WHO reaches young, geographically diverse audiences in Russian-speaking countries via social media

An important aspect of Olga Manukhina’s work involves reaching out to new audiences.

As a National Professional Officer for WHO in the Russian Federation, she is also coordinating the Organization’s first official social media account in the country.

“Vkontakte users come from all over Russia, including from remote areas. It’s a different type of audience, not like the Facebook community where you mainly interact with your friends,” she explains.

The Vkontakte (VK) social network has more than 70 million active users per month in the Russian Federation, with high numbers also coming from Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, among other countries. Olga points out that audiences on the site tend to be younger and less formal.

“On VK, we don’t talk about official pages or accounts but ‘communities’ instead. If we want to change behaviours, then WHO really needs to be in this dialogue, as otherwise it’s just a one-way stream of information.” She stresses the importance of not seeming overly didactic when starting conversations with young people, and being open to their comments and feedback.

Although initially set up to provide information and advice on COVID-19, the site’s content is evolving steadily and also publishes COVID-19-related material from other United Nations agencies. It provides a relevant channel for the dissemination of public health messages in Russian and encourages people, especially the young, to adopt a healthy lifestyle.

“VK provides us with an immense opportunity to share evidence-based, accurate messages on COVID-19, but also on other health issues,” highlights Melita Vujnovic, WHO Representative to the Russian Federation. “Designed and managed by 3 young staff members repurposed to COVID-19 roles, our VK page is an example of success. The staff are working in shifts 24/7, as they are convinced that only an ‘open for comments’ social media page makes sense; thus they are ready to bear the workload that is needed.”

VK is the largest social media network of the Russian-speaking community globally. Around 80% of the Russian population who use social media on their mobile devices use VK, making it the most popular website in the Russian Federation.

However, having gained 22 000 subscribers in just 2 months, Olga reflects that “managing social media really does mean being social”. Aram Babayan and Anastasiia Kostyleva, the other members of her 3-person team, agree, saying that their role “is to listen to people and remind people that we are here for them”. They work tirelessly to really engage with their audience, moderating and revising posts as well as setting up polls and adding content to help people protect their health from COVID-19.

“For WHO, every voice counts,” Olga emphasizes. “If we want to reach our goals and build a healthier future it will take collective efforts at all levels, and without people’s support it won’t be possible.”

WHO materials such as situational reports, statistics and pictures are proving popular once they have been tailored to a Russian-speaking audience, Olga notes. WHO infographics combined with health advice and personal stories provide the site’s main content, which is given a local context to reflect the interests and reactions of the audience.

“People’s reactions are never boring. Every day is different and you can never predict how your audience will respond to the content you post. Sometimes we receive comments which allow us to understand how people perceive WHO, which is interesting and thought-provoking and helps us to improve our action.”

Dr Melita Vujnovic WHO Representative to the Russian Federation
Dr Melita Vujnovic WHO Representative to the Russian Federation

Olga cites one example of a post that really took off when Melita Vujnovic took on the global #safehands challenge: she posted a video of herself washing her hands and singing a Serbian song which lasted as long as needed for proper hand hygiene. Olga explains that appearances by Melita Vujnovic, as a recognizable face of WHO on Russian social media, engage a wider audience and build their trust.

Written by
Olga Manukhina
WHO Russian Federation National Professional Officer
UN entities involved in this initiative
World Health Organization