Public affairs pros to UN: Focus on good works or lose relevance

With a poor record on resolving recent international conflict, the United Nations can do a much better job explaining its relevance in the 21st century, say public affairs pros.

With a poor record on resolving recent international conflict, the United Nations can do a much better job explaining its relevance in the 21st century, say public affairs pros.

The international body routinely faces criticism from Western leaders that it is an outdated and bureaucratic organization that gets nothing done. At the start of the UN General Assembly this week, President Barack Obama questioned whether the UN “can meet the test of our time.” The Obama administration, along with allies such as Great Britain, has been frustrated by deadlocks in the UN Security Council, most recently in its failure to reach consensus calling for military action against Syria if it does not give up its chemical weapons.

“Right now, the UN is seen here as a place that thwarts the will of the US because these are the kinds of stories making headlines,” points out Jamie Moeller, MD of Ogilvy Public Relations' global public affairs practice.

He says that is compounded by the fact that the UN General Assembly has become a platform for foreign leaders to criticize the US in recent years. For instance, in her address to open this year's General Assembly, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff accused the US of violating human rights and international law with its National Security Agency surveillance programs.  

Famously, in a speech at the 2006 UN General Assembly, former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez called then-US President George W. Bush the “devil.”

Moeller says the UN would be well served by focusing its communications on the other work it does, particularly nation building and its financial-aid programs – all initiatives that make the UN more popular abroad, if not in the US, he adds.

“That work is not particularly well known here. It may be hard to tell that story in the US and break through the preconceived notion of the UN,” explains Moeller. “But a sophisticated content strategy and use of social media can begin to tell some of that story. It can be a way for them to build a base of support by talking about the things they do in other parts of the world that should matter to the US because of its strategic interests.”

Josh Levin, SVP and co-lead of the US corporate practice at Cohn & Wolfe, agrees that the UN should focus on things it can actually tackle, such as climate change and poverty, which he says UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has started to do.

“Certainly its record with resolving conflict is not great,” adds Levin.

With almost 2 million Twitter followers, he also recommends that the UN take to social media in a bigger way. However, he notes that running the organization's communications, led by spokesperson for the Secretary-General Martin Nesirky, is an incredibly delicate undertaking.

“He is presented with a grand challenge every day, which is that anything the organization communicates on any given day could spark the ire of any one of the 192 member countries,” says Levin.

Still, the UN's communications efforts should demonstrate in real terms how the organization is actually helping people, says Brad Staples, president for international and chair of global development at APCO Worldwide, who attended the General Assembly this week. 

“You really feel it when you're here – that they're disconnected from people's lives,” he notes. “They need to be sharing more insights on a day-to-day basis and demonstrating their actual achievements. At the moment, it is hard to see what is actually achieved by UN institutions when you look at the state of the global economy, which the UN seems to have no role in addressing, and global conflict, which seems to bypass UN intervention.”

Yet Staples notes “there is a lot of great work being done, but it needs to be articulated in a way that means something in people's day-to-day lives. It would rapidly redefine the way the UN is perceived.”

However, other public affairs experts believe that no amount of communications will help the UN make its case for relevancy to Western audiences, unless the body updates and redefines itself and its charter.

“All of the social media pushes and experiential marketing events that can be done to highlight all of the great things they've done would be helpful, but that really doesn't fundamentally change the dynamic,” says Howard Opinsky, GM of Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Washington, DC, office and head of the US public affairs practice.

“The UN has become a place to make speeches and air grievances – and it seems unwilling or unable to serve the purpose on which it was originally established,” he adds. “The UN is facing an existential question as to what its mission and value is in the 21st century.”

UN representatives did not return messages seeking comment for this article.

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