x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Six rules of effective communication in the new media age

Few things better demonstrate how rapidly our world is changing than the remarkable transformation of the UAE

Few things better demonstrate how rapidly our world is changing than the remarkable transformation of the UAE. But breathtaking as its awe-inspiring new buildings and world-class transport links are, neither of these developments matches the speed or the scale of the revolution in communications.

Recently someone said that I must have loved using Twitter in Downing Street. But Twitter didn’t exist when I left Downing Street, let alone when I started. YouTube now has more video content uploaded in a single month than the three main US channels broadcast in their first 60 years. It is a new world. 

This new media age has altered the nature of communication and the relationship between government and the public. Barriers are being broken down, old certainties challenged and expectations raised. Governments that fail to adapt risk falling behind.

How to keep up in a way that enhances communications between decision-makers and citizens will be at the heart of the conversations over the next few days when experts from around the world meet in Sharjah at the International Government Communications Forum.

 So what will I be saying about this? First, the age of centralised communication is over. We can no longer control how what we say and do is viewed by the public or anyone else. We can only control what we say and do and how we say and do it. Understanding that is the key to successful communications. 

 Second, citizens of every region feel more empowered, more sceptical and less deferential – and that trend is irreversible.

The days of simply putting out a statement and retreating are as dead as the carbon on a typewriter. Increasingly, citizens don’t just want to be heard about problems, but also to play their part in finding solutions – an opportunity technology can provide.

 Third, with so many more voices, government has to work much harder and produce much better content to get a hearing among them. To be effective, communication has to be engaging. It also has to use the channels where the public are, which includes social media, not just TV or newspapers or paid-for media. Otherwise the conversation will just go on without you.

Fourth, speed is even more critical. In a world where those who get their story out first set the agenda, the ability to communicate quickly and effectively is of huge importance.   

Fifth, whatever channels you use and however quickly you communicate, you have to make sure what you are saying is consistent. A coherent message across both domestic and international audiences is vital. Frontiers no longer matter in the way they did even half a generation ago. Any inconsistency will quickly be discovered and can be damaging. 

 Finally, the message has to be authentic. There is no point in spending a fortune on the best systems or expensive branding if there is a disconnect between what is being said and what is happening on the ground. The UAE has transformed its image around the world because it has made clear efforts to promote a competitive economy and build world-leading infrastructure. In an age when regions, states and cities compete ferociously for investment, trade, tourism and talent, the winners will be those with a reputation that rings true.

 I spend much of my time working with business and governments, including in the Middle East, to adjust and adapt to this revolution in communications. 

Getting it right involves constant research and engagement with the public and opinion-formers to understand what they are saying at home and internationally. It means a team trained to the highest level, able to deliver messages in real-time with expertise in digital engagement. And ultimately it is having a coordinated approach that understands every action at home has potential impact on audiences internationally critical to attracting that investment, trade and talent.

But while the speed of modern communication and the demands of a young generation to be heard and to have more information brings new challenges, there is one fundamental to good communication that endures. That is the importance of setting the framework through a rigorous approach to objective and strategy. It is something that is all too easy to forget, particularly in time of crisis, but it is of critical importance.

This was brought home to me when, in Downing Street, I listened into a call between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The Starr Report had been published that day but the conversation was mainly about Northern Ireland and Russia. Years later, I had the chance to ask the former president how he was able to focus on this when it appeared his whole world – personal, political and professional – was about to come crashing down. 

 He said he had a simple objective – survival: “My strategy was to get up every day and focus on the things that only I could do because I was the president. My tactics were to make sure people knew that was what I was doing.”

Objective, strategy and tactics or OST. That is the single most important principle for communicators and strategists to apply. 

 It worked. Mr Clinton not only survived the scandal, but left office with the highest end-of-term approval ratings of any president since the Second World War. The communications world may have changed enormously in the last 20 years but this fundamental truth – OST – has not.

Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair’s director of communications and strategy in Downing Street. He is now an author, communicator and strategist and an adviser to Portland, a communications consultancy working with business and government in the Middle East