Why the UN needs a make-over

November 12th, 2010 by Nick

I vividly remember, as a 17-year-old tourist in New York City with my parents, visiting the hallowed ground of the United Nations Headquarters. At the public tour point, our group was met by a guide out of central casting – a late 20s African woman so unspeakably exotic, self-assured and cosmopolitan, Nicole Kidman’s Interpreter had nothing on her.

Speaking a different language to almost everyone she met and holding herself like some sort of diplomatic special agent, she embodied the semi-mystical appeal of the UN as an organisation for a better future – comprised of people who had come back from the future to save us poor turn-of-the-Millennials from ourselves.

She was also an incredible storyteller. As she took us from conference room to room, she told a compelling tale of the UN’s founding ideals, incredible history, intriguing ‘cast of characters’, specialist agencies filled with world-class experts, and current work addressing critical challenges. I was compelled by this organisation, by these “future people”, by the values espoused and the history made – and being made. And by the way she communicated it…

How can it be then, that more than a decade later, the entire United Nations’ web presence shouts keywords like bureaucracy, amateur and dull? At a time when the UN’s ongoing relevance is being questioned, the UN cannot afford to have a web communications experience that compares unfavourably with watching grass grow.

How can it be [that] the entire United Nations’ web presence shouts keywords like bureaucracy, amateur and dull?

The problem begins at Google. When I type in, “United Nations”, I am served up not the primary UN website but a duplicative and confusing microsite for a UN body in the Pacific. Typing in UN.com is even worse – it’s a holding page for a “seafood exporter Resource and Information”. Considering the UN runs the World Intellectual Property Organisation, which adjudicates domain name disputes, you would think they’d have no trouble getting it back?

When you do get to UN.org, pretty much the entire homepage is navigation. The most prominent content is a fragmentary slogan – “We the peoples… A stronger UN for a better world”. Do they mean, we the people are a stronger UN, or? “For a better world” is a fine slogan and the rest could easily be dropped. The only other prominent content lauds the bureaucratic achievement of the election of an “executive board” of “a new agency” for women’s empowerment. Delving into a promising, if vague, primary-navigation button – “Peace and Security”, I am presented with numerous options to select – but the top eight are all sub-organisations within the UN bureaucracy with names and compelling descriptions such as

“General Assembly First Committee (Disarmament and International Security)
Function, structure, rules of procedures, members, documents, action by the General Assembly First Committee.

Funnily, each of the eight other things you can explore on the Peace page have a similar description – “Function, structure, rules of procedures, members, documents, action”. Most of these pages offer little further of interest, although I suspect they might be heavily trafficked by insiders to find various dull documents and contacts.

The Secretary General’s own page looks like Ban Ki Moon (or perhaps Kofi Annan?) designed it himself, complete with size 7 font and a completely new colour scheme.

To be fair, the UN website has gone through a bit of a facelift since the last time I visited a few years ago. Back then, every second click would take you to a completely new design, navigation scheme, and it certainly appeared, CMS. At least now, they have standardised most of the site on a dull theme circa internet 1997. But the highest-traffic parts of the site have escaped the re-design. There’s a separate site called “UN Works” (in case they were worried you thought it was broken) – and a myriad of microsites which have long been past due for taking down (the UN’s 60th anniversary site – for 2005 – is a case in point).

The Secretary General’s own page looks like Ban Ki Moon (or perhaps Kofi Annan?) designed it himself, complete with size 7 font and a completely new colour scheme. His spokesman has his own site (yes, different design), where his bio and photo looms large. Having worked with a number of large organisations, it’s fairly easy to predict what’s happening here – people struggle to get what they need (or want) from the web department (often for good reasons) and go off and make it themselves. This sometimes works well – when the innovation is happening at the edges, healthily pushing boundaries. But the Secretary General is not exactly “at the edge” of the UN!

A department responsible for communications, the “UN Information Centres” seem to have taken it upon themselves to duplicate the entire UN web presence. This is like Coke’s marketing department starting up a website called “Cokemarketingdepartment.com” because they lacked influence and had given up trying to improve the actual coke.com website. At least for the first time, I come across a (tiny) video on the homepage entitled “Voices from the Field”. I have high hopes for a moving insight into the UN’s work in war-torn nations. Unfortunately, it’s a crazy techno music video set in a Burmese youth conference at a plush Rangoon hotel. Not exactly, the field.

