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MARCH 12, 2015

How do International Organisations Tweet in 2015?


When the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) discovered the Higgs boson, also known as the “God particle,” it announced this major science discovery via Twitter.

When the Nobel Prize committee was unable to place a phone call to the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize winner the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (@OPCW), it used Twitter instead.

When the World Health Organisation (@WHO) wants to send important messages in times of epidemic outbreaks, it uses Twitter alerts to push the tweet directly to a follower’s mobile phone.

When Pierre Krähenbühl, the Commissioner General of UNRWA wanted to express his outrage after the bombing of a UNRWA operated school in the Gaza strip he took to Twitter.

The social networking site has become a formidable broadcasting tool and an indispensable communication channel for international organisations to amplify their messages to a global audience. No international organisation can ignore the power of digital communications and especially Twitter.

Over the past eight years, all leading international organisations have set up at least one institutional Twitter account, and more than half of the 90 organisations analysed in this study have created a personal Twitter profile for the head of the organisation. A number of organisations, especially UN organisations, have beefed up their digital teams and now tweet in the six official UN languages, namely English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and sometimes in Chinese.

In the latest installment of the award-winning Twiplomacy study, global public relations and communications firm Burson-Marsteller looks at how international organisations use Twitter to promote their stories and how they engage with their followers. In February 2015, Burson-Marsteller analysed the 846 Twitter accounts of 90 international multilateral organisations and non-profit organisations including secondary sector-specific accounts and accounts in other languages. Data for each account was gathered on 2 February 2015 looking at 60 data points, including the number of followers, the number of @replies and the average number of retweets for each account.

The most effective International Organisations in terms of number of retweets


The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is by far the most effective international organization on Twitter considering that each tweet sent by @UNICEF is retweeted on average 184 times. The @UN is second with 141 retweets per tweet followed by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (@CERN) with 121 retweets per tweet. @WWF@WHO, and @Greenpeace complete the Top five list with more than 93 retweets per tweet. The average number of retweets is not the only indicator of a successful Twitter strategy but it surely is a better indictor than the number of followers. The @WorldBank has more than a million followers but its tweets are only retweeted on average 33 times. Likewise the @WEF and @Refugees accounts which were both on Twitter’s initial suggested user list and which have a large number of dormant followers only average 63 and 53 retweets per tweet respectively. In terms of average retweets per 100 followers Pierre Krähenbühl (@PKraehenbuehl), the Commissioner General of @UNRWA is by far the overall champion with 328 retweets per 100 followers thanks to a series of personal tweets he sent during the attack on Gaza in July 2014 which have been retweeted several thousand times.


The Most Followed International Organisations


Not surprisingly the @UN has become the most followed international organisation with 3,676,825 followers ahead of @UNICEF with 3.5 million followers. Two other organisations have more than a million followers namely the @WEF and @WHO. @Refugees, @HRW, @WWF, @Greenpeace, @CERN, and the @WorldBank complete the top 10 list with more than a million followers each.

The main Twitter accounts of all international organisations combined have a total of 30,943,725 followers, while the median average of followers per account is 25,077.

The Most Listed International Organisations

Another important measure of influence of a Twitter account, and one that hardly be gamed or bought is the number of times an account appears on Twitter lists. In this regard, the @UN is the most listed international organisation appearing on 31,508 Twitter lists. @CERN and @UNICEF are both listed on more than 22,000 Twitter lists and @WHO, @HRW, @Greenpeace, @WEF, @WWF, @Refugees, and the @WorldBank all appear on more than 10,000 Twitter lists. It is interesting to note that organizations which started on Twitter early are also more likely to be included on Twitter lists.

In this respect Christine @Lagarde the head of the IMF is the most popular, appearing on 4,124 lists well ahead of @KenRoth and the @UN_Spokesperson appearing on 2’774 and 2’624 Twitter lists respectively.

Personal Accounts of Heads of International Organisations

Since 2011, the interest for Twitter engagement has also reached the executives of each organisation. Fifty-six heads of international organisations have personal Twitter accounts that are most often managed by their teams and very few tweet personally.


Nabil Elaraby, the Secretary General of the Arab League is the most followed. His personal institutional Twitter account @lassecgen was set up under his predecessor and now has more than 420,000 followers. NATO Secretary General and former Prime Minister of Norway @JensStoltenberg, early adopter of the micro-blogging service is in second position followed by Christine @Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who rarely tweets herself.


