UN Public Information Officers and New Media


Public information Officers (PIO) within the UN peacekeeping operations are more or less Public Relations (PR) people. Their preoccupation is to break mission success stories, re-emphasize positive ones while striving to correct negative impressions or perceptions.  They are mandated to educate the general public through persuasion and secure a buy-in from the local stakeholders into the mission’s mandate.

The ways and manner UN PIO inform their publics are changing and changing very fast. According to Kevin Bakhurst or BBC, It may seem like re-stating the obvious but looking in our rear-view mirror back along the road of technological change shows just how news has changed: typewriters out, computers in; newspaper cuttings libraries closed as the internet opened access to information; mobile phones rather than messages at hotel receptions; satellite technology to feed material rather than tapes put on planes and so on.

Nowhere are these changes more obvious than in the public information offices of peacekeeping missions.

 Part of UN PIO problem in the past is how to inform their different stakeholders effectively. They have two distinct stakeholders, the host community, these are the people in the community where the crisis is and the other stakeholders are members of the international community who pay for the job the peacekeepers must do to help create the enabling environment in which the local stakeholders can discuss their differences and possibly return to normality

In the days of yore PIO at peacekeeping missions find it easier to inform its international stakeholders than its local stakeholders because the tools of mass communication is more readily accessible to the international stakeholders, yet the local stakeholders are the ones peacekeepers meet daily and interact with in the course of their routine assignments.

The argument has been made that the most important stakeholders in any peacekeeping environment are the local ones, however, because the international stakeholders’ are the ones that pay the bills, peacekeeping missions seemingly pay more attention to satisfying the information needs of its international stakeholders than that of the local ones. And the watchword here is SEEMINGLY.

Seemingly because stakeholders in conflict environment are too preoccupied trying to stay alive to worry about news or any information that does not provide immediate gratification and poverty make it difficult for them to invest in gadgets needed to receive information disseminated. I effect, one is arguing that it is not that the UN peacekeeping PIO neglected any of their constituency; it is just that the local stakeholders did not have the wherewithal.

The international stakeholders on the other hand pay more attention to information emanating out of conflict zones not only because they have the wherewithal and pay the bills that allow UN PIO to do their jobs but also they have the responsibility to contain the conflict within, get the belligerents to the negotiation table and help end the conflict. While the foregoing is still the case, informing both stakeholders has taken a new dimension. New Media has made mass communication cheap and it is opening up new ways of doing business.

The last point is made even more cogent by the ubiquitous nature of the platform through which information is delivered, but more importantly “New Media is making it difficult to avoid being informed even if you do not want to be informed.” Paul Omala, a veteran-broadcasting journalist with the UN radio argued.

Here in Sudan, the UN for instance uses SMS to alert the public each time a new program is packaged and posted online. We also use social media and other New Media platforms to broadcast and alert our listeners to new programs. We no longer wait for our audience to tune into our programs “we tune our program into our audience” by alerting them through mobile SMS and social media platforms regardless of if they are ready to listen to us immediately or not. They can delete what we send to them but the point is, we are more aggressive today than ever though we are a non-profit organization and we have New Media to thank.

Asked if it is a good thing or a bad thing to be intrusive with information, Omalla opined that he wouldn’t say that what they do is intrusive, however, since no research has been conducted to ascertain the public opinion, he would rather not conclude on the matter except to add that “more people are listening to our programs and reading our magazine online and It feels so good because you can actually know how many people visit your program.”

Given the history of the UN slowness to embrace change, the speed with which UN have embraced New Media is interesting.

I will argue that my organization’s adoption of New Media is a testament to how far New Media has come but more than that, as a non-profit organization funded by the committee of nations tax payers money, the more people we can reach without putting extra burden of paying for information, the better. New Media for me is a dream fulfilled in that regard.

 As a non-profit organization we are not deterred by what entrepreneurs would worry about before putting their money on the line. For organization like the UN where I work, all it takes is having a management team that is willing to embrace change; so far we have been lucky. Omalla concluded.

 Joseph Bassie another broadcast journalist sees New Media as the saving grace for journalism and the media business. Bassie believed that the media as it was would have priced itself out of the market eventually. For him it was only a matter of time before something cheaper and smarter came along. What we did not expect is the tsunami that is the WWW. Bassie noted the exorbitant advert charges by traditional media for no reason other than that the advertisers have not option. New Media broke the monopoly. Going forward, only those who can see the necessity that is New Media and the massive opportunities it brings would be the media moguls of the future. Ignore it at your own perils. The future is here it can only get better.

Given the nature of the services non-profit mass media organization delivers, feedback from stakeholders is their lifeline. As journalist we always crave for feedback from our audience to validate our relevance because we cannot measure our success by our bank account, we don’t have one. Before now, we have to wait for days if not weeks to get that feedback. We even have to organize special program to broadcast opinions. Well, that is no more. Our audience does not even need our program to express their satisfaction or lack of it thereof. Their opinion suddenly has a window through which it can challenge what we report. In fact their opinion has a life of its own. New Media has made feedback instantaneous and we are better of for it.

 What distinguishes trained journalist from the hordes of mobile carrying journalists (citizen journalist) is the quality of our reportage, the details a trained journalist bring on the job, the effort to balance the story and the extra effort it takes to get real people as sources to validate the story is something that “mobile phone” journalist cannot compete with and that is why I think those in the profession will continue to be relevant Bassie argued.

Mr. Omala was asked if as PI officer with a non-profit organization, he thinks that there are lost opportunities due to the advent of new media, Omala argued that New Media has actually brought untold and un-envisaged advantages to the work of UN PIO.

Our online magazines in the local language is enjoying unprecedented readership. It is cheaper to publish, and we do not have to worry about distribution. Everything is just a click away. The hits are amazing and we are rolling out new platforms, especially on social media. Thanks to affordable made in China mobile phones, we can reach our local stakeholders through social media and they have no inhibitions contributing to the discussions.

Bassie added that although they are not out of the woods yet because of the same problem of illiteracy, poverty and the culture of reading, New Media has, despite all the mentioned problems helped us to grow the audience


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3 thoughts on “UN Public Information Officers and New Media

  1. Inaju, I want to come work with you.

  2. Carrie Brown says:

    Inaju, very interesting, great job here. Lots of insight into how new media has affected your organization, and a useful different perspective.

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