How the United Nations Youth New Zealand Harnesses the Power of Social Media

02/10/2012 11:02 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2012
  • Jo Brothers Jo is an Indie Author & public speaker on the topics of Digital & Social Media + Spiritual Wellness

Social media is a powerful tool of change and influence and has been used around the world from the school children to human rights campaigners, celebrities, brands through to news agencies. I interviewed Chris Park VP Communications U.N. Youth NZ and Ashna Basu Teen U.N. Youth NZ Ambassador to hear how they are using social media and how the medium has helped have a voice in the global marketplace.

What does U.N. Youth New Zealand do? JB

CP -- U.N. Youth New Zealand is an organization run entirely by young volunteers who seek to equip other young New Zealanders as global citizens. Global citizens are people who understand the connections between their lives and their communities; beyond the local to the global. Global citizens understand, for example, the foreshore and seabed controversy and The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; between the foreign ownership of New Zealand farms and the trade surpluses other countries use to pay for them.

Practically speaking, we aim to achieve this through our Model U.N. program. Secondary schools take on the role of diplomats and debate resolutions on global issues as if they were at the United Nations. Students are required to step back from their own opinions and examine the historical, economic, cultural, religious factors that may influence their countries' positions on global issues. Resolutions concern the full breadth of the U.N.'s mandate, from peace and security to cultural heritage among other subjects. Through Model U.N., students learn to advocate effectively and to negotiate with others to develop action plans for managing the world's problems.

This is equipping young New Zealanders as global citizens. On a global level, students learn about the institutions of the United Nations and international affairs. On a local level, events like our Youth Declaration program brings second school students together from around New Zealand to draft policy on the challenges facing youth and to outline their vision for the future of New Zealand.

The organization is completely run by volunteers -- young New Zealanders just a little older than those we serve. This is where our energy comes from - from officeholders around the country who not only talk and educate others about global challenges, but who tackle the immediate grit of citizenship -- project management, auditing and compliance, communication channels, legal arrangements and other tasks involved in running a growing and reasonably complicated incorporated society.

In essence, our organization maintains and builds among young New Zealanders a sense of global citizenship.

How does U.N. Youth use social media?|

CP -- U.N. Youth uses social media in a number of ways. As with most organizations, we actively maintain our online communications channels (i.e. U.N. Youth NZ website Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, our UN+Censored blog) with a view of reaching an ever-wider audience and of developing an online 'persona' which reflects the youthful, vibrant and engaging organization behind them. However, particular challenges and quirks of U.N. Youth make the use of social media particularly crucial:

Because our members are spread all over New Zealand, social media networks have been crucial in maintaining and building on the relationship between us and our members, as well as between members throughout the year and between U.N. Youth events. Over the summer break, we provide intellectual stimulation through our U.N.+Censored blog and through posts we think our members might find interesting on our Facebook page. The same applies for our volunteer officeholders who are similarly from across New Zealand -- one of the main ways we communicate is through a private Facebook group.

The average age of our members is approximately 16. This means that we are communicating with a constantly-connected generation who have grown up with Facebook, Twitter, smartphones and cheap data-plans. It is telling that we find that our members are usually more comfortable asking us questions about an upcoming opportunity or event by posting it on our Facebook wall, or by mentioning us on Twitter rather than emailing us. If we aren't using social media networks to communicate with our members, this effectively means we are not communicating with them at all which makes our social media presence all the more crucial.

U.N. Youth NZ is a non-profit, charitable organization entirely run by volunteers and we aim to keep the cost of attending our events low to make them as accessible as possible. Without extensive printing or marketing budgets, we rely heavily on online communication both internally and externally to get our message across and to promote our events. For example, for Youth Declaration 2012 we have made our promotional booklet viewable online and have promoted it through our social media networks.

Video is a powerful social tool, I understand it helped you to tell the story of your new brand values?

CP -- As U.N. Youth grew to become an increasingly reputable and professional organization, we recognized the need for a brand which accurately reflected the vibrant youth-for-youth organization that we had become. Our re-branding in early 2011 was the final product of a comprehensive re-branding process which began in early 2010 when we began approaching brand design agencies, and commissioned Chrometoaster with the task of creating a new brand which captured the essence of our organization.

How social media change the reach of your influence?

