Comms head at the UN in running to succeed Annan

NEW YORK: Shashi Tharoor, the United Nations' current undersecretary general for communications and public information, is a top contender to succeed Secretary General Kofi Annan. If elected, he will be the first communicator in the role.

NEW YORK: Shashi Tharoor, the United Nations' current undersecretary general for communications and public information, is a top contender to succeed Secretary General Kofi Annan. If elected, he will be the first communicator in the role.


Tharoor, from India, has spent his entire career with the UN, beginning in operations working with refugees and on peacekeeping missions in such places as Singapore and the former Yugoslavia.

In 1997, he became Annan's executive assistant and later director of communications and special projects in Annan's office. His current post was created in 2002.

Tharoor instituted key changes in the UN's communications structure to increase transparency. Among the changes he made was authorizing UN experts to speak to the press about their areas of competence, a significant change for the formerly controlled environment.

"If the media called, it was your job to cooperate with them," he said.

He placed emphasis on making sure that commentators focused on areas of expertise.

"We used to say that a window washer could speak to the press about washing windows, but not about what he sees through them," he said.

The promotion to his current role brought with it oversight of some 700 communications officers. He undertook a thorough review of the operation, with help from outside consultants that worked on a pro bono basis.

"One thing I argued was that our work needs to be attuned to the central work of the UN," he said.

It is that expertise in both communications and operations make him a formidable candidate, Tharoor said.

"The UN cannot afford to have a Secretary General who isn't comfortable in front of a camera or microphone," he added. "We need to project the image of the organization, and it needs to be sold to the public at large."

Tharoor also closed some of the organization's offices and introduced a culture of evaluation with annual reviews tied into performance. His measurement efforts have been hailed by the internal inspector general's office.

Tharoor is also a writer and novelist, having written everything from a book on Indian foreign policy to novels. One, titled Show Business, was made into a film called Bollywood.

Harold Burson, chairman of Burson-Marsteller and a friend of Tharoor, has observed the changes he has made to the UN's communications strategy.

"He has a real knowledge of what the UN is all about in action," Burson said. "That is something that very few PR or communications people bring to the job."

Annan's term ends December 31, with elections set for this year. A recent "straw poll" of the UN Security Council had Tharoor as the second-most favored candidate.

 

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