What a difference a day makes – the media shift in Bahrain and public perception

It’s often said that 24 hours in the newsroom is a unique experience and Bahrain’s media is no different. The island nation’s media has been reporting on the difficult situation the country is going through for the past couple of years. Wednesday the 15th of January was no different from the past couple of months in that the Kingdom’s English-language media were reporting on government efforts to keep the country safe (much of the focus was on social media and Twitter in particular. The below is a shot of the front page.

The Front Page of Bahrain's Gulf Daily News for the 15 January 2014

The Front Page of Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News for the 15 January 2014

That night, news leaked about national reconciliation talks between Bahrain’s Crown Prince and the largest opposition party Al-Wefaq. As expected, the local media carried the news on their front pages.

The front page of Gulf Daily News from the 16 January. Notice a change in tone?

The front page of Gulf Daily News from the 16 January. Notice a change in tone?

While I won’t discuss the politics of the issue, what I do find interesting is the remarkable shift in position over 24 hours and how groups are described by the media from the one issue to the other. While it may be easy to control the dialogue and the messaging for one of the parties in Bahrain, it’s not so easy to shift public perception. Time will tell what difference this particular 24 hours have made, not only to the media’s take on affairs but also how the public perceives the situation as reported in the media.

To #socialmedia or not to social media – #Gulf newspapers say yes, Gulf governments say no

The last twelve months have been a defining year for social media across the Middle East. Citizen journalism has flourished. Most of the mainstream media publications have also adopted or begun to adopt social media as another channel to reach the general public.

The first adopters were media outlets in the UAE, particularly those who were already well established digital media. You have the likes of arabianbusiness.com who tweet at @ArabianBusiness – the site has over 27,000 tweets and 13,000 followers on Twitter and almost 3,500 likes on Facebook. Dubai’s largest English-language newspaper Gulf News which tweets at @gulf_news, has over 21,000 followers on Twitter. Abu Dhabi’s The National has a number of prolific social media users on its writing staff, including @ben_flanagan…

…and @amna_alhaddad

Interesting for those based outside of the UAE is how media re now turning to Twitter and Facebook. Saudi’s largest English-language publication, the Arab News, has long had a Facebook site. Arab News has more likes than Arabian Business. Rival publication Saudi Gazette has a Twitter feed on its site, and recently launched its Twitter handle, @TheSaudiGazette, last month.

Similarly in Bahrain, its largest English-language newspaper the Gulf Daily News now has Twitter and Facebook aggregator tools on every newspage. We’ll doubtless see more media using social networks to reach a wider audience.

While the Gulf’s media is moving ahead with social media, the region’s governments are clamping down on what could be termed anonymous social media users probably due to the role that social media has played in the Arab Spring.

Bahrain was the first to propose legislation. The country’s parliament discussed new punishments for cybercrime that include 10-year prison sentences and fines of up to 300,000 Bahraini Dinars. Kuwait and UAE are following suit. Both countries have questioned and/or detained bloggers of late for varying reasons. One article this week in Kuwait’s media suggested that the country could ban anonymous social media activity.

UAE officials have suggested that anyone caught using social media ‘irresponsibly’ will be punished.

Will the drive to regulate social media in the Gulf work? Can’t wait to find out!

Washing your dirty laundry in public PR style

As someone who’s been around the proverbial communications block, I’ve always been taught never to air any grievances in public. The thought of picking a fight with a journalist or a publication is always a no go, no matter who is right and who is wrong.

While few things seem shocking following events over the past six months, a couple of articles in the Bahrain media were eye openers in terms of how regional governments, media and public relations firms are communicating with each other in the public domain. The first was a stinging article in Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News related primarily to the decision by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile or FIA as it’s also known to cancel this year’s Bahrain race.

The author suggested that Bahrain’s loss of the race, which is estimated to bring in several hundred million dollars to the local economy, is partly due to a lack of action by lobbying firms hired by the Bahraini government. The below from the article on the 10th of June suggests that only companies with a vested interest should be hired to support and defend Bahrain. For those interested the fully story is hosted here.

“Certainly Bahrain should share part of the blame for innocently allowing both international media and human rights organisations to twist the truth. For years they have been fed a dubious diet of information. However, we have relied on individuals like Lord Gilford and public relations organisations such as Bell-Pottinger (whose staff deserted the kingdom en masse as soon as trouble started). They have milked the country’s financial resources for a long time, yet failed to deliver any positive result.

From now on we hope such tasks will be undertaken by organisations with true local links, knowledge and understanding, as well as a genuine love for Bahrain.

The defamation of Bahrain was started by so-called native opposition elements, therefore only local, loyal media and public relations companies with a vested interest in the future of this country can be relied upon. “

What is striking about the above paragraphs is how the author attacks those agencies hired by the government to lobby on its behalf. Gulf Daily News is a pro-government newspaper.
In response the founding partner of one of the agencies mentioned, Gardant Communication, replies to the article with a short but succinct letter published on the 15th of June and which can be read here.

Lord Clanwilliam argues that he’s on Bahrain’s side and that he’s been criticized for his support for and defense of Bahrain

“When I defended Bahrain on Al Jazeera news channel recently, calling it a beacon of democracy, I had no idea what events would follow, nor how much I would subsequently be attacked for my loyalty by the British gutter Press.

I am proud to defend a country I love, but it would be helpful to have the support of that country’s Press instead of unsubstantiated criticism.

Finally, Anwar, we have known each other 15 years, please learn how to spell my name correctly.
The riproste from the editor is carried below the letter. In summary, the editor attacks the Lord and his firm for a complete lack of action in relation to its lobbying contract for Bahrain (the firm is actually hired by the Embassy of Bahrain in London).

“However without in anyway wishing to be personal, we do not believe that you have represented Bahrain successfully and that you have given the opportunity to opposition elements to steal a march on us by allowing them to influence the international media virtually unopposed.”

To top it all off, the Lord is attacked again in the letters page on both personally and professionally the following day by a reader. The letter is still hosted on GDN’s site.

“This is to you, Lord Clanwilliam. Simply adding the word “Lord” before your name doesn’t make you one. You have to go a long way to achieve it.

In the report ‘Overtaken by lies?,’ the only inaccuracy was one letter missing from your name – for which GDN Chairman and Responsible Editor Anwar Abdulrahman apologised. Apart from that, all other matters were correct.
Abraham Samuel (bijji)

What is astounding about all of this for me is that these views are being aired in public at all. Having worked in the region for this amount of time I don’t believe that the initial piece and slight towards the agencies employed by Bahrain unless it was sanctioned by a government employee. Gulf Daily News is a pro-government newspaper.

What follows is a further tirade which is both personal and professional.

I don’t understand is how this benefits anyone. If the agency/ies have not done what they were hired to do then release them. Attacks on people who are supporting you will not encourage other agencies to flock to your support . If I am working on a client account it doesn’t do much for my motivation to be hammered. I can imagine that those agencies who were attacked in the article and particularly the founder of one of them is even less enthused about fulfilling their duties towards the country.

The loss of this year’s formula one to Bahrain is a major political and financial blow. The race was estimated to be worth up to 500 million dollars to the island’s economy. However, if you are unhappy with your agency my advice is to show it in the simplest and most effective of ways and change your agency. Don’t wash your dirty laundry in public.