and NGOs to respond to our research. This is more than just the blurring of boundaries between traditional media and social media. If we can be innovative enough we can bypass traditional media altogether. Of course, we are still reliant on intermediaries, in the form of twitter followers and bloggers and occasionally the media itself. Traditional media coverage can still be enormously impactful especially in relation to more mainstream or topical political issues. But much as marginalised citizens around the world have been able to harness social media to make their voices heard, research organisations can use non traditional media to engage key audiences around their research without having to rely upon the overstretched editor or broadcaster.
IDS already has a digital communications strategy that places social media at its core. But this recent experience provides reassurance that we are moving in the right direction. I will always look back fondly on those days of the busy press office and the excitement of a story really taking off but I am glad that social media provides another dimension to engaging key decision makers and influencers around our work. Social media may not have killed the media star yet but it has certainly dimmed it a little.