SDG Media Zone Co-Creator Ranks Top 3 on UN Social 500 Leaderboard

Fernández de Córdova speaking to media professionals at the SDG Media Zone in the United Nations, New York. Image credit: Simone Dominique.


The UN Social 500 is a success tracking program which recognizes United Nations staff and contractors who use their personal social media accounts to share the work of the UN. In March 2017, the gamified leaderboard experienced a surprising shakeup. Sergio Fernández de Córdova, Chairman of the PVBLIC Foundation and member of the Private Sector Advisory Group of the SDG-FUND at the United Nations entered in 3rd place.

Fernández de Córdova is the force behind the Digital Media Zone at global powerhouses such as the United Nations and the World Bank, in which thousands of journalists, bloggers, and media professionals sit with Heads of State and thought leaders to carry a remarkable, unfiltered, change-making voice out to the public.

Since most new Players enter the UN Social 500 outside the top 100 position and then slowly work their way up, we reached out to Fernández de Córdova to find out how his advertising background brought him to the United Nations, and to see if his hybrid insight could benefit UN Social 500 Players and beyond.

In this interview transcript, Fernández de Córdova speaks with UN Social 500 administrator Simone Dominique and together they cover:

  • the genesis of Fernández de Córdova’s work connecting senior UN officials with top journalists via Digital Media Zones,a
  • communicating the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly among young people to inspire new change makers,b
  • and Fernández de Córdova’s tips on how to use social media well to develop a personal brand and engaged audience.c

Dominique: So, at the top of the United Nations Social 500 we [had] Helen Clark who [was] the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and the former Prime Minister of New Zealand. And then Melissa Fleming, Head of Communications and Chief Spokesperson for the United High Commissioner for Refugees. And then Sergio, who came in from nowhere!

Fernández de Córdova: [laughter]

Dominique: So that’s what we’re going to do with this is, we’re going to actually educate your peers on how they can beat you. Any little bit that can help other people will be tremendous.

Fernández de Córdova: That’s excellent. A, from the perspective of what we do at Pvblic and B, what we do with the SDG Media Zone, I think this fits in perfectly with what you’re doing and because it’s that element of gamification through your social networks. We help organizations measure what their audience cares about as it relates to the SDGs and then we take a look at the data backbone so that they can better service their clients, their customers, their donor base, [and] their volunteers.

If you ask any organization leader if they understand their audience – most of the times, they can’t answer that question. They can tell you who their donors are, but they don’t know who is watching them. They don’t know how to engage their audience. Think about it, in the world of impact, that we all exist in, how many people stop and ask you what you care about?

Dominique: Nobody. I ask everybody but nobody asks me. [Laughter]

Fernández de Córdova: There you go! Exactly! And how do you change the paradigm? How do you evolve the conversation? You actually take a minute to ask, right? A global conversation such as the one driven by the UN around the Sustainable Development Goals needs to be brought down to a human level. You have to educate people to further engage them. I’m happy and thankful that you include me in this, and that I was able to unknowingly come in [for the] first time in third [place]. Every step of the conversation is an opportunity, little pieces that are important to engage others.

Dominique: Okay, great! So I am going to start with a standard question that we ask in the UN Social 500 interviews. Who are you and what do you do with the United Nations?

Fernández de Córdova: My name is Sergio Fernández de Córdova. I am the chairman of the PVBLIC Foundation. PVBLIC Foundation is an organization that I built and it is dedicated to connecting media and technology with social impact.

Image credit: Perry Bindelglass.


Looking backwards, I have dedicated my life to media; everything that I’ve done starting from building a newspaper, building a billboard business, a bunch of media companies and then finally PVBLIC. I realized that everyday media tells us what to do, what to wear, where to travel, what’s cool, what’s not – and it dawned on me, many years ago, when I was at the peak of my billboard business, that we had this enormous amount of power, not to be thought of as power but influence.

If we are building, thru media & advertising influence, 100 billion dollar organizations, how do we utilize that influence for impact? How do we use media & technology as a currency to help those that don’t have the ability to market themselves or tell their stories? And you align that same power of influence but activate it for good.

I became really passionate about it. I needed to build a foundation that focuses on media for impact. So in March of 2012, I delivered a speech at TedX on Wall Street. They wanted me to speak about currency, and I said that I will do it, only if it has something that I believe in, and I believe in “media as a currency for social impact”.

At that moment, I had no foundation, no name, no idea, it was an instinct – we are going to do this. And it was scary because my vision was bigger than I could have imagined.

2 years later we launched the Media for Social Impact Summit. The idea was that we would bring together the UN and media & advertising executives, nobody else. All of the media & advertising executives who [were] driving the conversation from creative, to the marketing, to the execution, to the media operators using their advertising space to promote all of this. It’s the life cycle, the ecosystem of how media gets created and the way how media gets disseminated and distributed.

