Our inability to speak openly, and what this means for progress

More and more people are feeling the need to self-censor. And it’s not a good sign of where we are headed as a region (image source: Pinterest)

It’s been a funny couple of days (I know, it’s 2020). Over the past week, I’ve had two people reach out to me, basically telling me to be careful of what I post. The first was for a piece I wrote mentioning another place and its work on promoting education across the world (which I hope all of us would support). The second was a post mentioning a piece of bread and how much it cost (I’m serious). It goes without saying, more and more of us are self-censoring. And on every issue out there. And that worries me.

Why are they doing it? Partly due to politics, to laws, and to the overall cultural climate around us. We live in an increasingly divided world, where many believe that their viewpoint is the only one that matters. And increasingly, these people are in positions of power. Given the potential reach of social media, where one person can engage with millions, far too many believe that we should only write and share things that agree with them. Ironically, those that break the law whilst agreeing with those in power are not punished. And laws are used to hold others to account for the flimsiest of reasons.

Not knowing where the line is any more, people are remaining silent. Or they’re saying things they don’t believe it. That makes my job as a communicator much harder, as I don’t know if what I’m hearing is true or not. And even if my engagement online is making a difference, how would I know this if people aren’t saying or writing what they feel?

The issue is bigger than this. My belief is that, given enough time and reinforcement, self-censorship extends to our behavior in a number of settings, including our workplaces. We’re less likely to speak up with a new idea, to point out when something isn’t working, or when someone does something wrong. Freedom matters, for our personal lives and for our economies too. I will leave the last word to the American economist Milton Friedman, who was writing about the US, but could have been talking about any place on earth:

I know of no example in time or place of a society that has been marked by a
large measure of political freedom, and that has not also used something
comparable to a free market to organize the bulk of economic activity

We must hire on merit, not on nationality

How can any health authority hire a comms head based on nationality, especially during a pandemic?

A couple of days ago, I was triggered. Someone shared a role with me, and asked me to have a look. The position was responsible for managing all communications and outreach at a health authority in the Gulf. The write-up was fine. What got me riled up was the requirement that the person be a national.

I’ve always advocated for communications to be diverse and inclusive, to represent the publics the organizations deal with. But we’re getting to a point (and time) where localization needs to be rethought. We need the best people in the job, who have the experience and ability to communicate effectively. Now more than ever, good comms keeps people safe and can save lives. There isn’t the time to learn on the job, which localization has encouraged.

I know this appeal will fall on deaf ears, but semi-government and government must revisit localization policies, at least temporarily. A pandemic is not the time when people are prioritized for hiring simply based on their passport and not on their ability to do the job. We must hire on merit, not on nationality.

How to deal with Israeli Clients, PR Agencies and Media

The two countries are now open for business with each other. But what does that mean for the PR sector? (image: Al Arabiya)

I’ve seen this year described in many ways (whenever I talk about 2020, I just end up swearing), but one phrase which we’d all agree on is that it’s the year of change. And one of those changes is the agreement between Israel and the UAE. I’m not going to go into the politics of this. What I will say is that there’s going to be much more open interaction between the two countries, especially when it comes to business.

Now, what does this mean for PR practitioners in the UAE? You’re going to be opportunities to win new business, and that isn’t a bad thing given how bad 2020 has been for business. But it’s not going to be a walk in the park. I’m going to give a few pointers as to what to expect based on my own experiences living in Israel and the Palestinian Territories and dealing with media and PRs in Tel Aviv.

Israeli Society

Let’s start with Israel’s society, which is incredibly diverse. The country’s mix is ostensibly majority Jewish, with a fifth to quarter of the country identifying as Arab (the Arab population is mainly Muslim, but there are large Christian and Druze groups). The Jewish population hails from all over the world, from Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East (think Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Morocco and Yemen), Africa (mainly Ethiopia) and the United States. There are also smaller minorities, such as Armenians, Bahais and non-Arab Christian groups.

