Self-legitimation in the face of politicization: Why international organizations centralized public communication

Abstract

International organizations (I0) have centralized their public communication to a large extent over recent decades by undertaking a broader codification of communication tasks as well as a departmentalization of these tasks within units of IO bureaucracies. The paper provides the first systematic analysis of this important development in institutional design using a novel data set on the organization of public communication in 48 IOs between 1950 and 2015. It identifies self-legitimation as a key driver of centralization in the face of increased levels of politicization, that is, public awareness and activism directed at IOs. Empirically, the study suggests that the centralization of public communication significantly increases as transnational civil society organizes and gains access to IO decision-making. Further, politicization in terms of contentious activism and public scandals substantially accounts for varying levels of centralization across IOs.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Concepts such as “development communication” (Servaes 2007) and “public diplomacy’”(Altman and Shore 2014) reflect framing strategies of communication practitioners, which seek to legitimize communication as a governance tool. Similarly, the concept of “public information” is far too narrow as it has been predominantly used by political actors as well as academics to signal a strong focus on communication as a mechanism to enhance IO transparency and accountability (UNGA 1946; Brüggemann 2008). In the same vein, my definition comes close to the professional understanding of public relations as “the management of communication between an organisation and its publics” (Grunig and Hunt 1984: 6–8). However, as a professional label “public relations” is strongly associated with professional standards such as “excellence”(Grunig 1992), which are problematic for analyses that are meant to include organized IO communication regardless of professionalism.

  2. 2.

    Former orders to compare with include OAS 1977; OAS 1982; OAS 1992; OAS 1997.

  3. 3.

    Note that the “centralization” of public communication as discussed here does not imply or even suggest that “decentralized” capacities to communicate on the level of local offices or projects are unimportant or even reduced. On the contrary, where significant organizational resources are spent on public communication at the project level, such spending typically calls for the enhancement of structures at headquarter level in order to allow for proper coordination, planning, and programming of communication efforts “on the ground” (Coldevin 2001; Servaes 2007).

  4. 4.

    Criterion 1 and 2 distinguish IOs from temporary institutions and conferences created on an ad hoc basis and without the necessary capacity to act autonomously of their principals; through criterion 3 all those organizations are set aside that are predominantly non-governmental and bilateral institutions as well as mere ‘emanations’ of existing IOs. Pevehouse et al. 2004; Wallace and Singer 1970.

  5. 5.

    The two IOs that were not included due to a lack of reliable information about public communication structures are the Andean Community and the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean.

  6. 6.

    Even if access is handled restrictively on many occasions, new opportunity—such as to file written statements tabled at important meetings—arguably increase the likelihood that significant parts of the organization will become aware of transnational demands. Further, institutional access may significantly empower representatives of nonstate organizations to more convincingly lobby for transnational demands, making those demands more credible as an eminent challenge to the organization’s legitimacy in its societal environment (Joachim 2003; Steffek et al. 2008; Scholte 2011).

  7. 7.

    This is also highly plausible for theoretical reasons, as observed overdispersion (variance being larger than the mean) can be assumed to reasonably reflect interdependencies in the occurrence of task assignments in a given IO-year. One obvious reason of such clustering is the weighting of counted tasks by departmentalization.

  8. 8.

    For later years (2011–2015), the values of the variable Transnational Access are based on a search of more recent general rules of procedures (the main kind of documents TransAccess based their coding on) and specific documents on civil-society relations for all those IO bodies selected by Tallberg and colleagues. The values of TNA Access in the given IO-year equals the value in 2010, unless I found evidence for the release of such documents (indicating possible changes we could arguably not code with an acceptable level of consistency with the TransAccess project). Where I found such changes, the variable is set to “missing” for the given and later IO-years.

  9. 9.

    Exploratory analyses also suggest a more inclusive reporting of protest activities by AP compared to Reuters. In line with the social movement literature, I assume protest activities addressing IOs to be a rather recent phenomenon; hence the absence of access to AP content before 1977 seems acceptable. Relevant articles published by AP were identified in the LexisNexis-database using the keywords ‘demonstrat*’ and ‘protest*’ in conjunction with the mentions of the respective IO.

  10. 10.

    To allow for the estimation of data points beyond 2010, I proceeded as follows: Information was gathered about changing tasks of existing IO bodies or the establishment of new ones after 2010. For years in which no evidence of relevant changes could be found, the values of Local Activities in the given year equals its value in 2010. Where such changes were found, the variable is set to ‘missing.’

  11. 11.

    More specifically, I do not observe the codification of “research” as a communication task in the five smallest IOs (in terms of budgets in 2010), that is, NEAFC, EUROMET, ACSO, IKSMS, and SACEP. The smallest IO in the sample codifying research as a communication task is NAFO, with an annual budget of about 900,000 Euro in 2010, which might indicate that budget constraints effectively prevent small IOs from defining “research” as a communication task.

  12. 12.

    Log-likelihood tests of the dispersion parameter of all models presented indicate that Poisson models would be inferior because of overdispersion.

  13. 13.

    Simulations use the program CLARIFY (Tomz et al. 2003) and are based on a code provided by Braidwood (2012). Please note that Figures 2, 3 and 4 stem from two slightly simplified models (with biannual fixed effects) to allow the inclusion of all other control variables and clustered standard errors (Figures 2 and 4 are based on Model 10, Figure 3 on Model 11, both fully reported in the online appendix, Table A.4).

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Acknowledgements

Research for this article was funded by the German Research Foundation (EC 323/1-2). Essential research assistance by Manuel Hofmann, Stefan Wiechmann, Florence Wild, Minna Ålander, Roisin Cronin and Laura Jung is gratefully acknowledged. I wish to give special thanks to the three anonymous reviewers, and Axel Dreher for detailed comments and recommendations.

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Correspondence to Matthias Ecker-Ehrhardt.

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Ecker-Ehrhardt, M. Self-legitimation in the face of politicization: Why international organizations centralized public communication. Rev Int Organ 13, 519–546 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11558-017-9287-y

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Keywords

  • International organization
  • Institutional design
  • Communication
  • Politicization
  • Legitimation
  • Transnational civil society
  • Non-state access
  • Political protest
  • Political scandal

JEL Classification

  • C23
  • D73
  • D83
  • F53
  • M31