News Column

How to Harness Social Media

February 25, 2013

Lily B. Libo-on

Conventional media have to keep pace with social media to extend bridges of communication to the people, but direct communication by governments is seen as the best form to open gates for an innovative and pro-active dialogue with the people.

In the first session of the second Government Communication Forum anchored on "Government and People: Perspective for Mutual Engagement", a panel of journalists and policy developers discussed the best communication strategies adopted by governments worldwide and the viability of applying these models in the Arab world.

As observed, statesmen worldwide and rulers in the emirates have communicated directly with their constituencies by social media, Twitter and Facebook, but panelists said that social media have become a double-edged sword that conventional media need to constantly check the veracity of the messages received.

The panelists agreed that while social media such as Twitter and Facebook nowadays have become tools to gather and feel the pulse of the people, it would be incorrect to say that the Arab Revolution is a product of Twitter and Facebook.

"What is happening in the Arab world is not the direct result of the social media but the outcome of the gap between the government and its constituencies. Governments have to promote their products and it is a right that needs to be granted to their citizens. If this right is broken, then there is a gap," said Gilbert Doumit, adviser and managing partner of "Beyond Reform and Development".

Ghassan Hajjar, managing director of Lebanese Daily 'Al-Nahar', said that though social media have provided issues to follow up, newspapers should be very cautious to double check the veracity of contentions and complaints.

"Social media have focused on problems and things people wish to happen. But they are not covered by certain rules. Unlike the conventional media, they operate on rules. True, a citizen can now reach the Prime Minister or the ruler directly through Facebook and Twitter, yet traditional media still are the credible tools."

Rawan Al Damen, producer and director of Programs Department Al Jazeera, said that 65 per cent needs to be conveyed from the communication sender to the receiver through non-verbals, and in the absence of non-verbal signs present in direct personal communication, both will miss out the levels of sound, pauses, calm, body language, look, how one talks and how one walks, which are very important for the receiver of the message to react properly.

"Twitter and Facebook as tools do not convey the countenances, and can even be harsher tools of communication as they can create misunderstanding. Message conveyors should be vigilant of this fact so that the message sent won't be futile."

Raed Barqawi, editor in chief of Al Khaleej, said that the UAE rulers have fully understood using the new tools -- social media -- not just passionately but rationally.

"Since His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, started his Facebook, 1.5 million followers interact with him directly daily. His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, UAE Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, on a daily basis interacts with people and solve their problems, including in the conventional media," he said.

Panelists ended the session on the belief that government statesmen and rulers can still tackle bad news in creative ways through open dialogue, innovative and proactive visits to constituencies, though scary, to open the gates for ideas and avoid clashes and violent confrontations.

"They can keep the Twitter and Facebook as 70 per cent of the youth tweet and send messages to Facebook, a fact which suggests that we cannot ignore the social media. But conventional media still remains to be the mouthpiece of governments. Conventional media then have to be linked to social media to have a converging point," they said.

Source: (c)2013 the Khaleej Times (Dubai, United Arab Emirates) Distributed by MCT Information Services