25 April 2008
General Assembly

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Background Release



The thirtieth session of the Committee on Information, the intergovernmental body charged with reviewing progress in the field of United Nations public information, will open its annual session on Monday, 28 April.  The strategic communications work of the Department of Public Information, including communications campaigns on key issues, activities of the network of United Nations Information Centres, services to the media, enhanced use of information technology and partnerships with civil society are among the wide range of issues delegates are expected to address.

The Secretary-General, in his two-part report on the Department’s activities, notes that, through the clear articulation of communications goals and optimal use of resources, the Department has steadily gained public understanding of and support for the United Nations.  By developing its strategic communications work plans based on the four priority themes of development, including the Millennium Development Goals, peace and security, human rights and climate change, the Department has been able to sharpen the focus of its worldwide communications activities, as well as improve synergy between Headquarters and the field, particularly between United Nations country teams and the United Nations Communications Group.

An emphasis on a culture of evaluation and results has helped the Department identify its strengths and weaknesses, as well as better align products, services and activities with the needs of target audiences.  The end result of those efforts has been an 84 per cent positive rating on average by users.

The Department continues to provide daily news worldwide on the full range of the Organization’s diverse activities and has launched a redesigned version of its main news portal, the United Nations News Centre, as part of overall efforts to improve online delivery of United Nations news and related resources.

In the second part of his report, the Secretary-General notes that the Department, building on the progress made in the past years towards rationalizing the work of United Nations Information Centres, has further strengthened their work by expanding partnerships with United Nations system organizations, Governments, civil society and the private sector, making better use of new information and communications technology, bolstering its information presence in key locations by allocating resources and strengthening professional staffing.  The creation last year of new and revamped websites for Information Centres around the world will further enable the Department to reach wider audiences.

In his report, the Secretary-General also reviews progress in meeting the challenges to achieving parity, as requested by Member States, in the six official languages of the United Nations website, while more efficiently managing its content.  The Department is focusing on key areas, not only redesigned news pages, but also webcasting, audio, video and photographs, to enhance the site’s appeal and its multilingual, accessible nature.

A central focus of the Department has been expanding its partnership with civil society, the Secretary-General states.  It has been developing innovative approaches to communicate United Nations messages through non-governmental organizations, educators, students, international celebrities and the private sector in an increasingly integrated way.

Established by the General Assembly in 1978, the Committee examines public information policies and activities in light of evolving international relations, and it evaluates the United Nations progress in the information and communication field.  Comprising 110 members, the Committee is also tasked with promoting a new, more just and more effective world information and communication order to strengthen peace and international understanding, based on the free circulation and wider and more balanced dissemination of information.

Report Summaries

The report of the Secretary-General on Activities of the Department of Public Information (part one) (document A/AC.198/2008/2), which summarizes key advances in the Department’s work from July 2007 to February 2008, notes that the Department, through the clear articulation of communications goals and optimal use of resources, has made steady progress in gaining public understanding of and support for the United Nations work.  By adopting a strategic approach that called for doing what mattered most in areas where it could have the greatest impact, the Department has identified broad communications priority themes, organized according to the three pillars of the Organization -- development, peace and security and human rights -- as well as climate change.  Its emphasis on increased cooperation with United Nations system partners through the United Nations Communications Group contributes to progress and enables the United Nations system in times of crisis to work together, coordinate activities and address communications concerns through a common approach.  In that regard, the guidelines for United Nations communicators on key issues have been timely and effective.

By developing its strategic communications work plans in the field and at Headquarters on the basis of the broad priority themes, the Department has been able to increase the focus on worldwide communications activities, as well as improve synergy between Headquarters and the field, particularly between United Nations country teams and the United Nations Communications Group.  In January 2008, the Department identified the four broad communications priority themes, as well as Africa as a regional focus and youth as a strategic audience for its communications work.  It also provided a preliminary calendar for 2008 events and a note on the four International Years designated by the General Assembly for observance in 2008.

Created in 2002, the United Nations Communications Group has emerged as a strong unifying platform for United Nations communicators.  Through weekly meetings at Headquarters, issue-specific task forces and annual meetings at the principals’ level, it continues to be an effective mechanism for developing and implementing common communications strategies.  The Group has created several communications task forces on specific issues -- including climate change, the Millennium Development Goals, the Arab world and public-opinion polling -- which have proven particularly effective in implementing joint communications strategies.  With the establishment of United Nations communications groups in more than 80 countries, United Nations communicators at the national level have found an effective tool for pooling their resources and combining their efforts to achieve common communications goals.

The client consultation process, now a regular feature of the Department’s strategic approach to communications, aims to further integrate its work with the substantive work of the Organization.  The Strategic Communications Division, which is primarily responsible for that process, continues to consult with and advise substantive departments on strategies and tactics needed to communicate messages about key priorities.

