WHAT DOES A COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST DO AT THE UN?
By Samuel Hendricks, communications specialist with international experience in public affairs and advocacy surrounding development, peacekeeping, humanitarian aid and human rights.
When Commtract invited me to write a short piece about working in communications for the United Nations, I replied that 400 words might not be enough. More like 4,000, I thought. For a start.
Although ‘the UN’ is general shorthand for a kind of moral referee in the world, a guardian of last resort, it is a complicated machine and impossible to reduce to a single identity or function. It’s a long way from the Security Council to a sub-regional office in the Pacific. Along with regional and country offices around the world, there are dozens of peacekeeping, political and humanitarian missions, as well as 15 specialised agencies that deal with everything from emergency aid to agricultural productivity to intellectual property. The UN Development Program supports poverty reduction and other measures in almost 170 countries. Communications is an integral part of all these operations, although some naturally get more attention than others.
Every day, people somewhere are fleeing their homes for safety, or surviving on food rations or lining up at a basic health clinic after walking many miles. Experts may be gathered to discuss the threat of new epidemics, or the future of humanitarian aid or how to confront the challenges of climate change. Diplomats might be debating the terms of a peace agreement, or the credibility of a recent national election or rising instability in a fragile state.
Getting these stories out – to the public, to the media, to governments, NGOs, academics…and to the UN itself – is critical to the organisation’s work. First of all, for a body charged with the responsibility of life-and-death decisions, transparency is a profound obligation. Moral authority and secrecy do not mix well, as the organisation has found out too many times.
Secondly, the donors that fund UN programs want to see that their money is well spent. That accountability can take the form not just of direct technical reports, but ‘human interest’ stories that demonstrate how those programs have a positive impact on people’s lives, whether in rural Nepal or a Haitian shantytown or a refugee camp across the border from Syria.
Thirdly, educating the public about how the UN works is an important element in sustaining its work and advocating for change. I don’t find much use for the expression ‘raising awareness’. The question is what people do with awareness. Will they vote differently, if they can vote? Will they make different career choices? Will they take to the streets in protest? Will they make a financial contribution? Education gives people a sense of what matters and how they can help make a difference.
For a comms person, that might mean writing a press release or organising a media briefing or putting up a story on the web. It might mean drafting an emergency situation report or taking calls from journalists or working on key messages. There will definitely be meetings along the way. There might be photo and video elements to consider. And of course there is social media, which has slowly forced much of the UN into a more open and creative approach to publicity.
On paper, it looks a lot like any other comms job, albeit sometimes with a tougher commute. In reality, it is a curious mix of journalism, advocacy and public relations.The largely unspoken part of the job is knowing which one of those hats to wear at any given time. The UN, after all, is a highly recognisable brand, in our endlessly marketed and commodified world. Promoting and protecting the brand is serious business. Like anywhere else —and maybe more — you have to believe in what you’re selling.