This cultural cocktail shapes the country’s language. Hebrew is the official language, but Arabic is also widely spoken (most Jewish Israelis don’t speak Arabic, but they should be able to understand the language due to their common roots). Russian is common on the coast too. English is widely understood.

When it comes to Israelis themselves, they’re often called “Sabras” after the prickly pear. Essentially, the stereotype is that Israelis are rude and direct to strangers, but kind to friends and family. This is how that stereotype looks like in the media (see below). I’ve always found the Israelis courteous and hospitable, even when talking about food (hummus and felafel are Arab), and politics (I can’t help it).

Israel is confusing when it comes to religion and secularism. The country is very western (Tel Aviv is has the largest open LGBTQ+ community in the Middle East), but it has become increasingly religious over the past two decades as the Orthodox communities have grown in population and political influence. Most of the country observes Shabbat, the Jewish holy day from Friday night to Saturday evening. It may be too simple an analogy to make, but generally Tel Aviv is the open, business-oriented city, whereas Jerusalem is the religious, political heartland.

The Israeli Media

This is where it gets fun. Israelis are news-obsessed, and this is reflected in their media. The Israeli media is the most open of any in the Middle East. Unlike the rest of the region, there is little censorship and no self-censorship (the exception is when writing on something that is considered harmful to public security, and there are even ways for the media to circumvent these rules). There’s a media outlet for whatever your beliefs may be, from the left wing/center Haaretz (my favorite by reporting) and Maariv to the centrist Yedioth Ahronoth and the right wing Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom. These labels can be unfair, as editors/journalists may give favorable coverage to a given subject one day and write a scathing article the next. The Hebrew language dominates, but there’s Arabic and English-language publications too. All of these publications have significant digital operations, where they compete with digital-only news sites such as +972 and the Times of Israel.

For a country with a population of about nine million people, Israel has a significant number of television stations (both public and privately-owned). Many of them have public affairs shows, which are widely watched. And they’re often scathing of the government. There’s less business-related coverage on television. Likewise, radio is very much current affairs-focused.

Dealing with Israeli PR/Clients

Business-wise, Israel is well known for its technology industry (it’s second only to Silicon Valley when it comes to start-ups) and its defense sector. Both will be of interest to the Gulf. What Israel isn’t well known for is public relations. The sector has come on in leaps and bounds over the past two decades (you can read about this here behind Haaretz’s paywall). Most of the agencies in Israel are small (have a look here); in contrast, there’s fewer big name, global agencies. What this does mean is that there’s an opportunity for Dubai-based agencies to partner up with firms in Israel. It’ll be fascinating to see if agencies here openly promote/announce any such partnerships.

You may need an Israeli agency when it comes to dealing with Israeli clients. From all the media reports flying around about the Israeli-Emirati agreement, much has focused on the potential for business. Expectations are already high, and Israeli clients will need to tread carefully when dealing with reputational issues in the Gulf. They may not listen to advice, and have over-inflated hopes of coverage. Having said that, isn’t that most clients?

I’m going to call it a day for now. I’m sure others will have lots to say on this issue. But one thing is clear – both sides will have to learn quickly how the other works. I’ve already seen a slew of articles in the open Israeli press which have taken apart carefully crafted public messaging. PRs in the UAE are going to have to learn quickly about what makes Israeli media tick if they hope to ensure that their messages are both understood and used by Israeli media. And Israeli clients will need to understand that while there’ll be fewer questions asked of them by the UAE’s media, a paid approach to publications here will be vital to secure coverage. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how this plays out.

Will Pay-to-Publish become the norm for media relations?

I expect more media outlets will charge to place news online. What does this mean for the PR industry?

The pay-to-publish model is finally part of the mainstream media in the region, according to this article about one of the UAE’s largest newspapers wanting to charge companies for placing press releases on their website. The idea is simple – companies pay a specific amount to the publisher, and the press release gets run on the newspaper’s website.

