This is a guest post by Monique Tummers, Senior Communication Advisor at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Last September, a tall woman in a sea-green gown and flowery headdress stepped into the Met Gala in New York. Some guests will have recognised this flamboyant star as the popular make-up artist and social media influencer Nikkie de Jager, also known as NikkieTutorials. What few guests will have known: they were not just look at a make-up star; they were looking at an (un-official) representative of the Netherlands at the ongoing UN summit.
The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Nikkie began collaborating in 2020. Together, they want to promote public awareness of the SDGs. They also want to remind people how important LGBTI persons are for achieving the SDGs!
“LGBTI persons are needed to achieve the SDGs, which cannot happen as long as people are criminalized for who they are and who they love.”
– Nikkie de Jager
Nikkie de Jager is a celebrity in the Netherlands and her YouTube channel is followed by almost 14 million subscribers around the world. She gives make-up advice, often working with celebrities like Lady Gaga or Adele. She appears regularly on Dutch TV and was one of the hosts of the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest. In 2020, Nikkie revealed that she is transgender and began sharing her experiences with her followers. Shortly after, the Dutch UN Association – a Dutch NGO committed to fostering the objectives of the UN in The Netherlands– invited Nikkie to be their goodwill ambassador.
This is where the development communication experts of the Dutch foreign ministry come in. In an often polarised public environment, the Ministry wants to engage more deeply with the “silent middle” of society – i.e. with people whose voices are often less audible than voices from the political fringe, but who represent a very large majority of citizens. Nikkie de Jager is popular with this broad audience, and is thus ideally placed to deliver important messages about equal rights and, more specifically, equal rights for LGBTI persons. When the Dutch UN Association reached out to the Ministry to help educate their new ambassador on Dutch policy regarding SDGs and equal rights, communication experts seized the opportunity to collaborate.
Nikkie supports the Ministry’s SDG communication efforts on a case-by-case basis. At an UN General Assembly event in 2020, for example, she met Minister Sigrid Kaag to deliver a joint statement on equal rights. In support of a seat for the Netherlands at the United Nations Human Rights Council, she produced a video demanding “zero tolerance on delaying equal human rights for all”. And during the 2021 UN General Assembly, Nikkie addressed representatives of 35 UN member states at a meeting about the persecution of transgender people. Alongside lighthouse events like these, Nikkie keeps bringing up SDG related issues on her own social media channels. She seamlessly integrates the messages into her usual media formats and personal style, meeting with a great response from her community. Her take on racism, for example, attracted more than 1.7 million viewers and received almost 9000 comments.
It is important to understand that Nikkie de Jager acts on her own. To help Nikkie get the background information she needs on policies and social issues, the Ministry offers her resource materials and connects her with human rights activists. How she uses these materials and contacts is entirely up to Nikkie. In videos and public appearances alike, the public meets an authentic personality who does what she does out of a personal commitment.
Insights for SDG Communicators
Ambassador-type cooperation with a celebrity is a great way to reach a wider audience. However, there are some important questions to bear in mind before reaching out to an influencer.
Who is the right partner to reach your objectives?
How much attention do you really want, and how big is your appetite for risk? You could decide to work with somebody who is uncontroversial (although boring influencers may be difficult to find!). Alternatively, you could decide that you wantto stir up some moderate controversy to raise attention to your issue. The greater the controversy, the more attention you will get, but you’ll also risk of alienating parts of your audience.
Nikkie de Jager enjoys great appeal with younger audiences and is largely uncontroversial. However, she is also very outspoken and authentic. The Ministry recognises that, if ever some kind of controversy were to arise with Nikkie, this would also be an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to values. The topic Nikkie stands for is important to the government, and it is not up for negotiation – the Ministry will always stick to equal rights and LGBTI rights.
What if an ambassador decides to go it alone?
If you work with influencers, you cannot expect to control everything. At some point of a co-operation, an influencer might refuse guidance and go “off script”. But this won’t be a problem if your partner is respected as an authentic, distinctive and genuine person. Despite the collaboration with the Ministry, the public does not see Nikkie de Jager as a spokesperson for the government. She is an authentic voice from the LGBTI community and speaks for herself. The relationship between Nikkie and the Ministry can be seen as a conversation that reflects a basic approach of the government, which aspires to speak to and with minorities instead of speaking about them.
Nevertheless, you should always do your homework before enter into a communications partnership with someone outside your own organisation. It helps to reflect on all aspects of the cooperation and map out the potential challenges and risks. It also helps to understand the perspectives and potential concerns of the influencer and have an up-front, open and frank discussion with them about how to handle different situations.
A Final Thought
Reaching out to new, younger and global audiences has become more and more difficult in this era of digital communications. Although working with influencers may help you to tap into new communities, it is by no means a guarantee that these communities will like your organisation, its work or goals. However, maybe you need to adjust your expectations. If the influencer shares your values, then you will no doubt inspire some people to think differently about the issues you care about: this is a result worth aspiring for, and it is certainly something we have achieved with Nikkie de Jager!
This post is published in partnership with Engagement Global, a German service agency working on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to engage civil society on issues of development co-operation.