Promoting the Image of the United Nations: Kofi Annan's Celebrity Ambassador Program and World Summit

By Lim, Young Joon | Journalism History, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Promoting the Image of the United Nations: Kofi Annan's Celebrity Ambassador Program and World Summit


Lim, Young Joon, Journalism History


As the United Nations was formed with the idea that it should take the main role in maintaining international peace and security, significant global conflicts such as those in Somalia and Bosnia under Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghalis era of 1992 to 1996 inflicted significant functional and reputational wounds on the organization.1 Moreover, the United Nations' estranged relationship with the U.S. government gave rise to serious questions among a segment of the U.S. population about the wisdom of remaining in the United Nations. For example, when the administration of President Ronald Reagan decided to pull out of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) over the debate on the New World Information and Communication Order in 1984, some conservatives proposed that the U.S. withdraw entirely from United Nations membership. The conservative Heritage Foundation in a 1984 report noted that diplomats could solve international problems with informal meetings in London, Paris, or Washington "without the UN's costly Secretariat, its cronyism, legions of bureaucrats, high salaries, and anti-Western ideology."2 It wrote that if the UN failed to stop being anti-United States, anti-West, and anti-free enterprise, "The US and other democratic nations should consider withdrawing from the UN."3 It concluded: "A world without the UN would be a better world."4 The critics of the United Nations used the U.S. pullout from UNESCO to fix an image in the U.S. public mind of "a blathering, incompetent, corrupt United Nations."4 The United Nations was not able to rid itself of the image, even after it teamed with President George H.W. Bush's administration to fight Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991. The war was considered a success for the Bush administration, rather than for the UN.

This article analyzes a public relations campaign conducted by the United Nations under Secretary-General Kofi Annan to improve its image with the public in general and to raise the United Nations' profile as an active problem solver on the world stage in particular. Annan undertook four separate campaigns:

( 1 ) The 2005 World Summit, the largest event put on by the UN, in which it invited more than 150 presidents, prime ministers, and kings to the UN headquarters in New York City along with more than three thousand journalists from around the world;

(2) The 2004 Global Compact Leaders Summit, which brought hundreds of world business leaders to the UN to come to agreement on practicing good business ethics;

(3) The Ten Stories Project, in which the UN promoted ten news stories each year from 2004 to 2007 in an effort to focus news media attention on issues that ranked high on the UN's agenda;

(4) The Goodwill Ambassador/Messenger of Peace program during Annan's term of 1997 to 2006, in which the UN named world celebrities as spokesmen in an attempt to draw attention to particular crises, such as the genocide in Darfur.6

This article explores the four campaigns to study the successes and failures of the United Nations' public relations performances in the global arena of international politics and news media. All campaigns attempted to improve the UN's image by associating it with high-profile individuals, celebrities, politicians, business leaders, and journalists. The campaigns began with high hopes buoyed by large-scale news media campaigns, but three of them fell far short of expectations. This article argues the 2004 Global Compact Leaders Summit was a success in comparison with the other three campaigns.

After the administration of President Bill Clinton successfully pushed for the ouster of Boutros-Ghali and endorsed Kofi Annan to become secretary-general, Annan was well aware of the UN image and its challenges. He did not hesitate to try to rebuild the image of a strong and well-loved United Nations. However, he knew that because the UN's identity was limited to that of an international and nonprofit organization, his easiest course of action was off limits to him: He could not pour millions of dollars into a commercial advertising campaign, as the UN is forbidden to do so. …

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