15 JUNE 2011


The post never existed for 59 years. It was invented in 1997 by Shashi Tharoor through Kofi Annan to accommodate Shashi Tharoor. He needed cover time to leapfrog from a recently acquired D-1 (with Annan's help in Peacekeeping) to an Under-Secretary General post as head of the Department of Public Information. The newly-created post was set at a D-2 level. Presumably, Tharoor was preparing ground for launching a campaign to present his immediate boss as an "international diplomatic rock-star." One of his valiant attempts at the time was an amusing article in an internal publication informing us that it was Kofi Annan who brought the U.N. to the point of being worthy of a Nobel Prize as he was ranked "as the world's most admired statesman in a Scandinavian summer poll," clarifying, that meant "more than double the popularity of his nearest rival, British Prime Minister Tony Blair." He also notified us that Mr. Annan was a record-breaking sprinter in his youth -- "his college record in the 60 yard dash stood for decades." As Napoleon once said, the most blinding weapon is verbal incense. It worked.

When Tharoor, who had no management experience at all, was placed -- initially in an Acting capacity -- as head of the Department of Public Information, a speechwriter who had been brought from London by Annan -- Edward Mortimer -- requested the post. It would give him better stature, he argued, to an amenable Annan who swiftly promoted him to D-2.

Overwhelmed by the Food-for-Oil scandal, Ed, unlike Ted and Fred, initially focused on sending letters to the editor, repeatedly promising "to leave no stone unturned" -- yet repeatedly having to explain his earlier letters. When the "team" dispersed, he found his niche with an opera group in Salzburg. You see, Ed also liked to sing.

When Secretary General Ban Ki-moon inherited the post, and assumed it was there to fill, Michael Meyer from Newsweek, reportedly experienced in media relations and international issues, took over. Some optimists thought that despite his lack of inside knowledge, tact or charisma, he would make up for it with professional skill and sound advice to the Secretary General. Regrettably, his impact was negligible; nothing impressively positive, to say the least. An added complication was his seeming arrogance when his duty to the Secretary General was to seek every opportunity to learn more about how to get things done. Indeed he had in Secretary General Ban Ki-moon an example of being readily accessible while upholding his dignity.

A main problem may be that the post itself is an artificial transplant. To begin with, there is a whole U.N. Secretariat Department of Public Information (DPI) -- around 1,000 individuals -- devoted, officially at least, to serve the Communication, Media and Public Information policies of the Secretary General. It includes three main divisions, each headed by a D-2 director (the same level as the loner on the 38th floor). Almost every daily operation would at least duplicate, sometimes triplicate, a similar one on another floor; however, in these times of reconstruction, they are in separate Manhattan buildings, adding more to the confusion.

An additional layer is the "Office of the Spokesman of the Secretary General." Even when the artificial post was transplanted to Mr. Annan's office, there was an obvious -- almost daily -- issue between the two officers concerned -- Shashi Tharoor and Fred Eckhart -- each inevitably drawing other colleagues to one side or another. Anyone with institutional memory will recall that the Secretary General Spokesman's Office was always administratively an integral part of DPI, with a clear understanding that the Spokesman's staff had a direct line to the Secretary General, who is everyone's boss. Also, the Spokesman's Office historically had just a few staff, from ONE (and a secretary) under UThant, to three under Waldheim, to eight under Perez de Cuellar, to eleven under Boutros-Ghali, to over twenty under Kofi Annan, who gave the Spokesman's Office separate administrative status. At the time, "crossing the bridge to the Twenty-First Century," the Secretary General's Office added a "Director of Communications Office," a Spokesman's Office, and a Public Relations Office to accommodate Ms. Gillian (Ted) Sorensen (what she did not need to be raised at this time). By that time, unfortunately for the U.N., our distinguished, "diplomatic rock star" was being rocked by the Food-for-Oil scandal as former incense burners dispersed hotfoot elsewhere.

The only ones who rushed to stand by Kofi Annan were those who pressed on their wounds of unrequited friendship to defend the post of the U.N. Secretary General.

Clearly, a sea of change took place since the evolving days of the U.N. The Organization's tasks, the Secretary General's own role, the structure of the Secretariat, the approach of its delegations, and the nature of media communications, are now drastically different than any time before. Yet the principles and objectives for which staff had devoted their careers and sacrificed their lives remain constant.

Swift technological advances in communications present a pressing challenge for immediate response. While keeping an eye on the constant targets, it is equally crucial to adapt to the varied and evolving means of outreach. That would reasonably justify a fully operative Secretary General's Spokesman's Office, with credible direct and quick access to the Secretary General to respond effectively to media demands; drawing closely on the resources of the Department of Public Information, and working smoothly with its staff at all levels.

During his first term, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon naturally tried to work with what he found available. As he -- and the U.N. Secretariat -- prepare for a second term, his attention to the Communications, Media and Public Information apparatus will be as crucial in regaining the U.N. role and the stature of the Secretary General as political, humanitarian, and social items. Every one of his priority issues has an inevitable communications dimension. It will be a welcome initiative if the Secretary General began first by tackling his own "Office of Communications" within an overall dynamic streamlining of the Secretariat communications arm and voice.

After all, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon undisputedly played a uniquely dynamic role in supporting the "Arab Spring." Let's hope a "U.N. Spring" led by the leader would not be far behind.