The clock on planet Earth is ticking down. Humanity is running out of time. To put a stop to the climate crisis, we need to drastically and immediately change how we behave. In fact, the next ten years will be pivotal, and all of us will have to do our part.
This is where the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration comes in. Often shortened to just “UN Decade on Restoration”, it’s an ambitious 10-year project (2021–2030) led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Its main goals are to halt the climate crisis and reverse its devastating effects by creating awareness, educating the public, raising political ambitions and generally getting everyone to do their part and take action.
The initiative involves a wide range of target groups, projects, people and, consequently, content. UNEP — who is leading communications for the UN Decade — uses Walls.io and the hashtag #GenerationRestoration to pull all that content together in one place. The social wall is embedded on a separate page on the UN Decade on Restoration website and prominently linked to above the fold on the main landing page.
Let’s get started on the next ten years today
Ten years is a long time, and a long-term project like that requires a comprehensive communications strategy. We obviously can’t get a full overview of each step in the Decade on Restoration in just one showcase post. But we can get a glimpse at the general direction, and the various initiatives and measures UNEP have already been putting in place to raise awareness and inspire change.
We interviewed Ann-Kathrin Neureuther, who is the Communications Manager for the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration at UNEP. We talked for quite a while, so the interview has been slightly condensed for this article.
But let’s dive right in and learn more about this encompassing UN project. You’ll get some insight into:
- How a UN programme of these proportions is organised 📆
- How they connect various target groups using social media 💞
- How to make comms plans for ten years when social media is a constantly changing field 👀
- How they use influencers and artists to get the ball rolling 🌍
- How social media can get smartphone activists to take environmental action 🪴
- And much more
And maybe you’ll find out how you, too, can do your part in the next ten years to help avert extinction. 🌳🪴🌊🌞
Communications Manager, UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration at UN Environment Programme
Could you tell us a bit about the UN Decade on Restoration?
The UN General Assembly decided on the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration in 2019. It’s a UN initiative at the highest level. UNEP (UN Environment Program) and FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) have been tasked with leading it.
We want to make sure that we use these next ten years wisely because this is the time that scientists tell us we still have left to avert climate catastrophe and mass extinction. The decade is not a random date we made up. It’s the scientific estimate for the time we have to still turn things around.
From the start, it was clear that to revive what we have damaged on the planet until 2030 is quite daunting and huge. It takes a movement, which is why the decade is organized in this very open way, following a philosophy of new power. We do want to lead, give inputs, guidance and work with governments. But most of all, we want to enable and empower the thousands of restoration organizations and practitioners who are already active — from tree planters to organizations restoring coral reefs to teachers.
Who are your target groups?
I always operate under the assumption of three main target groups. First, we have the big global players, which includes governments, big companies, media houses, partners such as the World Bank, UNESCO or UNDP, and big research organizations. All of them can do their part in enabling this movement.
Then we have the restoration implementers on the ground, who are the many small organizations already working on reforestation, coral replanting, cleaning up beaches, etc. Many of them are underfunded and undervalued, and we want to showcase their stories and bring them more to the forefront.
And then, our third target group is the general public: people around the world who are interested in this topic. We don’t necessarily want to convert the deniers but motivate the group that’s already engaged or sees that the environment is an important topic but maybe doesn’t quite know how to engage yet.
In what ways can these groups take part in the project?
Big global actors can support restoration on the ground, increase financing, and improve laws for restoration, which benefits the restoration implementers. We’re also working with the general global public to create more transparency and awareness, so they can hold their governments accountable and support restoration practitioners around the world. It’s about using your voices, your choices, and your actions for restoration if you want to do so.
We have an event section on our website where everyone can advertise their events. We have a Restoration Implementers Hub, where you can look for restoration projects near you or restoration projects you would like to support for a specific ecosystem.
We want to motivate people. At the end of the day, what they do with this motivation is up to them because restoration is a really local issue. So in some contexts, it might be helpful to plant a tree. In some environments, it’s actually not good to plant a tree, and grasslands are more important. We want to provide that awareness and information to people. So they can find out for themselves in their local context what they can do.
The big organizations, of course, have professional social media teams and produce their own content. And that’s important to inform the general public and raise awareness. Meanwhile, for restoration implementers, social media is a way to share their projects and achievements immediately. We want to bring their actions more to the forefront, which will, in turn, benefit the general public because they can see what restoration looks like.
Some of the most successful social media posts, for example, are those that demonstrate what you can achieve by showing a before and after of restoration. Posts like that are popular because they counter the climate anxiety we’re seeing right now. It gives people positive inspiration and positive ways of engaging with the environment.
Social media, for us, is also important to connect the different groups with each other. It’s a low-barrier way of sharing information, and Walls.io is really helpful for us as a tool because it lets us immediately show the actions people are taking. You get a sense of a movement growing.
In a way, Walls.io is also a monitoring tool that lets us see which messages are particularly successful. We can see that we’re now getting new posts every couple of seconds or minutes, so it’s blowing up. Sure, you can talk about social media numbers and say, “oh, we reached 300 million on social media, and this many posts were shared”. But Walls.io helps us visualize that and also makes it accessible for everyone else. Everyone who’s interested can check out the wall and see what’s happening. And they can click on the individual posts and find out more about these organizations who are leading the work.