The Department also continues to work closely with the Office of the Spokesperson and the Director of Communications in the Office of the Secretary-General to correct inaccuracies and address misrepresentations in the media about the United Nations.  Thanks to vigorous efforts by the Department and the United Nations Information Centres, during the second part of 2007, some 295 media outlets published opinion and editorial articles by the Secretary-General.

The report concludes that the Department’s emphasis on a culture of evaluation has helped it to identify areas of strength and weakness, and to better align products and activities with targeted audiences’ needs.  The average positive rating of the Department’s products, services and activities among users is now 84 per cent.  The number of annual programme impact reviews has more than tripled since 2002 to 19 programme evaluations in 2007, covering a wide range of Department products, services and activities.  The Department has also been working to improve data-collection tools, such as tracking the number of times United Nations Television videos were utilized by television stations using satellite feeds.

Among the Department’s thematic communications campaigns, the report notes that it worked closely with the Millennium Campaign to support the “Stand Up and Speak Out against Poverty” initiative and promoted the Secretary-General’s launch of the Millennium Development Goals Report 2007, generating extensive media coverage.  A United Nations Communications Group task force is coordinating system-wide outreach activities on the human rights advocacy campaign for the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The Department chaired an inter-agency task force on climate change, with a view to keeping the focus on the priority issues of climate change, especially with regard to the launch of the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the coordination and promotion of two major events:  the high-level event on climate change in September 2007 and the Climate Change Conference in Bali in December 2007.  The task force coordinated outreach, messages and activities relating to these events.  An analysis of the media coverage of the Bali Conference showed that 46 per cent of the media portrayed the Conference outcome as being positive, 32 per cent as being neutral and 22 per cent as being negative.  In terms of overall coverage, 96 per cent considered the role of the United Nations and the Secretary-General in support of the process to be very positive.

The Department continues to play an important role in planning public information components of new peacekeeping operations and in providing communications support and guidance to ongoing missions, the report adds.  For example, it planned the public information component for the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) and the public information section for the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT).  Department staff visited missions in Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, Sudan and Timor-Leste to help with communications strategies and challenges, as well as assisted peacekeeping missions in creating their own websites through the introduction of a content management system.  By continuing to assist the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in raising public awareness on progress to end sexual exploitation by United Nations personnel, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was able to report that allegations of abuse had fallen dramatically in the second half of 2007.  Media coverage of the issue is now less sensational than in the past.

Describing the Department’s news services, the report notes that the Department continues to provide daily news worldwide on the full range of the Organization’s diverse activities.  This year, with support from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNIFeed will launch a web-based delivery service to broadcasters that will supplement the satellite feed.  The launch of the monthly television programme, 21st Century, has made it possible to expand the global audience for United Nations Television.  That programme reflects many important global issues through high-quality human interest stories that are easily adaptable into language versions.  Already carried by several broadcasting companies, the programme’s audience continues to grow.

In ongoing efforts to bring the Organization’s core messages to the widest possible global audience, United Nations Radio has continued to expand and strengthen its partnerships with a broad range of local, national and regional broadcasters.  The Department is contacting potential radio partners identified by a study of a leading audience research organization of radio broadcasters in 20 African and Asian countries that transmit in one or more languages in which United Nations Radio broadcasts.  Also, additional distribution to francophone Africa is under way, targeting 200 private, commercial and community radio stations in Africa, using the WorldSpace Afristar satellite and the Radio France Internationale OrdiSpace download system.  United Nations Radio is also preserving and making available on the United Nations website unique United Nations Radio dramas and documentaries from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Following the success of the English-language United Nations Radio News Service, a pilot programme offering short news reports and sound bites to radio stations over the Web, United Nations Radio now offers not only packaged programmes but also frequent short reports and access to raw audio, giving broadcasters more flexibility and convenience.  That system has been adopted by the Spanish, Arabic and Portuguese units and will be launched in other languages in the first half of 2008.

Further, the Department is studying ways to improve access and usability of the online versions of press releases by making stylistic changes and modifications to the current database.  The report, at the request of Member States, also provides options for ways to expand press releases beyond English and French to the Organization’s other official languages.  Timely issuance of press releases has continued to improve, with 84 per cent of all press releases posted within two hours of the close of a meeting.

With a focus on improving the online delivery of United Nations news and related resources, the Department has launched a redesigned version of its main news portal, the United Nations News Centre.  The number of visitors to the Centre’s English-language site reached 1 million in November 2007 and the number of subscribers to the site’s e-mail news service in English and French increased steadily to almost 52,000 in December 2007.  In efforts to draw the world media’s interest to stories that did not attract adequate attention, the Department continues to compile a new list of “Ten stores the world should hear more about”, with the most recent list having been released on 27 March.

