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Explaining why a top recruit of the High Commissioner for Refugees recently quit
One of van Praag’s first acts was to call in an outside communications consultant, Media Tenor, to analyze the organization’s communications effectiveness. “They were not focusing on the media that set the agenda at a world level,” said Media Tenor’s CEO Roland Schatz. In fact, Schatz concludes, “there was no structure or strategic plan for communications at all.”
Next, under pressure to reallocate $500,000 in his budget, van Praag shut down the UNHCR’s refugee magazine, a glossy quarterly published in six languages, which cost the organization $500,000 to $1 million a year, depending on whether you counted staff salaries and distribution costs. Van Praag, who had helped launch the magazine in the early 1980s argued that the Internet was a cheaper, more effective way to get the message out and that in any case, it was unlikely that anyone still read the magazine. The outgoing editor fought a rear guard action for several months and then left.
Creating a strategic plan proved to be the least of van Praag’s concerns, however. He had failed to take into account his staff’s reaction to being told that their performance over the previous several years had been largely useless.
In her study, Barbara Wigley, who based her research on interviews with UNHCR staffers at all levels, notes that power in the organization often operates behind the scenes through personal networks. Even more important, credibility is frequently based on the amount of time an individual has spent in the organization without necessarily taking into account whether the individual has been effective. Wigley also points out that there is an underlying assumption that fairness, meaning equal treatment, trumps everything else.
Applying the “credibility through longevity” principle meant that it didn’t really matter whether staffers were actually accomplishing anything. The mere fact that they had held on to the job for a number of years was enough to establish their credibility over that of any newcomer. Since much of the staff had managed to survive doing the same thing, they saw no reason to change.