MEDIA RELATIONS: UN media guidelines are only the first step - While the UN has bridged part of its gap with the press in its first-ever media guidelines, Claire Atkinson finds out that it still has a long way to go

The United Nations made a historic move last week, unveiling the first-ever set of written guidelines for dealing with the media. The rules, aimed at improving the flow of information both in and out of the organization, now allow all staff to talk to the press. The UN even suggests that, for all but the most sensitive of issues, staff should go on the record.

The United Nations made a historic move last week, unveiling the first-ever set of written guidelines for dealing with the media. The rules, aimed at improving the flow of information both in and out of the organization, now allow all staff to talk to the press. The UN even suggests that, for all but the most sensitive of issues, staff should go on the record.

The United Nations made a historic move last week, unveiling the

first-ever set of written guidelines for dealing with the media. The

rules, aimed at improving the flow of information both in and out of the

organization, now allow all staff to talk to the press. The UN even

suggests that, for all but the most sensitive of issues, staff should go

on the record.



While the guidelines have been welcomed by reporters, the UN is the

first to admit that it has a long way to go before public perception of

the organization is improved.



The new ground rules originated almost four years ago under

Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the former head of peacekeeping

operations. Annan and his two press aides, Sashi Tharoor and Fred

Eckhard, had tried to push through an open media policy under former

Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, but they were twice

rejected.



When Annan came to power, he brought along a more open attitude to the

press, Tharoor says. The act of writing down what before had been done

verbally helped to bring about a change of attitude. ’It wasn’t people

that were at fault, it was the culture,’ says Tharoor.



The new guidelines delineate who is responsible for commenting on the

organization. They insist that personnel must not presume or pretend to

speak for the secretary general and that sensitive issues should be

dealt with by either Eckhard, Annan’s spokesman, or Tharoor, who serves

as director of communications and special projects.



Journalistic jargon crash course



The rules also hint at the kind of mistakes that had been made in the

past. Point 11 reads: ’It is unwise to tell one journalist what another

is working on.’ Another rule delves into journalistic jargon such as ’on

the record’ - everything I say can be attributed to me; ’not for

attribution’ - don’t attribute this to me by name, but rather to a UN

official; and ’on deep background’ - use my ideas but not my words,

don’t attribute anyone.



The three men have been forging a campaign to improve communications

both internally and externally as the first steps toward improving the

UN’s image in the US. They want each department to designate a

spokesperson to speak on sensitive issues. But like many large

organizations, theory and practice are a long way apart.



Calls made by PRWeek to a handful of mid-level staff demonstrated that

many still fear being quoted. A 20-minute conversation with one person

about the new openness policy ended with the comment, ’that’s all off

the record, of course.’ Another person in media accreditation had never

even heard of communications director Tharoor.



Barbara Crosette, UN bureau chief at The New York Times, says part of

the problem is cultural. The UN is comprised of people from 185

countries, many of whom come from developing countries without a concept

of a free press.



Crosette says if an overseas reporter were sent to New York to cover the

UN, there would be no obvious starting point for getting

information.



’The system drives me crazy. It is hard to know who to talk to, you

don’t get any response at the UN’s main number ... it is virtually

impossible.’



Although Eckhard and Tharoor are endlessly patient with reporters,

according to Crosette, there are too few people willing to be proactive

about the UN’s work. ’If you look at the demand for talking heads today,

there is a great wealth of people and knowledge at the UN. Kofi Annan is

a great salesman, but they need to put some (more) faces on the

organization.’



But Tharoor says that the UN does seek to get its message out. ’I’ve got

to tell you the US media is not that interested. The US media doesn’t

want anyone except Kofi Annan.’ While Tharoor has appeared on at least

20 international TV shows, he has only appeared on one US show, The News

Hour with Jim Lehrer.



Ruder Finn chairman/CEO David Finn agrees: ’We analyzed 365 days of The

New York Times coverage and there were 3,000 stories about the UN, but

it seems the message is not getting through.’



Finn is a close adviser to Annan on communications strategy. He is also

mulling the feasibility of a MASH-like TV sitcom or film, set in the

UN.



’What is needed is some kind of breakthrough in communications. It was

only when Schindler’s List came out that attitudes to the Holocaust

changed,’ he claims.



For an organization the size of the UN, it is surprising how little the

PR community is involved. But there is a whole range of agencies helping

to improve its image. In addition to the Ted Turner-financed Better

World Campaign, which aims to promote the work of the UN, the privately

funded United Nations Association of the USA (UNAUSA) helps the UN think

strategically about its press relations.



Evolution not revolution



Jeffrey Laurenti, executive director of policy studies at UNAUSA,

advised the UN on its press relations during the Kosovo crisis. Although

he believes that Washington’s attitude toward the UN warmed as the war

went on, UNAUSA was disappointed that the UN did not heed its advice to

brief the media first, rather than explaining the war to Kosovars. ’The

feeling at the UN is that manipulation of the press is distasteful,’

says Laurenti.



Change at the UN is likely to prove more evolutionary than

revolutionary.



But Tharoor is trying his best to fill the gaps. He is hoping to find a

budget to hire individual PR consultants to assist in media training

senior executives for TV appearances. The new guidelines also establish

a process for reporters to log complaints, and Tharoor challenges the

media to tell him what’s wrong: ’I invite the media to call me and see

if things can’t be turned around.’



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