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Building Public Support for Anti-Corruption Efforts: Why Anti-Corruption Agencies Need to Communicate and How
May 2010
By Elaine Byrne, Anne-Katrin Arnold and Fumiko Nagano
Communication for Governance & Accountability Program (CommGAP)

The rise of corruption as an issue on the international agenda is recent; and, in a relatively short period of time, it has achieved significant importance. Initially a marginalized element in international aid programs, corruption is now regarded as a dynamic feature on the development agenda. As a consequence, a heightened sense of accountability among politicians, public bodies, and institutions has emerged, as has a consequent demand for anticorruption agencies.

These agencies are created with great optimism and fanfare. They often are the major initiative by a new party or government swept into office on a reform platform. In most cases, the initial publicity around these agencies and the officials appointed to run them is positive and supportive.

However, it seems to take little time for that “honeymoon period” to end. In South Africa, for example, the Directorate of Special Operations (an elite unit of investigators known as the Scorpions), established in 1999, officially was abolished by Parliament in 2009. The Scorpions were responsible for prosecutions against then-President of the African National Congress Jacob Zuma and his financial adviser Schabir Shaik. Jackie Selebi, the national police chief and an ally of former President Thabo Mbeki, also was arrested. The police force’s Directorate of Priority Crime Investigation, which has less statutory protection from political interference, has taken over the Scorpions’ mandate.

Anti-corruption agencies often are under extraordinary scrutiny from many different quarters. Their lack of quick action to address corruption is interpreted often as incompetence or political favoritism. The perceptions of the media and public can overwhelm an agency and force it into a defensive position. From there, it cannot actively honor its mandate and fight corruption; rather, it can only react. Anti-corruption agencies face two closely interconnected forces: the media and the public, including civil society organizations (see case study A). The media and the public pass judgment on the work of the agencies, and they play an active role in fighting corruption. The media largely determine where both forces stand: with or against the agency. If the forces stand against, an agency’s work may turn out to be simply futile. If the forces stand in favor, an agency is more likely to be successful. Furthermore, when the media supports the anti-corruption agency’s work, it is possible to turn the culture of an entire country toward openness and accountability.

Communication determines where the media stand in this struggle. And anti-corruption agencies themselves determine how much and how well they communicate with the media and with citizens. To their immense cost, many agencies underestimate the critical challenges and negative effects of weak and inadequate communication. This failure is one of the reasons why we are losing the fight against corruption.

When a media storm occurs, the absence of an agency’s response to the alleged corruption under investigation can facilitate an adverse perception in the public mind. Unchecked, such a perception may develop into assumptions about an agency’s legitimacy. In those circumstances, an agency can promote public trust in its operations by acting on an agreed media strategy. Providing basic information does not have to incorporate an acceptance or denial of the allegations. Instead, the public appetite can be satisfied with basic background information on why the allegation arose, what measures are in place, and what steps are to be taken.

This paper provides a practical overview of how an agency may work with the media to win the support of the public in the fight against corruption. The first part explains why anti-corruption agencies need to take the media particularly seriously, how the media communicate, and what effects they have on the public. Case studies illustrate all of these points - showing, for instance, how the media can distort the reality of corruption by following their own preformed perceptions of a corruption case. Government agencies can set things straight only by providing sufficient and clear information, and by working closely with the media to ensure the message is accurate.

The second part of the paper focuses on the role of public opinion in the fight against corruption. Public opinion can be a powerful tool in promoting an agency’s work - or in bringing about its downfall. If citizens misunderstand the issue, they are unlikely to support the fight against corruption. But if public opinion is in favor of an anti-corruption agency, the people are able to change their country’s culture.

The media can shape public opinion and, most of all, change norms about corruption. Here is an example: Communication campaigns can show that it not only is illegal to pay bribes to public officials, but also is immoral and does real harm to the community. This message can encourage the public to change the expectation of bribes and to resist demands for them - one more step in the fight against corruption. In India, for instance, anti-corruption efforts led to the printing of the “zero-rupee” note with a picture of Gandhi on its face. These notes were given to bribe seekers to shame them.

In the context of public opinion, it also is important that anti-corruption agencies understand the role of journalism and the conditions under which journalists work. Their reporting directly influences the perceptions and opinions of the public. Because of economic and other pressures, journalists often tend to simplify or dramatize stories - and that can produce the wrong perceptions among their audiences. Again, this paper provides real-world stories that show the impact of journalism on public opinion. Anti-corruption agencies have another large problem to overcome: they must communicate and clarify the differences between types and degrees of corruption. Moral corruption is not necessarily legal corruption, and petty corruption is not the same as grand corruption. A common definition of corruption has been suggested by Transparency International. Another helpful source for understanding the actual meaning of corruption is the list of offenses presented by the United Nations Convention against Corruption. The third part of this paper addresses the difficulty of communicating these complex issues, including the specific case of asset recovery.

The citizenry as well as government officials may misjudge the success of an agency’s work entirely if they measure it only through the simplified corruption indexes that some civil society organizations regularly publish. These indexes are perception based, and can over - or underreport the actual level of corruption in a country. The fourth part of the paper addresses communication in this context. The media may overemphasize the problem of corruption by honing in on a specific number from a corruption index. People reading or hearing that message may believe that corruption is a greater problem than it actually is and that the corruption-countering agencies are not doing their jobs. If people are helped to understand how various indexes are structured, they are more likely to apply them correctly. Clear and comprehensive information is needed to explain the role of such indexes to the media and their audiences.

The fifth part of this paper gives practical, handson advice for dealing with the media and for building corruption-fighting coalitions with the media and civil society. Anti-corruption agencies need to use very specific communication techniques such as framing - to make their messages interesting to and easily understood by the media and the public. There are particular problems that must be addressed and overcome when planning a communication campaign. For instance, the lack of freedom of information and speech can hinder any good work done by the media. Journalists need to be motivated to investigate corruption cases, so media bias has to be overcome. The paper concludes with pragmatic media actions that can be taken by anti-corruption agencies.

In addition to its discussion of the role of the media, this paper also provides several tools and checklists for agencies. These tools either have proved helpful to practitioners in other contexts or have been assembled directly by anti-corruption agency officials. The first toolkit comprises tools that list real-world challenges that anti-corruption agencies face in their daily work and activities designed to help meet those challenges. The second tool is a road map for designing a communication strategy with steps that easily can be followed to realize a desired outcome. The last tool sketches the phases of a coalition-building strategy, from building trust to achieving sustainable transformation.

Overall, this paper is designed to help anti-corruption agencies become more effective in fighting corruption. Communication is crucial for enlisting the media and civil society as partners in the fight. Agencies do not necessarily have to fear the media and civil society organizations. Instead, those groups can become strong supporters of anti-corruption efforts if agencies know how to work with them. This paper provides the guidance and tools to equip agencies to counter corruption with a new weapon: communication.

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