Collaborate, Create, Communicate

Social media and institutional communications: the CGIAR experience at COP15

When I blogged about social media and agriculture at COP15 back in December, the adventure of the CGIAR and its partners at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen had just begun. It was an exciting time with the tag “Copenhagen” gaining the top 10 trending topics on the opening day of the Conference. In the following days, sitting in Rome and watching the #cop15 tag on Twitter was like being in the middle of the crowds demonstrating in the streets. But there was a lot going on behind the scenes and away from the TV cameras. Many key actors in the agricultural development sector were at the Conference working hard to advocate the role of agriculture and forests in climate change mitigation.

During COP15 (7-18 December 2009), it was interesting to watch what was going on on the Web and on Twitter, where one could observe a great variety of voices involved in the Climate Change Conference. And the colleagues from the CG Secretariat, Centers, Programs, and their partners did a great job posting, taping, tweeting and taking pictures, and all in a very timely manner.

The Agriculture and Rural Development Day site

Everything started last October when our colleagues at the CG Secretariat had invited us to advise on the social media component of the communication campaign for Agricultural and Rural Development Day (ARDD) and other related events, such as Forest Day 3. Some people from around the CG, who had had experience with social media reporting, and those who were going to participate in COP15 were involved in the initial planning as well.

Over the weeks after COP15, we had a couple of rounds of email discussion to assess how the social media component had contributed to the success of the agriculture and rural development campaign at COP15. Nathan Russell, Sr. Communications Officer, CGIAR Secretariat, and Neil Sorensen, Communications Coordinator, International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP), one of the key partners of the CG in Copenhagen, kindly accepted to answer a few questions. What happened before and during the event? How did it go? What can we learn from this experience? Read on to find out.

Q1) You have organized a communications campaign at COP15, and you have included a social media component in it. What activities and channels have you included and why?

Nathan Russell, CGIAR Secretariat

[Nathan] “The campaign embraced the overall effort of the CGIAR and its partners at COP15 to make the case for farms and forests as part of the climate change solution. The social media component included use of the Rural Climate Exchange blog (where we published brief summaries of key events and sessions as well as links to video recordings of important presentations, shared mainly through YouTube and Vimeo) and of various Twitter accounts and Flickr photostreams.”

Q2) How did you get organized before and during the events? How many people were involved and which tasks were they assigned?

The CGIAR Rural Climate Exchange blog

[Nathan] “Although we made several attempts to get organized through phone conferences in advance of COP15, this never resulted in a very detailed plan. The most we achieved in advance was the decision to use Rural Climate Exchange and a loose agreement about responsibilities for blogging, tweeting and so forth. At least nine people took part in the effort:

  • Nathan Russell, CGIAR Secretariat: Prepared blog posts for Rural Climate Exchange and the FD3 blog.
  • Laura Ivers, CGIAR Secretariat: Prepared a blog post for Rural Climate Exchange and provided overall coordination of the communications effort
  • Neil Palmer, CIAT: Provided really striking photos and uploaded these to various Flickr photostreams (e.g. ARDD and Forest Day).
  • Christine Lakatos, IFPRI: Tweeted at key events and prepared a post for Rural Climate Exchange
  • Vanessa Meadu, Alternatives to Slash and Burn (ASB) Partnership: Prepared two blog posts for Rural Climate Exchange
  • Neil Sorensen, International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP): tweeted at ARDD and webcast videos of comments from key participants, using Vimeo.
  • Three professionals from Burness Communications coordinated multimedia blogging through Rural Climate Exchange and the FD3 blog, made videos of key presentations, tweeted at key events, among other tasks.”

Q3) How did it go? What results did you achieve? What is the use of social media bringing back to the cause?

Increase in followers of the @cgiarclimate Twitter account from November to January.

[Nathan] “We did not put in place prior to COP15 a mechanism for measuring the impact of our use of social media. Even so, the numbers of visits to the Rural Climate Exchange and FD3 blogs offer some indication of interest in the material we shared. The number of visits to the former, for example, jumped significantly on the days of our key events (to several hundred per day), compared with the average numbers of visits per day (around 50) during the lead up to COP15.

With respect to referrers during COP15, the CGIAR and Agriculture Day Web sites were, by far, the most frequent ones, with Twitter in third place. As for the videos, which were a new feature added just during COP15, two got significant numbers of views, with the one of FAO economist Leslie Lipper receiving, by far, the most (more than 100 views), followed by the one of ILRI’s Phil Thornton.

One aspect of our social and mass media coverage that particularly struck me was the notable and helpful presence of IFAP. Neil did a great job with Twitter and also uploaded numerous videos to Vimeo and photos to Flickr. As you will gather from IFAP’s Web site, Neil and his team provided excellent coverage and documentation of COP15, its outcomes and IFAP’s participation.

Involving IFAP as one of the organizers of Agriculture Day was clearly a very good idea. In addition to its presence in the social media coverage, the organization also figured prominently in the mass media coverage we generated with critical assistance from Burness Communications. Many of the resulting news clippings included quotes from IFAP’s articulate and charismatic president and from several of the farmers present. In the eyes of journalists, IFAP apparently lent greater credibility to Agriculture Day as a space for dealing with agriculture and climate change.”

Q4) Having been involved in retweeting during ARDD and FD3 and a few days before that, I’ve seen many partners tweeting and retweeting during those days: FAO, CIFOR, IFAP, IFPRI, besides @cgiarclimate. Neil, what was your experience on Twitter during those days?

Neil Sorensen, IFAP

[Neil] “I began tweeting for ARDD at the beginning of December using the using primarily the tags #ARDD, #cop15ag, #cop15 and #climate. I linked most tweets to other substance, such as photos, videos or the event declaration, to facilitate access to this information.