Many heads of international organizations such as @GuyRyder, the Director General of ILO, @PKraehenbuehl, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA and @GrazianoDaSilva, the Director General of FAO started on Twitter the day they assumed their new roles. Mukhisa Kituyi’s first act after taking office as new Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) on 2 September 2013 was to set up his personal branded Twitter account @UNCTADKituyi.

Twitter played a crucial role in the election of the new head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Four of the nine candidates had a Twitter account for their election campaigns. The Brazilian foreign ministry had set two Twitter accounts in English (@AzevedoWTO) and in Spanish/Portuguese (@AzevedoOMC) for its successful candidate, diplomat Roberto Azevêdo. The campaigns accounts have been deleted and the new director general of the WTO now tweets as @WTODGAZEVEDO. In her bid to become managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde opened a Twitter account in May 2011 and sat down for a “Lagarde chat” answering questions from her followers.

Some heads of international organisations have added their organisation’s name to their Twitter handle such as @HelenClarkUNDP@MorenoBID@BabatundeUNFPA, others have set up ‘personal institutional’ Twitter accounts for their leaders such as @lassecgen, @ITUSecGen@WMO_President@ISOSecGen et al.


A ‘personal institutional’ account might seem less personal at first glance, but it has the advantage of growing its audience overtime as the head of the organisation will not take the followers with him as he leaves office. However there is no way to archive tweets sent by the previous office holder. When Sam Kutesa took over as president of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2014, the tweets sent under his predecessor John Ashe were simply deleted. Likewise all the tweets sent by his predecessor Vuk Jeremić on the @UN_PGA account he had created in October 2012 were also deleted.

In general the leaders of international organisations are not very personal on Twitter and will often simply retweet tweets from their institutional accounts which often retweet the tweets sent from their leaders, creating a virtuous cycle of self-satisfying retweets.

The Most Prolific International Organisations


All organisations combined have sent 2,446,952 tweets. The Organization of Ibero-American States (Organización de Estados Iberoamericanos, OEI) is the most prolific with 67’484 tweets sent – more than double the number of tweets sent by the UN and the United Nations Development Programme (@UNDP) with a total of 33’094 and 30’620 tweets respectively. Human Rights Watch (@HRW) and its director Kenneth Roth are among the most active international organization posting on average 36 tweets per day. Its director Kenneth Roth is equally active, producing 25 tweets per day. The World Economic Forum is the second most active organization posting on average 27 tweets per day, driving followers to its blog. The @EspacioOEI is in third position with 26 tweets per day. This hyperactivity might seem spammy, but given that tweets are generally only seen by a fraction of your followers and half a shelf-life of an hour it is perfectly acceptable to post once an hour. UNDP’s Administrator @HelenClarkUNDP is the second most frequent tweeter after @KenRoth with more than 18 tweets each day. All international organisations combined tweet an average of five times per day.>


Most conversational heads of International Organisations

Very few leaders tweet themselves. Notable exceptions are Sir Suma Charkrabarti (@EBRDSuma), Rob Steele (@ISOSecGen) and UNRWA’s Pierre Krähenbühl (@Pkraehenbuehl) who tweet personal observations and are all worth following. Richard Sezibera, the Secretary General of the East African Community is the most conversational head of an international organisation. More than half of his tweets are @replies to other users. He is followed by NATO Secretary General @JensStoltenberg and the President of the African Development Bank @DonaldKaberuka with 41% and 27% @replies respectively.

In general International Organisations are hardly conversational with the notable exception of the World Health Organization (@WHO), the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (@Eurocontrol), and the International Maritime Organization (@IMOhq) which a third of their tweets being @replies to queries by followers.

@Eurocontrol, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, is an interesting example as it has been answering questions about flight delays since the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland disrupted air travel across Europe in 2010.

Who are they Following?