This isn’t new. Other websites in the region follow a similar model. You pay your amount, and the news gets published online. The reasons why they’re doing this are sadly obvious. This year has been the worst on record for ad revenues for traditional publishers. Print has been decimated; the pandemic stopped the print runs for a time, and, once printing resumed, sales dropped. Online traffic has surged, but digital ad sales haven’t kept up. Publishers need the revenues.

I support the media, and I understand how they’re looking at any opportunity to find new revenue streams. But this issue raises so many questions. Here’s just a few.

1. Who defines what is newsworthy when money controls printing? Is there any editorial oversight or actual editing? And if there is, how does this factor into the whole process? Press releases in the region aren’t exactly breaking news, and will more likely send a reader to sleep than get them excited.

2. Who pays? Are some, such as government, exempt? Will SMEs get a pass/discount? Or will we see corporates and their budgets dominate the news?

3. Will Google/other aggregators downgrade the publisher’s websites? Or will reader traffic drop off? Either one would severely impact why any organization would want their news to be published on the site.

4. Who is responsible for inaccuracies? Are corporate press releases being checked for veracity by the editorial team? If they are, do inaccuracies get called out?

5. Finally, the issue of reader trust. If someone wants to place a paid news insertion into a publication, they’re usually given advertorial. And that space is marked clearly as advertorial. Will publishers clearly mark when content is paid for?

6. And the big question, what does this mean for PR agencies? Why should a client hire an agency to pitch if publication is guaranteed by money? You may say content generation, but algorithms are increasingly being used to write stories. Where does the agency add value?

I have other questions about this concept. Frankly, it concerns me. I’d rather publishers invest in good content and charge subscription rates. Or monetize their database. Even tax social media firms and push those revenues into editorial. Or anything that isn’t a pay-to-publish model.

One of the perks of this job is being able to pitch a great story and working with smart journalists who have an eye for a story, no matter who they’re talking with. With editors and journalists being cut, is this the future of publishing? Will your share of voice be determined by how much money you have to pay for publishing? I hope this is not the case.

Communicators can be today’s heroes

Communicators are essential in a crisis. They’re responsible for the safety and well-being of others (image source: Flickr/Pily Clix)

I’m going to start with an admission. I was asked to write a post highlighting all of the good that communicators are doing right now. I’ve thought about the ask, and I’m going to look at the good we can be doing, as well underline the challenges we face (and the potential harm we can cause). But let’s start with the positive.

Times of Crisis

Communicators are crisis people. We don’t yearn for a crisis (I hope not), but our worth is even clearer during times of stress. Let’s take what’s happening right now. Much of what we are doing is focused on health-related areas, such as developing and sharing messaging on health and safety. We’re literally telling people how to keep themselves and others safe. Smart communicators (and organizations) also understand the need to help others with their mental well-being.

That’s the obvious part of what’s going on right now. But let’s look longer-term. At our best, communicators help engender trust between groups. We can and should promote transparency and engagement, which leads to more trust and conversation. So when the hard times do hit, people have faith in their leadership, and they have the courage to ask hard questions without fear of retribution.

A third simple point for me is that we’re able to see a situation differently. We listen, we empathize, and we share perspectives which others may miss. We’re able to help our leaders better see what is happening, and that should help in terms of their own situational understanding and decision-making.

It’s no surprise to me that the best leaders are brilliant communicators. They listen, they inspire, they are open to feedback (good and bad), and they engage. We can make our organizations better, safer, and more inclusive.

So, that’s where we come out good. It’s not all plain-sailing. First of all, it’s a hard job. Many people I know are working 12 hours plus daily right now, pretty much six days a week. And that’s going to take its toll without any emotional support.

