By Leonardo Müller
Anthony Gooch is the Director of Public Affairs & Communications at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) since 2008.
In this exclusive interview, we first discussed the role and challenges of communication in an organization such as OECD, which develops scientific, evidence-based analysis, and recommendations and operates on a global level, dealing with multiple cultures and languages at the same time. Gooch insists on the importance of active listening and effective communication strategies in all the stages of OECD activities, particularly in identifying the issues requiring in-depth research and strategic message delivering.
Regarding the OECD-Brazil relationship, he mentioned some important recent joint initiatives – among them, the creation of the Portuguese version of the Covid-19 Digital Hub together with FGV. The goal of this platform is to provide reliable information on “policies adopted around the world to tackle the coronavirus crisis, as well as OECD advice.”
In his view, the Covid-19 crisis we are experiencing has shown “the extent to which we all rely on international cooperation.” And in times of high uncertainty, confidence is key. To ensure a strong and balanced economic recovery will involve many actors on a coordinated international effort, notwithstanding the current anti-trade political scenario in many countries. The difficulties are huge and require much more than government decisions, such as dealing with the “Anti-Vaxx” movement: “Communication will be critical to the success of the vaccine.”
But the aftermath of Covid-19 crisis, as in any crisis, offers plenty of opportunities to rebuild our “societies more fairly and sustainably,” with increased transparency and fewer inequalities. After all, we, too, “live in hope!”
The OECD works on three fronts, engagement, influence, and standard-setting, all on an international level. What is the role of communication in these processes?
The OECD is an international organization whose mission is better policies for better lives. Effective communication is vital to deliver on this mission. At the OECD, we are well aware that if our research, analysis, and recommendations do not reach the intended audiences, their value to inform and shape policies is severely undermined. Policymakers need to understand the reality and needs of citizens who rely on their expertise. In turn, citizens need to be informed about the opportunities and limitations of a given policy.
Good communicators facilitate this essential feedback loop, tackling information asymmetries, and strengthening trust in our societies.
We strive to identify relevant areas of research by listening to and creating meaningful interactions with different stakeholders. Our annual OECD Forum gathers more than 5,000 participants from all over the world, including many Brazilians. Convening a space for policymakers and shapers to explore solutions to complex societal challenges provides a rich source of ideas and creativity for all concerned. I’m proud of the fact that the Fundação Getulio Vargas has been a key partner of our Forum. Shortly after I arrived at OECD, I sought them out, and we have worked hand-in-hand ever since. They bring a Brazilian vision, know-how, top-notch speakers, and critical thinking to debates and help disseminate innovation. Another initiative I took following the onset of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 was to create the OECD Global Parliamentary Network (GPN), a “legislative learning hub” that brings together legislators from across the world. The Brazilian parliament has been an active member of it since 2019, with the creation of a cross-party group of Friends of Brazil-OECD chaired by Rep. Vítor Hugo. At our last meeting were honored to welcome Speaker of the House, Rodrigo Maia.
These events and initiatives ensure we can actively listen – the forgotten half of communication – and learn from different societal voices and harness this collective intelligence in our efforts to deliver Better Policies for Better Lives.
To operate on these three levels, the OECD assumes the promotion of evidence-based public policy as its principal mechanism. Such policies are built primarily on comparative analysis at the international level. Would you like to comment on the process and criteria of these analyses and recommendations? What about the role of communication in their construction? And what are the peculiarities and difficulties involved in the last stages of transmission of this type of content?
The first step in the construction of our analysis and recommendations is to identify the most relevant issues for our societies and policymakers. Once we have selected the main areas of focus, experts conduct in-depth research and put their minds together to articulate evidence-based recommendations.
The role of communication in this process is crucial on three main levels. Firstly, in identifying what we need to focus on by active listening; secondly in reminding the Organization of the importance of accessibility and clarity as evidence and data don’t always speak for themselves; and thirdly by being strategic to have the desired influence and impact. Effective communication strategies are fundamental.
One of the main challenges of producing internationally comparative analysis lies in ensuring it accurately reflects each national reality with enough nuance, while preserving the rationale behind the comparison. This is important as national comparisons encourage a “race to the top”, allowing countries to improve their policy-making and adopt best practices, but rankings aren’t everything. Let’s remember that it’s a hell of an achievement to be in the OECD rankings in the first place. This is the Copa Libertadores of public policy!
How do we deal with language and cultural differences?
We need to consider two dimensions. Firstly, the ability to transmit information effectively is a challenge between people speaking the same language. Why? Too often, the elites and cognoscenti only speak a language people who are like they understand. Very often they don’t even realize it.
In many cases, plain language and good communication go hand in hand. This does not mean oversimplifying the complex, but distilling it, through efforts to structure and visualize information so that the message is more accessible. In the current situation, we have placed particular emphasis on this, as clear communication on the social, economic, and environmental effects of COVID-19 is essential if we want policymakers to design effective policies and build resilience.
