On the wall of Fred Eckhard’s office on the 38th floor of the United Nations is a photocopied press clipping about the British Prime Minister’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell. The piece castigates Campbell for excessive control of the media and unorthodox use of spin.
On the wall of Fred Eckhard’s office on the 38th floor of the
United Nations is a photocopied press clipping about the British Prime
Minister’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell. The piece castigates
Campbell for excessive control of the media and unorthodox use of
Though Eckhard, the spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Kofi
Annan, is too diplomatic to say so, it is a reminder of what can go
wrong when you’re in the spotlight more often than your boss.
As one of a handful of senior advisors to Annan, Eckhard wields
considerable influence with the world’s press. He speaks to
correspondents from outlets as diverse as the Chinese State news wire
Xinhua to Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat. This select group of reporters
attends Eckhard’s noon briefings to pick up news of UN positions on
everything from war to humanitarian missions. The noon briefing is said
to be one of the few things that start on time at the UN.
Commenting on his own role as an influential communicator, Eckhard says,
’A spokesman is expected to twist the story to reflect better on the
boss or to distract the media. I would be lousy in a job like that.’
Instead, Eckhard prides himself on being something of an investigative
reporter, combing the organization for news in order to feed his hungry
herd. ’The UN is a bureaucracy; it hoards information,’ he says. But
Eckhard is a former editor and has spent 15 years in the bowels of the
Without a hint of boastfulness, he says, ’I can get almost anything from
any senior official. If I ask they’ll tell me.’
Eckhard has a staff of former journalists who call the UN outposts from
Nairobi to Rome for news, so that by 10:30 am the office of the
spokesman has a rundown of the day’s top stories. ’I have two bosses,
one is Kofi Annan, who I speak for, and the other is the working press,
who I speak with. That divided loyalty dominates my day.’
Colleague Shashi Tharoor, the secretary-general’s director of
communications, says of Eckhard: ’We’ve come to admire his coolness
under fire and his breadth of knowledge about the UN’s work. Fred is
utterly reliable and that makes him a good source for the press as well
as a good colleague for us.’
A soft-spoken spokesman
Eckhard is soft-spoken and exceedingly calm, and this low-key approach
has led CNN correspondent Richard Roth to poke fun at him. But don’t
think that Eckhard lacks a sense of humor. ’He has a lovely sense of
irony and can tell some fabulous stories,’ says The New York Times’ UN
bureau chief Barbara Crossette.
A sense of humor would appear to be a job requirement at the United
Nations, an organization staffed by people of so many different cultures
that the only thing that appears to reign is confusion.
Eckhard is often at the center of conflicting agendas. His work overlaps
with that of two other departments - communications and public
Some aides would prefer to see the secretary-general spending more time
with celebrity journalists such as ABC’s Peter Jennings and CBS’ Dan
Rather. But Annan, says Eckhard, ’is not someone who is looking for a
high media profile.’
The secretary-general does get involved in mainstream projects,
He’s been featured in the Sunday New York Times Magazine as part of a
’New York’s most powerful’ article. Time is also said to be preparing a
feature on Annan, who will decide early next year whether to seek a
second term as UN chief. ’My feeling is he wants his life back,’ says
That decision is likely to affect the 57-year-old Eckhard, who says he
cannot imagine working outside the United Nations. During his career,
Eckhard has traveled extensively, watching history unfold around the
He was in Sarajevo in 1992 when the war broke out. ’The UN was in the
news almost every day,’ he remembers. Eckhard adds that he’s always
conscious that one misstep could end a successful career. He relives the
scene: ’The adrenaline is pumping, every syllable has meaning and you
know you are not speaking for yourself.’
A few years later, Eckhard found himself in another global hot spot,
grappling with his split loyalty between two masters. This time it was
Baghdad in 1998, as UN weapons inspectors were being shut out of
official Iraqi locations.
Substance over silence
Eckhard says his instructions were not to reveal the substance of
negotiations that involved Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Azziz and Annan.
But a pack of reporters had grouped outside his residence. ’They don’t
want to hear that the spokesman is having dinner,’ says Eckhard. ’I
faced 200 journalists who had a page-one story to write. I gave them
something.’ He revealed that the UN refused to negotiate a time limit on
each inspection, something the Iraqis were keen to press.
But The New York Times’ Crossette remembers the frustration of being on
the scene, while other reporters back home got better information from
other sources. Crossette also complains that Annan travels too much and
does not hold enough press conferences. Nonetheless, he is supportive of
Eckhard, describing him as a man of high integrity.
’There are people on the 38th floor who try to undercut him,’ she says,
’but he knows when to pick a fight.’ Crossette continues: ’He gives you
a heads-up and prepares me to look at certain things. He never lies.
He’d rather tell you nothing.’
Eckhard’s style of doing business contrasts sharply with the likes of
James Rubin, spokesman and political adviser to Madeleine Albright, who
gets his point across by cutting out reporters who didn’t see it his
Though Eckhard says he’d like to freeze out some of the journalists who
cover his briefings, he doesn’t operate that way.
He even refuses to complain to journalists about pieces: ’Why rake a
journalist over the coals?’ That non-confrontational approach may have
allowed Annan to meet people without attracting the kind of criticism
other leaders would have. For example, the press barely made a sound
when Annan met Middle Eastern militant group Hezbollah recently.
Now there’s a fine bit of PR.
Fred Eckhard Spokesman, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan
1985: Joins UN as information officer
1993: Associate spokesman for UN Secretary-General Boutros
1995: Chief liaison officer in UN Department of Peacekeeping
1997: Appointed spokesman for Secretary-General Kofi Annan.