And then there’s our role as the bearers of bad news, and there’s been lots of bad news recently. Far too often, we fall back on silly soundbites to relay information that impacts hundreds, thousands of people (here’s an interesting read in Gulf News by George Kotsolios on how we are not communicating layoffs well). And sometimes it is hard to challenge our leadership, and make them do the right thing or understand a situation differently. At our worst, we can become spin-doctors, pushing out a false message that we may know is wrong or virtue-signalling. And that’s why ethics matters now, more than ever.

I truly believe in the power of communications. And I believe that many of the people I’m proud to call colleagues chose to become communicators because they want to make where they work a better place. We have the ability to inform. And information is empowering (right now, it’s keeping people safe). But we mustn’t lose our morality in what we are doing. We’ve got to ask how we can best help in any given situation, and how we can make the difference.

Our work isn’t easy at all, far from it. Everyone thinks they’re a good communicator. But it’s both a science and an art. The best communicators will transform organizations, cultures and relationships for the better. We can and should be seen as heroes for the work we do and the change that we can bring about.

To do that, we need the best people entering the industry (I’ll admit, for a profession that’s all about reputation building, we do a lousy job of explaining what we do and why we do it). And we’ve got to push for higher standards through certification.

What do you think? Do you have any stories of communicator heroes? If yes, please do share them. We need to tell our own stories better.

And finally, bravo to all of you incredible comms people out there who are working tirelessly to keep people safe, informed and aware. I know how hard this is, and I understand the stresses you are under. You have my respect and my gratitude. You are my heroes.

The Gulf’s PR industry has a diversity problem – here’s how to fix it

Only 22 of the 58 people on PR Week’s 2020 Middle East Power List are ethnically from the region. We’ve got to get more Arab talent into the industry if we’re going to reflect the audiences we engage with

It’s rant time, so apologies. But given what’s happening around the world following the death of George Floyd, someone has to pierce the bubble that envelops the region’s PR industry. I’ve said it before numerous times (here’s another post back from 2017), and I’ll say it again – we have a diversity issue in the industry here in the Gulf. Specifically, we don’t have enough Arabic talent, especially at the top levels of the industry.

If you don’t believe me, look at the latest rankings of the PR Week’s 2020 Power Book for the Middle East. Of the 58 people listed, 22 are from the Middle East. Considering that we’re supposed to be mirroring the people we are engaging with, speaking their language, and understanding their culture and customs, we have to do a much better job of making the industry as open and as inclusive as possible to Middle East nationals (sadly, this isn’t unique to PR – advertising has exactly the same issue).

The diversity issue isn’t just relevant to the private sector. In the Gulf, there are far too few expats working for government, despite the sizable communities from regions such as the Asian sub-continent. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the crisis response plans we’ve seen this year would have been much stronger if the comms teams leading them would have been multi-cultural – they’d have taken into account different cultures, languages, and lifestyles (in places like Singapore coronavirus has spread faster in labor camps, a fact that was initially missed by governments).

So, what role can we play to change? I’m going to repeat what I’ve said before, as I feel that this is the best way to make the industry better reflect the region that we are in.

Develop Arabic Talent

First of all, we’ve got to foster stronger connections with universities across the
region, and better educate Arab youth on the opportunities that a career in public relations and communications will provide. And we have to do this as an industry.

Support Arabic Leadership

Part of the lack of appreciation for the Arabic language is that there aren’t enough Arab nationals in leadership roles, both on the agency side and with clients. In particular, global agencies must prioritize fast-tracking Arab talent into leadership roles.

Arabic First

Most of the Arabic content put out by communicators is actually translated from English. We’ve got to turn this around, and start prioritizing Arabic content production, both in the written word, with audio and video. Arabic is such a rich, descriptive language, and so much is lost when content is merely translated.

Your Team Should Represent Your Audience

If you are a government comms team, you’re communicating to the public. And if your public is diverse, then your team should represent that diversity. What’s the value in a monocultural communications team that only represents ten percent of the public? Likewise, the private sector in the Gulf needs to attract more nationals (there were only four Gulf nationals on the PR Week list).

