NGO’s & the News: Transparency International Explains How it Became a Conversation Starter

VIENNA — Every year, the NGO Transparency International releases its Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures how citizens in 180 countries view their public institutions.

Traditionally, Transparency International has used a filter to get their message out: handing the results and data to journalists, who produce stories that spread their anti-corruption message to the public. In recent years, the organization has started rethinking this strategy. Emerging online tools have allowed the organization to reach an audience in more dynamic ways, (blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) Georg Neumann, who works for the organization’s communications office, says the new environment creates dialogue and conversation in a way the old process didn’t

“While not only talking to the journalists, we also talk directly to the citizens,” he told me after a break out session Wednesday at the Milton Wolf Seminar. “All of these three interact much more strongly than ‘here’s our NGO, here’s the news organization and somewhere there were the citizens.’ Now, what we can do is actually have a conversation with all three.”

Transparency International hasn’t crossed the self-image line into considering itself a journalistic institution. But as NGOs increasingly deliver news and information directly to their audiences, those lines are getting blurrier. My brief chat with Neumann is above, and there’s a transcript below.  

Georg Neumann: Hi, my name is Georg Neumann — I work for Transparency International in the communication department.

I want to talk to you a little bit about how social media has changed a little bit the way we work with journalists, but also more in general, how we fight corruption and we try to advocate for transparency and anti-corruption.

Maybe the best thing to do this is with an example. Let’s take the Corruption Perceptions Index, our famous ranking of about 180 countries around the world, measuring the perceived public-sector corruption. With this tool, what we did last year, in 2009, we have done something that we call the virtual launch, where we try to increase basically — make increased use of social media tools, using Twitter, using a blog to gather sort of the effects of corruption on human lives, using Facebook to cater a community of people that are already interested in corruption, and try to stimulate posts and comments — meaning a conversation about the issue of corruption, which is much deeper than simply using a table to show that.

So what it had shown is that while not only talking to the journalists, we also talked directly to the citizens. And these form basically kind of a triangle. So you have the organization here, you have the journalists here, the media organizations, and you have the citizens here. And all of these three interact much more strongly than they did before, where it was only our NGO and here’s the news organization. So now what we can do is actually have conversation about all of the three.

So one example was the Huffington Post taking our index and creating a slideshow with one slide per country, and about 300 comments within the first couple of days, actually discussing corruption in the U.S. — which really surprised us, but which was really effective in getting the message out in much deeper form than it did before. So the power of social media is not only to distribute it to a different audience, but also you get much richer discussions and comment on the issue that we advocate for.

Laura McGann: Are you spending time and resources at your organization to reach audiences directly? Are you growing that part of your organization or are you thinking more about it? Do you think that’s sort of changed how you reach an audeinc direcelty?

Neumann: I think this is one of our challenges, now that we need to find way to interact more with the citizens themselves. So we’ve created a Facebook community — we have to dedicate time to actually discuss issues, create an online discussion, a chat, these kinds of things.

What we do as a network or a team at Transparency International — we’re represented in 100 countries around the world. And every country works with their national audiences. So we have a direct way there of our organization talking to, making events for them, using social media to invite to these events, to create protests such as in Indonesia last year, where we had 2.5 million people being organized through Facebook to protest against the government’s sacking of anti-corruption commissioners.

So this is something that we do and we realize we need to invest much more time in doing so. I think the other part of this is that also we see is a need for citizens to actually talk and tell their stories. And what we’re looking into right now is how do we capture these stories. One way is allowing them to post their stories on a blog or Facebook, recording them with a Flip camera, and tell these stories. But there are many other ways to do that and we have to really find very effective tools, and that’s something we’re doing now.

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