Target group: the world. The UN’s post-2015 communications effort

Spreading information about the post-2015 process is a huge communications effort for the UN. Does the world organization regard itself as a public educator?

29.10.2014

A gigantic communications and PR effort is required to beat the drum about the post-2015 process. Target group: the entire world.

Two United Nations professionals, Maher Nasser and Wynne Boelt, are doing this exact job: raising awareness for the post-2015 development agenda. The two men work for the UN Department of Public Information. Nasser is Acting Head of the Department of Public Information, and director of the Outreach Division. Boelt is public information officer in the Strategic Communications Division. In this article they explore the idea of the UN as a public educator. What does it take to make a message heard for millions, even billions of people?

Simplification, emotion, intellect

The Department of Public Information promotes the post-2015 development agenda to different audiences, including the general public, through a broad range of channels. These include the web, traditional media outlets, events, public campaigns, videos and social media tools. A dose of interactivity is added by their colleagues from the UN Millennium Campaign who created the MY World survey, asking people to directly vote on the issues important to them for post-2015.

According to Wynne Boelt, the recipe of reaching the broad public is to create a simple and straightforward message that gathers the attention of many different people. This message has to be backed up by facts, figures and evidence, but added with something that people can relate with:

– You only have to look at a film like Blood Diamond that not only helped create a massive shift in attitudes and behaviour towards purchasing certified non-conflict diamonds, it also graphically depicted the process of the forceful conscription and conditioning of child soldiers, Maher Nasser adds.

Consequently, the Outreach Division has worked with productions as varied as TV series, reality TV shows and serious films. “Film and television has a tremendous ability to reach the hearts and minds of a huge number of people across a wide landscape. The impact of each project ranges from exposing audiences to critical issues on the UN agenda to simply some high-profile branding of the UN, along with a broad overview of its work.“, Nasser explains.

Maher Nasser. / Photo: Wikipedia

Wynne Boelt / Photo: UN

It’s about Europe as well

The post-2015 development agenda is, ideally, about putting the planet on a more sustainable path for future generations, which requires lot of negotiations amongst the UN’s 193 Member States and other stakeholders. A common misconception in Western countries is that the post 2015 process concerns only the developing world.

– Europeans should be informed about the process because everyone will be affected by what is agreed. Even in countries that enjoy some of the highest levels of development in the world, there is still room for improvement and Europeans still have time to influence their governments”, Wynne Boelt explains.

Fighting media oversaturation

In this time and age, the public is inundated with media messages. Maher Nasser believes that the UN has a certain competitive advantage in the competition between media messages.

– The UN has become the bona-fide voice of humanity. The voice of the Secretary-General as the “world’s top diplomat” carries enormous moral weight and commands attention”, Nasser thinks.

Wynne Boelt admits that the whole post 2015 process, with its multitude of committees and statements, may appear foreign and exhausting to the average citizen. However, he believes, the core issues behind it all are rather simple and can grab people’s attention.

– Nearly everyone relates to themes such as education, health and economics. And most of all poverty eradication.

The UN has also chosen to highlight the historical nature of 2015. World leaders are coming together in September 2015 in New York to agree on the post-2015 development agenda. In a separate process, an agreement on climate change is expected in Paris in December 2015.

Yet another method of making UN’s message easier to digest is branding. Instead of presenting the Post 2015 process as one big monolith, the world organization is in the midst of rolling out a simple brand: 2015: Time for Global Action. Post 2015 issue will be broken down, packaged and communicated in a way that makes them appealing and engaging.

– This brand is a bit of a sneak peak as it is still in development. The point is really to get partners to use this brand with their own materials, Wynne Boelt explains.

An essential role for educators

Despite extensive outreach activities Maher Nasser does not see the UN as a public educator, but as a communications facilitator. Educators, for their part, are important disseminators of UN messages.
The UN engages academic partners worldwide to include global awareness into curricula and school activities. The Education Outreach Section manages two remembrance programmes and organizes student observances on UN issues and values.

An example is the International Day of Peace which is commemorated on 21 September. On this day the UN and civil society partners urge educators to engage students and young adults to understand the message of peace. Educators explain the theme for the year and invite students to work on a peace project. Every year, the students then present these projects at UN Headquarters.
For over ten years, The UN also has organized a Human Rights conference with educators from Canada, Mexico and the United States. A theme is chosen at the beginning of the year, educational materials such as study guides for teachers and students are developed. Students around the world research various human rights themes and then, over the course of a three-day video-linked conference, develop human rights campaigns for their specific communities.

UN academic impact -Intellectual social responsibility

The United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) is a global initiative that calls institutions of higher education to work with the UN in its global tasks. The initiative is based on the concept of intellectual social responsibility. For Maher Nasser this is no different from the better known Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

– The world is very much defined and shaped by ideas that come from the intellectual community. Therefore we expect intellectuals –professors, academicians, artists and students – to address the concerns of the society, he explains.

Over 1,000 colleges and universities from over 120 countries have joined UNAI, making it one of the fastest growing movements in the academic world.

An example of a fruitful cooperation the Black Sea Universities Network, representing over 130 academic institutions in the Black Sea Region, are implementing more than 30 projects aimed at improving the sustainability of the Black Sea region. Another case is South Korea, where the Korean Association in support of UNAI brings together more than 50 universities and colleges, holding an annual student contest and international conference on post 2015 development themes.

“Sphere within a sphere” (Arnaldo Pomodoro) at the UN headquarters, New York City. / Photo: Norbert Nagel