In preparation for the event, I used Twitter to market the event, the ARDD website and agriculture-related activities during COP15. During the event itself and the follow up event on December 14th in the Bella Center, I used Twitter to facilitate real-time access to video footage of the plenary sessions and comments from the audiences, as well as footage of certain event sessions that I took during the meetings.

During the coffee breaks, I converted the video files to wmv. video files and uploaded them a video channel dedicated to ARDD on IFAP’s  Vimeo profile.

The IFAP Twitter page @worldfarmers also increased substantially during COP 15, from little over 1000 to almost 1500 followers. Although we did do some RTweeting and FAO was involved to some degree, I think there is a bigger potential here to increase Twitter collaboration some of the other key players, but this was a very good start.”

Q5) What impact do you think tweeting had on the overall reach of the events?

[Neil] “In terms of the potential of tweeting, I am quite certain it expanded the reach and visibility of ARDD and the prominence of agriculture in the negotiations. ARDD and IFAP tweets were showing up in Google news alerts, and likely elsewhere as well.

Frankly, our Twitter numbers are not high enough to measure on the ReTweetability Index, which measures and compares retweets from Twitter users. However, I have carefully followed only agricultural institutions and bloggers and farms. Consequently, IFAP’s followers on Twitter are extremely targeted and relevant to the sector.

Periodically, I go search for agricultural related terms and follow relevant new users. A great many of users are new and are just getting started with Twitter, and activity surrounding ARDD certainly encouraged people to join in and to realize the benefits of watching developments on Twitter. Many of IFAP’s Twitter followers are 4H groups, farmers and other key stakeholders who otherwise would have little exposure to IFAP, the CGIAR or FAO. Through ARDD we have made headway in democratizing access to global agricultural politics.”

Q6) This all sounds like a positive experience. Are you going to do it again in the future? What would you change or improve?

[Nathan] “Social media offer a powerful way to capture contributions to major events as well as their main outcomes, using diverse media, which add a new and exciting dimension to the CGIAR’s participation. For that reason, I feel strongly that we should actively build on the momentum created by our experiences in 2009, with the aim of learning from them to improve future performance. I think we need to make more of an effort to glean lessons and insights from that experience, which should be helpful for COP16 and related uses of social media during 2010

One issue we need to examine closely is coordination. In the case of COP15, this seemed inadequate to me, partly because of my own lack of experience and failure to involve more experienced people like yourself at an earlier stage. But this also reflected the fact that some of the participants had never met before and came to the event with quite different, though overlapping, agendas. Too much coordination might have undermined the participants’ pursuit of their individual aims. My perception that our use of social media was poorly coordinated may just reflect my background in conventional communications. Perhaps, a certain lack of coordination is part of what makes these new media “social.” In any case, I think it’s important for us to gain a better understanding of the expectations we should bring to our use of social media, particularly with respect to issues like coordination, style, quality and institutional representation.”

Wrap-up: top tips on social media in institutional communication campaigns

Are there any lessons that we can glean from the Copenhagen experience? What aspects of the use of social media for institutional communications have worked well and what should we keep in mind the next time?

  • Social media were one component of the campaign, beside the traditional media relationship activities.
  • The purpose of the social media component was to spread a message to influence decision makers, and to report on the events in a timely manner.
  • In this context, the institutional representation was very important: the posts on the Rural Climate Exchange blog were released with a generic ‘cgiar’ label as the author.
  • The partnership with a complementary organization, with stronger experience with the medium, played a key role as well.

On a methodological level, here are a few tips on things that are worth keeping in mind when you plan to include social media in institutional campaigns and events:

  • Use tags on Twitter to describe what you do, find your community and be found.
    People use tags to search the Web, search and follow Twitter in particular, and when something is happening this is the best way to get into the flow of news and updates.
  • Find relevant conversations and participate. In the lead to the event, if it is the first time you use social media, use social search engines, Twitter and Facebook (or other relevant social networks) to find the people who are talking about the topics you’re interested in or the same message you want to spread. And engage with them by commenting on their blogs, retweeting them, and sending direct messages.
  • Use an existing platform (e.g. a blog) and complement with Twitter, videos and pictures: use whatever is already available so that you can concentrate on the content and push it out as the event is taking place.
  • Acknowledge and retweet those who mention you. This is fundamental to build trust and respect in a highly volatile environment like Twitter: so thank you @worldfarmers, @faonews, @ifadnews, @CIFOR_climate and all the people and organizations who retweeted @cgiarclimate and its partners.
  • Monitor activities as they happen or the data will be gone. Twitter keeps tweets available for search for a few weeks. So if you want hard figures of tweets and mentions on this network in particular, you should use a social search engine like socialmention.com to monitor what’s happening and save the data as it is available. Having said that, if you know any tool or approach to save microblogging activity data for a longer time, you’re welcome to post it in the comments.
  • Allow for entropy and monitor what happens. Coordination is fundamental in generating and posting content on multiple channels, but being strict about who does what may be a waste of energy when things are happening fast. Involve people you trust, but remember that the moment your content is out there on social media it is open to new possibilities of links and comments from unexpected people. Sometimes you may like what they say about you, sometimes you may not. As in life, choose your battle: is it worth replying and engaging in an exchange? It’s your call, as long as your intervention is coherent with your communication goals.


I would like to thank Nathan and Neil for making themselves available and being very open about their work: at ICT-KM we appreciate very much people who find the time to synthesize and document their experience. This is the unmistakable sign of the team players.  Ad maiora!