Sea Turtles, Cell Phones and the WTO

By Briggs, William | Communication World, February 2000 | Go to article overview
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Sea Turtles, Cell Phones and the WTO


Briggs, William, Communication World


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.

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