Cristina Gallach is the UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information. Before joining the UN, Gallach served as Head of the Public Relations Unit in the Council of the European Union, Directorate General for Information and Communication. Gallach spent the earlier part of her career as a journalist with Spain’s El Periodico newspaper, among other outlets. She first spoke with CPD about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals at last May’s forum in DC. We followed up with some questions bringing a journalist’s sensibility to her work with multilateral organizations and her approach to tackling communication challenges.

What do you consider the greatest communication challenges facing the implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?

The SDGs represent a new way of integrating political and socio-economic processes to advance to a better and sustainable world. This is unique. We have never worked in this way before. Therefore, the manner in which we are going to promote the agenda and keep everybody accountable will have to adapt as well.

Developing an attractive brand – made of a series of symbols together with a short and meaningful text – is proving to be an extremely useful start. This is what we call the SDG icons. They are colourful, universal and easily understood. It is challenging to make these symbols visible all over the world, but they are one of the best ways to make the Goals readily known to many people.

Let me mention one key challenge. Promoting the SDGs in the Western world, home to traditional development donors, is proving to be particularly complex. Here you have societies not used to thinking of themselves as having anything to do with sustainable development – they have seen themselves as donors only. Yet the SDGs apply to all of us! Rich and poor. They require action by everybody. We all have to change aspects of our lifestyle.

The pace of action and impact will emerge as another key factor. Hopefully, in some countries/regions, there is going to be coordinated action on specific Goals. This will have to be accompanied by specifically targeted communications.

How has your background in journalism helped you in your work with communications and public information at the UN?

I would like to think that it is extremely useful. It allows me to work more efficiently with the media. I can anticipate their needs; understand what is most likely to have positive results; or just use the many contacts I have made and kept. It allows me to place myself in their role, feel their strains and ensure that they can work with my team in a cooperative manner. I also understand the time pressures they have – and the need for detailed explanations or background information as soon as possible.

It is important to develop relationships based on mutual trust and respect, and awareness of each other’s responsibilities.

Before joining the UN, you were Head of the Public Relations Unit in the Council of the European Union. How would you compare working for these two different multilateral organizations?

There is one issue which makes a comparison very difficult, almost impossible, which is the dimension. The universality, the breadth and the variety of the mandates of the United Nations are unique.

Yet if we take a regional perspective, the European Union shares an identical reason to the UN for its creation: to avoid devastating wars. The two World Wars started in Europe. Therefore Europe has a special responsibility in leading all efforts and making it possible, through institutions, agreements, political and economic integration, for these tragedies not to be repeated.

When I was in the EU, I had the same ambition as I do here: to use Public Relations and Communications to strengthen the institution, promote its policies, seek legitimacy through transparency and dialogue, and to serve the Member States and the public, through the media or directly.

What do you consider the most significant trends in public diplomacy – either as a field of practice or a field of study – today?

I think it is critical to use public diplomacy in the most efficient way to help pursue the political objectives of organizations, institutions or governments. Public Diplomacy can be an extremely useful instrument, if we are able to make good use of it. For that a good strategy is required, with clear priorities, focusing on different audiences, timelines and plans for engaging with the public.

I also think that it is very important to advance transparency and accountability, in my case of the United Nations. This will enhance the support and the legitimacy of the organization.

In a practical way, I am a strong promoter of public diplomacy to engage more actively in the promotion of the diverse agendas that the UN and its Member States have agreed to pursue. I regard public diplomacy as a very practical discipline. At the same time, promoting analysis of trends or specific areas of action can be extremely useful for the advancement of different policies. 

What advice do you have for students of public diplomacy who are interested in working in international communications?

In general I would advise them to be focused and work very hard. And, in a more specific way, to engage with the organizations in which they are interested by volunteering at key moments, by seeking internships, by attending events, by reading and by following along in social media.

That’s where to start. Job opportunities will come along. International organizations need to be able to recruit the best prepared candidates, in particular the young people who are most dedicated and passionate about working for a better world.

About Q&A with CPD

In this series, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) interviews international thought-leaders as well as key practitioners of public diplomacy and related professional fields to provide our readers with insight into the inner workings of some of the world’s most thoughtful PD practitioners. For more information about the Q&A with CPD series, click here.

To read the other interviews in this series, please click here.

This image by Dave Scavone has been modified by CPD


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