Freie Universität Berlin
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)
Recent decades have witnessed a remarkable trend of international organizations (IOs) "going public" by more ambitiously addressing non-state audiences through public communication.
In a first part, this project sought to theorize and explain this observation by looking at three dimensions of structural reform: the internal codification of communication tasks, the departmentalization of these tasks in communication units or bodies, and the long term planning of public communication by specifying goals, procedures, and responsibilities in comprehensive communication strategies. Empirically, the project confirmed the notion of "IOs going public" using data on public communication struc-tures for 48 IOs between 1950 and 2015. Based on an time-series-cross-section regression and event-history analysis of structural reforms, it argues that two causal mechanisms are of substantial significance in this process: first, normative change towards institutional transparency has spurred the democratic membership of IOs to push for structural reforms to improve the provision of public information. Second, for some IOs, public protest and scandals have further increased the organizational demand for public communication, leading to reforms in order to more effectively "manage" public legitimacy by communicative means. Remarkably, the project found only limited evidence that IO mandates to teach norms and knowledge to societal audiences can account for reforms in public communication.
In a second part, the project addressed the question of impact: How does the trend towards "going public" change the terms under which global public debates on international issues take place? The project included two case studies reconstructing United Nations’ communications of (a) the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) process and (b) cases of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by UN peacekeepers.
Regarding (a) the ATT process, we found that IO public communication had highly problematic repercussions for public discourse, because it tended to prioritize some voices, while marginalizing others. We theorized this problematic prioritization/marginalization of voices in relation to three logics of public communication: public information, governance and self‐legitimation. First, as public information, public communication privileges organizational leaders by heralding their official narrative of goals, internal processes and outside action. Second, as governance, it strategically sides with norm entrepreneurs and orchestrates advocacy campaigns. Third, as self-legitimation it seeks to symbolically construct procedural fairness and inclusiveness. In line with these logics, public communication in the ATT case played a questionable role in marginalizing critics of the ATT while facilitating public (mis)perception of the democratic credentials of negotiations and the de-politicization of institutional inequalities.
With regard to (b) UN peacekeeping, the project assessed the reporting of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) during peacekeeping mission, in which UN communication has extensively addressed allegations, claiming a new global leadership role of advocacy for and governance of "zero tolerance". According to the main argument put forward, UN communication has been rather effective in managing blame due to its role as a primary source for mass media organizations to report on SEA and peacekeeping. However, from the vantage point of classical accounts on crisis communication the UN has a peculiar take on failure in the SEA case: apart from rather rarely uttering excuses and justifications for what went wrong, the UN have set in motion an impressive flow of what we tentatively call "action talk", that is, speech that calls for, criticizes or reports policy action aiming at SEA. We found that the UN has successfully reframed SEA – from a pinnacle of organizational failure to an area of legitimate political intervention by the UN secretariat.