International Politics: Can new spokesman restore the UN image? - Fred Eckhard, tipped to become spokesman for the new UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, said he will deal only in facts, but some believe the UN needs good PR to prove its effectiveness

Nobody, except perhaps its 50,000 employees, is likely to contradict a description of the United Nations which includes the words, ’lumbering’, ’super bureaucracy’ and ’waste’. But you’ll get many contradictory statements if you ask UN watchers to sum up the performance of Sylvana Foa, spokesperson to the ex-secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Foa, a former foreign editor at United Press International and latterly spokesperson for the UN High Commission for Refugees, was in post for a matter of months, brought in to mastermind Boutros-Ghali’s re-election campaign. When the US torpedoed that bid, Foa quit.

Nobody, except perhaps its 50,000 employees, is likely to

contradict a description of the United Nations which includes the words,

’lumbering’, ’super bureaucracy’ and ’waste’. But you’ll get many

contradictory statements if you ask UN watchers to sum up the

performance of Sylvana Foa, spokesperson to the ex-secretary-general

Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Foa, a former foreign editor at United Press

International and latterly spokesperson for the UN High Commission for

Refugees, was in post for a matter of months, brought in to mastermind

Boutros-Ghali’s re-election campaign. When the US torpedoed that bid,

Foa quit.



She had to. Foa had allied herself umbilically to her boss, becoming not

so much a mouthpiece, as a proactive partner. At a time when the UN

needs all the positive press it can get, many of those who cover its

activities, particularly in the US, believe her passionate and impulsive

style gave the organisation the accessibility and human face it has

craved for the past 50 years.



’We pretty much do our own thing,’ says Tina Jorgensen, senior public

affairs officer at the UN information centre in London. ’But we

certainly noticed the effect Sylvana had in generating positive coverage

of the organisation.’



One Reuters UN correspondent says of Foa: ’She was unorthodox and lively

with a great respect for deadlines and a proactive style that endeared

her to us.’



But when Foa used UN resources to run the campaign for Boutros-Ghali’s

re-election, issuing press releases with cheeky edited soundbites of

Clinton praising the secretary-general, after the President had already

announced he was vetoing Boutros-Ghali’s second term, it was deemed by

many to be a step too far.



Foa’s style was certainly divisive. Brian Hanrahan, the BBC’s diplomatic

correspondent, believes she was a great asset. ’Boutros-Ghali tended to

speak in Arabic or French, so having an English speaker with such a

forthright style meant that technically she did it all for you. The

amount of attention the UN won during her tenure was down to her

colourful style.’



The Financial Times’ foreign affairs editor Edward Mortimer says: ’I

think Foa was a disaster, her polemical style got people’s backs up too

often,’ he says. But that was exactly what Justin Forsyth, director of

Oxfam International in Washington, found refreshing. ’Boutros-Ghali was

a remote figure and it was difficult to know what he was thinking. When

Sylvana came along, she quickly established herself as the moral voice

of the UN, saying what many people felt and that’s an important part of

the UN’s advocacy role. She moved debates along by making impassioned

statements.’



Fred Eckhard, currently acting spokesman to the new UN secretary-general

Kofi Annan and the man most likely to step into Foa’s shoes, is unlikely

to be caught making an impasssioned statement. In fact he has gone out

of his way to make it clear his style will not ape Foa’s. ’It will be

very tied to the facts and to the secretary-general. A spokesman cannot

retain credibility with the press if he is always doing PR and spinning

facts,’ he told PR Week (10 January 1997). Eckhard has been on the UN

staff for 12 years and before that spent 12 years at the United Nations

Association of the USA. Like Annan, who has worked at the UN his entire

career, he knows the organisation inside out. Those who know Eckhard,

say he is a dry, diplomatic and very experienced performer, who will

have no trouble winning the confidence of reporters.



But if Eckhard is loathe to develop the PR role which Foa seems to have

delighted in, Sir Laurence Martin, former director of the Royal

Institute of International Affairs, foresees a gap in UN media strategy.

’The UN has a major PR problem, because post-Somalia and Yugoslavia,

it’s seen as ineffective and in the US particularly, it’s regarded as

spendthrift and badly managed.’



The challenges facing the UN would test the abilities of any PR

person.



All but bankrupt due to the American Congress’ refusal to honour its

dollars 1.8 billion debt, the UN has to persuade the Cold War-ish right

wingers that management improvements are being made and the US line is

the one being towed. Meanwhile to those outside Capitol Hill, that same

representative must persuade member nations that Annan is politically

independent and not an American puppet. Can it be done? The pairing of

such experienced UN insiders as Annan and Eckhard doesn’t fill Martin

with confidence.



’It’s not my instinctive formula to improve things. Unlike

Boutros-Ghali, Annan has no independent political standing, he’s worked

in the UN for 30 years,’ he says. But Martin believes that if his

spokesman can emphasise an independent voice of sorts, it may alleviate

the problem.



Michael Keating, director of charity PR agency Media Natura, was

seconded to the UN humanitarian office in Afghanistan last year and has

worked with Eckhard on many occasions. He has confidence in Eckhard’s

ability to steer the UN’s media strategy. ’He needs to support the

secretary-general by coming up with powerful arguments to persuade the

great global middle classes that the UN is relevant to them. But he also

needs to have an overview.’ In the past, says Keating, the

ex-journalists who’ve filled the chief spokesman’s boots have tended to

make poor strategists. Eckhard, he believes, will use PR in its proper

place, as an essential management tool. ’Good media skills could turbo

charge the UN,’ he says. Brian Hanrahan agrees. ’Fred Eckhard is

certainly a quieter operator than Sylvana, but Annan uses English as his

base language, so the need for a high-profile spokesperson is less

marked. I know from experience that Fred is good at long-term strategy

and making sure we know which way the train is going.’



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