For World Environment Day, we usually bring out a practical PDF guide that tells different stakeholders what they can do. We see download numbers for that, but we don’t know what people are actually doing with it. We don’t see the traction.
So this year, we gamified the Generation Restoration Practical Guide. You can select which ecosystem you’re passionate about, what kind of action you would like to take for that ecosystem, and we’ll give you some options. To level up, you need to go offline and do something — whether it’s getting a bee-friendly plant for your balcony or cooking a vegetarian meal. Then you take a photo of it and share it on social media with the #GenerationRestoration hashtag to motivate your friends and followers to do something as well.
In the first month and a half alone, around 79,000 people took action, and 17,000 of those even took several actions.
How do you communicate your hashtag?
The hashtag is always very prominent in all our communication. We include it when writing to ministers to thank them for joining #GenerationRestoration. Pope Francis has used the hashtag in his message for World Environment Day. We ask all our partners to use it. It’s the most popular hashtag now for the topic of restoration and getting a lot of traction.
I can’t claim any credit for the hashtag. It came out of a youth consultation in an early phase of the project. One of the young guys there said that he’s sick and tired of being called Generation Z, which is the official name for this generation, because it’s the last letter in the alphabet. It sounds sort of like an afterthought. And he said, “Actually, we’re the critical generation because we can make the most critical difference right now in terms of the environment and how we treat the environment. We want to be Generation Restoration.” We played around with different hashtag ideas but didn’t find any as strong as that one.
What we are trying to do in our communication now, especially when we talk to older people, such as politicians, is to also frame Generation Restoration as not only about young people. We should not put the burden on young people. Generation Restoration should be defined by everyone alive because everyone alive right now is part of that generation that can make a difference in various ways.
We have a strategy, which lays out the overall high-level goals. And we have the report, which gives us the scientific basis. From there, we go to the action plan, which will help me define the overall messaging. What are the messages that I have to bring across?
How we communicate these messages, the tools we use, is not something that’s plannable. For me, what we want to achieve and why is more important. Which specific social media tools we will implement down the road is probably something we’ll evaluate annually.
We recently decided to engage more with TikTok because that’s becoming very powerful. So we organised a snap challenge, asking people to show an action or an area that isn’t ideal, and then, with a snap of their fingers, it transitions. For example, they show a park with a lot of litter and plastic bottles, and then — snap — they cleaned it up. It was really powerful, and Generation Restoration on TikTok had 60 million engagements and views.
I don’t think you can plan down to the level of tools for the next ten years. But we did plan that social media should play a huge role.
How did you promote the snap challenge?
First, we created some videos ourselves. Some of my colleagues here in Nairobi had a lot of fun showing how it can be done. We also created a tutorial video that shows the different steps for Instagram and TikTok because they have different video editing tools.
Once we had that, we went out to our partners, who are restoration implementers and had a sort of mini-challenge among them. We wanted to showcase nice footage from the field and how real restoration, such as tree planting etc., can take place.
And then we went out to a couple of celebrities such as Giselle Bündchen, Rocky Dawuni, a famous reggae singer from Ghana, and others. They did snaps for us, and we created a highlight video, which we shared on social media, where it was quite popular.
With these challenges, people need to see how it works and need to get inspired. So producing a PDF document that says how you should create a video probably won’t work. But tutorial videos and celebrities do.
Would you say that a lot of hashtag promotion and hashtag communication is happening via influencers?
It really depends on the influencers. We have some young influencers who have a very dedicated fan community. And they may not be the biggest, but they have fan groups in every country of the world. And whatever they do, their fan groups pick it up, and that’s something that some of the older influencers don’t necessarily have. They have hundreds of millions of followers, but those groups are less likely to take things up and engage.
Of course, we see a spike whenever an influencer does something. But I think it’s more the momentum that gathers among people watching their peers and what hashtags they’re using.
What kind of content are you looking for?
We’re always looking for engaging content that shows action and demonstrates that restoration is actually doable and the many avenues that people can become involved in. Of course, there are also events, which are great, especially if everyone can participate. For example, we organised a concert in the US with Jack Johnson and others.
However, art has been really inspirational and important for the campaign. We’ve seen the slogan and the hashtag being taken up in a lot of artwork. Someone created our logo as an embroidery stitch. We had a sand artist in India recreate the logo out of sand. We try to work with a lot of artists and content producers. So not necessarily people who are super famous, but people who are creative and create their own stuff.
Don Diablo has been great, for example. He’s a pretty famous DJ from the Netherlands who teamed up with this hip hop artist, who’s also pretty famous, Ty Dolla $ign. They created a support song for Generation Restoration called “Too Much To Ask” and a music video. And every time you stream it, 100% of the streaming revenue goes to restoration projects in Africa. These are the cool actions we want to see and why it’s so important for us to work with these kinds of influencers.
Do you reach out to these people, or does this stuff happen organically?