Putting aside the question of how much money might be saved, the big question is — would anything be lost – in terms of the UN’s reach, impact or profile – if it closed 90% of its websites?

The situation isn’t much prettier in the world of social media. Ban Ki isn’t on Twitter – but there is an “unofficial” account which pulls from a fascinating official feed. That 50,000 people are already attentively following the unofficial Ban Ki’s tweets such as “Attending the Press Encounter” and “Meeting Ambassador Gyan Chandra Acharya, Permanent Representative of Nepal to the UN” suggests that a more Twitter-savvy Moon could rival Justin Timberlake for followers!

On Facebook, things are worse. When I search “United Nations”, it says “Did you mean: uniting nations, anita nations”. No, no. I didn’t.

Pointing out the UN’s online failings is fun, but not entirely the point of this post. I have a great degree of respect for the UN, and I understand how much of a struggle it must be for many who work in the various communications divisions to pull together a compelling site when approval processes would be nightmarish and budgets highly distributed.

But think of the promise…. the UN loves action plans, so here’s a 5 point Action Plan for their web presence:

1) Create an extranet.

There is clearly an audience for much of the voluminous content on the UN’s website – just sometimes this is 1 or 10 people. The UN should move all the content aimed at niche audiences and internal bureaucracies to an extranet accessible to registered Governments and civil society organisations.

2) Database of UN bodies.

The UN website is structured around the structure of the organisation, not the needs of its visitors or its broader communications objectives. Possibly this is because every Division and Bureaux and World Organisation wants its own little sub-site. Let’s move all this content into an organisational and contact directory – which if organised in a hierarchical fashion could actually help the average person make sense of how the UN fits together.

Pointing out the UN’s online failings is fun, but not entirely the point of this post… think of the promise.

3) Use the website for real world purposes – like raising cash!

The UN needs to start seeing the internet as a domain of real action for a better world – rather than an extension of its Office of Historical Archives. There is no better place to start than with fundraising. Barack Obama raised $500 million online and demonstrated clearly that making your website central to your activity more than pays for itself. Surely, a simple donation button on the homepage of the UN’s website raising money for UNICEF, UNHCR and the World Food Program, would reap huge rewards! It says something when the income of just one development charity, World Vision, is bigger than the entire regular budget of the United Nations!

4) Make the website about stories

What made my tour of the UN building so awe-inspiring were the stories. The UN should start by utterly filling its website with them! Ban the bureaucratise. Bring on the narrative. The video. The blogs by field staff. The photography taken by children as part of existing UNICEF media empowerment projects. Even if the UN can’t feature first person opinions and views of their experts on topics such as climate change or conflict, it could introduce them in a compelling way, sharing their story and inviting the public to understand their personal integrity and the depth of expertise behind the bureaucracy.

5) Build an ongoing dialogue.

The UN’s communications approach is designed for an era that is past fading – the era of authoritative voices and a strong, mainstream quality media. The Internet is considered an adjunct, not a media form of its own. But elite newspapers are closing and slimming down and can no longer be relied upon to pump out stories quoting the Secretary General as the voice of global reason. Old media forms are quite literally dying. The UN needs to be far more pro-active at getting its own content directly in front of world audiences.

A good start would be creating a truly engaging Twitter presence for the Secretary General. Another quick win would be the establishment of a global email communications program, with regular action-oriented email alerts on major global issues, complete with fundraising requests and admonishments of Governments that flout international law. Avaaz.org has shown what can be achieved in terms of building a global email list, and they’re quickly usurping the role played by the Secretary General as the international voice for humanity. The UN should get on adding an email sign-up box to it’s homepage ASAP. Maybe Ban Ki’s email network could be called “We the Peoples”.

Could any of the above happen?

Certainly, I believe there is a strong business case for it – reducing expenditure on content for niche audiences, raising massive new sums through online fundraising, building a bullwork of supporters who care passionately about the organisations’ existence and activities. And yes, I have a vested interest in writing this as I’d love to help out. But I think it will need more than just me – it needs a network of online activists, content makers and strategists to pull together a meaningful plan.

If you’d like to take part – or indeed work for the UN and want to take this discussion further :) drop me an email.