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Sea Turtles, Cell Phones and the WTO.

Global trade protests show major changes are upon us...

Throughout history, climactic battles have resulted in major change for people and organizations alike. And among the fallout from the recent World Trade Organization (WTO) debacle--dubbed the 'Battle in Seattle'--are numerous lessons about the way organizations will have to change how they communicate in the new century. Trade issues aside, the real effect of the failed negotiations and the howl of protest that surrounded them is that organizations will never be able to manage their communication in the same way again.

In a new millennium where globalization is a fact, despite the wide range of concerns and protests the concept engenders, the inept behavior of the WTO, itself, was a shocking example of how not to communicate its messages. Even most entry-level communicators could have managed this issue better. The WTO event planning team was also woefully deficient, though the city of Seattle shares some of the blame here. The events of the week clearly demonstrated the arrival of new technologies as a democratizing, equalizing means of moving messages, mobilizing people, and framing public opinion. The real result is that the year 2000 begins with stakeholders no longer reduced to message recipients, but fully informed participants. Organizations can no longer assume a cavalier attitude, taking these stakeholders for granted. Modern public relations is largely a 20th-century phenomenon, but as we enter the 2lst century there appears to be a need to reevaluate the role of activist constituencies and perhaps reexamine the a ctivist role of public relations itself.

The World Trade Organization is the five-year-old successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), established after World War II to facilitate free flow of global commerce and prevent the protectionism that fostered the Great Depression. Headquartered in Geneva, with 135 member nations, the WTO operated with a 1999 budget of U.S.$78.5 million and may be the most powerful nonprofit organization in the world. The WTO administers trade agreements, serves as a forum for trade negotiations, handles trade disputes, monitors national trade policies and provides technical assistance and training to developing nations. Unlike GATT, the WTO has enforcement powers, including the ability to levy fines on nations not abiding by its rulings over trade disputes.

The Seattle ministerial round was the WTO's third international conference since inception. The broad focus of this round of talks was to further international trade liberalization. As host nation, the U.S. had the responsibility for ensuring an appropriate setting for these talks, making concessions to keep the talks moving forward, advancing its own agenda at the same time. Before the Seattle meeting, the WTO was a nameless acronym, with virtually no recognition among the world's citizenry. Even among the insiders who understand and operate within the WTO bureaucracy there was substantial room for disagreement and contention. But as the WTO became better known, if still poorly understood by the endless stream of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), special interests and workers of the world, the WTO became the focus of every fear and frustration of living in a globalizing world, and the streets of Seattle became ground zero.

One would think that the WTO would have been able to communicate its story easily. Globalization is improving the lives of people worldwide, although unevenly and at varying rates. The World Bank estimates that the percentage of people living in poverty worldwide declined from 28.7 to 24.3 percent during the decade of the 1990s, a period of expanding globalization and expanding world trade. Trade creates more markets for national products, allowing expansion at home, more jobs, greater investment and more products at lower prices for consumers through imports. Trade makes countries richer. Rich countries take better care of the environment, workers' rights and human rights. What an impressive mission statement for any organization.

Well, the WTO and its constituent governments simply failed to communicate their case for world trade. Protesters railed against the evils of globalization, blaming it for everything from environmental degradation to subversion of national sovereignty to destroying cultural diversity--all sacrificed to the gods of greed running multinational corporations. Certainly the assemblage of strange bedfellows brought together to protest the WTO was

unique in U.S. history. Disparate groups included steelworkers, environmentalists (rain forests, sea turtles, industrial waste, green politics--pick one), anarchists, concerned senior citizens, nationalist protectionists, French makers of Roquefort cheese (including pop-hero Jose Bove, the French sheep farmer who attacked a McDonald's restaurant over WTO approval of American tariffs on French cheese), those opposed to admitting China into WTO because of prison labor or Tibet or intellectual property rights, and the curious and the well-meaning spanning the political spect rum of all nations. The WTO was the perfect target for these groups with nothing else in common. Big. Anonymous. Vaguely suspicious and threatening.

"The WTO has become a target of grievance for everything that has gone wrong in the world in many decades, "said Mike Moore, WTO head and former prime minister of New Zealand. "If we were not a democratic institution, we'd rebrand ourselves and start again."

Amid the protest was some violence. Some participants broke windows and trashed buildings for the catharsis it provided; other radicals were better informed and more intent on shutting down the meeting. Property damage and lost holiday sales ran into the millions. But most of those gathered, like the 20,000 trade unionists organized by the AFL-CIO or the peaceful human rights activists, were outraged that the violence captured the attention of the media and the world, overshadowing their sincere concerns.

The WTO was in organizational disarray even before Seattle. With tariffs at historic lows and quotas on imports largely gone, the remaining issues before the WTO, the fruit higher on the tree, were more problematic. Remaining were issues of not only business but also culture. Poor countries allied with the U.S. against Europe and Japan on agriculture. The world ganged up on the U.S. on issues of dumping. Poor countries squared off against rich countries over labor standards. Rich countries were attacked for pushing environmental and labor standards.

For more than a year, members argued over an agenda for the Seattle round, Weeks before the meeting, negotiators in Geneva ultimately failed to arrive at an agenda for the meeting. Time slipped away. Members and observers came to Seattle with their differences intact, and U.S. Trade Representative and Seattle round host Charlene Barshefsky seemed unwilling to negotiate much. (For a discussion of why communicators make good negotiators, see "Next for Communicators: Global Negotiation," in the Dec.-Jan. 1998-99 issue of Communication World.) On the eve of the meeting, corporate sponsor hosts Boeing and Microsoft were on board, but other sponsorships had not been filled. Local and Washington state officials, anxious to showcase their friendly city (which is largely dependent on trade), were ultimately unprepared for what was to come.