My idea was to have a hundred key executives meet with the United Nations. We had 300 people show up. Some of the top C-suite executives in the world [attended]. What we [said] was, “Let’s just bring everybody together, and show them campaigns and executions that have been done by their peers and how those have impacted people’s lives and [let’s] humanize the conversation.”

[We] showed them that, we all have the ability to impact lives with our media resources, you don’t have to wait to retire, but you can utilize the firepower that you have within your organization and catalyze change around the world. You’re creating a billion-dollar brand, but [you can] also engage your employees, your staff, your partners and clients in a way that’s socially responsible and impactful. We could really start a long term focused conversation, start to [bring about] change, with each client and campaign.

[At the time, the UN had] the [Millennium Development Goals] MDGs. I couldn’t relate to them; [they were] not relatable to my generation; I didn’t know how to engage. I didn’t know what I could do.

But then the vision became really clear to me – it came out of Rio+20, where I was a speaker talking about the power of media to engage future generations, I was sandwiched between Richard Branson and Ted Turner. It was clear to me that the new agenda had to include everybody to have a seat at the table.

To me, it was a light that never got fire, and it was lit at that moment. It will never go off because now I know how to engage. I felt like I could have a seat at the table, and I’m going to do everything in my power to bring every person in the media world together so that we can actually start the change and drive the conversation and that’s how PVBLIC Foundation started to develop and grow.

Dominique: What about the Media Zone, tell me more about it?

Fernández de Córdova: The SDG Media Zone was born from the idea brought to us by Dan Thomas [the ‎Director of Communications & Spokesperson for the President of the UN General Assembly]. Dan came to us 2 years ago and said something along the lines of, “Can you please figure out how we can scale the conversation around social media, around UN issues”, “we are having a hard time educating next generation leaders about what the political leaders who are having these high-level meetings [are saying] and then translating that into something conversational and shareable.”

[So] we launched the Digital Media Zone. And then we rebranded it to the SDG Media Zone when we partnered up with the DPI (UN Department of Public Information), OPGA (office of the UN President of the General Assembly) and the Office of the Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Climate Change last year for the UN General Assembly.

We have delivered over ten global events up to this day with many scheduled for years to come. To me, it’s incredible. I have nothing but smiles from ear to ear because we are just getting started.

Fernández de Córdova: Sorry, that should have been a 1-minute answer.

Dominique: [laughter] That’s okay. It’s good stuff. I’ll transcribe all of it.

The SDG Media Zone at the United Nations brings together Heads of State, Senior UN Officials and change makers with media professionals. Each event is live streamed on UN Web TV. For the United Nations’ 71st Assembly in New York, the hashtag #SDGLive reached 30 million people in 30 countries. Image credit: Simone Dominique.

Her Royal Highness Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan at the SDG Media Zone at the United Nations in New York. Image credit: Simone Dominique.

SDG Media Zone at the United Nations in New York. Journalists and bloggers attended the event and watched live on UN Web TV. Image credit: Simone Dominique.

NASA astronauts Anousheh Ansari and Ron Garan share a unique perspective about what nations can accomplish when they collaborate. SDG Media Zone, United Nations in New York. Image credit: Simone Dominique.


Dominique: Okay. What social media channels do you focus on?

Fernández de Córdova: We try to focus on all of them. As many as we can. For the most part, we are using Periscope, Facebook Live, Instagram Live, anything that we can actually engage people on the spot, giving them the feeling that they’re there.

The SDG Media Zone was able to reach and engage global audiences, give them access to information, and let them be a part of the conversation, live. And even though, yes, you’re not going to have millions and millions of people watching, you know, it’s sort of about the tipping point right, where, if you allow somebody in Egypt to just be able to see this live on their computer you know you’ll just engage and maybe help create another change maker.

L to R: HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco, Ms. Karolina Skog (Minister for Environment, Sweden), Irina Georgieva Bokova (Director-General of UNESCO), H.E. Mr. Peter Thomson (President of the United Nations General Assembly), Erik Solheim (Executive Director, UN Environment Programme), and Thomas Moore (Science Editor, Sky News and Sky Ocean Rescue Campaign).The SDG Media Zone during the Ocean Conference at the United Nations in New York. Photo credit: Pvblic Foundation.


That element of just transferring information around the world. Thank God to social media, where half the world is under 32 and a large majority of [youth] are in Africa and Asia. We need to engage them through first utilizing the social media channels, then the networks that they use.

