Engaging the world in a conversation about sustainability

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Guest post by Cailee Olson, an intern with Waggener Edstrom’s Corporate Citizenship team

It was not too long ago when large meetings of world leaders were simply stories on the evening news. This week we’ve seen in real-time what can happen when citizens, social media, and world leaders come together to discuss important issues facing society today.

Yesterday marked the beginning of the three-day United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development—commonly known as Rio+20– happening in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this week. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon describes Rio+20 as “…one of the most important global meetings on sustainable development in our time.” The conference takes place 20 years after the landmark 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio. The focus of Rio+20 is to engage the world in a conversation on what we want for the Earth in the next 20 years.

On Tuesday, just before the start of Rio+20, the United Nations Foundation hosted a related summit called Rio+Social. Rio+Social was designed to bring together the world, in an innovative way, to discuss such topics surrounding the new role of social media and technology as it pertains to sustained development.

Armed with my Twitter handle (@cailee_olson), computer, and personal Facebook page, I began interacting with the world. In addition to a homepage for the event, Rio+Social organizers created a Facebook page and Twitter account with a dedicated hashtag (#rioplussocial) to give the public forums to discuss what was occurring during the summit. All of these forums served different but complementary functions, encouraging the community to interact with Rio+Social channels in distinct ways:

  • Facebook: Rio+Social organizers relied on the summit’s Facebook page to create excitement and build buzz about the event among its 25,000+ fans. In March, Rio+Social launched its Facebook page by releasing a cover photo with a simple tag of “June 19, in Rio de Janeiro. It’s coming.” Then organizers released a series of countdown to Rio+Social cover photos on June 16. This created anticipation for the event, inspiring community members to share links and spread the word within their personal networks. During the event on Tuesday, organizers posted simple images of quotes from the event to keep people up-to-speed on the real-time conversation. Rio+Social shared the images in both English and Portuguese, which gave participants the opportunity to share pictures with their friends and influence people with simple messages about the summit days as it was happening and after it concluded.
  • Rio+Social homepage: This was the landing site for the event content which included a live stream of panel discussions that aired in real-time as well as videos of exclusive presentations. This was an effective and impactful way to engage supporters, defying borders, languages, and time zones that may have otherwise prohibited real-time mass interaction and discussion of major world issues.
  • Twitter: I liked searching #rioplussocial and having the ability to see how the other 4,000+ followers responding to what people were saying during the live stream. A lot of times other users would catch something I missed or would interpret an issue or statement differently than me. I appreciated seeing other sides of an issue I might not have thought of if I had just seen a video clip on a news story.

All three channels offered a forum for the general public to communicate with global leaders about sustainability. People raised questions, leaders responded and everyone bounced around new ideas. A particularly influential exchange came to life as a tweet that Leonardo DiCaprio sent to his nearly three million followers, a quote from Ted Turner during one of his presentations. Mr. Turner said “If we destroy our environment we destroy ourselves.” This one simple message – which Twitter users re-tweeted
2,519 times and 560 people liked – illustrates the reach of social media and its ability to influence a broad audience. By using #rioplussocial, DiCaprio connected with those following the Rio+Social summit as well as his own Twitter followers.

It will be interesting to see if this trend continues with other global meetings of the same nature. As someone who participated, it was a powerful experience to see people from all walks of life talk about sustainability and how each of us plays an important and unique role in ensuring a safe and healthy planet for future generations.