(Extracts from the presentation at TIMEX Global Summit in Abuja)

“Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It hurts everyone whose life, livelihood or happiness depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority.”

(Wikipedia – Transparency International -2008)

These two sentences set out the issues at the heart of any attempt to build a corruption-free society and define the challenges of the task for communication. For any public relations professional, they also define the scope and the approach to the task for any communication management programme in an anti-corruption campaign.

When it comes to levels of awareness of corruption as the abuse of power for private gain, by advertising industry standards, the anti-corruption lobbies have done pretty well. Awareness is high; very high; so high, that it has almost become accepted as a price society has to pay. Understanding what corruption means, ‘that it actually and really hurts everyone whose life, livelihood or happiness depends on the integrity of people in positions of authority’ is nothing like so well accepted.

Any and all professional public relations practitioners know that MIT research has established that ‘awareness’ at best can only establish a propensity or latent potential to change behaviour. At worst, which is the norm, awareness alone triggers a very limited response in individuals or institutions. Using communication, two-way communication, to create understanding is the stock in trade of every professional in public relations and every professional public relations programme.

So, how do we use professionals in public relations and professional public relations programmes as the most important tools known to man in the 21st century drive to build the corruption-free society to which we aspire? How do we, as public relations professionals, use the methodologies, the processes, the technical tools and skills we have developed in this campaign.

First, we capitalise on this high level of awareness. That means working alongside, not for, the technocrats and the specialists who currently create national and international anticorruption measures. As the World Bank points out these are people who concentrate, almost to the exclusion of everything else, on fixing institutions.

Making this meaningful is surely the basis for a public relations management and campaign brief to die for.

Next, why not leverage the awareness levels to bring forward the message of the impact of corruption on the lives of everyone in society. Corruption hurts, damages and cripples the development of society. We can mobilise global action and bring world politicians to heel on the environment, based on slightly dodgy scientific projections of what might happen in 100 years, so why not against this vile canker that is hurting everyone now?

Here is a public relations programme that is based on transparency and accountability, designed to communicate the details of the impact of corruption and engage civil society at a global level in the battle. It would mean that every national aid agency, the World Bank, the IMF, the EU would need to publish the figures of the cost of corruption to the effective delivery of their development and aid programmes. Every NGO, and recipient of Aid and Development Funds, would need to publish a global and a project by project figure on the impact of corruption on the application of the total aid dollar to their work. Every Bank and Financial Institution around the world will need to demonstrate, and I mean demonstrate, a level of commitment in the fight against corruption as the abuse of entrusted private gain with the same enthusiasm they have on global warming. Every elected official and holder of public office, and that includes those in NGOs and charities – and all those other bodies that receive public funds, would need to open their private and personal finances to public scrutiny.

This is transparency in action, zero tolerance transparency and we all know that just as we are preparing to get this on the agenda at DAVOS or for a UN Summit of Nations, our professional colleagues in every one of those institutions and agencies will be briefing their master and the media.

Disproportionate cost, commercial confidentiality, putting diplomatic relations at risk, infringement of human rights, tying delivery of relief up in red tape, accountants profit while children starve – we can all create the messaging.

The insidious suggestion is that corruption is an affordable cost in the totality of things. ‘In the context of the total budget for community projects this is less that 0.075per cent.’ This is the basis of the principle defence advanced by the Mayor of London when confronted by charges that monies paid at the instruction of his office on community projects linked to one of his advisers could not be traced because the organisation had shut down once the monies had been banked. London is a City whose leadership in world financial markets is based on trust and honesty

This may not be a public relations programme to die for. But it is one that we should try for.

Finally and arguably the most important public relations campaign of al. Engaging and mobilising civil society at an individual level. This is where all the lessons public relations professionals have learned can be called into play, whether they were learned in supporting consumer marketing programmes, delivering public education programmes, engaging with silent stakeholders and lobbying for and against change in communities.

