This is not your grandfather’s election cycle. Will this be the year a woman is elected to one of the highest political positions in the world? What’s up with the surprise candidate gaining unexpected momentum? Can any candidate truly blend the need for the best-qualified administration with gender parity? It is unequivocal that this year’s election for United Nations Secretary General has had greater tensions and greater transparency than ever before. Sound familiar?
The transparency is a direct imperative of the UN General Assembly president, Mogens Lykketoft, a Dane who led public hearings at UN headquarters last week presenting the nine declared candidates for UN secretary-general so far, with each answering nearly two hours of questions from UN member states and broadcast live through the UN’s WebTV channel (where they remain archived).
Adding deeper insight into the unprecedented secretary-general election process set into motion by Lykketoft this year is the role of digital media — with almost every candidate campaigning across social media, especially Twitter.
Vuk Jeremic, a 40-year old Serbian politician whose résumé includes being president of the UN General Assembly and foreign affairs minister as well as president of Serbia’s tennis federation, emerged as the surprise candidate on the first day of sessions.
His candidacy, rumored for months, popped up officially on April 12, after a Serbian news site reported that Jeremic had at last gained the support of his government, giving him the opening he needed to become the ninth candidate to speak at the three-day Assembly hearings as a candidate for the UN’s top job, which will be vacated by Ban Ki-moon, a Korean, at the end of the year.
Jeremic’s team, which features an American public relations firm, JMP Verdant Communications, has created a specific Twitter account for the campaign, @Vuk4UNSG, besides his general account, @Jeremic_Vuk, an account associated with the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development in Serbia.
Both accounts are active with tweets, retweets and favorites. Like another candidate, Helen Clark, from New Zealand and the administrator for the UN Development Program, Jeremic has dedicated an account entirely to his secretary-general campaign, with “SG” in his call sign.
Jeremic’s SG campaign account had 50 followers as of April 18, while his regular account has more than 109,000 followers, making the latter the second-largest of any of the candidates. (Helen Clark’s UN Development Program account has the highest, at 120,000 plus followers, as of April 18.) Jeremic comes to the campaign with a strong, slick social media presence, more than 22,000 followers on Facebook as well.
Clark’s Twitter account dedicated to her campaign, Helen4SG, was started when she announced her candidacy officially this month, though its “join date” is not posted. The Helen4SG account gives Clark, considered a front-runner, a surprisingly unsophisticated presence on Twitter. The image is a canned stock photo of New Zealand, presumably, and the font might pre-date Comic Sans.
Clark’s official UN Twitter account, @HelenClarkUNDP, was started in 2010. She leads all candidates across social media outlets in numbers and reach; her Facebook page has more than 83,000 followers and her Instagram account, 8,419.
Of the remaining seven candidates, all but two, Srgjan Kerim of Macedonia and Natalia Gherman of Moldova, have Twitter accounts associated with their professional positions and capacities. All nine candidates have Facebook pages. A Twitter account for António Guterres of Portugal, (@antonioG1951), opened since 2012, has 14 followers. This account has never tweeted.
Vesna Pusic (@vpusic), a Croatian politician, academic and diplomat, tweets to her 6,728 followers in multiple languages, often linking to her active Facebook profile, with 11,420 followers. Pusic tweets on a variety of topics, but the secretary-general election and her campaign get lots of mentions. She is the only other candidate besides Clark on Instagram, with 227 followers.
Danilo Turk (@_daniloturk) a former Slovenian president and former assistant secretary general for the UN’s Department of Political Affairs, has been actively promoting his candidacy and platform to his 2,325 followers.
Igor Luksic (@I_Luksic), the youngest candidate at age 39, and deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister of Montenegro, has one account devoted to his work around the election. The account, which has only 150 followers and 53 tweets, was opened the day he sat for the first informal session at the Assembly hearings on April 12.
Those candidates currently employed by the UN are strictly on message to their position. Helen Clark (@HelenClarkUNDP), who was prime minister of New Zealand for nine years, has more than 32,000 tweets. They are focused on her professional role at the UN and not on her campaign.
Irina Bokova (@IrinaBokova), the head of Unesco and the official Bulgarian candidate, actively communicates with more than 14, 500 followers around the issues addressed by the agency she runs, written in a multitude of languages. Almost every tweet is accompanied by an image.
As much as the nine candidates were active on social media during the hearings, social media was all over the candidates, too. Possibly the hardest hit in terms of criticism was Gherman of Moldova, who not only received call-outs for her lack of Twitter presence, but also had the most blowback to her presentation.
One UN-focused Twitter account known for its dry wit, eweNitedNations, caught the attention in the final, sixth hour of the hearings’ first day, by calling out an image posted by PassBlue of a delegate’s obvious fatigue.
“That woman in the back is all of us who have been following for all 6 hours,” the tweet pronounced.
This article was updated on April 20, 2016.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.