UN INFORMATION DEPARTMENT TAKES ACTION TO IMPROVE PUBLIC IMAGE OF UN AROUND WORLD, UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL TELLS INFORMATION COMMITTEE

18 April 2005
PI/1644

UN INFORMATION DEPARTMENT TAKES ACTION TO IMPROVE PUBLIC IMAGE OF UN AROUND WORLD, UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL TELLS INFORMATION COMMITTEE

18/04/2005
Press ReleasePI/1644

Committee on Information

Twenty-seventh Session

1st Meeting (AM)

UN INFORMATION DEPARTMENT TAKES ACTION TO IMPROVE PUBLIC IMAGE OF UN

 

AROUND WORLD, UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL TELLS INFORMATION COMMITTEE

Outlines Challenges, Accomplishments

Despite the Department of Public Information’s efforts to counter attacks on the United Nations in the media, and a number of successful initiatives which had been taken by the Department to tell the United Nations story to people around the world, “the United Nations’ standing in many countries has never been lower”, Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor told the Committee on Information this morning, as it opened its 2005 session.  Saying this was “sobering news”, Mr. Tharoor outlined the public information challenges and accomplishments of the Department.

The Department -- DPI -- had made measurable progress as a result of its reorientation, which had begun three years ago he said.  With the exception of the regionalization of the United Nations information centres (UNICs), DPI had implemented those aspects of the reform proposals that were within the authority of the Secretary-General or were based on existing General Assembly resolutions and guidance provided by the Committee on Information.  It had devised a new mission statement and new operating model, and reorganized itself to make better use of human and financial resources.  It had also set up new mechanisms to be more responsive to clients and had reached out to the media and civil society through new technologies.

In addition, he said, it had become the first Secretariat department to train managers in results-based budgeting and to develop credible performance evaluation.  All that had resulted in progress that could be measured -– and frequently was, as part of a culture of evaluation that had been institutionalized into the work of the Department.  “So, I hope Member States will consider DPI fully reoriented”, he said.

Four strategic directions had been established for the Department, he said.  Those were:  a client-oriented approach, reflecting the partnership between DPI and Secretariat departments; integration of new technologies at all levels of work; United Nations system-wide coordination that promoted collective use of vital resources; and strengthened partnerships with civil society and public sectors for global outreach.

In addition, he said there were challenges to “telling the UN story” because of the continuing allegations of corruption and mismanagement in some UN activities.  In response, media monitoring and outreach had been reinforced.  No charge against the Organization went unanswered; a “blizzard of public information initiatives” had been unleashed to counter attacks in the media, using television and print, with the assistance of UNICs, which had been instrumental in placing opinion articles in local media.

On the rationalization of the network of UNICs, he said that the realities facing DPI were insufficient resources and rising costs.  “Simply put, with its current resource base, DPI is in no position to open fully staffed and resourced regional hubs.”  For that reason, DPI proposed a recalibration, or realignment, of the rationalization plan giving some UNICs a greater coordinating role in providing strategic communications guidance and support on a regional or subregional level.

In the general debate that followed, delegates expressed approval for the process of reorientation.  Some speakers also stressed the importance of parity in official languages and the continued use of traditional media such as radio and print, and expressed concern over further rationalization of UNICs.  The representative of Jamaica, on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, underlined that any further rationalization of UNICs must be done in close coordination with host countries and must take into account the characteristics of different regions.  In developing countries, in particular, UNICs should be strengthened.

Luxembourg’s representative, on behalf of the European Union, expressed frustration over the General Assembly’s inability to agree, in the context of the programme budget for 2004-2005, on reinvesting financial savings from the closure of UNICs in Western Europe.  He stressed that such resources should be channelled to relevant UNICs worldwide.  He encouraged the General Assembly to make bold proposals to overhaul the UNIC network and create the proper balance of staff, skills and operational activities that would ensure efficient, effective outreach in each region.

Also speaking in the general debate were the representatives of Argentina, on behalf of the Rio Group, and Egypt.

Opening its twenty-seventh session this morning, the Committee also elected its bureau and adopted its agenda and programme of work.  By acclamation, Mihnea Ioan Motoc (Romania) was elected Chairman, and Marcelo Gabriel Suárez Salvia (Argentina), Sebastião Filipe Coelho Ferreira (Portugal) and Saadia El Alaoui (Morocco) were elected Vice-Chairpersons.  Muhammad Abdul Muhith (Bangladesh) was elected Rapporteur, also without a vote.

