15 NOVEMBER 2010


The image of the U.N. Secretary General is of concern to all of us. When he is poorly presented, the U.N. is similarly perceived. If the U.N. is highly regarded, its Secretary General will be in a stronger, more positive position.

Why, then, is Secretary General Ban Ki-moon not paying direct attention to his own image and to the public information role of the U.N.? Why is he allowing excessive authority in that area to two uninformed uninspiring members of his office: Kim Won-soo and Michael Meyer. Both of them have a proven record of failure in U.N. communications matters.

Let's leave the new Spokesman, Martin Nesirky, out of it. He is a capable professional trying his best to cope with a very difficult situation created before he took over.

Actually, the role of Spokesman has been greatly exaggerated recently, that is, starting from the time of outgoing Secretary General Kofi Annan. That position was meant basically to focus on providing information on our chief, facilitating media arrangements, and co-ordinating effectively with other relevant offices, particularly the Department of Public Information (DPI) -- the main department designated by the General Assembly to develop communications strategy, and implement it around the world, while regularly evaluating its feedback and performance, and monitored by an Assembly's Committee on Information. The Spokesman's Office was traditionally part of DPI. For fifty years, the Secretary General Spokesman was a staff member of that Department, either as Director or Deputy Director of Press and Publications. A direct link with the "38th floor" was understood, indeed, encouraged, to allow for smooth positive collaboration amongst varied sections and mobilize all the staff in support of the Secretary General's requirements.

The separation and expansion of the Spokesman's Office, together with an appointment of a Communications Director, initiated by Kofi Annan, was based on an illusion that the person of the Secretary General could be differentiated from the operations of the Organization. It may have worked for an interim season of novelty and inertia. However, as Mr. Annan realized years later when the chips were down, adoring chants are not as dependable as they initially sound. When he needed his real staff, they had already been almost paralyzed.

When Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took over, we all cheered his announced determination to regain the U.N. role and rebuild the U.N. image. In our perception, it also meant a joint effort to rebuild his own role and enhance his own image. After all, failure of previous attempts proved that it is practically impossible to de-link the symbol from the body.

However, it turned out that the new team carried the same misconception as the outgoing one -- the same strategic communications error was being repeated.

To begin with, his closest aide was dead wrong upon arrival. Kim Won-soo publicly derided a "U.N. working culture" just as he joined the U.N. working staff with his compatriot, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in January 2007. (For more detail, see "Kim Too-Soon" in unforum.com's 15 March 2007 issue.) Not only did he seem arrogant about his new setting and ignorant about the real U.N. culture, he instantly antagonized thousands of dedicated staff, working or retired, who had devoted their careers and often risked their lives, for U.N. objectives. More crucial, he alienated the new Secretary General from his main international asset -- his own staff. Governments may extend or withhold support, as their interest may deem fit. Even Koreans, though proud of their compatriot, could raise or lower the extent of their support, depending upon their national perception and vested interest. But U.N. staff are the only solid group that pledges allegiance only to the Secretary General.

Instead of attempting to redress obviously wounded feelings after taking over officially as Deputy Chef de Cabinet, Kim "Too-Soon" -- as he was dubbed by then -- added insult to injury by brazenly intervening in areas where he was clearly clueless. It is not that he openly bypassed the ineffective Chef de Cabinet. A general perception is that Vijay Nambiar was a retired bureaucrat desperately seeking an international job beyond the Indian government's retirement age. He never knew the intricate U.N. mechanism nor its operations except fleetingly as India's Permanent Representative. A gentle, pleasant and accommodating diplomat, he was initially brought by Kofi Annan as Special Advisor for reasons no one now could care about. Similarly, no one would care enough to pursue the reason why Ban Ki-moon selected him as Chef de Cabinet. The fact is that Mr. Kim runs the show, wants everyone to know that he runs the show, and instructs all heads of departments to correspond through him. Fair enough, if that's what the Secretary General wants. Furthermore, Kim Too-soon is not running in a popularity contest. He has a constituency of one, his own boss. But now he is destructively interfering in a crucial area where he is clueless and incompetent. His other colleague, Michael Meyer, proved to be such a total disappointment that most of the staff on the 38th floor perceive him as prone to giving bad advice and dashing to invoke outside support from some influential New Yorkers in order to stay in his job whenever he gathers he is about to be terminated. Both men, generally known to communicate very badly, now fancy themselves as media strategists. After running their boss's reputation into the ground (from the "nowhere man" to the most "beleaguered Secretary General" to the "voiceless Ban Ki-moon"), they want to decide who will be the three new directors at the Department of Public Information.

As is known by now, the three Directors of that Department, headed by USG Akasaka have either vacated or are vacating their posts. Although Ahmad Fawzi, Media Division Director, had to retire last March, it has been SEVEN MONTHS without a full-time replacement. An over-worked officer in charge of that Division, who actually headed another Division full-time, Eric Falt, himself left in October to join UNESCO in Paris. Again, although the move was known SIX MONTHS ago, no action has been taken to fill that vacuum. The third Director, Paula Refolo, has put in her early retirement claim, which was eventually accepted, to be effective more likely by the end of the year; although some colleagues think she may be persuaded to stay till next Spring.

The question is no more whether there is any Public Information Communications Strategy. It is more the impact of those long vacant leadership posts on the operational delivery and on the increasingly low morale of the staff. More negative is a common feeling that the unqualified couple upstairs, with a potential involvement of the suddenly awakened V.J. Nambiar, will go for political expediency rather than professional competence in filling these posts.

For example, the post of Fawzi was announced twice already but not yet filled. Falt's post was announced but, again, not yet filled. The third vacancy is already known. Some evaluation committees have been formed. There is a great deal of speculation. Some staff say Meyer is seeking to appoint an American television connection; that Nambiar wants to promote an Indian connection; that Kim would negotiate with one country or another. A prevailing frustrated atmosphere is compounded by the prolonged absence in the key post of Executive Officer, and a general feeling that the interest of the odd couple upstairs is certainly not how to pull it together, jumpstart, or refresh the U.N. Public Information department or polish the image of the Secretary General.

A pending question is: What is the role of DPI Under-Secretary General Akasaka in all this? A very valid question. Yet a delicate one as we'd rather give him every courtesy -- and more time -- to deal with these, and many other related issues. Let's wait and see, unless we get to the point when we really have to make the point.