Social media and diplomacy – @IsraelintheGCC, Israel’s virtual embassy in the Gulf

The launch of the @IsraelintheGCC twitter account is a cheap but potentially effective media channel for the Israeli government

The launch of the @IsraelintheGCC twitter account is a cheap but potentially effective media channel for the Israeli government

No matter your political persuasion, you have to admit that the Israelis are an ingenious bunch. Their latest idea is a simple concept, a virtual embassy for a part of the world where there’s little/no Israeli State presence, the Gulf. Israel, which doesn’t enjoy official diplomatic relations with any of the Gulf states, has launched a ‘virtual embassy in the Gulf’ through Twitter. The account, which is named @IsraelintheGCC, aims to “open lines of dialogue” with people living in the Gulf according to a report by the UAE-based English-language daily Gulf News. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the person behind the idea is Yoram Morad, Director of the Department of Digital Diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel.

Not unsurprisingly, Israel has always faced challenges when trying to communicate its point of view to its Arab neighbours. However, that hasn’t stopped the State from engaging various mediums to argue for its policies. Israel launched an Arabic-language television channel in 1994 following the announcement of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The establishment of the @IsraelintheGCC twitter account follows news of a potential re-engagement between the Israelis and Palestinians as well as mounting pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment programme.

It could be argued that Israel has been much more active than the Arab states in terms of communicating its key messages – there were plans to launch a Hebrew-language channel in Egypt as of last year according to the Christian Science Monitor, but I haven’t heard much in the way of an actual launch.

The messaging employed by @IsraelintheGCC, which is being run by the Twitter account of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, would appear to be aimed at propagating a more diplomatic tone than that of Israel’s internal politics. The account, which has tweeted 21 times to date, has only quoted the country’s Prime Minister twice (its fair to say that Bibi Netanyahu wouldn’t win many popularity contests in the Gulf), but it has talked about social media in the Arab world, sustainability issues, and wished followers a Ramadan Kareem. The one time Netanyahu has been quoted was in relation to European sanctions on the Lebanese organization Hizbollah which isn’t well liked in the Gulf due to its pro-Iranian stance. There are tweets in Arabic too. Have a look at some of the posts below.

Over the past couple of years social media has allowed companies, politicians and celebrities to directly bypass the media and reach out directly to anyone that wants to listen. Now the same can be said of social media for States who, for diplomatic reasons, cannot establish a physical presence. I’ll be following the account, and am looking forward to seeing how long this project lasts, how much dialogue it generates and how successful it becomes for the Israeli government.

Why do Middle East executives not blog and five reasons for starting a corporate blog today

Is this question even relevant any more? Middle East execs, what are you waiting for? (image source: http://www.homeschoolblogging.com)

There’s no doubt about it, blogging is huge. But don’t take my word for it, let’s look at the numbers. On blogging platform WordPress there are almost seventy million blogs, which are read by 360 million people each month. There’s even more blogs on the Tumblr (over 100 million as of April 2013) and Livejournal platforms (approximately 62 million blog sites as of April 2013). While blogging may not hug the headlines as much as social media, the online writing format continues to grow. By the end of 2011, NM Incite, a Nielsen/McKinsey company, was tracking over 181 million blogs worldwide, compared to only 36 million in 2006.

Similarly, blogging has become one of the most popular tools among corporations in a number of geographies. Research by the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts has pointed to growth across both the Fortune 500 and the Inc. 500 in 2012. Forty-four percent of Inc. 500 companies, the fastest publicly-firms in America, were blogging, while twenty-eight percent of America’s largest publicly-listed firms had a corporate blog. The most interesting statistic was that sixty-three percent of CEOs of companies who did blog contributed personally to content.

These statistics from the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth underline how popular blogging is with corporations in the US (image source: http://www.umassd.edu)

It’s fair to say that the Middle East corporate world, and the Gulf in particular, doesn’t share this same level of enthusiasm for blogging. Few publicly-listed companies have a blog – we’re literally talking a handful – and even those blogs that are online are rarely updated.