It’s a mix. With Don Diablo, it was a partnership with one of our restoration implementers from the Netherlands. Giselle Bündchen is a UN Goodwill Ambassador, so we reached out to her. And we reached out to Jane Goodall.
But now we also have producers of TV shows reaching out to us and asking us to recommend a project they could do a documentary on. That’s, of course, more long-term because they have a long production cycle and will probably come out in 2024. But I’m thinking we got a whole decade, so having a documentary come out by midterm would be great.
If we see something great on social media, we share it with our audience and use it to inspire others. So if I see cool versions of our logo, we’ll use it to spread the word more. Walls.io helps us source these stories and monitor what’s going on. It’s happened in the past that people did really awesome stuff on social media. They didn’t know me or anyone else in the UN. But I saw their post, reached out to them and told them, “what you did is really cool. Do you want to come to this event, or do you want us to showcase your artwork?”
The embroidery, for example, — that just popped up on my Twitter, but it was super cool. And we’ve been sharing that and the organization behind it ever since.
I think UNEP has used Walls.io before, perhaps even for World Environment Day, but it was always for these peak moments. I think what we’re doing for the first time now is using it long-term. Usually, we had an event subscription or one for a few weeks leading up to an event. But for the Decade on Restoration, we’ve had it up now for almost a year via monthly subscriptions.
We would love to, but we didn’t have a single physical event due to the pandemic. If we had a physical event, we would use it, for sure. Whenever we engage people around the Decade, when we have Zoom calls, we’re telling people to go to the social wall to really see the momentum because it’s such a good parameter of what’s going on at the moment. We share it a lot in conversations, and I have taken quite a few screen grabs of it as well, especially if I saw particularly cool posts coming up.
No, it’s fairly good. We didn’t have any major spam. We have this one company that produces sustainable bikinis, and they’re doing some fashion shoots where the photos are not always super appropriate. So we moderated some of their posts. But it’s a gray area because it goes in the direction of sustainability. But that’s really it. We didn’t have any spam or trolls.
We don’t really get random people using the hashtag who don’t know what it’s about. It helps that it’s a hashtag we chose, a hashtag that wasn’t around before, which was also one of the reasons why we chose it. Because if you just look for #restoration on TikTok, for example, you get a lot of people repairing their shoes, followed by people repairing their houses, followed by people repairing their cars. So #restoration in itself is not an ideal hashtag because it’s used for so many different things. But #GenerationRestoration gives it some context, and I think we’ve firmly established that it speaks to the environmental context.
Takeaways from the UN Decade on Restoration
There are a lot of things we can learn from this interesting showcase. For one, we rarely get a glimpse into the social media strategy behind such a long-term project simply because social media is inherently ephemeral and we don’t often get to see what our customers do beyond a specific short-term project.
Some of our takeaways are not that different from other showcases of well-organised projects. However, others are more specific to this showcase. Let’s check out what we can learn from the UN Decade on Restoration.
Website as a hub
As we usually suggest to our customers, UNEP have turned the Decade on Restoration website into a hub for everything and everyone. It provides background information about the programme, resources such as news updates and in-depth reports. It also makes it easy for people to get involved through the Implementer’s Hub, the game, the social wall, etc. It’s easy to find something local to do. It also connects the different target groups through the social wall.
Long-term planning, short-term flexibility
For any long-term project, it makes sense to have a communication strategy in place but be flexible regarding the tools you use and actions you put in place. For example, today’s best social media channel might be TikTok — and the Decade on Restoration team quickly jumped into that when they realised its potential for traction. But who knows what the tool du jour will be two years from now? UNEP stay flexible by reevaluating their social media tools each year, while the overall comms strategy remains their north star.
And remember: whenever you’re using tools that might still be new to some people, help them get started by providing tutorials and examples and by getting influencers on board.
With influencers, size doesn’t always matter
Speaking of influencers: UNEP showed us some great ways they use influencers to raise awareness and get traction in the general public. And one really important thing they realised is that you shouldn’t ignore smaller influencers for bigger ones. Yes, they may have a smaller following than big names do, but their fans are often more active and more easily convinced to take action than fans of big stars. A good mix of influencers is definitely key to a successful influencer marketing strategy.
Social media can shine a light on partner organisations and even individuals — basically, anyone who’s not a big organisation or government and doesn’t have that kind of traction. The wall collects everyone’s posts equally and presents them to the public. And often, smaller projects can get the big traction they deserve, especially when it comes to art and artists, such as the sand and the embroidery artists who recreated the UN Decade on Restoration logo.
Show, don’t tell
Social media is also a great way to show what can be done and is already being done all around the world to save the planet. Rather than just being told to go do something, people can see what others are doing and get inspired to get involved themselves. Of course, gamification adds another interactive element that encourages action over inaction.
Hashtag choice matters
Last but not least, let’s talk about UNEP’s hashtag choice, as it’s a fantastic example of what we mean when we say you need to choose your hashtags wisely. As Ann-Kathrin said, #Restoration alone would have been too broad a hashtag as many people are using it for completely unrelated topics. But #GenerationRestoration is unique. It has a nice ring to it; it’s emotive and speaks to people.