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Crowds await the arrival of the Palestinian winner of Arab Idol, Mohammed Assaf, in his home at Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip last month. Said Khatib / AFP
Crowds await the arrival of the Palestinian winner of Arab Idol, Mohammed Assaf, in his home at Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip last month. Said Khatib / AFP

Arabs want to be heard and here's how to listen

The Middle East is in the midst of a social transformation and governments and whoever else wish to communicate with people in the Arab world must adapt to a changing landscape.

Mohammed Assaf triumphed over personal and political circumstances to win this year's Arab Idol, with 60 million votes cast for the show. The Palestinian captured the imaginations and aspirations of millions across the region.

While hundreds took to the streets in Palestinian cities, hundreds of thousands went online to communicate their excitement and jubilation.

A single BBC article was re-tweeted 700 times within 24 hours of publication. Arab Idol gave the region's citizens the chance to directly affect the results of a large-scale event. People got involved, shared their opinions and voted.

The Middle East is in the midst of a social transformation.

The current generation of Arab youth carries distinctly different expectations from their predecessors. They are demanding more engagement and expecting their opinions to be heard.

Youth movements are using digital platforms to connect and share knowledge, as artists and designers create public spaces to facilitate collaboration.

In short, people in the Arab world are connecting, sharing and vocalising their needs. Consequently, anyone who wants to communicate with them must adapt to the current landscape. Arab youth are asking for a more inclusive, participatory environment.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, crystallised this sentiment during a Government Summit last February. "Our role is not govern to rule the people but govern to serve the people," he said.

Policymakers across Arab states are searching for ways to fulfil this vision and can do so by transforming the way they communicate. Governments will need to actively engage and consult citizens in the policymaking and implementation process.

Government agencies excel at communicating to the public through the media. But media is only one of a variety of communications platforms available to reach citizens.

There are three concrete steps that government communicators can take to bridge the gap between citizens and government.

First, government agencies need to develop public education campaigns that are creative, informative and engaging. Second, public officials need to create citizen participation organisations (CPOs) to facilitate direct communication. Third, government agencies need to more systematically listen to what the public is saying and act accordingly, to incorporate public dialogue into policy.

Communicators worldwide employ a variety of tools to raise awareness and mobilise the public. The most effective is the public education campaign, which is an integrated, creative approach to effectively capture the public's attention and ensure their involvement.

For example, in the US state of Georgia, government officials recognised the need to increase recycling across a population of 10 million residents. Hill+Knowlton Strategies devised an engagement campaign for the Georgia community affairs department.

The campaign began with research which revealed that 45 per cent of Georgians don't recycle and that 25-34-year-olds are the worst offenders. To target this demographic, H+K Strategies created a humorous, multilingual campaign featuring "non-recyclers".

Billboards, bus shelters, print ads and radio public service announcements drove residents to a website, aptly named YouGottaBeKidding.org. A social media campaign also accompanied the process, as an online traffic driver.

All campaign tools were accessible via another website called Campaign Central. The community uptake was immediately noticeable - recycling increased by 49 per cent the following year.

Another example of an inclusive government communications campaign is the CPO that creates a structure for citizen engagement.

These organisations provide a forum for citizens with similar interests to share their views with government representatives.

Much like a shareholder meeting, CPOs bring together concerned citizens for open discussions with policymakers.

In the education sector, for example, parent groups can sit together with government representatives to discuss concerns on a quarterly basis. Communication and coordination with the organisation can be also be managed through leveraging of social media tools.

In so doing, policymakers hit two birds with one stone, leveraging current social media trends and responding to citizens' demands for further engagement.

Research and polling provide the third avenue for citizen engagement.

Historically, populations in most Arab countries were small, but this changed as the region developed. Rulers were able to gauge public sentiment policy issues simply by tapping into extended family and social networks. Currently, with larger and more diverse populations, governments require methods that cast a wider net.

Polling and research provide such a platform for public policymakers to listen, review and round up general sentiment.

Government agencies can use the feedback from public opinion polls to improve existing programmes and create new ones to better serve citizens.

In all, governments are increasingly recognising the need to encourage citizens to change behaviours as citizen expectations change. In the past, governments communicated policy through a one-way system of dialogue.

In today's changing landscape, the official decree is no longer sufficient to reach citizens.

Simply put, as Arab youth demand more inclusion, government communicators have an opportunity to create participatory environments that foster engagement and allow the Arab voice to be heard.


Rasha Kashkoush is the regional director, Hill+Knowlton Strategies

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