The newly elected Chairman, Mr. Motoc, noted the significance of the session, occurring during the sixtieth anniversary of the Organization and a time of change.  He said the Secretary-General’s report clearly showed that effective reform and reorganization of DPI had occurred.  The DPI was the voice through which the United Nations spoke and the Committee could strengthen that voice by giving the Department the tools it needed.

Chairman Motoc also welcomed the admission of new members of the Committee:  Cape Verde, Iceland, Luxembourg, Madagascar and Qatar.

The Committee on Information will meet again at 10 a.m. Tuesday, 19 April, to continue its general debate.

Background

The Committee on Information opened its twenty-seventh session today and was expected to begin its general debate.  [For background information, please see Press Release PI/1641 of 15 April 2005.  In addition to the documents in the background, the Committee would have before it a report of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) on the management of United Nations libraries.]

Opening Proceedings

IFTEKHAR AHMED CHOWDHURY (Bangladesh), former Chairman of the Committee, opened the meeting and introduced the election proceedings for bureau for the term of 2005-2006.

By acclamation, Mihnea Ioan Motoc (Romania) was elected Chairman.

Also by acclamation, Marcelo Gabriel Suárez Salvia (Argentina), Sebastião Filipe Coelho Ferreira (Portugal) and Saadia El Alaoui (Morocco) were elected as vice-chairs.  Muhammad Abdul Muhith (Bangladesh) was elected Rapporteur, also without a vote.

The CHAIRMAN then introduced the provisional agenda and programme of work for the session (document A/AC.198/2005/1).

The Committee then adopted, by consensus, the work programme and agenda, including the proposed oral amendment to consider the report of the Office of Internal Oversight Services on the Operation and Management of United Nations Libraries (document A/59/373) as part of the general debate.

MIHNEA IOAN MOTOC (Romania), Committee Chairman, then made an opening statement.  He thanked members for their support and noted the cooperative relationship that had existed between the Committee and the Department of Public Information (DPI).  He also noted the significance of the session, occurring during the sixtieth anniversary of the Organization and at a time of reform.  He said the Secretary-General’s report clearly show the effective reform and reorganization of DPI that had occurred.  The DPI was the voice through which the United Nations spoke and the Committee could strengthen that voice by giving the Department the tools it needs to community.

The Chairman then welcomed the admission of new members of the Committee:  Cape Verde, Iceland, Luxembourg, Madagascar and Qatar.  He said Austria had also requested membership. 

Statement of Under-Secretary-General

SHASHI THAROOR, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, after expressing appreciation for the Committee’s continuous support, said that in the past three years, DPI had undergone structural changes that had produced a new strategic orientation in its work, underpinned by a clear mission statement.  It had devised a new operating model and reorganized itself to make better use of human and financial resources.  It had set up new mechanisms to be more responsive to clients, particularly Member States.  It had also reached out to the media and civil society through new technologies, and became the first Secretariat department to train managers in results-based budgeting and to develop credible performance evaluation.  All that had resulted in measurable progress.

He said that with the exception of the regionalization of the United Nations information centres (UNICs), in fact, DPI had implemented all reforms that were within the authority of the Secretary-General or were based on existing General Assembly resolutions and guidance provided by the Committee on Information.  “So, I hope Member States will consider DPI fully reoriented”, he said.

With the reorientation process having concluded, Member States might ask:  What has been achieved in the course of this process?  Is DPI doing its work better today than it was three years ago?  In answer, he said “DPI’s task, simply put, is to tell the UN story.”  The public perception of the United Nations was the sum total of views held in the public mind.  In the past two years, that view had acquired a negative cast, amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement in some of its activities, and the United Nations’ relevance had been persistently challenged.  The United Nations’ image had been badly bruised.  Polls had shown less support for the Organization and less understanding about it, but, at the same time, the people around the world wanted a stronger United Nations that lived up to their expectations.  “In other words, people want to see the UN do more, not less.”

In response to the challenge of engaging public opinion, he said media monitoring and outreach were reinforced.  As a result, no charge against the Organization went unanswered; a “blizzard of public information initiatives” was unleashed to counter attacks in the media and a crisis communications team was mobilized.  The team set a daily strategy, not only on how best to respond to particular media coverage, but also on proactive and preventive action through television, print and the work of UN information centres.

Returning to the results of DPI’s reorganization, he said that four strategic directions had been established.  Those were: a client-oriented approach reflecting the partnership between DPI and Secretariat departments; integration of new technologies at all levels of work; UN system-wide coordination that promoted collective use of vital resources; and strengthened partnerships with civil society and public sectors for global outreach.  In addition, a culture of evaluation had been institutionalized into the work of the Department.

The new operating model recognized that content emanated from other entities of the UN system, while DPI managed the promotion and distribution, the messaging, the tools and the tactics to tell the UN story to the world.  The close client partnerships with UN departments had resulted in an over 80 per cent response of “very satisfied” to a recent survey of those clients.

DPI’s partnership with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) had proven practical and effective, he said.  For example, DPI advised the Office of DPKO’s Under-Secretary-General on strategic communications, media outreach, editorial response and special projects management.  The DPI also assisted DPKO in the public information aspects of mission support and planning, civilian training, and best practices.  Client consultation had also produced positive results in Haiti.  In June 2004, several peacekeeping missions with public information components said they were satisfied overall with the quality of the services provided to them by DPI.

Through increased use of information and communications technology, DPI had added several services, including live web casts of United Nations meetings, town hall meetings for staff; video clips on the UN website on topics ranging from peace and security to development to environmental degradation; a Network Interactive Content Access system for photo cataloguing; and expanded radio programmes.  The United Nations News Centre was fully multilingual, and as more materials were being made available in languages other than English and French, increasing numbers of visitors turned to the UN website as a resource across all official languages.  The United Nations information centres were hosting websites in non-official languages such as Bangla, Czech, Farsi, Kiswahili, Malagasy and Thai.  In addition, the Regional UN Information Centre (RUNIC) in Brussels provided information on its website in most West European languages.  Such services and their maintenance were financed within existing budgetary resources.

Through the recently created Outreach Division, DPI had strengthened partnerships with civil society and had expanded its reach to targeted audiences, including through regular seminars on tolerance and understanding, and a Meet the Author programme in the United Nations bookshop.  In 2004, there was an 11 per cent increase in the number of visitors taking the guided tour at Headquarters over 2003.  DPI’s role as focal point in the recent filming at UN Headquarters of “The Interpreter”, the first film to be shot in the UN premises, was an excellent example of how DPI benefits from non-traditional partnerships to get the UN message out.

The United Nations Communications Group (UNCG), created as part of DPI’s overall reorientation, gave the Organization a common communications platform.  The UNCG’s efforts had made television news footage on current events available for immediate use throughout the United Nations system, and DPI and its UNCG partners had created UNIFEED, which distributed video material daily to over 500 broadcasters worldwide.

The United Nations libraries were redefining their roles as independent repositories and were moving from building and maintaining book and periodical collections to facilitating a knowledge-enabled environment and the exchange of information among stakeholders –- from collections to connections.  The Dag Hammarskjöld Library had undergone a significant change of focus from looking inward and serving the Secretariat to reaching out to meet the needs of missions and the UN global client base.  In that connection, he drew attention to the report of the OIOS on the review of operation and management of the UN libraries.  The recommendations of the OIOS had been taken into account by the Dag Hammarskjöld Library in developing the strategy for UN libraries and had addressed its recommendation to develop a new UN library policy, which took into account the opportunities for collaboration for advanced technologies and the Internet.

Turning to the UNICs, he said the rationale behind regionalization was to consolidate limited resources into a critical mass in a smaller number of locations, and thereby make a greater impact.  But, two developments undermined the original proposals.  First, experience in closing the nine UNICs in Western Europe taught that it was more costly, at least in the short term, to close centres than to keep them running.  In fact, it had so far cost the Department about $3 million to close the above centres, taking into account liquidation requirements and the payment of termination indemnities to staff.  To make matters worse, the General Assembly cut $2 million from the operational budget of UNICs and that, coupled with other factors, meant they had little money left for programmatic activities.  As a result, consolidating them no longer generated enough funds to create a credible regional centre. “Simply put, with its current resource base, DPI is in no position to open fully staffed and resourced new regional hubs”, he said.

He outlined key features of a revised plan and said the raison d’être behind the rationalization plan for UNICs was to enhance their effectiveness, thereby strengthening the United Nations presence at the local and regional levels.  Closing centres was never meant as an end in itself and he believed, through the revised plan, the goals could be met within the constraints imposed upon the Department.  The Department also hoped to learn from Brussels how rationalization worked and what -- if any -- adjustments to that model were needed.  Some advantages were obvious.  Brussels had already emerged as a highly desirable launching pad for many United Nations reports and initiatives.  However, the experience also served as a reminder that there was value to maintaining a presence on the ground, particularly where a centre could provide a variety of information services and amplify the United Nations voice at the local level.