Secondly, it is important to communicate to people literally in their language. To this end and given our global vocation and growing membership, we have developed a multilingual strategy for many key initiatives with potentially significant global audiences. We have seen social media is especially receptive to different languages. Where we can, we seek to communicate beyond the ‘formal’ OECD languages of English and French to Spanish, German, Japanese and Portuguese. Our OECD Better Life Index is also available in Italian and Russian. Our Tacking the COVID19 Crisis Hub is available in six languages.
Regarding cultural differences, I am deeply influenced by the fact that I grew up in a bicultural family. Having parents of different nationalities and the breadth tho provided me culturally, linguistically and intellectually has profoundly influenced my life and career, allowing me to create multiple cultural bonds. Now, I work in a multicultural team and I perceive this as an enormous richness. We encourage each other to question our assumptions and learn constantly. My three main recommendations would be: respect differences, be an active listener, and understand the importance of nonverbal communication.
Brazil is not one of the member countries but is considered a key partner. What does that mean? In particular, in terms of the recent history of OECD-Brazil relations?
The relationship between the OECD and Brazil is a long-standing one built over many decades and with strategic sectors as the initial drivers. As an important global player, Brazil joined the OECD Steel Committee in the 1990s, and it was the first country beyond the OECD to join the OECD Aircraft Sector Understanding. It is a Member of the Governing Board of the world-famous PISA education program and the OECD Anti-Bribery Working Group. As a leading member of the G20, Brazil has been a strong advocate of efforts to close down tax havens and, more recently, to ensure we have a tax system fit for the digital 21st Century where multinational companies pay their fair share (BEPS). In 2015 we signed a formal Cooperation Agreement that led to the 2016-17 OECD-Brazil Joint Work Programme around shared priorities such as corporate governance, anti-corruption and taxation, and our Latin America and Caribbean Regional Programme.
And then, in May of 2017, Brazil officially expressed its interest in becoming a full member of the Organization, a position fully supported by the current Administration. Since that time, Brazil has worked tirelessly to meet the technical requirements and is now far advanced. Perhaps it will not be very long before it joins the ranks of fellow Latin American members, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and Costa Rica.
A few months ago, the OECD, together with FGV, made available on its website a hub in Portuguese. Tell us a bit more about it.
As we were discussing at the beginning of this interview, effective public policy and communications go hand in hand. With the outbreak of COVID-19, we quickly understood that digital solutions were going to be an essential part of OECD’s response to the crisis. With this in mind, we created the COVID-19 Digital Hub. This digital platform provides timely and comprehensive information on policies adopted around the world to tackle the coronavirus crisis, as well as OECD advice. It’s a single entry point to the OECD’s data and analysis and features timely analysis in all areas of our policy work relevant to the crisis. Beyond immediate responses, the content in the platform aims to analyze the longer-term consequences and impacts of COVID-19. Now available in six languages, it has received almost half a million visits worldwide in only three months, breaking all records.
The creation of the Portuguese Hub with the support of FGV is critical, as it enables us to reach Portuguese-speaking audiences at a time when the pandemic started hitting the Latin America and the Caribbean region particularly hard. In the current context, governments need evidence-based information to guide their policy choices and pave the road to an inclusive recovery. We very much hope that through the Aberje network of top communications professionals, word will spread widely in Brazil, and visits to the site will explode. As you can tell, I am an optimist, but in the case of Brazil, I have reason to be confident.
Back in 2013, I asked my friends at FGV if they would be willing to translate our OECD Better Life Index. They agreed and asked me how and when I wished to launch the initiative. Half in jest, I replied that it would be great to do so in Brazil on the eve of the 2014 World Cup with Pele. One year later, that’s exactly what we did in Sao Paulo! So it pays to be ambitious. We also used the occasion of the Brazil World Cup to organize a communications campaign entitled “more to life than football” to raise awareness of all the factors that make up a happy and fulfilled life (beyond football!) such as education, health, the environment. Great memories!
What is the role of organized civil society in general within the OECD vision? What about an association like Aberje?
The organized civil society is more than part of OECD’s vision: it’s in our DNA. We have been working closely with business and trade unions since OECD began. COVID-19 has shown us the vital role civil society plays – whether defending labor rights and protecting workers, holding governments to account to keep citizens data safe or supporting a green recovery – in enacting just and inclusive change.
As policy-making evolves, modern approaches to engagement mean more significant listening efforts and two-way exchanges of points of view with diverse policymakers. Associations like Aberje have an essential role in the global conversation, as communications professionals are often the first to hear and see the “weak signals” of upcoming shifts and the evolution of citizens’ needs. In the public sector, we share many of the guiding principles of corporate communications: being transparent, building credibility, and upholding our commitment towards a shared vision.
Covid-19 and economic impacts
In economic terms, the Covid-19 and the lockdown measures have brought catastrophic effects at speed never seen before. Do you think that the very nature of the situation indicate that more efforts should applied to formulate and implement responses at the international level? What would be the role of the OECD in these efforts?
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the extent to which we all rely on international cooperation. As soon as the virus began to spread across borders, it became evident that measures made in isolation would not suffice to contain its advance. Today, in a context of high uncertainty, we need to boost confidence in the international system. There are various ways of doing this. The first is through global cooperation in the development and deployment of a vaccine, enabling its worldwide accessibility and rapid distribution. The efforts to find treatment should be complemented with a collaborative approach to track and trace the re-emergence of the virus. Secondly, there should be strengthened and continued support for developing countries, particularly in Africa, the Indian sub-continent, and the Latin American & Caribbean region, who are now facing a critical period in their fight against the virus. With high levels of informal work and underfunded health sectors, these countries are highly vulnerable to the most severe consequences of the pandemic. Thirdly, when it comes to the road towards economic recovery, we will need the mother of all international coordination efforts to help us all emerge from this crisis together. This will involve monetary and fiscal policy of course but a key area of focus should be international trade that has delivered so much prosperity over recent decades and helped lift millions out of poverty all over the world. It is a huge understatement to say that trade has lived better days. The WTO system is paralyzed; trade conflicts have grown to alarming levels. Countries have never employed more restrictive trade measures on the export of medical goods than in recent months. Some use the crisis to reinforce arguments for onshore and blame global value chains. More diversification of sources of supply is clearly needed. But we should also strive to get trade back to good health as soon as possible.
At a time of increased need for cooperation, the OECD will offer itself as it always has, to play a useful role at the heart of effective international cooperation that delivers for citizens.
One of the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis was the resurgence of extreme nationalist agendas in several countries. In the report, you indicate that the pandemic has accelerated the worldwide movement away from integration toward an even greater fragmentation. How does the OECD see this process, and how have you positioned yourselves in this regard?
As my colleague Laurence Boone wrote in the editorial of our June 2020 Economic Outlook, the pandemic has accelerated the shift from “great integration” to “great fragmentation.” The spread of the virus has exposed and exacerbated inequalities between people, regions, and countries. As many borders remain closed across large areas and lockdowns are still in place, we are witnessing considerable trade and investment restrictions, business failures, and bankruptcy risks affecting countries differently. In this context, a fragmented response to the crisis may appear almost inevitable.
Dialogue and global cooperation are crucial in the road towards recovery. If each country makes its decisions in isolation, the return to normalcy will take much longer and be plagued by even more uncertainty. If governments put their trust in each other through the international system and seize the opportunity to reshape their economic realities together, their efforts may be bolstered by each other’s support.
In the report, you point out that until a vaccine is available, recovery will be like a tightrope walk, both in the health and economy scenarios. Thus, the degree of uncertainty is extremely high. What is the role of communication at this delicate moment?
In the highly uncertain aftermath of the pandemic, reliable information and effective communication will be crucial to help our societies cope with the impact of the crisis in an informed manner. For the OECD, these communication efforts will be wide-ranging, from raising awareness about the use of new technologies to track and trace the virus to providing recommendations at the monetary and fiscal policy levels. Assuming uncertainty is something we clearly did in June’s Economic Outlook, our projections had two possible scenarios: one in which a second wave of infections, with renewed lock-downs, hits before the end of 2020, and one in which another major outbreak is avoided.
But, if you allow me, I also want to raise an uncomfortable issue that, as communicators, we all need to be aware. Well before COVID-19 emerged, the most dangerous manifestation of “Post-Truth” with a life and death impact was the emergence of the so-called “Anti-Vaxx” movement. The impact of that movement, using skillful communication strategies has been considerable. Dr Anthony Fauci has gone as far as saying that “general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling” is likely to thwart vaccination efforts! We clearly have a lot of work to do to educate people about vaccines if we are to effectively counter Mis and Dis-Information. Our very lives may depend on it. Communication will be critical to the success of the vaccine.
Despite the current gloomy scenario, what opportunities have the pandemic opened up?
While we still very much during this health crisis, we can and must learn from this pandemic and use the aftermath as an opportunity to rebuild their societies more fairly and sustainably, increase transparency and address inequalities. The acceleration of the digitalization of our societies can promote innovation and growth as long as society as a whole is involved. Perhaps education has been changed forever. In health, I am sure we will have made extraordinary progress in learning about hope to pre-empt and prevent the spread of pandemics. I am also sure many in younger generations will now dream of becoming the heroes and heroines of the Covid Crisis: doctors, nurses, careworkers and epidemiologists. This Crisis may also do much force us to change bad habits and live more healthily in every respect. We live in hope!