15 March 2005
You know that the United Nations is in deep trouble when its senior "Communicators" are perpetually
traveling while occasionally despatching futile Letters to the Editor. Even those letters, obviously
signed in a rush, seem to make the wrong points -- often counterproductive -- that is, they only
provoke negative responses. Corridor comment is that those "senior" officials have lost touch with
internal realities and external perceptions. Unfortunately that reflects badly on the Secretary
General and the Organization he is entrusted to represent.
Twice in less than a year, Kofi Annan wrote an editorial for The Wall Street Journal.
Approaching a media adversary is an excellent idea, if well done. Particularly during the last few
years, The Wall Street Journal has become compulsory reading for senior diplomats and
staffers at the UN for its series of tough, yet generally fair, articles crafted by solid professionals
like Bill Spindle, Steve Stecklow, Alix Friedman and Jess Bravin. The editorials were pointedly
political, particularly when the UN Secretary General is perceived to be meddling on their wrong side.
It is crucial, therefore, for Annan to reach out, try to make his point in the hope of possibly
gaining some lost ground or at least regaining some eroded stature. The right decision, however, was
badly handled. With a business as usual approach, the editorial flip-flopped with hints and insinuation
rather than straight talk. Whoever drafted it for him (surely not MMB), should be transferred to
Mumbai. Instead of getting anywhere, the effort proved counterproductive. All published Letters to
Editor picked on Annan. One read: "no amount of cheerleading op-ed piece will persuade us that Mr.
Annan and the U.N. have shown the leadership demanded of them." Another called for a new leadership
at the U.N.
Media worldwide is having an open house on assaulting the once teflon Annan. Mainstream papers like
Copenhagen's Politiken -- normally a staunch UN supporter -- described him recently as
"a man on the run." A main Swiss daily described him as incapable of taking decision. The lawyer of
Ruud Lubbers' accuser was given wide coverage while accusing Annan of a cover-up since last
summer. The New York Post published a survey that 67% of Americans wanted Annan to quit. All this
is having the worse impact on the image, credibility and prestige of the U.N.
The institutions under Annan's team have been so badly run down that they are hardly able to respond
to the challenge. A personalized dismissive approach isolated the grassroot and mainstream staff for the
benefit of a select few. It was all based on self-promotion of specific individuals while overlooking
issues and bypassing basic rules. Now that Annan is under siege, those who squeezed him, his office,
and his name to the utmost seem to take no real action to defend him. The field offices that would
normally maintain regular contact with key media around the world have been generally neutralized
(and personalized) without an effective alternative.
The new Chief of Staff, Mark Mulloch-Brown, is doing an admirable job in cleaning house, injecting
renewal and opening channels. But it is up to the Secretary General himself to cut loose those who
flourished at flattering him and proved worthless when the chips were down. That requires a totally
refreshed Communications strategy. And it could not succeed if entrusted to those who clearly failed.