This is the public relations of engagement and accountability. This is public relations in a globalised world. This is the John Naisbitt paradox of globalisation, the greater the globalisation of civil society the more important the smallest unit in any society. But individual instances of parents holding school boards to account for monies allocated but unspent on books, or children organised to take pictures with their mobile phones of teachers turning up late to take role call and then leaving immediately after, is not enough.

These are nice little tales for middle class political dinner tables, or amusing and emotionally satisfying instances for Congresses on Communication for Development.

In Pakistan, our Country Director is one of a group of young professionals who came together to establish the Women’s Empowerment Group in 1999. It received a little start up money from USAID in Pakistan but is run on a voluntary basis and raises its own funds. Last year was the first year it received any funding from an aid or development agency and that was from the German Aid Agency, provided to enable them to publish and distribute, internationally, a report an their White Ribbon Campaign – a campaign for men against violence to women. WEG is probably best known as having launched the first Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign in an Islamic Country in 2005 as part of their programmes campaigning for women’s health. They have successfully changed banking law to enable women to take loans. They have successfully had national regulations changed so that a national Women’s Chamber of Commerce has been established and they have delivered small scale business training to women in rural communities.

What could be achieved if, as part of our public relations campaign, we established a Women’s Empowerment Group against corruption in every village, town and city. What would be achieved if as public relations professions, we worked with them to draw up a local anti-corruption campaign programme, agreed messaging and proof points, equipped it with the tools and techniques of day to day public relations practice and then met with them once a month to review progress and forward plans, as we would with any commercial client?  

What could be achieved if we did the same with parents groups in schools, hospital patient groups, university and college student groups? If corruption hurts everyone whose life, livelihood or happiness depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority, then the tools of public relations will be most effective in the hands of everyone who has been, is being, or will be hurt.

Three weeks ago, the Financial Times provided an interesting picture of what it called “the jungle of treaties, guidelines and other codes of conduct relevant to companies, especially concerning their international operations”.

1997 was the year of the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials. Adopted into law by 37 industrialised countries, it bans paying bribes to officials in overseas markets. The convention has led to dozens of prosecutions of company executives and others, although many countries have taken little action to enforce the convention’s provisions, according to Transparency International (TI).

2000 saw the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises adopted in their current form as standards for companies on labour, environmental and corruption issues. The 40 governments that have adopted them are obliged to run a “national contact point” where trade unions and others can lodge complaints against companies.

2005 was when the United Nations’ anti-corruption convention, UNAC, added to the forest of anti-corruption measures that, according to the Financial Times already fatigue businesses. It sets out to standardise anti-bribery rules around the world. Signed by 140 countries and ratified by 107 including the US and Britain, implementation has been slow, because of squabbles over monitoring procedures, although a conference last week on the UNCAC went some way to resolving the disputes.

In the Report of the World Congress on Communication for Development that was held in Rome in 2006, there is a section on Fighting Corruption: Beyond Technocratic Solutions. In it, the authors acknowledge that technocratic anti-corruption measures are important but not sufficient in themselves. They identify that all strategies against corruption ultimately depend on citizens acting as a check on corrupt practices. 

But their recommendations then relate to: legal frameworks to protect a free media; policy process scrutiny at national level; transparency, publicity and incentives to promote local participation in political processes and building the role of civil society into anti-corruption measures “thus promoting the demand for anti-corruption efforts.”

Public Relations as a tool for anti-corruption campaigns can achieve all of that. Awareness is important to the process, regulations and legislative sanctions are essential, but creating understanding by effective two way communication to secure engagement at every level is text book public relations practice.

According to an unknown Russian, and I do not think that this is a euphemism for President Putin, “Every culture has its distinctive and normal system of government. Ours is totalitarianism, moderated by assassination. Yours is democracy, moderated by corruption.”

If that means that the price we have to pay for democracy is a modicum of corruption, then in a democratic society a planned, sustained public relations programme can reduce its cost to civil society and go some way to relieve the hurt it causes.

*Peter L. Walker FCIPR
CIPR President – 1998, Chairman – PIELLE Consulting Group
PIELLE Consulting Group, Museum House
London WC1A 1PL, UK
[email protected]


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