"I am worried about the process," said E.U. Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy. "The present rules and procedures do not combine, cannot combine, efficiency and transparency."

As host country, the U.S. advanced an agenda on several fronts, but President Clinton's aggressive statements in favor of environmental protection and labor rights generated a backlash among less developed countries, which felt the U.S. initiatives would protect U.S. workers at the expense of developing-world workers. Thus President Clinton, in a political nod to organized labor in the U.S., undercut the entire proceedings by conceding that trade, unless properly regulated, does threaten labor and environmental standards. Essentially, Clinton sided with the protesters.

Ultimately, the WTO declared impasse. A draft declaration on the final day contained none of the issues of the proposed millennium round. Developing-world representatives publicly complained about being shut out of final negotiations and threatened the consensus on an agenda required by WTO rules for lack of openness and transparency.

"We want to be heard but people don't want to listen," said Vijay Makhan, representing the Organization of African Unity.

So the WTO imploded from its own organizational mistakes. But outside, the demonstrators claimed victory. At least for the time being the WTO is failing in managing its public relations. It is helping member governments sell the idea of freer trade, and it has actually strengthened its opposition by helping all these diverse groups form unlikely alliances around the issue of trade. The bonding exercise of Seattle will probably be short lived. Teamsters, after all, are not in the vanguard of social change; they just want a seat at the table. So does everyone else. The various special interests will retrench rather than maintain these uncomfortable relationships. Their momentum may or may not be sustained. But the legacy of Seattle is a new kind of politics: disparate groups coming and going at the speed of electronic communication and confronting issues at a global level.

This event was the first wired mass demonstration. High tech meets street protest. Civil disobedience on the web. The Internet and e-mail allowed small groups to coordinate a mass protest, not just in Seattle but across the U.S. and in other countries. Cell phones and pagers helped organizers move demonstrators, block streets and coordinate protests. Video cameras and digital cameras documented police tactics and streamed the pictures onto the web and to a waiting world. Traditional media were largely scooped. Global issues received global communication. Small not-for-profits out-communicated the wealthy nations and the well-endowed WTO. Each group maintained its own instructional web site, while marchers in sea turtle outfits made their points far more articulately than the Byzantine, "secretive" positioning by the WTO on arcane-sounding trade issues. And nothing galvanizes public opinion better than rubber bullets, tear gas and an over-reactive police force on the evening news. Get ready to start hearing m uch more about e-public relations. We've seen its launching. Ironically, Microsoft was a principal sponsor of the Seattle round.

The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Seattle were well organized, bridging cultural gulfs to find common purpose. They had a clear agenda and they mastered new and old media techniques. During the last decade, NGOs have grown in number and influence and have tackled land mines, Nike, Nestle and Monsanto in high profile contests. In 1995, Greenpeace, the most media-savvy of all NGOs, prevented Royal Dutch Shell from disposing of its Brent Spar oil rig in the North Sea. The U.S. has an estimated two million NGOs, India a million grass-roots organizations. With modern, inexpensive communication, these groups can share information, link groups and mobilize people, rich nation or poor, north or south. New coalitions can be built by e-mail and highly specialized information and research can be accessed by anyone. Organizations no longer hold a monopoly on content or message. Neither do governments. The debate about whether this is democracy brought home to all institutions or whether special interests are beginning to wield undue power will continue. But in Seattle, we witnessed the increasing counterbalance of corporate and governmental power by citizens' groups.

The WTO debacle may ultimately illustrate a new organizational paradigm for a new century. A number of public relations scholars are reevaluating the relationship between organizations and activist publics. Traditionally, public relations serves the dominant groups in society to the exclusion of the less powerful, whether politically or economically. Are activist groups merely another stakeholder to be communicated with strategically? One of the conclusions of the IABC-sponsored Excellence Study was that a highly trained public relations staff is central to effective public relations. But passion for the activist cause often can offset the sophisticated organization. Professors David Dozier and Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University write that we need to learn how activist groups are different from other types of publics and how they are not adequately served by contemporary communication techniques, in part because they often act counter to expected (accepted?) group behavior. Derina Holtzhausen at Uni versity of South Florida further asserts that ethical management of the relationship between organizations and the increasing number of activist groups depends on the public relations practitioner being both the conscience and the agent of change within his or her own organization--essentially an internal activist.

Events in Seattle did nor derail globalization. Every nation in history that has raised its standard of living has done so by means of increased world trade. And globalization is probably inevitable, anyhow. But the firestorm unleashed over the WTO did frustrate this one global body and temporarily blunt its momentum. Obviously it is an organization in need of serious reform. The demonstrators succeeded in linking an enormous number of unrelated causes to trade. Writing in Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria said, "These concerns are important. But the purpose of trade agreements is to reduce trade barriers and thus expand economic growth. Period. They do not exist to make the environment safe, give workers health care or make countries democratic. There are other methods, treaties and organizations aimed at pursuing these worthwhile goals." Nevertheless there is now a social activism spin on globalization, rotating counter to the traditional business model.

From this city famous for coffee comes a brew of communication cases for everybody's taste. Along with the new year, ring in a new set of rules for communicating and establishing relationships. The power equation has been altered and will continue so as communication and the world further democratize.

William Briggs, Ed.D., is professor of public relations at San Jose State University (Calif.) and a director on the international executive board of IABC.
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Author:Briggs, William
Publication:Communication World
Date:Feb 1, 2000
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