|THAROOR'S COMMUNICATION FAILURE REQUIRES FRANK IN-DEPTH REVIEW
15 May 2005
Failure was officially admitted. In an opening statement to the Committee of Information, the "Under
Secretary General for Public Information and Communication" conveyed the "sobering news" that "the
U.N. standing in many countries has never been lower." Public perception of the U.N. was
the sum total of views held in the public mind, he added somewhat philosophically, and in the past
two years that view had acquired a negative cast. That is, the image of the U.N. had been
badly bruised, commenting, correctly, that "people want the U.N. to do more, not less".
However, the person mainly responsible for handling the U.N.'s image and its public perception did not
seem to have a sense of accountability. Nor was there any serious assessment of the glaring and
embarrassing communications gap. As far as Shashi Tharoor was concerned, he assured delegates of a
"blizzard of public information initiatives," which had obviously gone unnoticed. Indeed, the escalating
blizzard was from the other direction. He also talked of similarly unnoticed "proactive and preventive
action." In sheer desperation, he valued the work of Information Centres, which he persistently
sought to decimate over the last three years.
Tharoor, former Special Assistant to Kofi Annan at Peacekeeping, was leapfrogged from D-1 level when
Annan became Secretary General to Under-Secretary General on the false assumption that he will be
saving the U.N. image for succeeding generations. It has been downhill ever since. Public perception
of the U.N. is inversely proportional to Tharoor's personal rise. The unabashed self promoter failed
completely in defending the organization that embraced him.
Why did Shashi Tharoor succeed in advancing himself but failed to defend the United Nations?
Maybe because he had No Management Experience. Until taking over the Department of Public
Information, Tharoor always had a one man constituency: first Marrack Goulding, then Kofi Annan.
He drafted good speeches, sprinkled a few laughs and displayed visibly admiring allegiance. His
excellent contacts with some New York Times and ABC Television reporters was particularly
appealing to Under-Secretary Annan, particularly when certain stories were leaked about some
operations placing the blame elsewhere. As Communications Director of the new Secretary General, he
continued to deal mainly with his immediate boss. His forays into self-promotion were smiled off as
excessive zeal which could be eventually pruned and polished to prepare him for senior management.
But, possibly for varied purposes, he and Mr. Annan were in a rush. Running a large established
Department, however, was a totally different matter.
Or maybe it was his Lack of Leadership Qualities. Despite flaunting a description obtained in
some Davos gathering that he was among "future leaders," Tharoor has no clue about large team
leadership. While he can be disarming in one-to-ones and charming to an appreciative audience, he does
not seem to have the patience, span of attention or time to inspire or lead by example.
It could also have been due to his Personal, not Institutional Approach. The consensus amongst
those in communications is that the main pre-occupation of Shashi Tharoor is precisely Shashi
Tharoor. Most take it jovially in stride. Others refer to Shashi and Shashi, a take off on a British
advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi. Initially, he would hardly rush to the defence of the U.N. as
an institution. In some cases, the token implicit message was to keep a distance from a disdained U.N.
mechanism and berated U.N. staff. The explicit message was to pose as reformers, modernists, new
breed of a new brand and the need for more power to them to save the U.N. from itself. The only swift
response was when attacks began to become personal. By then it was too late. Lack of good judgment
and absence of accountability was evident in the rushed decision to close offices in key European
capitals without a back-up plan or a functional alternative.
Another reason could be Exaggerated Ambition. An obscure British reporter once started a joke
which sent the U.N. laughing: Shashi for Secretary General. The joke was on all of us, as Shashi
took it very seriously, with some opportunistic staff accommodating him. He accumulated frequent flier miles
from one spot to another even as India indicated it was interested in a Security Council seat and had
no interest whatsoever in supporting the man who Indian Times described as media manipulator.
He may have needed to spend lots of time and energy Not Working But Networking. A constant
self-promoter, moving from nowhere to nowhere at all, has little time to actually sit down and
pursue a really complex issue to its definite or clear conclusion.
There must be wider factors. For example, the current U.N. leadership is more attuned to admiring
press accolades in better times. It seems at a sea of ponderosity with wave after wave of critical
comments and negative reports. "Leaving no stone unturned," "getting to the bottom of things,"
"unleashing a blizzard of initiatives," or exchanging congratulatory letters of how pleased they are
with each other does not work. A more basic, courageous and honest review is required; and with a
wider perspective. In the prevailing dysfunctional atmosphere, Shashi Tharoor does not hold a monopoly