92/48/36: World Leaders on Instagram

World leaders on social media? Twitter—sure thing! Not only, though. It is a well-known fact that politicians and world leaders use all kinds of social platforms, including Snapchat. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they are also pretty active on Instagram. However, what’s interesting is that many of them make really good use of this platform.

Two years ago, the Twiplomacy* study analyzed the activity of world leaders on Twitter and other social media sites. The number-one, uncontested political leader back then was Barack Obama, with his six million followers. Dmitry Medvedev came second with an audience three times the size of Obama’s, and Narendra Modi, India’s PM, took the last spot on the podium. Six million followers—sounds nice, but still seems slightly disappointing. Two years have passed and the peloton stretched out. According to the latest data gathered by Burson Cohn&Wolfe* agency, Narendra Modi, who has already won over Twitter, is the current Instagram leader as well, with nearly 15 million followers. And yes—this is impressive. Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia, has a follower base of 12 million—still powerful! The last political leader with a two-digit score is Donald Trump, with 10 million followers. Speaking of POTUS, however, it’s hard to describe it as a success. Over the last two years, the number of Instagram users has doubled. The number of US president’s followers has also grown, but the account lost two positions in the global ranking.

Does popularity on social media reflect the global balance of powers, though?

I don’t think so, but surely politicians (or rather their staffs and press offices) have become more familiar with Instagram and are learning to use it to pave their way into the hearts of (younger) voters. Or straight into their souls—just like Pope Frances—the fourth most popular world leader on Instagram. Or the Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—an Insta Stories’ heavy user.

Twiplomacy Instagram
Source: Twiplomacy/Burson-Marsteller

Let’s take a closer look now at how world leaders are using Instagram. What are they doing? Well, they are mastering Instagram Stories, for example. I must admit that despite the fact that I myself have been pretty active on Instagram for many years, I never went fully into the Stories functionality and learned how to use it in such a spectacular way as some world leaders do, e.g. the British Royal Family or Donald Tusk. Running logs (obviously with a political context) or serious high-level meetings—any sort of content works really well. But you don’t have to be the British Queen or the President of the European Council.

Some global leaders use Stories in more creative ways—often not too “serious,” but at the same time in a way that proves the perfect understanding of the tool. For instance, on World Emoji Day, the Israeli MFA posted 9 Stories—containing some surprising facts and trivia about Israel—using only emojis. The European Commission or the PMs of Singapore or Austria often use the interactive features of Instagram Stories—such as asking followers to participate in polls or posting questions from their followers, which they later respond to in their posts.

But what about the more “traditional” way of using Instagram? Here—as expected—we can find a lot of official photos, but politicians also don’t shy away from posting some more personal content. Often in a very honest and casual way.

Twiplomacy/ Burston-Marsteller

The most popular photograph is the one with India’s PM welcoming his guests—the captain of the national cricket team and his wife—an actress. A total of 55 million followers of the three gave 1.8 million “hearts” under the picture. The lonely Modi waiting on a Davos bus stop garnered 1.6 million. Not a surprise as both the context and the picture itself is quite unique. By the way, thanks to “private” content, the British Royal Family’s account gained almost 600k new followers on the day of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding.

Emotional content is also widely used to improve the reputation of those politicians whose image among the world public is not good. As part of a series of pictures from official events and meetings with citizens, the Instagram account of the president of Syria posted a touching photo of Bashar Al-Assad visiting his wife in hospital, shortly after she has was diagnosed with cancer. Sometimes it can be snarky—like the photo of Donald Tusk offering Theresa May cookies with “no cherries. At times, a picture which is nice and positive on the surface can serve as a medium for a strong message—like the one posted by Luxembourg’s PM, showing himself and his partner, captioned with a strong comment regarding the situation of the LGBT community in over 70 countries worldwide.

Another interesting issue is interactions. However, taking into account comments and favs for single pictures, the most effective were the accounts of Narendra Modi and Recep Erdogan (900k and over 400k, respectively). Having summed up all interactions with pictures and videos published over the last 12 months, the uncontested winner was Donald Trump with a total score three times the result of any of his competitors, that is over 218 million interactions.

While reading this post and looking at the photos, you may have the impression that politicians treat social media first of all as fun (counting “hearts” and blocking opponents). But the truth is that Twiplomacy is no longer just about fun or image. The world leaders, for the time being using mostly Twitter (but who knows what was going on in their DMs), are currently keen to explore Instagram, and their activities, strong political statements, or—last but not least—mutual interactions, clearly show that it has become another world-reach platform they are now using for their communications, not to mention its huge multimedia capabilities that they are eager to use. By the way—I am really curious to see how the world leaders will use IGTV in years to come. So far, they’ve been rather shy—only 15% published their first videos.

Twiplomacy Politics
Twiplomacy/ Burston-Marsteller

Are there any lessons we can learn from world leaders in this area? Any conclusions to be drawn for the business, for our clients, for ourselves? Definitely yes—even the mere fact we can find some very personal pictures and videos on world leaders’ Instagram accounts. Even compared to what has already been published on Twitter—it’s a breakthrough. Especially considering Instagram Stories where we can see politicians without their ties (or jackets). Or that a “casual selfie” taken on a sports or cultural event is OK, regardless of what kind of leader you are. That one picture is worth a thousand words and the image knows no boundaries, is universal and understandable for all recipients across the globe (a real treasure for a politician). Or just that you can have a lot of sense of humor even regarding your country’s greatest largest national treasures—just like Erna Solberg, Norway’s Prime Minister.

And what’s the meaning of the numbers in the heading? 92 heads of states (crowned, elected in democratic elections or ruling authoritarian regimes), 48 heads of governments and 36 ministers of foreign affairs, running their personal accounts on Instagram, using their own names.

*About the study

World Leaders on Instagram is BCW’s latest research into how world leaders, governments and international organizations communicate via social media. The research builds upon BCW’s highly acclaimed annual Twiplomacy study, which is now in its sixth year. In 2016, the Twiplomacy study was expanded to cover all key social media platforms and has massively enhanced BCW’s digital reputation worldwide. For more information, visit www.twiplomacy.com.