From Facebook Lives to Breaking the Echo Chamber

By Gisella Lomax @GisellaLomax, Head, Social Media, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency @Refugees

facebook-live-unhcrOur global UNHCR social media community, including language and country Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, is greater than 10 million people. With 2.5 million followers on our Facebook Global Page, we prioritize the world’s biggest platform to drive engagement, turning lurkers into supporters. We’re currently piloting a Facebook Live series of conversations with our Communications Chief, Melissa Fleming, on her public page.

Every week Melissa goes live for a 30-minute interactive conversation with a colleague, a refugee or an interesting supporter. From Bangladesh and Libya to our frontline operations, the informal format allows us to go beyond the headlines to hear their personal take. We don’t script them, and we always take questions from the public. Resource-wise, we need three people – the first to film and the second to select questions which we send to the phone in Melissa’s hand via WhatsApp. The third role is community manager: engaging the audience by asking them questions in the comment space, and sharing links to news and stories as they come up in the conversation. This makes the Live more interesting for viewers and helps push the video up through the algorithm into newsfeed. We film on an iPhone mounted on a selfie stick, using these pocket-size Lav mics which provide great quality. You can see our kit list here.

A frequent question is “what keeps you awake at night” and the answers are always heartfelt. In a live broadcast with me about UNHCR’s social media strategy, Melissa describes our tactic of humanizing refugees by sharing their stories – like that of Doaa, a Syrian woman who is the subject of Melissa’s TED talk, book, and a forthcoming film by Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams. The audience for the Live series are largely people with a humanitarian or international affairs background – we can tell from the challenging questions they often ask! But others are members of the general public who are curious about what it’s like to be an aid worker in a war zone. The lives allow us to be transparent about who we are and what we do. To show, rather than tell – like this walk through of our refugee registration centre in Jordan.

But the algorithms can make it all too easy to preach to the converted. So, beyond our core supporters, we try to reach new demographics like the anxious, conflicted middle – people who want to help refugees but have concerns about security or the economic and cultural impact in their country. Many of our social media stories seek to reassure and show these issues are manageable, and there’s so much to be gained by standing with refugees. Breaking through the echo chamber by collaborating with digital media partners like VICE and Google, getting our content shared on niche platforms, and working with influencers and celebrity supporters are all key to this strategy.

Our biggest influencers are the 10,000+ staff who work for UNHCR. Employee advocacy is often overlooked, but in this age of personalities the personal voice is often more trusted than the institutional. I guide colleagues in using their personal accounts and authentic voices to post about their work. This is led from the top, with @RefugeesChief Filippo Grandi tweeting regularly, himself, about our biggest issues.

A picture speaks a thousand words – and one social video is worth 50 tweets. So, we consider the message in our visuals as carefully as that in our text. We try to show refugees as dignified individuals who are resilient and courageous. Jargon-free explainers are always popular, and in this post-truth world, dataviz and infographics with trustworthy statistics perform well. The innovation and tech angle is always popular too. Sadly, harrowing stories are our daily reality, but social media users will switch off if their newsfeed fills up with horror and suffering. Although it’s important to tell it like it is – especially in news stories overlooked by mainstream media – we try to add a touch of hope into our social content. It’s encouraging, shareable, and ultimately more motivational for our community.