In March 2021, the University of Aberdeen announced that it was to return a Benin Bronze – a sculpture looted by British soldiers in Nigeria in one of the most notorious examples of the pillaging of cultural treasures associated with 19th century European colonial expansion.
Thousands of metal and ivory sculptures and carvings were looted by British forces in 1897 during the destruction of Benin City in present-day Nigeria by a British military expedition. Over the last 40 years there have been growing calls for the return of such items, which have become symbols of injustice.
The University of Aberdeen instigated a discussion with representatives of the Nigerian Federal Government, the National Museums and Monuments Commission of Nigeria, the Edo State Government and the Royal Court of the Oba of Benin in 2020, which has now led to it becoming the first institution to agree to the full repatriation from a museum of a Benin Bronze.
The news received international press attention, with articles published in The Guardian, The Washington Post and many more.
In July 2021, Jenny Downes, Public Programme and Exhibitions Manager at the University of Aberdeen (@uoacollections) shared her experience of coordinating their social media announcement of the news with the group. Jenny discussed the aims of the social media content surrounding the announcement, as well as how she and her team prepared for international attention and potential backlash to this politically-charged news story.
Jenny is part of a team which shares content from the Aberdeen Uni Museums and Special Collections account, which has a relatively small (around 3,000) but loyal following. Their relationship with the main university social media account is usually largely separate, but on this occasion the story was announced with a video on the main University of Aberdeen channels (retweeted by the Collections account) followed by a series of in-depth threads released on the Collections account.
Jenny’s suggestions for coordinating a big social media announcement include:
Try to anticipate questions you’ll receive about your specific circumstances (“what will happen to the artefact when it leaves the museum”) as well as the topic in general (“what’s the museum’s stance on repatriation”). Try looking at the comments generated by similar stories and use existing materials (such as official documents or your repatriation policy/procedure) to address them so you’re not starting from scratch. The team initially prepped 16 very detailed answers with examples for the press release, but it also came in handy for comments on social media.
Start Prepping ASAP
Something like this requires a lot more work than you might expect (months rather than days). Social media posts, FAQs and other resources likely need to be reviewed by several stakeholders, such as curators and communications teams. Even if it’s difficult to predict what kind of content you’ll need, rough ideas and outlines will help.
Plan for Hostile Attention
With some staff in the sector being hounded by trolls and even receiving death threats because of similar stories, it’s important to be prepared. The goal isn’t to alarm your team or make them afraid to speak their mind, but you need to put measures in place to protect them. For example, they identified who to report dubious content to, ensured that they report any abusive messages to their line managers, and made it clear that staff should contact university security if they receive any threats. If your organisation has an anti-terrorism document, this is a great place to start. If you feel a bit exposed before the story is released (which is normal), speak to your line manager about it. And don’t be afraid to delete offensive comments (which is not the same as “comments you disagree with”).
Set Up an ‘Air Traffic Control Centre’
The team had a chat channel on Microsoft Teams which acted as a communications centre where everyone involved in the release could share information. It meant that they could see and comment on all draft posts, pass along questions to get answers and message people in real time (quicker than over email).
Don’t Shy Away from Longer Content
Give extra historical background and go into detail using threads (after going through several rounds of editing). These proved to be very popular in the afternoon following the morning announcement.
Be On High Alert
Embargos can be difficult to maintain, so keep an eye on platforms or websites where the story might have been accidentally released early. If this happens, get in touch right away and the account or website will probably remove it. Make sure you watch all of your settings very carefully as well (for example, public vs private settings on YouTube videos), to avoid accidentally publishing content prematurely. If you’re lucky, only a handful of people will have seen it by the time you remove it.
Watch Your Tone
Don’t be self-congratulatory. You don’t deserve a medal for doing the right thing.
Listen and Respond
If you don’t have the capacity to respond to every question or comment, note down the most popular ones and take the time to prepare thoughtful replies. In this case, people were asking if the artefact (the ‘Head of an Oba’) would be safe in Nigeria and if it was fake.
For the first question, the team had already planned a thread about what would happen to it in Nigeria, but then changed the order and put the “what are the plans for it next” content first following the initial news and history announcements. This thread highlighted exciting plans for a new museum in Benin City, and headed off a discussion that could propagate colonialist assumptions about who is or isn’t ‘allowed’ to look after cultural heritage. They also wanted to make it clear that the repatriation was unconditional (in other words, the University would not be involved in decisions about what is done with the artefact after its return).
For the second question, they covered the object’s provenance, details such as marks on the artefact (meaning it would be difficult to fake) and stressed the partnership with Nigerian institutions who did not doubt its authenticity. Jenny acknowledged that there’s nothing they could do if people firmly believed the artefact to be a fake, but they wanted to give enough information to reassure others.
Social media is very “in the moment”, but don’t feel pressured to answer everything instantly. A good answer is always better than a quick one. Make sure the people who have the specialist knowledge that you need know what’s happening with the release and are available (if possible) so they can help.
Consider Your Audience
Are you writing for people who already agree with you? Do you want to convince critics? How? It helps to be genuinely open for debate on the day of the release, but Facebook and Twitter are adversarial platforms that foster hostile discussions which can be unproductive. Try to phrase your content around universal values that would appeal to everyone, such as honestly and fairness.
Don’t Forget About Internal Comms
Make sure your colleagues know what’s happening. The team talked to everyone who usually contributes to the social media account to ensure that it would be kept quiet that day except for the main story. For the following week, they also checked the social media posts to make sure that they would complement the story rather than boost controversy.
Keep the Ball Rolling, But Know When to Stop
Your story may pick up steam, so don’t sign off once you’ve hit “publish” the first time. In fact, you should probably clear your entire schedule for the first day. The Head of Museums was doing interviews from dawn to dusk which Jenny’s team continued to share on social media and led to more attention. When the news died down relatively quickly (after a couple of days), they let social media content slow down as well instead of trying to draw the story out.
Anything else? It’s normal to feel nervous the night before. Hold your nerve. And good luck! If you have any questions, you can contact Jenny.
Header photo courtesy of University of Aberdeen