This isn’t a problem we are going to solve overnight. But the industry has to find common solutions for the diversity and inclusion issues here in the Gulf. Given what we are going through right now, it doesn’t take a genius to see that government-mandated localization will increase in the private sector. We’ve got to change of our own free will for the better, before it is forced upon us in a way that will harm the quality of our work. It’s your choice. Now what are you going to do about it?

Will the Paywall save Gulf Media?

Arabian Business will set up a paywall from the end of June, with a US$5.99 unlimited subscription model. Should others follow suit? (image source: http://www.whatsnewsinpublishing.com)

Paywalls – the notion of having to pay a monthly subscription to access news online – has long been a contentious issue, for publishers, journalists, and the public. However, paywalls and the online paid subscription model have worked; just look at the New York Times, which has arguably been saved by the paywall it introduced just under a decade back.

The old model of print media has been declining for years. And the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the process. What we hadn’t seen was any attempt to bring the paywall model to the Gulf in any substantial way, to offset the losses that many publications are seeing, both from fewer people buying copies in-store, and from advertisers pulling marketing spend.

There’d long been talk of The National going digital only. And Gulf News journalists I know spoke of how the paper had also discussed putting up a paywall. However, it may be unsurprising that it’s a publication run by a private publisher which has taken the step of introducing a subscription fee for unlimited use of the website.

Announced yesterday via email to its subscribers, Arabian Business will be the first publication in the Gulf to put up a paywall. Here’s the text of their email message below.

Thank you for your support

Thank you for signing up on arabianbusiness.com and I trust you are benefiting from the news, insight and opinion that are available on the website, 24 hours a day.

The Covid-19 situation has certainly provided some challenges – but it has not stopped us. The editorial team continue to source, research and publish high quality, trustworthy content from the UAE and worldwide, keeping arabianbusiness.com as the number 1 site in the region.

The best content, local and international

Website users enjoy content on topics ranging from commerce to culture, construction to cars, property to politics, and sports to style.

You can read stories from the UAE and worldwide, brought to you in articles, interviews, videos and photography.

Learn more about the world’s most successful business leaders, the newest start-ups, multinational conglomerates and enterprises local to you. It’s all on the website, 24/7.

Improvements to the website from June 26th 2020

To further improve the quality and quantity of news we publish, the website is moving to a paywall model from June 26th 2020.

What does this mean? Everyone can read 5 articles a month, every month, for free.  To enjoy unlimited access across the entire website will cost just $5.99/month.

Why? Making quality content available around the clock, to anyone wherever they are in the world, comes with a cost. To ensure Arabian Business can continue to provide the high quality, accurate, insightful, entertaining and useful features and news that you are used to, we are introducing this nominal charge.

What is included in the cost?   

•   Two months free trial – try it without risk. After that, it’s just $5.99 a month

•   Unlimited access to the website, 24 hours a day

•   Arabian Business digital magazine, every 2 weeks – delivered via app to your mobile or tablet

•   Priority access to networking events, award ceremonies and conferences

And if you decide to cancel for any reason, you can.

How to sign up and enjoy unlimited access      

Click the link below and follow the very simple two step procedure.

If you have any questions about the new paywall, or any other questions regarding Arabian Business, feel free to contact us on the above email and one of our team will get in touch.

I am sure you will continue to enjoy the content created by our team of correspondents in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the USA  – and from 2021 we hope to extend our coverage into both Africa and South America.

Kind regards,

The Arabian Business Team

The hope is that the subscription revenue stream will offset reduced ad spending in the short term. And longer-term, possibly make the publication less reliant on marketing budgets. This could be a very good outcome for two reasons. Firstly, publishers in the region often publish content their advertisers share with them (and sales people also push this message). The editorial teams will be less reliant on having to please advertisers with what is essentially advertorial copy. And second, it’ll enable the journalists to focus on news that readers want to see, namely more investigative journalism (which can also upset advertisers).

