Responding to events or setting the agenda? Behind the scenes with the UN spokespeople

From human rights to disarmament and development, UNIS crystallizes many of the UN’s key messages in Geneva thanks to its privileged location and extended network of UN bodies.

“I speak for the UN Secretariat in Geneva,” Alessandra Vellucci tells us. Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) since 2016, Vellucci is the leading voice of the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), the second largest branch of the organization in the world after its headquarters in New York.

From human rights to disarmament and development, UNIS crystallizes many of the UN’s key messages in Geneva thanks to its privileged location and extended network of UN bodies. It’s a complex system in which assessing a communicator’s relevance on a given subject can often be confusing. “We periodically receive requests that pertain to the Secretary-General, but we cannot speak on such matters without prior clearance,” highlights Vellucci as we embark on a 360° tour of her service.

Prioritizing messages and permanent correspondents

While New York’s information centers sleep, UNIS uses its six-hour advantage to keep Geneva’s deadline-ridden reporters at bay; providing commentary for journalists when possible, or apologetically withholding a response when publicizing information on operations would compromise communication strategies. Catering to the press is far from the only job of the Information Service. In a temporary set of offices linking the Palais’ cafeteria to its archive building, Vellucci leads a staff of around twenty. Technicians monitor screens with live footage from the UN’s various conference rooms, while public information officers manage its content. In an adjoining set of cubicles, UN journalists select stories to release in both English and French, simultaneously working on an upcoming documentary funded by the World Food Program and shot across four continents. The bustling energy is not unlike that of a small newsroom.

On this particular rainy day, the tone, as often at the UN, is grave. The protests in Iran and Russia take center stage, followed by an Ebola outbreak—news items that leave little room for other important subjects, such as floods in the Philippines or an upcoming United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) conference.

This hierarchy of content demands significant patience from spokespeople responsible for communicating less pressing matters—patience that “generates frustration,” Vellucci acknowledges. “Whoever wishes to speak at the briefing has to let us know before 10 am. The hotter statements come first. Announcements come at the end,” she summarizes. Reporters also receive differentiated treatment, depending on their status within the organization. “We indulge the journalists with permanent press accreditation by periodically sending them briefing summaries and giving them extra attention when necessary,” Vellucci tells us. “Often, those with temporary badges come for specific events and do not master the UN’s complexity. It’s important to have people here who understand the full scope of our work.”

The UN’s slow but sure shift toward digital media

The VIP treatment of resident journalists practiced by UNIS is a declining occurrence today. The rise of social media, paralleled by the demise of traditional media, has rarefied news agency positions at the UN. Though a solid batch of correspondents still occupies offices on campus—as portrayed in last week’s piece,  communications teams throughout UNOG have adjusted to the world’s contemporary mode of content consumerism.

“Unfortunately, most of the media [organizations] covering the UN from Geneva have downsized over the years,” observes Jean Rodriguez, who has been Chief of the Information Unit for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) since 2009. “Our work involves a news component, of course, but also all the content for social media,” says Michele Zaccheo, the documentary filmmaker turned Chief of Radio and TV at UNIS, who we encountered briefly on site.

In fact, the UN’s shift towards Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and, more recently, TikTok, is just the tip of the communications iceberg. Elsewhere in the organization’s ecosystem, digital marketers and tech-savvy professionals are gaining momentum, as many UN information chiefs attest. “At the beginning of my career at the UN, 20 years ago, our success was measured by having full pages in newspapers with a positive take on our messages. Today, the job is about how many likes, views, reactions, and tweets we get,” acknowledges Aziyadé Poltier-Mutal, Head of the Perception Change Project (PCP). “In our case, measuring success is also about the number of partners we attract. It’s about people calling us and asking how they can replicate our messages.”

PCP, which aims to promote International Geneva as a catalyst for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), has made some notable social media moves, namely rallying youth for its 170 Actions to Embrace a Sustainable Lifestyle. “The general audience doesn’t exist anymore,” insists Poltier-Mutal. “Nowadays, we have to tailor information to different target audiences through a variety of channels. The job has become much more complex and requires technical knowledge.” Rolando Gómez, who has been with the UN for 30 years and currently serves as spokesman for the Human Rights Council (OHCHR), has grown his unit by hiring two communications experts specializing in social and multi-media. “When the Council was created in 2006, I was asked to establish a communications plan for the new body. At the time, my post was something between being a spokesperson and a communications officer. As our agendas became more packed and meetings more regular, I ended up building a small team which is increasingly active on the digital front. Prioritizing social media has proven very successful in enhancing our visibility and raising awareness. Our Twitter followers have more than doubled since adopting the new approach and expanding our team.”

Jenifer Fenton worked as a producer for CNN and Al Jazeera before joining the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, and echoes her UN counterparts. “My career started in 1999, when editing was still a tape-to-tape affair,” she remembers. “Luckily, I have two children who give me next-generation assistance on social media. As a communicator, it’s important to know who you need to reach and what platforms they are using.” For other UN bodies, traditional methods remain pertinent—as is the case for UNECE. The comms team is composed of four people: Chief Jean Rodriguez, a graphic designer, and two copywriters. “Social media is an increasingly important aspect of our work,” Rodriguez insists. “But traditional media have by no means become less relevant. We must also keep experts, member states, and academia informed.

In addition to media and social media, these people are mostly reached through dedicated newsletters, website publications, and reports.”

Public image and constructive journalism

With amplified social media presence comes an increased risk of public controversy, and repeated Human Rights violations and controversial management of the health crisis have attracted a hail of criticism to UNOG in recent years. Consequently, its public representation must continuously be micro-managed. “Image monitoring is part of the job,” acknowledges Jean Rodriguez. In an attempt to mitigate negative press, “constructive journalism”—a solution-oriented take on the news introduced to UNOG by Michael Moller back in 2017—has been an efficient way for communicators to put a more positive spin on controversial messages.

“Positive news is trendy now,” agrees Aziyadé Poltier-Mutal. “I know that journalists tend not to like the approach, as it carries the risk of introducing opinions into fact-based news pieces, but I believe that it’s a good way of making a positive impact on society through the media.”

Though the solution-oriented approach has been spreading like wildfire, repeated violations from authoritarian states including Russia and China make communications on human rights matters particularly challenging. “I think that there is a lot of unfair criticism that comes our way,” insists Rolando Gómez. “When distortions are made, I step in; for instance, by sending a letter to the editor responsible for a factually biased article and addressing the issue through press conferences and social media. My job is to try to set the record straight while monitoring what’s being said on a given matter.” It can sometimes be an uphill battle, however, as Gómez points out ruefully: “at the end of the day, people will write what they want.”