Interview with Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of Public Information, United Nations Headquarters, Geneva

The press corps in Geneva was pleased to welcome the new Director of Public Information, a young and positive French woman who is trying to get the message from the international organizations here in Geneva out to the world. Only positive words can be said about Ms Momal-Vanian–– easy going, pleasant and always eager to stretch out a helping hand. Remarkably, the so-often-critical press corps has only positive words to say about her too. We had the opportunity to meet her, so now we leave the floor to Ms Momal-Vanian …
Q. You were appointed Director of Public Information in the beginning of 2010. Could you tell us a little bit about your background and why you were interested in this job?
I’m a UN animal and I have worked for the United Nations for twenty-two years in lots of different functions –– including many years ago in another Information Centre in Bangkok. I have held executive functions in the office of the Secretary-General dealing in particular with many political matters. So that’s my background. It is more about political affairs and in-depth knowledge of the United Nations system.
I was interested in this job because all the jobs I have held in the UN–– and this is why I have devoted my career to the organization –– have been very wide in scope and covered all kinds of issues. I have never been in a job where I had to specialize in covering one country desk or dealt with a very narrow issue. I was attracted to this post in Geneva because we have to co-ordinate and work closely with the other organizations.
Q. What do you consider to be the main challenges for the information service? Resources, resources and resources! There are a lot more things happening in the Palais des Nations than in the past. This is a good thing, but in order for us for us to deliver high-quality services to our clients –– the press in particular –– we need more resources. My worry is that so much of our resources are used to cover meetings, because there are so many more meetings than before, especially on human rights. We do not have enough resources left to carry out the outreach activities that we would like to do.
Q. How do you compare the UN Office in Geneva with the one in New York?
What I really like about Geneva is that we work on a daily basis with other agencies. Some people like New York better because in many ways the pace is faster. It is the political centre of the UN, where the Security Council meets and so on. It is exciting on a daily basis, but you live in a UN bubble. You do not even interact much with the other two UN agencies that are based in New York –– UNDP and UNICEF. Frequently, you do not even interact with other departments within the Secretariat, because each department is so big and everybody is so busy running the whole time. Whereas, here in Geneva, we do not have a choice but to work with other departments and agencies. This means especially working on a daily basis with UNICEF, with WHO, with ILO. We get a much better understanding of what the UN does as a whole.
Q. Just recently, the president of the Correspondents Association sent a letter to UNCTAD, OECD and WTO deploring a lack of co-ordination in the launch of a major report, which involved an advance release to the Wall Street Journal. What do you think could be done to avoid such a mix-up in the future?
I cannot speak about that particular case. Evidently, when there are a lot of actors involved, it becomes more complex because each one has its own priorities, its preferred clients. It becomes very complex. Still, if it is a joint study or a joint report, ideally it should be launched at exactly the same time, under the same conditions, under the same embargo for everybody. Coordination among UN agencies is essential if we want to deliver information in a coherent manner and that is what I have tried to do since I arrived here. I think I have met everyone in every single organization. I think we have already made some progress, for instance, by talking to each other and by organizing the bi-weekly briefings so as to structure them a little more. If I am informed in advance of what others have to say, I can help. We do not have, for instance, as much to give out in terms of hard news as WHO, but our role here, as I see it, is to gather all the information for everybody so that we can support and plan things.
Q: The press is suffering from the global economic turmoil and a lot of journalists are complaining that there is not a lot going on in Geneva. What are you trying to do and what would you like to achieve?
To say that not a lot is happening is more a reflection of the changes in the expectations of the media than what is actually happening at the UN. I think that over the last five years a lot more has been happening in Geneva and that more is being carried out by the UN than ever before. I think the frustration expressed by the press corps here is often not so much a reflection of what we have to offer but of what they need. The world of the media is evolving fast and members of the press corps are under pressure from their bosses to satisfy their clients, which is very understandable. But this trend makes it difficult to ensure that stories about the UN are accepted by their editors. I think that this problem is not so much about what we supply but more about what the demand has become.
Q: Do you think that this can be changed and can you adapt yourself to it?
We try and we have to, because it is in our interest. I always say that our interests are exactly the same as those of the press corps because we want our stories to be spread, and most of the journalists here really understand the work of the UN sometimes better than we do ourselves. They have followed the UN for many years and they know what we face. They really want to help us and we want to help them. Together, will we be able to face this challenge of an evolving media? There are things we can do to adapt. I have received instructions from the Department of Public Information in New York, for instance, to start to use the new media much more –– Facebook, Twitter, etc. Some of my colleagues are already using them. UNEP is using them extensively; UNHCR also. Thus, we must learn to use them too. While we understand that these new media can contribute, we also understand that there are some things that the new media can never do. What they can do is maybe to amplify a campaign, but to convey a message in the first place –– take a crisis like the Haiti earthquake –– traditional media can convey the scope and the nature of a problem much better than the new media, but they do not have the same amplifying effect. That’s the difference and we have to use both, that’s for sure. We feel more comfortable with traditional media since that’s what everybody has been trained to use, but we have to learn to use the new media too. There is no doubt about that.
Q: You are French and what we see is that the French language is losing ground. What are you trying to do to maintain the French language? Even here in Geneva, most of the documents are in English. What do you think about this?
Definitely it’s a concern –– not only because I’m French but also because we are under instruction to reverse this trend. The Member States in their joint wisdom have said (we all know this instinctively) that the wealth of the UN is its diversity. We are not the European Union but what is really extraordinary with the UN is its universal character and its diversity. The first way this is reflected is through language. Some Member States will tell you that it’s a waste to continue to translate each single document into six languages, but I do not see it this way at all. Anyway, the machinery is there and we keep on translating the documents, so in this field we are not losing ground. Where we have more difficulties are on the websites –– the generation of content by substantive offices is such and it is created so fast that we cannot keep up with translation work, which means that there is a disparity between the information available on the website of the UN in English in general and that available in other languages. We have websites in other languages, but the rate of content generation is so rapid that we cannot keep pace with it. This is really a challenge. However, there is a silver lining which is that one technology always ends up stimulating another, and automated translation has improved a lot. I was very sceptical about this, but I have colleagues among the other organizations, for instance, who have told me recently that even with simple tools such as Google they can translate a press release instantly –– even if they may have to rework it a little to make complete sense. In the last couple of years, automatic translation has improved so that we now might be able to catch up with the translation backlog. I’m really hoping so.
Q. What is your ambition for this Information Service, and where would you like to see it five years from now?
I would like to see it exactly where it is, in the sense that I think it works well. My ambition for it is to become the pivot for the whole information community in Geneva, because this is what we can do best –– we are at the centre. Everybody tells us so. We can help all the others, and structure the information, work together better. I’m working on two axes –– this is one and the second one is trying to do more in terms of general outreach. We have a significant structure in the UN in New York to launch campaigns and so on, but here in Geneva we have not been able to provide that support from a European perspective. I would like to do more for the general population, but that would require even more resources.