These are big ifs, and it’s going to take time to change established relationships between advertisers and publishers. But if a paywall leads to better journalism, I’m ready to put my money on the table and pay up. Given the number of journalists who are currently being let go of in the region (including, worryingly, at Arabic-language newspapers), it’s worth a shot. And I hope others follow the lead of Arabian Business, generate new revenues, and put that back into creating quality journalism that we all want to see.

The Media’s Demise and the Need for Self-Created Content

The crisis is killing media outlets. And whilst it’s heartbreaking to watch, communicators must start thinking about what is next when it comes to engaging external audiences (image source: Medium)

The last month has been devastating for media globally. Despite the fact that most of us are glued to the news, scouring for bright spots amid all of the darkness about those who are suffering, ad revenues have tanked as print media has struggled to get out editions and advertisers have cut budgets to the bone. Digital isn’t faring that much better – too few have been able to pivot quickly enough to be able to offer firms what they’re looking for right now, namely lead generation services such as webinars and targeted database marketing.

The Middle East’s press is feeling this too. I’ve spoken with journalists who have been laid off, and I’ve seen LinkedIn posts from sales people who have been let go. For those who still have a job, publishers have cut back on working hours. As someone who spent years as a journalist, I have such respect for those in the trade; they work long hours, they’re dedicated to getting out the news, and they’re underpaid.

What also pains me is that there’s little many of us can do right now. Most companies are focused on the basics right now, and that includes cutting back costs to save money for operations, and investing money to help sales (and this basically means digital services).

We’ve got to be prepared for many media closures.

How do we adapt, given that so many of the publications we work with, god forbid, won’t be around once we start to re-open and re-adjust?

The answer will effectively be about owned media. Smart communicators will have already started to move towards focusing more on both creating and hosting content. For example, we’re going to see more company-branded blogs, podcasts, and videos (not all webinars, I hope). Communicators will move beyond social media to embrace longer-form content, and they’ll need to do it quickly too.

We’ll need to adapt to the changes with reskilling – we’ll need to be able to set up a WordPress site, understand how to edit audio and video, and record content remotely. We will also have to better understand the world of analytics, to better sense when content is working, how it is working, and what we need to do to tweak our work to improve our engagement with audiences that matter to us.

This will require us to rethink how we operate with fewer media outlets, and retraining will need to be primarily top-down (younger communicators are often more digitally-savvy than their superiors, which we all must acknowledge and address).

The one hope I have for many of my media friends is that they’ll find new roles as content creators in-house. It’s going to be an adjustment, but we need your writing, your videography, your editing and analytical skills.

I want to add one last note – if you are a journalist who is looking for something new, please do reach out to me and I’ll help review your CV and give you advice. In the meantime, stay well and stay safe.

Digital Media Relations this Ramadan – Ideas to Engage

This Ramadan’s media events will look a lot like this. What are you doing to adapt?

It’s the first couple of days of Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for Muslims. It’s a key time too for media relations, with a host of traditions that PR people and journalists follow when it comes to relationship building (to see what I’m talking about, have a look here).

This year is sadly different, given the lockdowns in place across much of the region. But work will continue, and we’ll have to adapt. Here’s a couple of ways you can turn the physical divide into an opportunity to do more online with journalists.

The Ramadan Gift

It’s traditional to share Ramadan gifts with journalists. This would traditionally be something food-related such as dates or chocolate, given that we are fasting all day. The good news is that e-commerce is still functioning, albeit with delivery delays. There is still a challenge however, in that many journalists are working from home rather than work. If you’re thinking of sending over a gift, drop the journalist an email asking for their address details for the purpose of sending a Ramadan gift. They’ll appreciate the gesture.

