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.