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
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
’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
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
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
’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,’
Change at the UN is likely to prove more evolutionary than
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.’