CP -- Our new brand DNA was more than a visage -- it helped clarify and strengthen our core identity and purpose. Our new name "U.N. Youth New Zealand" made it much easier to communicate what we do to stakeholders, members and officeholders: We are an organization that involves young people which promotes the work of the United Nations. The new brand also helped us unify our "voice" through various online communication channels, and the simplicity of our new design, especially the dynamic color palette and bold imagery has helped to make U.N. Youth New Zealand stand out amongst the plethora of other youth-based organizations online.

Thank you Chris, and now Ashna if I can ask you a few questions...

Being a teenager and an U.N. Youth NZ ambassador using social media, how do you integrate social media into your life? And how has it changed the world to be a better place?

As a teenager who was born into an era that's seen rapid technological advancement, I use social media a lot -- from staying in touch with friends at home and abroad, to getting in touch with organizations I'm interested in and even organizing extra-curricular groups for school! I have a Facebook account which is primarily for keeping in touch with friends, along with the odd group for debating, or to discuss the work we're doing in different classes. I find that many people my age in New Zealand aren't on Twitter, so that's not so much a social platform as it is a way to follow organizations and professionals I'm interested in and hopefully share my own views that might interest other people. Thanks to Twitter I've gotten to know a lot of really fascinating people who I otherwise never would have come across! Then there are more location based mediums I'm on like Foursquare that are rapidly gaining more and more popularity. That being said, I see the term "social media" as becoming somewhat redundant in the near future because we see increasingly that everything is being made to become more social, to reach more people with the help of the internet. YouTube, Soundcloud, Flickr, Instagram -- they're all simply broadcasting platforms, way to get your material out to the world. Social media is now integrated with almost everything we do on the internet, from the market, to politics. You can even tweet your purchases and merchandise that you like! I would go so far as to say that all media is now social.

I think "social media" has helped facilitate the formation of a more connected world; one where you have the ability to reach out to the masses with a touch of a button. The power of words coupled with an internet connection has seen despotic regimes toppled, as seen with the Arab Spring. Obviously there are atrocities occurring all over the world, and they have been happening for a really long time, yet perhaps they weren't quite public knowledge -- but social media has given people a platform, an avenue through which they can speak up and educate the rest of the world about human rights breaches that have been slipping under the radar for far too long. Organizations such as the UN already had an extensive reach globally, but the introduction of social media has allowed their campaigns and messages to become more pervasive. People say that teenagers spend too much time on the computer and that it leads to them being less well informed. Although I agree that there may be some merit to the former, I think that social media almost inadvertently enlightens young people as to what is going on in the world around them, and has the potential to create a generation of teenagers that are more well informed, not less.

What are the down sides, if any, of social media from your perspective?

In my opinion, as useful as some of the social media sites are for organizations such as U.N. Youth NZ and for people organizing events and things like that, I think it's far too easy for people to fixate on the social aspect. As a teenager I know firsthand how hard it is to resist the lure of some of the social sites, and how easy it is to spend as much as a few hours looking through your news feed without realizing how long it has been.

There is a danger that it leads to a more indulgent generation where people make less of an effort to see each other face to face because it's so much easier to just flick someone a private message via one of the social media platforms, or Skype them.

We're at a stage now where almost everything can be done electronically and not only is it hugely convenient -- it is also instantaneous. This leads to young people who are used to having things done with just the click of a button, and who have everything at their fingertips. I personally feel as though my reliance on social media in many aspects of my life (social, schooling, professional) makes it harder to focus and concentrate sometimes and I'm more prone to being distracted.

Because of this I take simple measures to make sure that I have some technology-free down time, like turning off my phone for a few hours at a time.

There's also the matter of how much more public everyone, and everything is. There's always a real concern with cyber safety and people have to be careful and make sure that their privacy settings prevent their addresses, cellphone numbers and emails from becoming public knowledge. I think in the future that's going to be increasingly hard to do. The downside of everyone being able to reach you is well... that everyone is able to reach you, and that allows for less privacy and freedom.

As with everything, there are pros and cons to social media -- and in some cases the pros and cons are one and the same. In the end I think we have to accept that our world is becoming more open, which has both its merits and faults. That being said if social media didn't exist I never would have heard of, or got involved with, U.N. Youth New Zealand, so in my eyes it's a good thing!

Thank you Chris and Ashna.