On knowledge-sharing and library services, the report notes that, while the Dag Hammarskjöld Library provided direct support to clients at Headquarters through training, coaching, reference services and content analysis, it has also extended its reach to Secretariat staff worldwide through an internal communication and knowledge-sharing strategy and to Member States through its network of depository libraries.  Through individual coaching and training, the Personal Knowledge Management programme helps Secretariat staff and delegates alike to face the challenges posed by the overwhelming amount of information that must be managed.  That programme is gradually being adopted by member libraries.

The Library has steadily been expanding its online services.  Its planned relocation has increased the urgency of expediting the digitization of United Nations documents to ensure availability.  Ageing digitization equipment was replaced in late 2007, and in early 2008 the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management made available to the Library a high-speed book scanner for the digitization of early and now fragile United Nations documentation.

A central focus of the Department has been expanding its partnership with civil society, the report adds.  It has been developing new ways to communicate United Nations messages through non-governmental organizations, educators, students, international celebrities and the private sector in an increasingly integrated way.  The Department’s sixtieth annual conference for non-governmental organizations, held in September 2007, adopted a conference declaration, the first such declaration adopted in the conference’s history.  In view of the need to expand the United Nations reach to civil society outside North America, the Department has decided to break with the 60-year practice of holding the conference at Headquarters and will instead hold the 2008 conference in Paris.

In terms of expanding educational outreach, the Department’s Internet-based educational website, Cyberschoolbus, has launched a new portal, “Ask the Secretary-General”, a feature on disarmament and non-proliferation for intermediate and secondary schools, in partnership with the Office of Disarmament Affairs.  Through other features, such as the UN Works programme, the UN Chronicle, the Yearbook of the United Nations, as well as other programmes, the Department engages the global public in dialogue on United Nations issues.

Concerning public relations, the report notes that the number of visitors to the United Nations rose to 444,566 in 2007 from 436,755 in 2006 -- the highest number since 2000.  During such visits, guides provided information about the United Nations activities in such areas as the Millennium Development Goals, climate change and demining.  In terms of sales and marketing, in 2007 the website of the Department’s Sales and Marketing Section was completely redesigned to provide users with an enhanced experience.  Sales from the site continue to grow, increasing by 7 per cent compared with the previous year.  Sales at the United Nations bookshop in New York in 2007 were the highest on record, increasing 12 per cent over 2006.  The Section also handled more than 500 requests for permission to disseminate and sell United Nations publications as reprints of the original editions or translations for local markets.  Annual royalty income from those activities increased by 32 per cent over the previous year.

The General Assembly’s adoption of resolution 62/87 on the Capital Master Plan has made it possible for the Department to better determine the future of several activities, the report adds.  Thanks to discussions with the Capital Master Plan team, a strategy has been developed to maintain some visitor services, such as guided tours, the United Nations bookshop and exhibitions, during the renovation period.  A small information centre for delegations has been planned as part of the temporary conference facility.  The Library will also seek to redesign its services through increased online facilities to support the Organization’s information needs.

Also before the Committee was the report of the Secretary-General on Activities of the Department of Public Information (part two) (document A/AC.198/2008/3), which notes that the Department, guided by the decisions of the Committee on Information and building on progress made in the past years towards rationalizing the work of United Nations Information Centres, further strengthened their work by expanding partnerships with United Nations system organizations, Governments, civil society and the private sector, making better use of new information and communications technology, bolstering its information presence in key locations by reallocating resources, and strengthening professional staffing.  In most cases, the Information Centres have been working to support United Nations country teams through the United Nations Communications Group.  This Group, now established in over 80 countries, serves as a common communications platform for the United Nations system.  Serving as secretariat, the centres often play a key role in this forum.

The strengthening of the Information Centres in Cairo, Mexico City and Pretoria has led to greater interaction among the centres in their regions on collective approaches to specific communications challenges, the sharing of tasks such as translation, joint activities to highlight different issues and assistance in addressing the operational needs and concerns of Information Centres in neighbouring countries, the report adds.

Last year, the Department created 26 new and revamped websites for Information Centres in developing countries, including 16 in sub-Saharan Africa.  All 63 Information Centres now have functioning websites with information available in five official languages.  Websites created by the Information Centres network provide information in 28 non-official languages.  New webmaster positions in Brussels, Cairo, Mexico City and Pretoria will further strengthen the Department’s virtual team of information technology specialists.  With the growing trend towards web-based information delivery, it is essential that Information Centres have up-to-date information on international developments and global issues, as well as the equipment needed to access that information.  The level of funding provided to the Department for the network of United Nations Information Centres for 2008, however, is below what is realistically needed and calls into serious question the ability of the Department to replace and upgrade communications equipment for its field offices in the current biennium, the report adds.