While it’s hard to speculate on the reasons why so few CEOs blog here, the one assumption that I’d make is either they don’t feel a need to communicate with their stakeholders or they don’t want to reveal information through a medium such as a blog (this subject does need more research, but the lack of blogging here maybe reflects a wider lack of understanding of digital communications).

For a pastime that was once considered on the fringe of journalism, blogging is a pivotal online media channel for breaking news, sharing content and developing an audience. Blogs are often quoted in the media and it allows a corporation to control the message and yet promote a healthy dialogue with its internal and external stakeholders.

There are many reasons for starting a corporate blog, but we’re going to focus on the five basics which should underline to your chief executive officer the value in having a blog for your company and including blogging as part of our communications strategy.

1) It’s all about transparency

We all want and sometimes need more information, and yet corporations often keep too much of a lid on what external stakeholders see and know. A blog allows you to let others look inside the company and give them a better understanding of any and every issue you care to tackle, from sustainability to product development and customer relations.

The benefit of transparency is increased trust. Your (potential) customer base should better understand why you do what you do. Customers and investors will feel much better informed and they may be more willing to buy your product and invest in your company.

However, don’t take transparency to mean republishing your press releases in a different format. Some of the most successful corporate blogs are those that take a nuanced approach, that tackle the good and the bad. The less biased you are, the more likely you are to be trusted when publishing a blog.

2) Bringing some humanity to the Corporation

Corporations are often seen as soul-less, grey worlds. And the same can often be said for a corporation’s communications approach; the bland press releases, the staid web-site which rarely seems to be updated. As people we all thrive on interaction and dialogue and that’s why blogs are so successful. They’re your corporation’s personal voice, a voice that need not use corporate-speak and jargon but instead adopt a tone that is more informal and conversational.

Your blog will need a face. It could be the CEO or another senior person. But a blog doesn’t need to be written by an executive. Some of the most insightful blogs are written by product managers, researchers and others who are passionate enough to make what they are saying interesting.

The beauty of blogging is that you don’t need to stay on message all the time. You can write about diverse topics which don’t need to be about the company. Customers will see through marketing pitches so step away from the self-promotion. Instead, offer human insights into recent events, industry news and other related information. Let your customers know more about you than just your product line-up and they’ll begin to become more loyal to your brand.

3) Starting a dialogue

Unlike many other forms of communication, blogs are there to receive feedback as well as to be a voice for the company. When you engage readers and respond to dialogue – both positive and negative – you’ll be doing much more than just promoting your company.

Blogs are a great way to test the water, to understand your customers’ perception on certain issues. And even if the comments are negative, at least you’ll know what your customers are thinking and be able to respond and bring them back on board. Get talking on a blog and even those stakeholders who may not agree with your company’s strategy will appreciate your efforts to talk with and about these issues in a forum that allows for and encourages debate.

4) Drive that web traffic!

Want a business reason for blogging that your sales team can measure? How about the web traffic that a blog will drive to your site. Many web engines such as Google rank sites based on content, on relevance and popularity. A blog that is updated regularly, that has content that is popular and that links to other sites you’ll find your own corporate site being ranked much higher by search engines such as Google. Once your own blogging site has become established you’ll find others linking to you, which will further propel your blog to the top of the search rankings and towards the nirvana of a first page listing.

5) Measure your blogging success

The beauty of communicating on your own site is that you can analyze your visitor statistics, to understand where your visitors are coming from, what they’re doing on your blog, what they’re using to read your blog (are they viewing your blog on a PC, a tablet or a mobile?) and how they’re reaching your site. The beauty of web analytics is that the more you have, the better you can make your blog and improve your visitor numbers. From there you can start defining your blog’s goals and measure your goal conversion, review how you’re promoting your blog and understand which topics and keywords are the most successful in driving traffic to your site.

Unlike traditional public relations metrics, online measurement tools are instant and can give you a full picture of what you’re doing right and how you can improve your blogging outreach. Blogging technologies are evolving but don’t feel daunted by the technological challenge. Blogging can be simple enough to begin with, and most blogging platforms have their own in-built analytics to help you out.