The Charity Donation

Given the situation facing many across the world right now, it may be a good idea to donate to charity on behalf of the journalists you work with. Ramadan is a time for supporting those in need, and many charities in the Middle East region (or anywhere right now) will allow you to give to charity on behalf of someone else. I’ve done this many times, and it’s always appreciated by the journalists I work with. Do let them know you’re doing this, and ask them if they have a specific charity or cause they’d like to be supported. Given that it’s easier than every to give online, this is a simple but effective way to build relations with journalists whilst also doing good.

The Media Iftar

It’s standard practice to invite a number of media to an Iftar, the meal which breaks the daily fast. This won’t be possible this year due to restaurant closures. Even if restaurants are open, many people may not feel comfortable gathering outside of their homes with non-family members. This is probably the hardest concept to replicate – connecting via teleconference just won’t cut it (I can only imagine the aggravation of having to shout at a screen “turn on the mic” five minutes before the breaking of the fast).

There are other ideas which may work – one could be to arrange food deliveries to the journalists in question (ensuring food deliveries turn up on time during a normal Ramadan is hard enough, and I can’t imagine how difficult it will be with the additional demand this year). Another idea may be for those die-hard enough to value media relations above all else, and that is to hand-deliver food to your journalist contacts. It sounds strange, but it will be appreciated, and it may even be an opportunity for those journalists you’re treating to share a couple of pics of their Iftar.

Zooming for Islam (or using digital content)

The final idea is pretty simple – it’s using digital channels to connect with your journalist contacts. Teleconferencing is awkward in this region at the best of times, and I can’t imagine how this is going to work for a social event (and I doubt anyone around here is using Houseparty). One alternative may be to keep the social interactions simpler, and instead use more digital content to share with your media contacts. What I do mean? It could be as simple as Ramadan and Eid greeting cards shared over WhatsApp or email, to filming yourself and your team sharing personalized Ramadan greetings and sharing these over messaging apps. You can get creative when it comes to the content you’re making, but just be careful of the channels you’re using; email is more formal, and best for when you don’t know the journalist too well, whereas WhatsApp should be used if you already have a good relationship with the journalist (it’s a pet peeve of many journalists here for them to be WhatsApped by PR people they don’t know, or don’t want to know, well).

These are just a couple of simple ideas for you. If you have any, please do share. And before I end, Ramadan Kareem to you all. It’s a very difficult time for many people, so let’s be mindful of how we can help.

The Government Comms Playbook to Fight the Coronavirus

A lack of trust in what the government is saying leads to panic, fear, and citizens taking action into their own hands

This is the biggest crisis all of us have ever dealt with. The pandemic has impacted every major country, both directly and indirectly. It’s brought whole industries down. And, worst of all, tens of thousands of people have lost their lives. And it’s going to get worse.

The hope is that we can all take action to flatten the curve and reduce the number of infections to a level that our healthcare systems can deal with. And this isn’t just a possibility. Countries such as Singapore and South Korea have shown that the right approach can be found to get us through this in the best shape possible, with fewer infections.

Government communications is key here. I’ve seen some brilliant work, and I’ve seen work which isn’t going to achieve anything other than the opposite of what was intended. Here’s what I hope governments will look at doing right now.

A Single Source of Information

This isn’t just a viral pandemic. We’re seeing fake news spread at an unprecedented rate. Given how many government departments are involved in a crisis response (think health, education, business, finance, legal, customs, transportation, basically everyone), the potential for the message not to be seen is high. Each government department has its own website, its own comms channels, and team.

What a crisis like this requires is a single source of information, especially online. This location needs to take the lead in pushing out any and all information on the virus and its impact, including for individuals and organizations on everything. What others must then do is aggregate information from that website. By doing this, you get people to understand where they should go, not only to source information but to also corroborate what they’ve been told.

One example of a single source is Weqaya.ae, a website set up by the UAE government to educate people on health-related issues. This website is a start (and I haven’t checked out how it looks on mobile, and if the website is responsive in terms of design), but there’s another issue that governments need to tackle, and that’s language.

