"ALISON SMALE HEADS U.N. PUBLIC INFORMATION"

 

SEPTEMBER 2017

ALISON SMALE HEADS U.N. PUBLIC INFORMATION


Photo Credit: Nadine Rupp/Getty Images

The designation of Alison Smale, an accomplished communicator, as Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications and Head of the U.N. Department of Public Information, is particularly relevant at this time as the U.N. role has been substantively eroded in public perception.

After over sixty years at the centre of international relations, the current U.N. is in desperate need for a refreshing revival not only in its generally eroded performance, but also in better professionally experienced communications efforts to improve its public awareness. Its limited current relevance seems to consider it mainly as a politically convenient meeting place. Even when heads of state attend its once prominent General Assembly Debate in September, its own host city residents -- New Yorkers -- seem to see it as an inconvenient traffic issue. A familiar electric sign on nearby highways announce: "U.N. meeting; expect delays."

Regrettably, despite the availability of dedicated experienced Public Information Department staff and capable Spokesman's Office staff, a limited few who were placed in transient leadership posts did not match -- nor inspire -- their qualifications. While internally pontificating about "horizontal and vertical communications," any potential impact was limited to the iron gates of First Avenue. Widespread reports on embarrassing "peacekeeping" missions -- as opposed to a once Nobel Prize-rewarded earlier Peacekeeping Operations -- does not help. Nor did the expanded designation of "special envoys" to political expedient ambiguous assignments leading to a reversed adaptation of a Winston Churchill quip: "Never have so many have accomplished so little."

An awkward confusion was spread by one transient-in-charge, Maher Nasser, who had failed to join that department for lack of media experience, and wasted a golden interim opportunity. Instead of motivating available dedicated talented staff to promote U.N. issues, he went on a wild ego trip. During an ongoing search for an appropriate candidate, he immediately and inappropriately proclaimed himself "Acting Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications," printing it on business cards circulated everywhere, signing it on a multitude of official correspondence, and sending it via emails through emailing assistants with repetitive emails and blind copies. More flagrant, though, he had only been in the interim position for a few months and should have had the courtesy to await a regularly-designated appointment, but instead he presumptuously and unusually produced a directory, presumably of U.N. Correspondents, where he highlighted his own "designation," while attempting to draw wider attention by listing all Permanent Delegates of all Missions, their press officers, Permanent Security Council Members, Observers, U.N.Funds, Programmes, and "Other Entities," plus Special Envoys. Only its cover -- for cover -- had a photo of the new Secretary-General and his Deputy, although inside their office contacts were not even detailed. Hopefully, Ms. Smale will handle confusion with her professional experience and personal tact.

The election of new Secretary-General Mr. Antonio Guterres raised hopes for a practical relevance of the U.N. role. The appointment of Deputy Secretary-General Ms. Amina J. Mohammed signaled a determination to deal substantively with Human Development. Other senior leadership appointments are waiting decisions.

At any rate, the new regularly-appointed Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, Alison Smale, indicates a welcome realization of the need for improved public perception, an issue noted by the First General Assembly Session on the importance to "inform the peoples of the United Nations."

As the official press announcement rightly pointed out, Ms. Smale, who was Chief of Bureau of The New York Times in Berlin since 2013, brings to the position almost 40 years of journalism experience gained in an international career that has included holding some of the most prestigious posts in the profession. She has a proven track record as reporter, editor and senior leader. Appointed Executive Editor of the International Herald Tribune (IHT) Paris, in 2008, she is the first and only woman to have held that post.

Ms. Smale went to the IHT in 2004 as Managing Editor from The New York Times, where she had been Deputy Foreign Editor since 2002, having joined The Times in 1998 as Weekend Foreign Editor. Earlier in her career, Ms. Smale reported for United Press International and The Associated Press as Bureau Chief for Central and Eastern Europe, Vienna (1986 - 1998) and Correspondent, Moscow and Bonn (1983 - 1986, 1978 - 1983). Ms. Smale studied in Bristol, Munich and at Stanford University and holds a B.A. in German and Politics, and an A.M. in journalism. In 2009, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Law from Bristol University.

A new point of interest is that Ms. Smale, a native of historically cultural Bristol, hails from the United Kingdom, a Founding Member of the U.N. and Permanent Member of the Security Council; its capital, London, hosted the first U.N. meeting and the initial U.N. Secretariat under the legendary Sir Gladwyn Jebb, "Acting Secretary-General" from October 1945 to February, 1946. Regardless of its national interest and internal politics, the U.K. has always been a "U.N. Country."

An internal question would be that with a U.K. citizen heading a major Department, would Sir Stephen O'Brien, who was appointed by outgoing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May 2015, maintain his post as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator -- who succeeded another U.K. former official -- the impressive Valerie Amos? (A veteran diplomat remarked, obviously in jest, that Sir Stephen could perhaps seek a citizenship from the United Republic of Tanzania, where he was born.)

A more substantive question is: to what extent would Alison Smale be given the required means to accomplish an effective job?