Turin is a delightfully walkable city on the River Po, with distinctive arcades along wide boulevards, grand squares, lovely parks, good restaurants and a comfortable pace of life. I had the good fortune to visit Turin with Kofi Annan in 1997, his first year as United Nations secretary-general. He came to inspect a project called the UN System Staff College.
The Staff College is located on the UN’s only residential campus. It’s in a beautiful setting, right on the river. The complex was originally built by the Italian government in 1961 to celebrate the centenary of Italy’s unity. In 1861, Turin was united Italy’s first capital. The buildings represented the nation’s different regions and are configured in the shape of a boot.
When this extravagant celebration was over, the government had to decide what to do with the buildings. Eventually, in 1964, they were gifted to the UN at a rent of $1 a year. The International Labour Organization was the first UN entity to take advantage of it, setting up its International Training Center here for high-level training.
In the UN, things take time. The idea of a systemwide training facility was studied in 1969 and approved by the General Assembly in 1971. But there was no money. In 1993, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a former professor, got planning going again and the Staff College entered a trial phase in 1996. The trial was evaluated positively in 2000, and in 2001 the General Assembly approved the college’s statute.
So what is the Staff College? It doesn’t give degrees, but it offers training courses to UN staff worldwide in the belief that continuous learning makes for healthy staff development. Its objective is to foster a cohesive leadership and management culture for the entire UN system. If UN staff can “learn as one,” they can work toward one of Annan’s main objectives — that the UN system “deliver as one.” In other words, get the multiheaded UN monster pulling in one direction. It offers residential workshops, seminars and training courses for about 7,000 staff a year.
I was invited to lecture at the University of Turin in March 2010, and afterwards I took a taxi to the UN Staff College. Maybe they could use me — I think I was just looking for an excuse to come back to Turin.
I knew the acting director of the Staff College, Carlos Lopes; he had been a senior director on Annan’s staff in his last year as secretary-general. (Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently named Lopes executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa.) I looked him up. Yes, he said. We would love to have a course, not so much on the role of the spokesman but more broadly on communication.
“I’ll look for funding for it,” he said. This made me a little nervous; I knew how to be a spokesman but communication was a different discipline.
A year went by, then two. Finally Lopes called me and said they would like me to teach a course in communication in Turin twice in 2012, in February and July, one week each. I was thrilled. I would work with the deputy director at the time, Jafar Javan, who has just been named director.
Now I had to write the lectures. This was a challenge. I could easily document how the UN had communicated in the past, but I knew little of the latest technology. When I was spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission in Namibia in 1989, it was considered revolutionary to build into the budget a substantial information program. As Annan’s spokesman during the oil-for-food crisis, I sputtered away at my daily briefing, trying to defend the UN when what was really needed was a communications strategy—which we didn’t have.
So I asked Javan if I could bring in a little help. He said yes. I phoned around to a few journalists to find out who in the UN system was doing good work in communication. I first recruited Melissa Fleming, now the spokeswoman and head of information for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.
In a phone conversation with my former deputy, Stéphane Dujarric, I found myself asking him, “What are social media?”
“You know,” he replied; “Twitter, Facebook.”
I don’t do Twitter; I don’t do Facebook. Egads, I had a lot to catch up on. But for the second course in July, Fleming offered to bring her social-media expert, Alexandra Eurdolian, a woman about 10 years younger than my son. Great; now we were moving.
I asked Afsane Bassir-Pour, director of the UN’s Regional Information Center in Brussels, to help me. She was doing pioneering projects with the private sector. She agreed to come down to Turin. Ahmad Fawzi, who later served as Annan’s spokesman during the Syria mediation and until recently, as Lakhdar Brahimi‘s, also volunteered.
“No problem, I’ll be there,” he said.
One journalist told me that one of the most innovative communications programs she had seen was the “7 Billion” campaign created for the UN Population Fund by Neil Ford. He was later snatched up by Unesco. I phoned him in Paris, introduced myself, and he said he would be happy to teach in Turin.
None of these people was paid a salary; just travel expenses and a daily allowance.
The Staff College recruited a TV expert, Zoran Stevanovic, who had been part of a CNN team that won an Emmy for its coverage of Afghanistan. He now works for the UN Development Program in Europe. I was touched when he reminded me that I had issued his first press pass in Sarajevo in 1992 when I was spokesman for the UN there at the outset of the Bosnian war. He joined the team too.
So eventually, the two courses came together. Fleming, Ford, Fawzi and Stevanovic in February. Then in July, Fleming again, her social-media expert, Eurdolian, Pour and again Stevanovic. I talked about history. Fleming taught how to create a communications strategy. Ford explained how he put together the 7 Billion campaign on no money. Stevanovic coached the students on how to do a TV interview and to get the UN message out on that medium. And Eurdolian gave an intense presentation on how to use the new technology, social media, to the UN’s advantage. Indeed, the UN was changing.
In February, we had about a dozen students; in July it went up to 17. They came from all over the world and from all parts of the UN system. There was Bettina, who works for the UN refugee agency in what was then the largest camp in the world — northern Kenya for 470,000 Somalis. Juliette, a Palestinian working for the UN Development Program in Iraq. Franck, who is an information officer for the UN Coordination Office in the Central African Republic.
Our various lectures were woven together with exercises by Miguel Panadero, manager of the learning lab in the Staff College. The very first thing he did was to ask the trainees to think of something outrageous about themselves and then to interview each other to find out what that thing was and to pick their favorite. They all knew interview techniques, and this gave them the chance to get to know each other quickly. They introduced themselves and found out something unusual about each other. For example, one of the favorites was Pili, who works in Malawi for the UN Population Fund; she said she danced in the shower every morning.
Panadero ensured that the four-and-a-half-day exercise was maximally interactive, with a redesigned learning path and effective facilitation. And he forced the trainees to reflect on what they had learned. He divided them into three groups, and at the end of each day, he asked each group to pick a spokesperson and then he interviewed that person with his video camera, asking what the most important things were that they learned that day. He later edited these segments into a video and sent it to each participant.
In July, on the afternoon of the third day, we took the trainees off campus to a major Turin advertising agency. The agency head, Maurizio Bramezza, aided by his creative director, personally gave them a visual presentation of some two hours’ duration on how he sells the products of his clients, Yves Saint Laurent, Coty and J&B Scotch, among others. In other words, what works and what doesn’t.
Our trainees were fascinated to see how communication is applied in the private sector. Afterwards, we all went across the street for coffee and continued conversation with the advertising experts.
Trainees were given detailed evaluation forms to take with them. Panadero would not give them their certificate for having taken the course until they returned the evaluation. But before they left, they did an instant survey, which looked pretty good to us. One student asked us a pertinent question.
This course was so good; why does no one know about the UN Staff College?
Hmmmm. Good question. Maybe we need a communication program.