Uniting the UN’s voices: The United Nations’ new secretary general has begun the process of dramatically overhauling the organisation’s communications strategy in an determined effort to rid it of its past bureaucratic image

Kofi Annan had hardly paced out the dimensions of his new secretary general’s office after his appointment to the United Nations at the beginning of January last year than he’d appointed a task force to shake up the organisation’s communications structure. With the US, among others, refusing to pay its dues in full, he realised that the importance of the UN’s presentation and the way it is perceived by Congress cannot be over exaggerated.

Kofi Annan had hardly paced out the dimensions of his new secretary

general’s office after his appointment to the United Nations at the

beginning of January last year than he’d appointed a task force to shake

up the organisation’s communications structure. With the US, among

others, refusing to pay its dues in full, he realised that the

importance of the UN’s presentation and the way it is perceived by

Congress cannot be over exaggerated.

The task force got the message and within three months published Global

Vision, Local Voice: a strategic communications programme, a 34 page

document laying out all that was right and wrong with the Department of

Public Affairs (the main media and public information channel) and its

three sister departments (the secretary general’s spokesman’s office,

the assistant secretary general for external affair’s office and the

speech writing unit).

In essence, the report concluded that the UN was seen as a global

bureaucracy with little direct relevance to the lives of ordinary

people; that there was no overall communications strategy or

co-ordination between the four communications offices and despite 861

staff and an annual communications budget of dollars 71 million,

information users, from reporters to NGO workers, felt their needs were

not met.

The report also included ten pages of suggestions, ranging from the

mundane to the dynamic. Recommendations included freezing further budget

cuts; hiring staff with press relations, marketing and advocacy

experience; improving use of new technology to speed country-level

information delivery; stripping away inhibiting bureaucracy; and

finally, appointing an under-secretary general communications who would

have the ear of the secretary general and be able to co-ordinate the

four information departments and build an overall strategy.

This is radical stuff, according to one of the report’s authors, Lelei

Lelaulu who, as editor of Secretariat News in the office of the

Executive Co-ordinator for United Nations Reform, is all too familiar

with the labyrinthine ways of the UN. According to Lelaulu the fact that

Annan commissioned the report so quickly sent an important message round

the organisation that the status quo must not be allowed to prevail.

’Bear in mind that diplomats judge themselves by how little information

they impart, whereas KofiAnnan is saying, everyone in the UN is a

diplomat, but from now on, be open, be communicative. It’s a far more

collegiate style,’ he says.

So, can UN correspondents spot the differences in the new, friendlier

more accessible UN?

You bet we can, says the Financial Times UN correspondent Lorna


KofiAnnan is far more telefriendly and accessible than his predecessor,

with an ever reliable spokesman in Fred Eckardt. The trouble is, she

says, that is the only change so far, and it’s not enough. Until the new

communications chief is named, it is unlikely that anything will happen

and rumours on this subject, are demoralising, says Silber. ’The new

communications tsar should be someone young and modern in approach who

really understands the way the media, particularly in American and

England works, they must create some momentum for a real UN vision, says


Rumours in the UN are that the likely candidate will be a Japanese

politician - the feeling is that the Japanese, being one of the biggest

contributors to the UN, deserve to fill a high ranking post. However,

many UN insiders suspect that a candidate from a communications

background would be more suitable because a Japanese politician may not

fully understand the agenda and power of Western news services.

Ian Williams, author of The UN for Beginners and vice-president of the

UN Correspondents Association, says: ’Because it’s a multi-layered

bureaucracy the message from the UN is always complex and hard to

present on traditional news. And when you get spokesmen in Bosnia ending

up defending the Franco-British line, rather than the security council’s

line, then you begin to see how perplexing things can be.’

