This year saw the continued explosion of social media penetration across the Middle East, prompted in part by the proliferation of connected devices, but, also, unfortunately, by the emergence of new polarizing forces that are shaping international opinion on the direction and stability of the region. The communication challenge for MENA governments has never been more significant.
Control of public messaging is gone. Social media is now driving perceptions of nations and their governments. Largely unmoderated, dismissive of borders and increasingly viewed as a credible source for mainstream media, social media creates a significant risk for governments that do not take a proactive and contemporary approach to communicating – and a significant opportunity for those that do.
Here in the UAE, for example, HH Sheikh Mohammed has successfully harnessed social media to communicate his vision and generated positive perceptions among residents and nationals. Elsewhere in the region, however, many governments remain wary of approaching this level of transparent communication. This wariness is undermining the efforts of governments to communicate effectively.
Primarily, the government communications function seeks to gain understanding of and endorsement for government initiatives. Used in the right way, social media is a particularly effective tool for gauging and shaping public opinion. Ignored, it has the potential to undermine those same initiatives. Ironically, for a region that lays claim to the first social media-stimulated political revolutions, many governments around MENA remain behind the curve when it comes to understanding and managing these platforms and communities.
Social media is embedded in modern life in the MENA region. More than 10 million tweets are generated from the Arab world every day, 73 per cent of which are in Arabic (the fourth most popular language online). What’s more, 94 per cent of social media users around MENA are on Facebook; that’s a connected community of 56 million people – with 10 million of us having a LinkedIn account. Nonetheless, many government bodies around the region are still hesitant to communicate online. Many aren’t even trying.
Why is this? I liaise with clients across the region every day and I regularly ask this question. I can broadly split the answers into two categories. The most popular answer is based around confusion. The speed at which new platforms are being developed and adopted leaves many uncertain. The first widely used social media platforms have long been eclipsed by Facebook and Twitter, among others. Yet, even as organizations struggle to manage these established channels, visual networking platforms, such as Instagram, Pinterest, Vine, and SnapChat are surging. Many internal decision makers struggle to understand the changing landscape and how it affects their ability to protect and enhance their reputation or support their strategic objectives.
The second answer is fear. Many governments avoid social media because they believe it will facilitate public criticism from the communities they serve. However, just because you’re not taking part in the conversation, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t already talking about you. And government employees are online too, exposed to any third-party criticism – and possibly even contributing to it.
Some governments around MENA urgently need to step up their understanding of and engagement in social media. This starts with having a coherent plan that defines how social media supports overall objectives, what internal policies are needed and how external engagement can be created, as well as defining how employees can be empowered, through assessing and putting in place the necessary resources and properly measuring success.
Additionally, governments, like private organizations, need to be better prepared to manage online reputational issues. Failure to manage reputation is an excellent strategy for losing it. A number of excellent tools now exist to help organizations better manage their online plan presence, such as our own Firebell online crisis simulator.
Are we making progress? Yes. Some regional government leaders are globally admired for their approach to social media. GCC government spending on social media jumped by 21 per cent in 2013 and this rate is expected to have increased in 2014. But, spending does not necessarily equate to engagement. What about those ‘offliners’ still holding out? We still have much room for improvement in the public sector communications arena and this will only be accomplished when governmental institutions truly start believing in the positive benefit of social media.
As the saying goes: “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails”.