As the final round of the Generation Equality Forum was about to open in Paris in late June, some reporters, including from PassBlue, were directed by a few United Nations agencies most involved in the event, to ask their questions to public-relations companies. Knowledgeable communications specialists in the UN system were “too busy,” reporters were told.
It was not the first time UN agencies — in this case, UN Women and the UN Population Fund, in particular — bought help for major events. The public-relations experts, however, can easily become barriers, keeping reporters from UN officials. They prepare answers to media requests and direct the journalists to say that these replies come from the intended official.
Is this the beginning of a trend that sidelines in-house communications staff and draws money from humanitarian budgets? In the past, the best communicators for the UN often came from inside the organization’s ranks.
“Why would any agency of the UN want to hire high-priced PR firms to speak for them,” Stephen Schlesinger, author of “Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations,” asked in an email to PassBlue. “Don’t they have enough trust in their own missions to tell the public what is going on within their organizations?” He called this “a very troubling trend.”
Samir Sanbar, a retired former director of communications for the UN, said in a concurring email interview: “Private public relations companies were carefully avoided initially by the UN [because] they might erode the desired perception of a credible, impartial international civil service. An effective performance by the UN and credible outreach by its dedicated, talented staff working with informed media is not only more relevant but also saves substantial expense.”
More use of commercial public relations occurs as transparency has hit a low point among UN high-level officials, who are surrounded in many offices by secretive staff members, often working in press offices. The pandemic has also made it harder to run into UN personnel, say, in the UN hallways, since most people have been working remotely. Although the UN announced last week that it has fully reopened its headquarters, journalists are still unable to attend Security Council meetings physically.
Joseph Chamie, an internationally known demographer, formerly directed the UN Population Division under the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, where a wealth of credible global data was stored and analyzed. He evaded efforts to withhold information.
“My policy was simple: journalists and the media have priority,” he said in a phone interview with PassBlue. He told his staff that when journalists call, “stop whatever you’re doing, take the call, address their questions, do the interview or get back to them quickly as possible with the answers and information.” All published reports had to be accompanied, he added, “by a one-page, well written press release in the six UN languages, highlighting the findings.”
Kofi Annan, the secretary-general from 1997 to 2007, and Frederic Eckhard, his spokesman (who retired in 2005), instituted the most transparent policies of any recent UN administration. Early on, they established the principle that all UN officials could speak to the media within their areas of competence and experience.
Eckhard, a former journalist, first joined the spokesman’s office in 1988 and later became head of information for two crucial UN peacekeeping operations. He played a role in Namibia’s transition to independence from South Africa (1989-1990). In 1992, he was the first spokesman of the UN protection force (Unprofor) in the former Yugoslavia, based in Sarajevo, as war was consuming the Balkans.
During the Annan administration, a powerful extreme-right-wing movement grew in the United States Congress critical of the UN, and particularly the secretary-general, including Annan for the oil-for-food scandal in Iraq. The UN was cleared by an independent investigation, except for some mismanagement issues.
Eckhard, an American, also felt pressure from within the organization as he assembled an international staff and met challenges from his competitors for jobs or governments who questioned his choices.
“You don’t fire people at the UN, but a few staff members seemed to know it was time to leave,” Eckhard wrote in an exchange of recent emails from France, where he lives. “I gradually replaced them with ex-journalists.”
“I felt that a journalist would best know what kind of information journalists want and how to deliver it quickly,” he added. His first hire was Marie Okabe from Japan, a former UPI reporter who was then working for the high commissioner for refugees, Eckhard said. “Kofi told me he didn’t want me to speak just for him but for the whole UN system. I wanted Marie to cover the agencies for me.”
“UN personnel practices intervened,” Eckhard recalled. A competitor for the position that Okabe had been chosen by Eckhard argued that it was organization policy to hire insiders only. In this case, Annan’s chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, dismissed that argument, and Okabe was appointed.
Farhan Haq, a Pakistani-American from InterPress Service, and son of the late Mahbub ul-Haq, a top global development expert and a creator (with Amartya Sen of India) of the UN Human Development Report, became deputy spokesman for Eckhard, where he remains.
Needing an experienced TV journalist, Eckhard recruited Stéphane Dujarric de la Rivière from ABC Television in Washington. “He was French, fluent in English, had a great sense of humor and capacity for work,” Eckhard wrote. “He was perfect. And still is.” Dujarric is now the main voice and contact for journalists at the UN.
Scores of other appointments in New York City headquarters and around the world followed. At the same time, Eckhard was reforming both the daily routines of the spokesman’s office and the office itself.
“I changed the format of the daily briefing,” Eckhard wrote. “In the past, each briefing began with the daily appointments of the Secretary-General. I said, hell, we can give them that on a piece of paper. Let’s start with the news.” He redesigned the spokesman’s office to make it more welcoming to media.
“Journalists always passed by my door as they looked at the press releases [placed nearby] and often couldn’t resist the temptation to come in and chat, which I welcomed,” he said. “I felt that information was a two-way street. They would tell me about a conversation they had with an ambassador or other source, which was information I found useful.”
“My staff weren’t always the best sources of information on a complex topic,” Eckhard recalled. “The Secretariat is full of expertise, but we didn’t have a policy that allowed these people to talk to the press.”
Under the new transparency guidelines, he added, “[M]y people could provide general information, but they could also guide the journalist to the best source of information in the Secretariat. We would then call that person and say, ‘Journalist X is here with me and wants to write about X; I’d like you to talk to him/her.'”
“So there were gender issues, nationality issues, language issues, all typical of the UN,” Eckhard said. “But they were secondary. For me the bottom line was our credibility with journalists.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.