We are not using traditional media anymore. We are broadcasting through UN Web TV and radio ads what they call non-traditional media channels. We’re doing that because the content lives on the UNTV amongst other portals & website forever and that co-branding really allows the scale and reach to people by giving them access to events while not being there physically.

We make sure that we cover real international events. Everyone that we cover reaches [an] audience in at least 30 or 40 countries. This is not about a Western way of looking at media. It’s about a next-generational access to information, how they view this information, and how we democratize how they view this information.

So it’s YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, tweeting. It’s a convergence of all these different pieces and then we go out and we bring in the aggregators. Why? Because when we work with networks of leaders, then all of a sudden we can reach 200 countries immediately through their networks because this is what they do every day to communicate with each other.

All we do is about SDG 17 – partnerships. We are bringing all of these networks that already exist. I don’t want to reinvent the highway; I want to make it faster. It’s not just the social media, it’s also grabbing the networks of networks who have already built the infrastructure.

Fernández de Córdova and Sir Richard Branson at the SDG Media Zone at the Ocean Conference, United Nations, NY. Image credit: Pvblic Foundation.


Fernández de Córdova and President Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr (Republic of Palau) at the SDG Media Zone for the Ocean Conference, United Nations, NY. Image credit: Pvblic Foundation.


Dominique: Who are these aggregators?

Fernández de Córdova: The best example is the youth groups. There are many different organizations that are focused on youth leadership. We work very closely with the Youth Envoy, and within that group, we have 100 different global points of contact. There is UN Habitat Youth. There is JCI, there is AIESEC, as quick examples. These groups are massive organizations that do not get the credit they deserve for the reach and scale they provide. That’s what we do, we work with these groups and we engage them and bring them into the conversation then also utilize their global reach, social media networks to activate their communities.

Dominique: Thank you. The next question is at the individual level. Regarding other players on the UN Social 500, you have a superb Klout score, there are Players with lower scores. What advice would you give an individual who doesn’t have all of your companies, who doesn’t have all of what you have right behind them, how can that person improve his/her score? What’s the fastest thing to do at a very organic level?

Fernández de Córdova: My Klout score and LinkedIn, if you will, [are] all predicated on Sergio, not on what my foundation does. My foundation has its own profile. The answer to that question is really just communicating to the people, being active. When you are out in the public realm and you become a leader, people are watching. And people want to engage. It’s not about having a million followers, it’s about how you engage.

The one thing that we are doing a lot with the foundation is engaging these micro-influencers. These are people who have over 10,000 and under 100,000 followers. Anybody who has over 100,000 followers, this means that people are just watching. They are not engaging, versus if you have a smaller niche audience you have a lot more engagement, they are reading, they are responding, they are engaging in the conversation.

The UN historically has been closed door, [that is] don’t communicate any of your opinions to the public. At the end of the day, you are all humans and you are allowed to communicate, you don’t have to put UN initiatives out there that are confidential, but you can talk about what drives you. Why are you working at the UN, what makes YOU, you? And WHY are you doing what you are doing? One of the things when I started my foundation, the one thing that I always sit down and ask folks at the UN, I ask, why do you do what you do? Once I understand the why, everything becomes more relevant.

Dominique: [Dog barks in the background].

Fernández de Córdova: And in social media, transparency is so important. People want to know who you are. That you have a life. That you have a dog. That you care about your kids. That you love to travel. Don’t just push your agenda. Don’t have a social media profile to say, “You know, I’m pro-unity, or I am pro-gender equality, or I am pro-education.” We get it. We know that. Talk to us about you. And that element people are becoming more and more passionate about, reading and learning and educating themselves. Just using you as an example, you have a dog, I love dogs,

Dominique: [laughter]

Fernández de Córdova: I used to have a boxer. Now all of a sudden you break down barriers. Like you are a dog person, we are going to be friends. When you start to be human, more people engage. A lot of people use social media to position their profile life.

Hey, on LinkedIn, I keep things more professional, but for me, it’s all about what I believe in. I believe in data, privacy, social impact, corporate governance, I believe that disruption is dead. I believe that government and the public sector needs to step up and engage in partnerships, and collaboration, and the evolution of society, and all of these different things that I care about.

And on LinkedIn, I never knew how many people really knew or cared about what I said. I get thousands of views on my posts and I get private comments all the time. And it’s just kind of cool.

And to be honest with you, my strategy is to always speak my mind. And I do a lot of stuff because I am crazy and because I can; because I believe, I live it. I am not just a weekend warrior or a 9 to 5-er. I live the life that I designed. If I can educate others and inspire others, I hope I do. It’s so inspiring when you meet somebody that you have impacted. People on the UN Social 500 have the ability to impact people’s lives. They are so fortunate to be there and to use that to help drive humanity forward.

