How the United Nations communicates in a transnational world

By Karuna Kumar

Born out of the disillusionment that surrounded the Second World War, was an ambitious structure expected to preserve global security – the United Nations. The idea was to create a peaceful global order that would act as a custodian of human rights and a resolution for territorial conflicts.

From 1945, when the UN was first set up, through to 2011, the UN has grown to include 192 member states and has over the years left an indelible mark in resolving international economic, social and humanitarian conflicts. Condemning Syria for using tanks and live ammunition against protestors; investigating allegations of human rights violations in Libya; criticising the 2009 Sri Lankan war crimes – the UN is playing a ubiquitous role to defend human conflicts.

Amid the crucial role the UN has assumed in present times, Stephane Dujarric, Director of News and Media at the UN, speaks of the challenges it faces, the dynamic strategies and the platforms of engagement that the UN currently deploys, in addition to the wealth of learnings he drew from his role of Spokesperson for Secretary General, Kofi Annan.


“The UN is a fragmented organisation – it is a brand of a thousand faces.” He elaborates, “The UN is an organisation with numerous arms – Secretary General, Security Council, General Assembly, UNICEF, UNDP and a long list of acronyms. All these agencies have their own viewpoint and pursue their own needs. However, it is important to understand that while the audiences for each of these might be fragmented, the messages come from the same platform. The right thing is to ensure consistency of the message, which is a huge challenge for the UN.”

Speaking of other constraints facing the UN, Dujarric speaks of technology and a shift in the acceptance of communication and ideas by the public as two profound areas of concern. “Managing technology that is ever changing brings forth questions of what platform and what medium to use. Few years ago, organisations would speak and people would listen; today populations at large don’t want to hear any more from organisations, they want to hear from their peers”, he says. Emphasizing on the role social media plays, Dujarric speaks of social networks as instruments of peer-to-peer communication and the challenge for the UN as that of inserting into that dialogue.


Engulfed by events and incidents of economical, social and humanitarian conflict, the reputation of the UN faces constant threat. Adopting an approach that meets the needs of stakeholders and influencers becomes key. If a small group of peacekeepers abuse children in Congo; the work of the organisation is tainted – such is the precarious nature of UN’s reputation.

“Managing reputation requires quick words and reaction. In my experience, after having dealt with some highly delicate political scandals, I am convinced that all of them could have been avoided if the information had been out there ahead of time and people would understand it. Hence, I believe it is all about proactive transparency,” says Dujarric.

He adds, “The UN needs to be humble in its approach and more open about its fragilities. The strength lies in adopting a multi language and multi cultural approach.”

Advocacy journalism

An organisation like the UN is present in every segment of life – from nuclear energy to regulating civil aviation, to humanitarian and development work. Maintaining focus on a particular issue while sustaining efforts on many other fronts becomes significant.

The role of advocacy journalism emerges here. Advocacy journalism as conventionally defined is a genre of journalism that intentionally adopts a viewpoint for a social or political purpose. What distinguishes it from propaganda is that it is based on facts.

“It is this component of advocacy journalism embedded in the mandate of the UN that enables it to ensure that forgotten stories are not forgotten. When the earthquake and tsunami occurred in Japan, last month, the UN pushed as many facts on issues of nuclear reactors to the International Atomic Agency. The UN also saw opportunities in offering pre-mix and edited raw material for producing news themselves. Our aim is to ensure that the organisation is in the background and people are in the front,” explains Dujarric.

Global news vs foreign news

Speaking of journalism, Dujarric draws light to the imperative nature of the global versus the foreign news agenda. “Foreign news includes events overseas – whether it has an impact at home is secondary. However, global news is understanding that what is happening over there and at home is exactly the same thing. Climate change is a primary example. Whether you live in Denmark or Mali climate change will have an impact on you, and that is global news. That is the concept that we have to sell to news editors,” he says.

A pertinent question that arises here is that at a time when audiences across the world are being inundated with news through numerous sources and there is a scenario of information overflow, how does an organisation like the UN that reaches out to fragmented audiences identify the right platform for engagement?

“It is easier to get distracted with new platforms and invest time and people when you don’t know the reach. If you have the luxury you should sit back and wait a little bit and see what is the latest thing that actually works, as supposed to putting your time and effort in something that doesn’t work. We have to remember – we are producers of news and content, but we are also consumers. If we as consumers find it boring, then our audience will have the same reaction,” explains the Head of News and Media at the UN.

Communicating for development

At present, the UN is making rigorous attempts to unite on the issue of violence in Syria; it is quizzing Libyan officials on human rights in Misruata and facing attacks by the Lankan government for its report on the Sri Lankan war crimes, in addition to facing much criticism for its resolution in support of the Palestinian statehood.

Core to each of these issues, is a dire need to communicate for development to increase efficiency and bring about social change. Reaffirming this, Dujarric says, “Communication for development is about social impact and behavioural change. How do you convince societies that the polio vaccination is not a plot by Western countries, how do you convince societies that boys and girls need to go to school? That is what communication for development is all about.”

Oil for food scandal

Drawing from his wealth of experiences as Spokesperson for the Secretary General -Kofi Annan, Dujarric speaks of transparency as a key enabler of diplomacy. The Oil for food program in Iraq has been the undercurrent for much speculation for the UN. The program that was established in the year 1995 by the United Nations to allow Iraq to sell oil in exchange for food, medicine and other humanitarian needs, was terminated in late 2003. The then Secretary General, Kofi Annan faced much criticism from different stakeholders for the financial irregularities and the callous management of the project that emerged through investigations. Many called for Kofi Annan’s resignation.

Recalling his work as Spokesperson, Dujarric says, “There were a lot of political and financial scandals that happened at the same time. Many of these scandals could have been averted had we been much more transparent as an organization. However, it is important to understand that the UN is a sum of its member states and the Secretary General is not an independent actor. He is given instructions by member states to do something. My disappointment was largely a lack of real defence for the organization by those countries that always supported the UN”.

Winning in a transnational world

It is a real need of the UN to work in conjunction with the private sector, with civil society and students to extend its unique international charter to those who need it the most.

Dujarric says, “To survive, the UN has to open its doors. It is a member state organization based on the concept of nation states that existed over 100 years ago. The world we have today is so much more transnational with many actors on the stage that have more impact. You have to ensure foundations, civil society, and the private sector work hand in hand with the UN in a transparent and more productive manner.”

In winning transnational stakeholders, the UN must present irrefutable evidence of its exemplary tools and forces of engagement so as to infuse in the member states – the ability to create a world order that conforms to the cultural values and political ambitions of its mandate.

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