UN's Grenell talks Burma comms

PRWeek's Washington Bureau chief, Ted McKenna, chatted with Richard Grenell, US spokesman at the United Nations (UN) in the wake of the cyclone disaster in...

PRWeek's Washington Bureau chief, Ted McKenna, chatted with Richard Grenell, US spokesman at the United Nations (UN) in the wake of the cyclone disaster in Burma. Grenell heads the communications team representing the US mission to the UN.

McKenna: What is the work you do here?
Grenell: The interesting part of what we do here is we get to communicate what the US is doing, to the world, because the UN press corps is quite large – larger than any other press corps around the world.

McKenna: So there are communications issues you’re dealing with all the time?
Grenell: Yeah, the Burma one is a fascinating one because we obviously have two tracks with Burma. We’ve been doing the political track in trying to get the opposition to have a greater voice in Burma, and as we all know the junta that is in charge of Burma is a dictatorship. So we’ve had this political track of trying to get elections and get people to speak out, but then all of a sudden we have this terrible tragedy with the cyclone, so now we have this humanitarian disaster.

McKenna: Is there something your communications team does to make the distinction between providing aid and pursuing a political objective?
Grenell: We have a team of 13 people here, and what I try to do on a daily basis, is when we talk about Sudan or China or any other issue, is bifurcate the issue. When you talk about political changes, you’re talking about confronting the government of Myanmar. There’s a different communications strategy when you’re talking about delivering urgent aid and care to the people of Myanmar. I try to make sure that whenever we’re speaking about the subject that we’ve very clear about who we’re confronting and what we’re trying to do. Those differences are not subtle and when you’re in Burma you understand when people are speaking to the people and when they’re confronting the government.

McKenna: So if you’re talking about distributing food or first aid supplies you just talk about the “people?"
Grenell: Right, that the people of Myanmar are hungry and cold and that the government should allow shipments in to help. And we talk about the different regions, where the greatest devastation has been and speak to that people.

McKenna: So you lay off blaming the government?
Grenell: Right, when there’s a humanitarian crisis, when people need food or otherwise they will die, or need urgent care and shelter, you have to prioritize. The political track of trying to open up the govenrment to greater democracy is a second track that needs to fall down in priority for the current moment.

McKenna: What else of note about your communications strategy?
Grenell: Our embassy in the country is a big part of getting communications. We also have private and secret communications we have access to. I think the regional embassy structure is very important. It’s also good to note that we have to do this on a daily basis on multiple issues, as we are trying to keep up with the Burma cyclone, we are also dealing with a 7.8 earthquake in China and trying to get information out and how unbelievable the death toll is already in China. So it’s constantly a changing issue.

McKenna: Who is the audience you communicate with?
Grenell: We have to work very hard to figure out, especially in a government like Myanmar, as to how people will receive that information. We have to almost work backwards, and think, OK, if you’re in Myanmar right now and you need this message, how will they get it. We understand that the radio broadcasts are going to be the number one way to get in. Not many people have television and not many have the ability to go buy a newspaper. So we put many people on radio, whether its Voice of America or some local BBC radio station or regional radio like the Thai radio service or some of the Chinese radio stations make it in.

McKenna: But then you also communicate with Americares or other aid groups?
Grenell: Yes, in Burma we certainly have an NGO strategy, trying to figure out which ones are there. In Myanmar only certain NGOs were working there before the cyclone hit, and those were the only ones that continue to work and distribute aid.

We were trying to get information from them but also let them know we could be a megaphone if they have information they need to get out. It was kind of two-way street. The main way we quickly were getting information was that we had a number of UN agencies like Unicef and World Food Program already in Mynamar at the time of the cyclone. They had small teams and were communicating out to agencies. It’s one of the first ways we found out the crisis was much bigger than the government was claiming.

McKenna: Is there some way to keep media covering the Burma issue?
Grenell: I think there is. Our embassy will give us information about how the rebuilding is going and the very human stories about Burma the embassy can get or the UN. What we try to do is remind the media, through these human interest stories, of the facts on the ground. On my team, I’ll have one person assigned over the next several months... to be the communications person on Burma to receive information and be the central source.

McKenna: So the reporters can write about things readers or viewers can relate to?
Grenell: Correct, and we’ll use positive and negative stories of people being helped, to showcase how generous aid from American taxpayers is being used. We’ll also, on the negative side, show how some people have not been helped to remind the American people that we continue to need to help them.

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