Attacks on Al-Jazeera intensify following the fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

Al-Jazeera has come under fire for its alleged political ideology in its coverage of Egyptian news (image source: islam.ru)

Who doesn’t know Al-Jazeera? The Doha-based and Qatar-owned news broadcaster became infamous for its airing of messages from Al-Qaeda’s leaders, most notably Osama Bin Laden. The news channel, which was created in 1996 following attempts by the British Broadcasting Corporation to set up their own Arabic channel failed, has always been the target of criticism partly due to its political inclinations and its inability to criticize its owners – the State of Qatar – while running documentaries and publishing news critical of neighbouring Middle East states.

However, Al-Jazeera has been having a particularly rough time of late following recent events in Egypt. partly of its own making but what’s even more interesting is the level of coverage that other media has given to targeting Al-Jazeera following the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Government in Egypt.

Ever since the events of the end of June and the start of July in Cairo it’s almost felt as if there’s been a witch-hunt against Al-Jazeera due to its Egyptian coverage. The main accusation? Al-Jazeera’s bias towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

While I understand the accusation, the fact that many of those making the claims are firstly media publications and secondly state-owned doesn’t sit well with me. I know of few state-owned media who are not guilt of being their master’s voice and hence being guilty of their own allegations against Al-Jazeera. Furthermore, I always find it strange when media attack other media; it’s hard enough being a journalist as it is today without being criticized by fellow colleagues.

I’m going to highlight a couple of articles below, from the Dubai-based and Dubai-owned Gulf News. The first and the most conspicuous news item was a special which was run on the 14th July entitled Al Jazeera loses respect over Egypt coverage. Do read over and share your views with me on this one.

Founded in 1996 and funded by Qatar, Al Jazeera was supported by many Egyptian revolutionaries. Demonstrators in Tahrir Squar chanted for it. Also, Al Jazeera staffers were feeling proud that they contributed to the Egyptian revolution with their work and coverage. They made the network the most popular channel in the country.

However, when the now ousted president Mohammad Mursi pushed through an unpopular consistution last November, many Egyptians found themselves flipping from Al Jazeera to other Egyptian networks. Distrust over its coverage reached unprecedented levels and took it from being the most popular to the most hated channel — its staff were now feeling embarrassed as their reputation was dragged through the mud.

A senior official at Al Jazeera who did not want to be named said that while the network appeared to be a neutral media network it was still a political tool in the hands of the Qatari emir. “He personally visited the studios during the Iraq war to make sure no footage of dead of abducted soldiers was aired. It was clear he was under US pressure,” the official said.

“In a special meeting in 2009 attended by some media seniors in Doha, the Emir said that Egypt’s regional role must be ended forever,” said another official. “When the Muslim Brotherhood announced it would field deputy chairman Khairat Al Shater as a candidate in the elections, the news team slotted it as the second story in the news bulletin, but then upon special request from the Emir’s palace, it was bumped up to the first news story.”

A producer claimed that when people started complaining and accusing Al Jazeera of favouring Islamists in Egypt, the station started to exclude any outspoken political analysts and opponents of the Brotherhood from appearing on its screen. On the other hand, he said, video reports that propped up Mursi and the Brotherhood’s image were welcomed by management in Doha. Anchors who used to interrupt the Muslim Brotherhood’s opponents in live interviews were judged as excellent.

The perceived bias prompted many leading journalists and TV anchors to leave the network. Aktham Suliaman, the German-based correspondent who left the station recently, told the German magazine Der Spiegel: “Before the beginning of the Arab Spring, we were a voice for change — a platform for critics and political activists throughout the region. Now, Al Jazeera has become a propaganda broadcaster.”

Another Beirut-based correspondent said that “Al Jazeera takes a clear position in every country from which it reports — not based on journalistic priorities but rather on the interests of the Foreign Ministry of Qatar. In order to maintain my integrity as a reporter, I had to quit.”

Other interesting articles from Gulf News include Al Jazeera staff resign after biased Egypt coverage, Al Jazeera’s role raises questions, and media bias infuriates Egyptian moderates which I am quoting from below.