According to the report, as manager of the United Nations website, the Department has been putting forth its best efforts to address the complex challenge of achieving parity among the six official languages, as requested by Member States.  All other content-providing offices face the same challenge.  The practicality and scale of resources needed to meet the General Assembly’s request have been submitted in earlier reports to the Committee on Information and the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary).

Visitors from more than 212 countries and territories access the United Nations website, viewing more than 1.3 million pages daily.  In order to quantify usage of the website, the Department has been using “visits” as a second measure of usage in addition to “page views”.  The non-English sites show the strongest growth for both visits and page views, with an average increase of 28.6 per cent in 2007.  An analysis of the entry and exit pages has indicated that many users visit pages directly instead of navigating to those pages from the home page.

The report also notes that, while there has been notable progress in adding more new pages in languages other than English, far more pages are available in English than the other languages.  Partnerships with universities for pro bono translations had added a total of 2,552 new pages to the website in Chinese, Russian and Spanish, and the Department is continuing efforts to enlist the support of an institution of higher learning to do the same for Arabic.  Support from Member States would be important in establishing such a relationship.

The report adds that owing to the United Nations website’s decentralized nature, with more than 143 user offices directly posting material, not all sections of the website are handled or managed by the Department.  Through its Web Services Section, the Department handles the bulk of material in languages other than English and French, but at present there is no count of the pages added individually by other offices -- a labour-intensive process that must be implemented by each content-providing office.  As the responsibility for making their information materials available on the websites in the official languages lies with the individual author offices, the Department has sought to promote multilingualism actively on the website across the Secretariat bilaterally with author offices.

In 2006, the General Assembly made four new professional posts available to the Web Services Section to set up separate Language Units.  At the same time, to meet the Assembly’s new requirements set forth in resolution 61/122 B, to ensure that all new and updated pages are accessible to persons with visual, hearing and other disabilities, all new web projects are being designed to meet accessibility requirements in accordance with World Wide Web Consortium standards.  As such, the originally intended impact of the new posts has not been fully realized.  Other efforts to increase parity are centred on the Dag Hammarskjöld Library and Knowledge Sharing Centre (DHLink), which ensures that official documents ware fully indexed and made accessible through the Official Documents System (ODS), as well as the Library’s United Nations Bibliographic Information System (UNBISnet).

Webcasting, now available in the language delivered in addition to English, has proven to be a cost-effective communications tool with global outreach.  In 2007, United Nations webcast provided live and on-demand coverage of more than 2,200 events and more than 16.1 million live and archived webcast videos were viewed by users from more than 198 countries and territories.  The Department is seeking ways to expand webcast services in the six official languages to the extent possible and to strengthen webcasting capacity in order to meet the increased demand at Headquarters and other duty stations, such as Geneva, for webcast videos.

In 2007, the webcast team provided live and on-demand coverage of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali in December and, through Member States’ voluntary contributions, of the Human Rights Council’s four sessions in Geneva.  It will have to continue to rely on voluntary contributions to ensure complete coverage of future Human Rights Council sessions, as requested by the Council in its December 2006 decision 3/104.

The rationale behind the drive to enhance multilingualism of the website is to ensure wider access to information on the United Nations to people worldwide, according to the report.  Technical improvements to the website are a key means to that end, as is progress in improving access for persons with disabilities.

Recognizing that website governance could be significantly improved with a content management system, the Department continues to work closely with the Information Technology Services Division of the Department of Management to acquire a system.  Last year, the Department participated in an evaluation exercise and the validation of a proof of concept for a web content management system as part of an overall Enterprise Content Management System.  Because content is separate from presentation in such a system, the same content could be presented in different formats to match different contexts.

According to the report, the system would facilitate institutional branding and ensure easier content management, as well as improve access to all web facilities for persons with disabilities, improve content integrity by eliminating multiple copies and enabling strict version control, facilitate strong content retention policies and meet all applicable standards for security and privacy, among other benefits.  An enterprise content management software has been selected and a contract has been signed with a vendor for licenses, training and limited professional services.  The Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions has endorsed the funding proposal to pay for the system, which is now awaiting review by the Fifth Committee.

The report concludes that, while the Department has been able to increase the volume of new material on the site and handle maintenance, the capacity has been tempered by new requirements of ensuring access by persons with disabilities and the heightened security requirements to keep out hackers.  In order to achieve the highest impact, the Department has, therefore, focused its efforts on key areas visited more often.

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For information media • not an official record