At present, the public affairs department (rumoured to be facing staff

cuts of up to 75 per cent) has around 150 mandates, ranging from

publicising the plight of Palestinian women to slavery. According to one

top-ranking spokesman, ’doing your own PR when your audience is the

entire world is an impossible job - but we’ve got to try’. He recommends

getting the internal communication message straightened out first. ’What

are we trying to achieve? Agree that and we can all start working to the

same aim. Then we can communicate a coherent message to the public. The

idea of having a communications person at deputy UNSG level is another

great idea. Someone who can sit in on the Kofi’s weekly cabinet

meetings, sift the hundreds of messages coming in, and plan ahead.’

Lelaulu believes the first item on the task force agenda has already

been achieved. ’If you ask anyone from the mail room up, what the UN

stands for, or why they work here, they will talk about making life

better for 20 million refugees and negotiating peace. It’s a silent

story and I think it’s time it was told, and so does the secretary


One of the people in the field trying to tell that story is Ahmad Fawzi,

who since last August has been director of the United Nations

Information Centre in London, one of 62 such centres round the world. As

a former Reuters journalist and deputy spokesman to the secretary

general, Fawzi feels he knows what London needs.

’My journalist colleagues in London didn’t even know the UN had an

information office here - we’re talking about total invisibility in our

most important office outside New York! The BBC World Service, the

Middle East papers that are actually published here, as well as all the

African journalists and NGOs here make this a vital stage and I’m

determined to make it work.’

Fawzi’s first priority is getting the office on-line so that news can

come from New York in real time. His daily briefing from New York,

whether about Bosnia or Iraq, will then not be held up by the time


Second, the office will be more accessible and collegiate, mirroring

Annan’s operation in New York, so Fawzi is now contactable 24 hours a

day all week, and the eight information officers share the duty roster

with him at weekends.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the UN’s Declaration

of Human Rights and it’s an ideal excuse for getting the UN’s message

across, according to Fawzi.

’I’ve already had meetings with Richard Branson about sponsoring 30

second slots on TV, and perhaps a video about human rights to be shown

on Virgin flights ... and perhaps American Express could include the

declaration in their direct mail.’ The ideas come tumbling out, although

whether Fawzi will be able to convince businesses that the UN is the

right partner for them remains to be seen.

’People must be shown that the UN has and continues to affect their

lives - when you put a stamp on an envelope to another country, that’s

thanks to a UN agreement. This year I think we will begin to turn the

corner and show the positive things we’ve done and continue to do.’


Of the UN’s five associated organisations, the children’s fund, UNICEF

probably has the easiest ride when it comes to creating a positive


As Kofi Annan’s spokesman, Fred Eckhardt says: ’We get sent to Bosnia to

do the impossible, UNICEF gets to feed women and children. All they have

to do is carry out their mandate with the minimum level of efficiency

and they look great.’ True. But the fact that UNICEF is almost as well

recognised as the Red Cross owes much to the way it has organised grass

roots support.

However the charity has become aware of its increasingly complicated

mandate, moving away from direct action and into the field of child

rights - a much harder message to make palatable. That’s why 18 months

ago UNICEF appointed former Levi-Strauss brand executive Rudolf Deutekom

to take care of its private sector fund-raising which accounts for ten

per cent of UNICEF’s income through its greeting card company. Deutekom

aims to increase revenue by up to seven per cent in two years by selling

cards all year round and exploiting partnerships with the likes of

Readers Digest.

Deutekom’s work would help raise the charity’s profile and support the

work of Stacey Adams, head of media relations at UNICEF’s UK


Adams is conscious that Britain has always lagged behind the rest of

Europe in its familiarity and support - UNICEF fed children on the

Continent after the war and has retained a higher profile. To rectify

this, Adams is increasing the charity’s work within the UK and to mark

Children’s Rights Day in November, will be running a children’s

constituency surgery with several leading MPs. There’s also a Baby

Friendly project, encouraging British mums to breastfeed, which is being

run in 100 UK hospitals and 10,000 around the world.

’We’ve always been goal-oriented and set ambitious targets, such as

immunising every child against polio,’ says Adams. ’It’s that kind of

strategic planning that’s given us a better reputation than other UN

bodies. That and some strong leadership - four executive directors in 50

years. It makes us forward thinking and accountable and it shows.’

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