Al Jazeera’s Egypt channel (Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr) is blatant in its support for the Brotherhood giving no platform whatsoever to the other side. Egyptian authorities attempted to remove it from air, but failed to do so because Al Jazeera allegedly hijacked broadcast vehicles from Egyptian State TV, now protected by the crowds in Rabaa Adawiya.

Local reporters were so incensed they demanded the ejection of Al Jazeera’s senior editor in Egypt from a press conference. Some 22 of Al Jazeera’s employees resigned asserting pro-Islamist bias at the top. On Friday, I was shocked to see someone I recognised on the stage in Rabaa Adawiya, engaged in whipping up the crowds.

There was the host of Al Jazeera’s programme Bela Hodod (Without Frontiers) Ahmad Mansour advising on how to manipulate media coverage and insisting that pictures of June 30 massive anti-Mursi protest had been photoshopped.

June 30’s aftermath has not only thrust the Arab world’s most populated country into uncertainty, it has eroded media credibility and prompted the crossing of a thin red line between honest reporting and political/ideological propaganda. Journalism requires an ethical revolution before Al Jazeera, CNN and others can ever be trusted again.

What I find ironic is the lack of coherency of the argument as it relates to allies. An example in point would be Bahrain. The island’s press is markedly pro-government, and yet there’s no media bias criticism from those who have pointed their finger at Al-Jazeera. If you’re going to adopt an argument at least be consistent in its use. Otherwise, why should we the public trust any of you?

Another Youtube Shocker – KFC and its Al-Ahsa Outlet’s Hygiene Standards

It seems no-one is safe from Youtube. After a video was uploaded to the world’s largest video-sharing site showing what purported to be an alleged road-rage incident in Dubai another video has been uploaded to the site but this time from Saudi Arabia. The video, which was uploaded on the 17th of July has been viewed 175,000 times in three days.

The video, featured below, allegedly shows what is described to be a scene in a kitchen of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the Saudi city of Al-Ahsa, in Othaim Mall. The person who took the video was apparently an employee who was fired after the video was taken. I’m not going to describe the video; rather, do watch the video itself which is two minutes long.

Social media crises for food chains aren’t new; anyone remember the infamous Youtube clip on Domino’s Pizza that went viral in 2009? However, while these issues aren’t new to US and European audiences and most food chains there have social media crisis plans how many local, Middle East franchises are ready for the same thing here? It’ll be interesting to see if or how KFC does respond to the allegation. In the meantime, as it’s Ramadan I’m enjoying home cooking.

What are the dos and dont’s regarding defamation in the UAE

Defamation in the UAE is a criminal rather than a civil matter and the burden of proof is on the defendant. So be aware of the risks when you post online (image source: http://www.turbosquid.com).

After the outcry surrounding the arrest of the videographer who filmed an alleged assault in the street this week I thought it best to recap what defamation in the UAE covers and how to ensure that you don’t get into issues when creating and uploading content to the web.

Defamation in the UAE is different to most European jurisdictions in that defamation is a criminal rather than a civil matter. Raising a defamation case in the UAE is easy to do (actually, it’s much easier to do here than in other Gulf states including Saudi Arabia) and there’s no distinction between public forums and being online. The basics, as noted by Adil Khan in a post for sovedo.com, are below.

  • It is publicly forbidden to take a picture of another person without their permission.
  • Verbal abuses or gestures (even without the presence of a witness) can also lead to a fine and/or sentence.
  • Defamation via libel (written) or slander (spoken) is dealt by a criminal court as opposed to a civil court, where punishments would only include a monetary fine.

The burden of proof is on the defendant to show that the allegations are false. Similarly, truth isn’t an absolute defense if the comment or content has proved to be damaging to the reputation of the person or organization who/which claims to have been defamed.

The issue of defamation gets even more complicated when it comes to social media. Blogger extraordinaire Alexander McNabb covered a case back of May of a University Lecturer who’d been charged of defamation for writing a blog about his experience with a previous employer. All social media channels are considered to be public forums, regardless of where those forums are hosted. Social media channels are considered to be prominent public forums and even those people posting anonymously can be prosecuted.