The decision to embrace sweeping changes in DPI’s structure and operational philosophy was a deliberate move born of necessity, he said in closing.  “Three years later, we can say with confidence, it was also the right move.”  Today, DPI’s focus is sharper, its target audiences are better defined and the tools it needs are in place.  With that done, “we know our work has only begun”.

Other Statements

JANICE MILLER (Jamaica), on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said that DPI had made worthwhile efforts to ensure that the Department remained at the forefront of the communications strategy of the Organization.  In regard to the challenge of negative publicity, she said DPI had an indispensable role in promoting a positive image of the United Nations that should be continued to be carried out in all media in all nations, especially in that of the host country.

In addition, she expressed appreciation that DPI had continued to maintain its regular programme, promoting the Millennium Development Goals and such subjects as dialogue among civilizations.  She reaffirmed the importance of DPI in providing accurate, impartial, comprehensive and timely information on the Organization, and she stressed the importance of a consistent message between DPI and other United Nations entities.

She agreed that the process of reorientation had been completed.  In regard to UNICs, she underlined that any further rationalization must be done in close coordination with host countries and must take into account the characteristics of different regions.  In developing countries, in particular, UNICs should be strengthened.

The Group of 77, she said, urged DPI to promote the World Summit on Information Society to be held in Tunis from 16 to 18 November 2005.  In addition, the Group supported efforts to strengthen the United Nations website in all official languages, with the goal of parity.  Traditional media, both radio and print, should be continued to be used.  She expressed approval of added radio programmes dedicated to Africa and Asia.

Approving of close coordination between DPI and the DPKO, she said, however, that information in peacekeeping should be under the financial responsibility of peacekeeping.  In regard to libraries, she stressed that all changes should take into account General Assembly resolutions and challenges faced by Member States in utilizing new technology.

ROMAIN KOHN (Luxembourg), speaking on behalf of the European Union, said the objectives set forth in the Millennium Declaration and the Secretary-General’s report “In Larger Freedom” could only be achieved through public awareness of the links between development, security, human rights, justice and rule of law.  The DPI, capitalizing on advances in information technology and communications, had a crucial role in communicating necessary information to the public. Self-evaluation and performance management were essential for DPI’s success, he said, lauding DPI’s new impact reviews.

He supported the Secretary-General’s proposal for regional hubs and the difficult decision to close several UNICs in Europe.  However, he had expected other MemberStates and regional groups to follow suit, should circumstances warrant.  He expressed frustration over the General Assembly’s inability to agree on how to reinvest financial saving from the closure of UNICs in Western Europe in the context of the 2004-2005 programme budget, stressing that such resources should be channelled to UNICs worldwide that were part of the UNIC regionalization process.  He encouraged the General Assembly to make bold proposals to overhaul the UNIC network and create the proper balance of staff, skills and operational activities that would ensure efficient, effective outreach in those regions.

CESAR MAYORAL (Argentina), speaking on behalf of the Rio Group, lauded the collaboration of DPI and Member States to close the digital divide and improve television, radio and print communications, as well as DPI’s support for implementation of the Millennium Development Goals at the international and local levels.  He supported DPI’s rationalization process and efforts to make more effective DPI’s role, particularly in public information dissemination and civil society partnerships in developing countries.

He noted that the regionalization process begun last year in Western Europe had been expensive and that DPI lacked sufficient resources to move its process forward. DPI’s proposal for a more strategic communications approach giving UNICs broader programme functions in their respective regions was not a preparatory step towards further rationalizing or closing more UNICs.  Rather, it focused on making the existing UNIC network more efficient.  He also attached great importance to multilingualism of DPI services and lauded the expansion of the United Nations website to include official documents in the six official languages.  He stressed the need to extend website access to disabled persons, noting the United Nations’ recent increased focus on disability issues.

TAREK ADEL (Egypt), associating his statement with that of Jamaica on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, expressed approval for the efforts of DPI and its Under-Secretary-General and many of the reorientation methods.  He commended its efforts to respond to attacks on the Organization, but stressed that there should be more focus on the Millennium Development Goals, dialogue between civilizations, Africa, and other matters at the core of the United Nations agenda.

He said that it was also important to highlight events and issues that affected the rights of the Palestinian people and other matters in the Middle East.  For that purpose, his country was hosting an information conference.  He also stressed the importance of a unified United Nations message and equality between official languages.  He expressed hope that more resources would be made available to UNICs in developing countries, particularly in Africa.  An information centre should be set up in Addis Ababa for better communications with the African Union, and in Luanda, Angola, in Portuguese, and Egypt’s UNIC should be further enhanced.

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For information media. Not an official record.