In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section United Nations and Communication

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • International Communications
  • UN Peacekeeping, Public Communications, and New Technology
  • Communicating on Climate Change

Communication United Nations and Communication
by
Caroline Bouchard
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0288

Introduction

The United Nations (UN) was created at the end of the Second World War to maintain international peace and security and foster cooperation among nations on human rights issues as well as social and economic progress. Although for some observers the creation of the organization was more about balancing great powers than achieving these purposes, the UN has through the years become a complex system involving a multitude of actors and entities. It has also widened its area of activities to tackle issues such as climate change and sustainable development. As the largest and most well-known international organization, the UN has been the subject of a vast number of scholarly works from various fields (international relations, international law, development studies, etc.). The scholarship focusing on the communication facets of the UN system, however, has not attracted as much academic attention as other topics. Yet, communication activities constitute significant aspects of the UN and its work. The organization has always believed that to realize its purposes, it needed to publicly promote what it is and what it does as an organization. The UN and, more particularly two of its entities, UNESCO, the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN’s specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs), have been at the center of debates surrounding the international governance of international communication issues. In addition, the UN is a prominent forum for intercultural communications due to its nature and roles. Communication issues also constitute a central aspect of the UN’s work in three areas: maintaining peace and security, promoting human rights, and addressing climate change. More recently, new technologies have affected communication processes in the UN system. The growing use of digital tools, such as social media platforms, has transformed interactions within the organization and the ways the UN communicates its messages to various audiences. It has also generated debates on the digital divide and new international security concerns. In addition, the organization has increasingly turned to new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) to help it achieve its mandates. The scholarship reviewed here covers these various issues. As communication is an interdisciplinary field of study, the literature about the UN and communication encompasses different conceptual and theoretical perspectives. Only works in English have been included in this article. Nonetheless, it should be acknowledged that numerous studies on these different topics have also been published in other languages including in other UN official languages (Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish).

General Overviews

Multiple works and handbooks focus on the United Nations. The UN itself has produced numerous studies on its activities, including those related to communication issues. Readers interested in this literature should consult the United Nations iLibrary, a comprehensive platform to access digital content created by the organization. However, there is limited academic scholarship that provides overviews of the communicational aspects of the organization. Most of the general literature on the UN and communication focuses on the UN system’s communication policies and strategies. To our knowledge, the most comprehensive general account is Alleyne 2003. The book examines the role of the UN’s public information program in international politics and effectively mobilizes conceptual tools from communication research and international relations studies. Khullar 2005, on the other hand, provides a survey of how the UN as an organization has approached and implemented “communications research,” that is, research about the technology, economic, social, or political impact of (mass) communications. Two chapters from the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations (2nd ed.) consider general communication issues. Gordenker and Jönsson 2018 looks at communication issues linked to the dissemination of the image and knowledge regarding the United Nations, while Crossette 2018 focuses on the organization’s public information strategies and its relationship with the world’s media organization.

  • Alleyne, M. D. 2003. Global lies? Propaganda, the UN and world order. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230507944

    This book provides the most extensive analysis of the UN’s public communications programs. It considers the work of the UN Secretariat and its Department of Public Information (DPI) in the context of the discourse on propaganda. Published in 2003, the book explores the effects of technologies including the Internet on UN communications but does not address the emergence of new digital technologies such as social media platforms.

  • Crossette, B. 2018. Media. In The Oxford handbook on the United Nations. 2d ed. Edited by T. G Weiss and S. Daws, 370–381. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Crossette, who was the United Nations Bureau Chief of the New York Times in the 1990s and early 2000s, looks at the complex relations between the United Nations and the media. The organization’s approach to public information and the strategies adopted since the arrival of UN Secretary-General António Guterres are also discussed.

  • Gordenker, L., and C. Jönsson. 2018. Evolution in knowledge and norms. In The Oxford handbook on the United Nations. 2d ed. Edited by T. G Weiss and S. Daws, 104–115. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This chapter considers how the UN system disseminates information about the organization in the digital age and how it contributes to building knowledge through training, education, and research. Also discusses public support for the organization.

  • Khullar, N. S. 2005. The role of the United Nations in communication research: Affect or effect? The Journal of International Communication 11.2: 113–124.

    DOI: 10.1080/13216597.2005.9751996

    This survey examines the UN’s role in communication and media research. It explores the structure and goals of “communication research” conducted by the UN as well as its implementation in policies and programs. Information about the UN’s research entities may have changed since the early 2000s, but this constitutes a rare contribution to have focused on the concept of “communication research” within the UN system.

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