Dominique: So when you have thousands of views and people write to you, are you engaging with everybody who writes to you or just some?

Fernández de Córdova: I have a disease: I feel like I have to! I was on Camilo on CNN, and I had 1,000 people who responded [via] Twitter, Facebook, [and] LinkedIn. I felt a need to respond. It took me a month. And hours of responding. And some of the people responded and said, “I never thought you would respond.” I said, “You took the time to reach out and give me your opinion and I value that.” Alyssa, my girlfriend said, “You are up to 4 am responding to people, are you nuts?”

I am compelled to do it because I know what it was like when there was no social media and I was trying to reach out to people and how it was when people didn’t even respond or engage.

I actually went back to Camilo and sent him a text, I said that I have to say, “Thank you to you.” Because people were saying, “Bless you and keep doing what you are doing. You are Latino and you are representing us.” And when you read these things, how could you not respond?

Dominique: That’s nice.

Dominique: [Pause, writing] Thank you. Okay, let’s continue with these organic tips for UN Players. What advice or tools do you recommend?

Fernández de Córdova: Klout is an amazing tool and the Social 500 already uses that one. It’s putting together a media strategy for yourself. And the media strategy is the same way that you brush your teeth, once you make yourself public it’s a job. Create a strategy for the next 6 months. Do a blog posting–I do one every 3 weeks. Really try to put a strategy together.

I have friends who are incredibly well versed in the social media space and they do, like, 3 tweets a day, like morning, noon and evening. They do 2 Instagram postings a day and they do LinkedIn and a Facebook post, and they push Instagram to Facebook and then they push LinkedIn into Twitter.

My key is that whatever I push out to LinkedIn goes out to Twitter. Whatever I push out on Facebook goes out to Twitter. Whatever I push out on Instagram goes out to FB, Tumblr, and then gets placed in Flickr. I use the power of all of the platforms… and Google Plus.

The other huge tip is to utilize platforms whose entire DNA is around your success. What does that mean? LinkedIn is an organization that is as good as its members. Facebook is a closed organization. They don’t go live on the web. LinkedIn [has] an element of your profile, [where] the more [information] you push out, the more you become a searchable item, the more money they make from you. So much about your data, but hey, it helps grow your profile.

And the more you utilize LinkedIn and all of these platforms that basically bank their success on their writers, it helps. LinkedIn has a phenomenal SEO platform. Work with organizations that have this SEO backbone. Because then they are working for you. They are giving you $15,000 a month in value. LinkedIn groups are good, but they still sit in a silo. You want to start to push that stuff out to the broader LinkedIn audience.

I am connected to 6,000 people. Out of those 6,000, I think, like, 4,500 are C-suite. And I make sure that I am only connecting to people that I meet or Social Impact leaders that I want to get to know, to people that I want to stay connected with and to people who are on the same journey. Those are the people that I want to be reading about. And those are the people that I want to be reading about me.

Then there is the broader network which I see on the ‘Who Views Your Profile’, where I show up on searches, [they] are folks who just find me through search. Between Google Plus and LinkedIn, you have a machine under your belt. Both massive machines.

Dominique: What about Twitter?

Fernández de Córdova: I was speaking at the American Association of Advertising Agencies at their Transformation and ReSolve and we brought in the president of the UN General Assembly to give a keynote, he did it by video of course, about the importance of engagement of media and agencies and creative executions. We had Twitter there as one of the partners and one of the amazing facts that Twitter gave us was that 82% of the world’s leaders are on Twitter.

Twitter is an incredible communications tool and a backbone of information to push out, talk to your audience, [and] engage. When I post on Facebook, I make sure that the first 140 characters are something that is ‘tweetable’, and then I put the rest of my content. And the same with LinkedIn, the first 140 characters are tweetable so that it is not a destroyed sentence when it pushes out to Twitter. Yes, Twitter is another phenomenal tool to really engage audiences and push information.

Dominique: Thank you. You add an extra dimension because you do a lot of public speaking. You are not just online, you are out in front of audiences. Do you see that playing into a Klout score?

Fernández de Córdova: Yes, it does, because as you do public speaking you have to let people know how to follow you, how to engage with you, how to keep connected. You are like a tumbleweed. Every time you speak it’s an opportunity to engage and connect with others. Technology is amazing, but there is no greater element than the human element of just showing up and that’s why I do it. I have traveled to over 75 countries. I try to visit 3 new countries a year. That’s also how I make my decisions on where I go to speak, explore new cultures and engage communities. I really push myself. And when I am there I am really trying to see how I can connect. I look at each trip and speaking opportunity as a currency. Every element of what you do in the public realm is a currency. And if you aren’t using the currency you are going backwards.

Dominique: Thank you for sharing.