All international organisations combined, follow 293,673 other Twitter users. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (@FAOnews) is following 63,954 other Twitter users since it was initially automatically following every one of its followers. The UNHCR (@Refugees) and @NATO are following 39,836 and 36,398 other Twitter users respectively. On average, each organisation is following 2,144 other Twitter users which is much more manageable. The @UN, @UNDP, the @WorldBank, @WHO and @UNICEF are the top five most popular organisations among their peers. The @UN is followed by 106 of the 145 institutions in this study.>

The Early Adopters


Greenpeace was the first international organisation to sign up to Twitter on 4 April 2007, followed by the World Economic Forum two weeks later. Fourteen organisations signed up in 2008, including @WWF, @UN, @Refugees, @WHO and the Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Being early adopters has definitely helped these organisations garner large following on their accounts. Jarmo Sareva, the director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) was the last to sign up on 26 November 2014. 63 of the 145 accounts analysed have been verified by Twitter.>

Maintaining Twitter Lists

Twitter lists can be quite useful to facilitate Twitter reading and are very useful to list secondary accounts and other official staff accounts. Surprisingly few organisations maintain and update Twitter lists, be it for their own staff, their regional offices or other language accounts. Only a third of the analysed accounts have created public Twitter lists. The @UN has created 21 lists including one with the 641 Twitter accounts of the of the UN system. @Eurocontrol maintains 20 Twitter lists, including a list of all airlines, airports and aviation journalists on Twitter. The @UNDP account has 14 lists and boasts 151 regional and thematic Twitter accounts on its worldwide list. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (@IFADnews) is following the most other lists, 20 in total, and only 50 accounts follow other lists.
And finally, Twitter lists are also practical to run Twitter direct message campaigns, which the World Economic Forum and the Global Fund have done to reach out directly to their most influential followers. Direct messages on Twitter have proven to be extremely effective to contact influential followers and to amplify a specific tweet which is rarely seen by all followers of an organisation. The @WEF, the @GlobalFund, the Council of Europe (@CoE), the @OECD, the @WHO and the @UNFoundation are also among the few organisations accepting direct Twitter messages from any of their followers without following them. Interestingly Direct Messages on Twitter are still manageable, even with millions of followers and are not overloading your inbox.

Branded URLs

A special mention for the OECD, UNHCR, UNICEF, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum which all use their own branded link shorteners ( to shorten and brand every single link in their tweets.>

Twitter Design

The vast majority of the accounts analyzed have a branded Twitter header. However 26 accounts still don’t have a branded header, hich is with the avatar the main visual element of a Twitter account visible on all platforms. Half of the accounts analyzed also have a branded Twiter background which is only visible on Twitter’s website as a background for each tweet.

Twitter Video


Quite a few international organisations use Google+ hangouts to answer questions from their community, and 15 organizations have trialled Vine, Twitter’s video application. One of the best examples of the six second video format is the #HappyBirthdayUN greeting from Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

About the Twiplomacy Study

“Twiplomacy” is an award-winning study of the use of Twitter by world leaders, governments and international organisations, conducted by leading global public relations and communications firm Burson-Marsteller. Burson-Marsteller identified 846 Twitter accounts of 90 international organisations around the world. The study analyses each organisation’s Twitter profiles and their recent tweet history. Data used was taken in February 2015 using Twitonomy. More than 50 variables were considered, including: tweets, following, followers, listed, the date the organisation joined Twitter, ratio followers/following, ratio listed/100 followers, tweets/day, retweets, % of retweets, user @mentions, average number of @mentions/tweet, @replies, % of @replies, links, average number of links/tweet, hashtags, average number of hashtags/tweet, tweets retweeted, proportion of tweets retweeted by others, total number of tweets retweeted, average number of tweets retweeted, users most retweeted, users most replied to, users most mentioned, hashtags most used, platforms most tweeted from. Burson-Marsteller also used Twitonomy to find the most popular tweet and Twitter to identify the first tweet on each account. Burson-Marsteller also looked at each account to see if it had a header and/or a background, if the account is dormant, active or protected. We also checked in which language the account tweets and checked for the presence of Twitter lists.

The full Twitonomy data set can be downloaded here: Twiplomacy February 2015 Data Sheet (426kb, XSLX). A PDF of the entire study is available here How do International Organisations Tweet (2015).

All organisations covered in this study are also in a public Twitter list on the @Twiplomacy account.


A big thank you to all Burson-Marsteller’s offices worldwide and particularly to Matthieu Fyot, Vibor Cipan, Mladen Panić, Nikolina Batarelo, Fatima John Sandoz and Katarina Wallin Bureau without whom this study wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

Matthias Lüfkens


Geneva, 10 March 2015


Before joining Burson-Marsteller in February 2012, Matthias Lüfkens was leading the digital outreach of the World Economic Forum @WEF @Davos. He has also advised a number of international organisations including the Global Fund, the ICRC, the ITU, the OECD and UNCTAD and has been sharing tips for non-profits within the Geneva social media managers group on Facebook.

This content is not being updated and may contain out of date information

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