Two legal counsels from law firm Clyde and Co., Rebecca Kelly and Sharon Procter, have published one piece on AMEinfo that is worth a read both for individuals and their employers when it comes to social media and defamation in the UAE.

Probably, the best piece of advice is play it safe if you’re not sure whether your comments could be construed as defamation or not. And if you’re still unsure, remember the penalty for being convicted of defamation can be up to two years in prison and a fine of as much as Dh20,000 (US$5,444). So post in haste, repent at leisure.

How long do we have to wait for competition in the UAE’s telco space?

Sometimes you have to wonder if anyone at Du, Etisalat or the TRA is listening when it comes to doing a deal on market liberalization (image source: http://www.healthyblackmen.org)

As the saying goes, everything comes to those who wait. If you’re waiting for competition in the UAE’s telco space you may have a couple more years of waiting. Reuters published a story today detailing how despite talks beginning in September 2009, Du and Etisalat have yet to agree terms for network sharing. The best bits from the Reuters piece are below.

The United Arab Emirates’ two telecom operators, Etisalat and du, remain at loggerheads over a deal to allow them to compete on fixed line services nearly four years after negotiations began.

Du and Etisalat already offer fixed-line, broadband and television packages in the UAE, but not in the same districts, with du confined to the newer areas of Dubai.

The two companies, which are both majority-owned by government institutions, started technology trials that would allow network sharing more than two years ago and an agreement was slated to be concluded by 2011-end.

But a report from the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) this week shows the companies cannot agree on the extent of so-called bitstream access, which would enable one operator to permit the other to use its fixed network, or a method to determine the fees for allowing such access.

“The two licensees are still negotiating,” states the regulator’s report, which was published on its website.
“Bitstream access could have a significant impact on competition.”

The TRA states it will “impose a requirement to offer bitstream access products for both residential and business markets,” reiterating a commitment it made in a 2010 policy document.

Further liberalisation has proved fraught – mobile number portability, which would allow customers to retain their phone number when switching provider, has yet to be introduced despite the regulator previously stating this would be available by mid-2008.

Now, almost four years later ad yet we’re still nowhere near having any competition in the telecoms space in the UAE. The question is when is the UAE’s Telecoms Regulatory Authority going to step up and force the two telcos to agree a deal?

Across the region, we have some powerful regulators who have forced incumbent operators into making changes (Bahrain’s TRA is a great example of how a regulator should act on behalf of a country’s consumers). And yet, despite repeated promises from the TRA the UAE’s public is still waiting for a raft of measures that will liberalize the telecommunications sector, reduce costs and, hopefully, raise the quality of the country’s telecommunication services.

Just remember, if you’re waiting for the respective parties to agree and benefit from market liberalisation in the UAE’s telco sector it’s probably best not to hold your breath based on Du’s and Etisalat’s track record.

A modern Arab voice – Ahmad Al Shugairi

Ahmad AlShugairi is one Arab voice who talks a lot of sense. We need more like him (image credit: http://www.andriodpit.com

There’s few independent thinkers on the airwaves in this region. The Middle East is a region where most media are government-owned. One of the exceptions and an amazing personality is Ahmad Al Shugairi. A Saudi national from Jeddah, Ahmad hosts a month-long program during Ramadan called Khawater, which literally translates as thoughts. Ahmad has been hosting Khawater for nine years and it’s become a firm favourite during Ramadan on MBC.

Ahmad is also not afraid of rocking the boat. One of his episodes this season has focused on the issue of Syrian refugees and indirectly on their lack of access to the Gulf region. Another has talked about food waste, particularly during Ramadan. And a third has looked at the concept of innovation when it comes to pot holes (yes, pot holes). The best one was an issue discussing religious tolerance, between Sunni and Shia Muslims and Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.

Ahmad is a man who is positive, and yet who recognizes that we Arabs can and should be behaving and thinking in a more communal, altruistic manner. He’s a voice for sense and humanity in a region where we often don’t speak in moderate tones and with little common sense. I’ll try and find videos subtitled into English, but in the meantime, please do watch the below (the first is on religious tolerance and the second is on the issue of Syrian refugees). Ahmad, we need you throughout the whole year!