Multiple Languages

It’s pretty obvious, but I’m yet to see governments in my region push out information in multiple languages. And I’m assuming it’s the same in many other places. Now more than ever, communicators need to understand their audiences, and push out content in as many languages as possible (this is why diversity and inclusion matters when it comes to comms, which many of us seem to have forgotten). Write a piece in multiple languages, translate infographics, and if you can’t dub over a video, use subtitles. In the Gulf, the languages to look at include Tagalog, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Bahasa… If the linguistic group is large enough, bring in people who know the language to translate, and then push out the content through that single source website and via…

The Use of Influencers

This crisis has been a missed opportunity when it comes to using third parties to get the message out. And I’m not just referring to people with blue ticks or big followings. An influencer right now could include a foreign embassy, an ambassador, or any person or account that’s trusted by a specific group of people. These individuals have mass appeal, they’re trusted, and they post consistently. My feeling is that governments are behind brands when it comes to using influencers (and I’ll say that many social media influencers haven’t helped themselves by being tone deaf to the situation).

Some countries have done things differently. Look at what Finland is doing. Read this from the Guardian.

Finland has enlisted social influencers in the government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that they are just as useful as mainstream media in a crisis when it needs to inform the population fast, clearly and accurately.

“We can reach a large part of the public in Finland through official communications and traditional media, but it’s clear the authorities’ messaging doesn’t always reach all population groups,” the government communications director, Päivi Anttikoski, said.

“The aim of this cooperation is to provide better access to information for those who are difficult to reach through traditional channels. As far as we know, Finland is the only country in the world to have defined social media as ‘critical operators’,” – along with doctors, bus drivers and supermarket workers.

Adapt Social Media

Governments have to innovate when it comes to crisis communications. They’ve got to create new channels based on usage and popularity. Oman set up a new Twitter account sharing all official news on what’s happening in the country. The account was set up this month, but it already has 65k followers, and is tweeting in multiple languages.

What the WHO has done with Whatsapp is smart. This channel is used globally, and it’s a simple and effective way of getting out information effectively via a chatbot. It’s also the place where most misinformation spreads (and we have no way of monitoring what is being shared here due to end-to-end encryption). Have a look at the launch of the service, and please do load it into your Whatsapp.

Transparency and Expertise Matters (Especially for Leaders)

My friend Julio Romo wrote a brilliant read on what Singapore is doing to combat the Coronavirus. Given that the state has come through this better than anyone else, their government communications should be studied widely. One aspect of what they’re doing is promoting clear information as to what is happening on the ground, and tell residents what actions they need to take. Their leaders have been using social media and traditional media effectively, to push out a clear message on what is happening, the actions the government is taking to make things better, and what the public can do to help.

Another must-read article was written by Ullrich Ecker and Douglas MacFarlane for the Guardian. They spell out what leaders need to do to ensure that people listen, remain calm, and follow advice. If you’re in comms, read the piece. But needless to say, openness matters.

And third, look to who is delivering your message. Doctors and scientists have emerged as the best communicators right now, because they understand the subject better than anyone. Look to Dr Anthony Fauci, who has become a household name in the US thanks to his clear, no-nonsense advice. Their understanding of the issue is reassuring. I’d like to see more scientists being given the opportunity to speak and guide the public (have a look at this WEF article about scientists and communications).

Avoid Conjecture

My last piece of advice is avoid making comments in the heat of the moment, especially on social media. I’ve seen so many government communicators in the Middle East mouth off on Twitter, making statements about the impact of the virus on the economy only for these statements to become nonsense a couple of days later. I’ve seen others talk about how well residents have been treated, only to have the country close its borders a couple of hours later. To paraphrase, trust takes time to build, and disappear in an instant. Do what you can to engage, to educate, and to listen as well (we don’t talk about listening enough in communications).

That’s the short of it for me – let me know what you’d add, and let’s start communicating better. What we do matters now more than ever, to keep people safe and save lives. We have been given an opportunity to make a difference for the better, so let’s take it.