Technical Articles

International Journal of Government Auditing – January 2012

EUROSAI Seminar on SAI Communication with the Public via the Media

Supreme audit institutions (SAI) have a mandate to inform citizens about the state of their governments as revealed in the audit reports they produce. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that SAIs are very concerned about the issue of communication, which has become a challenge in the modern world where new technologies and trends, as well as information tools, are rapidly developing.

In recent years, communication has become an issue of vital importance for the whole INTOSAI community. The first INTOSAI communication policy, which was adopted by the XIX INCOSAI in 2007, and the communication strategy and guideline, which were adopted by the XX INCOSAI in 2010, defined communication as a priority issue for all INTOSAI members. This, naturally, has given rise to initiatives aimed at discussing communication from the SAI perspective. For example, the most recent United Nations/INTOSAI symposium discussed communication as an element of effective cooperation between SAIs and citizens to enhance public accountability.

Since communication is a very broad issue, it can be looked at from various angles. The SAI of Poland (NIK), which chaired the EUROSAI Governing Board from June 2008 to June 2011, organized a seminar for EUROSAI members that focused on a specific element of SAI communication—cooperation with the media. Because participants were from only one INTOSAI region, the discussion could be limited to the European context and focus specifically on European issues.

Photo: Participants in the EUROSAI seminar on SAI cooperation with the media.
Participants in the EUROSAI seminar on SAI cooperation with the media.

As reported in the July 2011 issue of this Journal, the seminar (entitled SAIs’ Communication with Public Opinion via the Media) was held in Warsaw May 10–11, 2011. More than 50 participants from 21 European SAIs attended. It was targeted to SAI staff responsible for designing and implementing media policy as well as public relations/media/press officers. Its main objective was to discuss the communication process from the perspective of both an SAI’s public relations services and the media and to consider how communication between SAIs, the media, and the public could be improved.

In his opening address, NIK President Jacek Jezierski emphasized the importance of cooperation between SAIs and the media. His presentation attempted to explain why SAIs should present their audit results in the media and focused on the need for civil society to be informed if it is to make informed decisions in a democracy. Since an SAI’s mission is to provide information on the functioning of government institutions, and since mass media are the main source of public information, cooperation between SAIs and the media is a necessity, and they both should strive to make it as effective as possible. Furthermore, in a democratic country with independent media, citizens can trust that independent and credible journalists have verified the information they get via the media, which adds to its reliability. President Jezierski also stated that all SAI staff, not only media officers, should keep the issue of communication in mind because, as authors of audit reports, they all contribute to the information presented to the public. The audit reports should be written in a reader-friendly manner and present audit findings in an understandable way.

Session 1: The SAI Public Relations Perspective

To open the first seminar session, a well known Polish public relations (PR) expert discussed contacts between SAI PR services and journalists and explained why friction frequently occurs between them. He stated that good communication with representatives of the media contributes to the effectiveness of PR services, and partnership is the best way to make their collaboration effective.

After that, representatives of the SAIs of Germany, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom described the information policies adopted in their institutions, and the tools they have developed to communicate with the media. They also described opportunities and threats arising from the contacts between SAI PR services and the media. They stressed that SAIs should strive for good relations with the media so that their audit results can reach the public, their main addressee. They observed that SAIs should be honest and trustworthy if they want to have good relations with journalists. For that reason, they should not overstate their messages and should present their work in a reliable way, without trying to make their audit reports more attractive to make them sell better. SAIs should be supportive by, for example, organizing press conferences to inform the media about their audit findings and offer materials to journalists. However, SAIs must be cautious when handling sensitive data so as to not damage the interests of their auditees.

Session 2: The Media Perspective

The second day of the seminar started with a session dedicated to the media’s perspective on collaboration with SAI PR officers. Well-known Polish journalists from the press, television, and radio discussed their experiences and described the ideal media officer they would like to cooperate with. Such a media officer would be easily available and well-informed and would understand the nuances of information transmitted via the media. The journalists also stressed that SAI spokespersons should not treat them as enemies but rather as partners who provide them with an opportunity to inform a wider audience about their work.

However, cooperation between SAIs and the media poses a significant challenge, since the goals and operating modes of the two entities seem to be totally different.

  • Auditors generate long, carefully elaborated reports, while journalists need short, catchy news items.
  • Auditors employ professional jargon containing specialist terms, while journalists use straightforward news language.
  • Auditors must comply with a long audit process, while journalists must have information now—“later” is frequently much too late for them.

Therefore, SAIs need to make a special effort to collaborate effectively with the media. Nevertheless, according to the majority of the seminar participants, such an effort is worthwhile in the modern world, where an organization that wants to actively participate in public debate cannot be absent from the media.

Session 3: Problems Communicating with the Media

In the third session, representatives of the SAIs of Lithuania, Poland, and Spain discussed their information policies, collaboration with the media in their countries, and potential problems that may arise from specific SAI mandates. They emphasized that SAIs should assist the media in understanding the nuances of their work. To inform the public effectively on audit results and their impact on the functioning of the government, journalists should be aware of the special role SAIs play in the democratic system. The speakers also highlighted the importance of regional media, which in some countries are the main source of information for many citizens. SAIs should also develop tools for cooperating with representatives of the local press, television, and radio stations. After the presentations, seminar participants had the opportunity to ask speakers additional questions and discuss the topics they found most interesting or controversial.

While summarizing the results of the seminar, NIK President Jacek Jezierski stated that despite differences in the ways SAIs communicate with society, they all have the same goal: to provide the public with reliable information on the results of their audits. SAIs can use the media to meet this goal but should not neglect their relationship with audited bodies while they are focusing on developing good relations with the media. To conclude, the President of the NIK emphasized that SAIs must be free to decide on the timing and content of the information they present to the public, as well as their methods of presenting that information. Freedom to disseminate audit results is a precondition of SAI independence, as set forth in INTOSAI’s Mexico Declaration.

For additional information contact the NIK: