The Arab Spring has forever changed the way people will view social media in the context of political change and citizens’ active participation in bringing about that change. But politics is not the only arena where social media has made its presence felt. It can and has been used by a lot of humanitarian aid organisations and UN agencies in garnering support, as well as rallying people, securing funding and creating buzz for work that is helping millions across the world.
Last year, Doctors Without Borders launched an online application on the World Food Day that enabled supporters to donate their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for 24 hours to help the organisation in its fight against malnutrition in children. Back in 2010, a single tweet from a television host in the US, which was re-tweeted a few thousand times, made it possible for the US air force to work with Doctors without Borders and land its planes in earthquake-hit Haiti. Twitter deemed it the most powerful tweet of that year. Other organisations that have a huge social media presence and actively engage with people across the world everyday include the Red Cross, the World Food Programme, the UNHCR and Islamic Relief USA, among others.
There is no disputing the role of social media in promoting social development and humanitarian aid, but it is also very important to know how to use it to serve the cause best. Social media teams do not work in isolation and must always be integrated with the press and public outreach programmes. It is also very important to strategise the use of various social media forums and decide which information goes where and why. For instance, Twitter, the microblogging site, is more useful if the idea is to get a lot of people talking about something and creating a buzz for it, but Facebook is more suitable for long-term engagement to a cause or an aid organisation. It is imperative that people working in the field understand their communication objectives and use appropriate platforms to spread their word, engage the public and influence policy.
If selecting the right social media platform for your communication need is most important, selecting the right tone for your message according to your platform is the next most important thing. A sharp and witty tweet can work wonders in getting the message across but it will require more nuanced interaction with the audience on your website or Facebook page to keep them engaged. How YouTube channels and Flickr accounts are used and integrated with other social media tools also determines the success of a cause, campaign or humanitarian intervention. I was part of the education emergency campaign last year. With the help of sharp tweets that tied the cricket World Cup and Shahid Afridi to education needs in the country, we managed to create quite a lot of Twitter buzz, which was backed with an interactive website, an active Facebook page along with a very informative YouTube channel. This year, during Ramazan, the World Food Programme in Pakistan launched the #fightinghungerRMZ campaign on Twitter and sent 30 bloggers to spend a day in one of its camps, which helped in the generation of locally-raised funds for the cause.
It must be noted that a social media campaign is only as good as the work done on the ground. A successful social media campaign does not guarantee success in the real world; it only supports the people who are actually providing help and assistance to those in need of it.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 5th, 2012.