Strengthening Social Media in the African Union

Gary Kebbel, Professor at University of Nebraska - Lincoln
June 2014 Specialist to the African Union located in Ethiopia
Former Specialist Grantee in 2008 to Pretoria, South Africa

Gary Kebbel’s first Specialist grant changed the course of his life. As he lectured to a group of South African students, one of them would not look up from his phone. Finally, Professor Kebbel inquired, “what are you doing on your phone?” to which the student replied “Banking. Get with it Gary!” And so he did, immersing himself in all things mobile social media. As a result, the African Union later requested Professor Kebbel to be their social media and communications consultant.

Going into his second grant at the AU, which spanned two weeks, he had a game plan: he would not sit around and expect the communications team, made up of five individuals, to agree with all he had to say; rather they would collectively strengthen their strategic plan to reach the “wider African continent.” Currently, Africa’s main form of public communication is through radio. The AU’s goals are to show African citizens how the AU can work for them and to start a conversation involving current issues, governments, and local populations. Strengthening their social media platform will allow the audience to generate ideas so that the AU does not “operate in a vacuum.”

The current communication system for the AU takes a press release about 2-3 weeks to be released. Professor Kebbel set up a list of goals and worked with the communications team on how to reach them. Firstly, he advised they double their staff of five. Secondly, he indicated how to insert social media in ways that work with the AU’s current procedures. He did not want to change their culture, so he worked either with it or around it.

Professor Kebbel’s Fulbright Specialist grant to the African Union helped strengthen the AU’s urgency to become a key presence on social media. Upon returning, he has followed-up with a final report, and the AU has told him they might be hiring new staff. They are also interested in his returning for further consultation, should it be needed. Professor Kebbel has also allowed this grant to be a force of initiative for all professors to get on the “social media band wagon.” If the African Union sees its urgency, he reasons, so should his colleagues.