x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

One voice to cut through confusion

The Government is to improve its lines of communication with the media through a central communication office dedicated to responding to journalists' inquiries.

Shaikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, speaks to the press.
Shaikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, speaks to the press.

The federal Government will soon have an official spokesman, the first such position in the country. The appointee will brief journalists on major developments and overall strategy. The Government hopes having a spokesman will encourage transparency in the workings of its bureaucracy. Government sources indicated yesterday that the post was seen as a very important role and several prominent names - including Cabinet ministers - were being suggested to fill it. Equally important for the media was news that a central communications office is to be created to answer journalists' questions. At the moment there is no protocol on how ministries should issue press releases or answer reporters' inquiries. The chief spokesman would speak on cross-ministry and federal issues, while the communications office would handle inquiries relating to specific ministries and federal bodies. At present, government agencies have public relations and media departments but standards vary greatly. Often press releases are issued with little chance for journalists to ask questions. If they want more detail they are often referred to relevant officials, but making contact can take hours or even days. It is especially difficult at the federal level. Officials sometimes decline to provide information or speak on the record because they say they need permission to do so from a public relations or media office. No starting date has been announced for the communications office. The plan was widely welcomed by journalists, who have constantly complained about the difficulty of obtaining information. Mohammed Yousef, head of the UAE's Journalists' Association, described the plan as "an advanced step". "It's a good idea, it will lead to more transparency and end a period of suffering," he said. Opening more communication channels with officials had been discussed several times during meetings between the Journalists Association, the National Media Council and editors in chiefs, he said. WAM, the government news agency, reported that the office would "substantially improve the internal and external communication channels in the federal Government". Other Arab countries such as Jordan have media briefing systems. The Jordanian cabinet has a spokesman who talks to the press weekly. The police also have a spokesman who can be reached at any time. "It's important to have this and it's important to have it as soon as possible, otherwise rumours would spread," Mr Yousef said. "With the presence of a spokesman, news would be accurate and not contrary to what the Government wants to say." Mr Yousef's main concern was that the office not be turned into a centre for media control or censorship. He said it was his understanding that it would not be. "It will be easier to access information," he said. Under the new system, journalists would be able to contact the communications office directly. The office, which will fall under the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs, would in turn have employees in each ministry or government body to provide the requested information or documents. "The PR office has no power to access information; it's very weak," Mr Yousef said. "When you have someone calling a ministry from the Cabinet, there will be no delays." He said he hoped the new system would enhance the culture of regular briefings to the media in the UAE. He urged journalists who obtain information from reliable sources to publish without government response if they could not reach the officials concerned. Mr Yousef said the recent introduction of public relations and media offices in ministries had not been a success. Two years ago, reporters could reach officials directly without having to go through PR officers, he said. The new communications office will set up a network linking its different bodies. "The office will have a co-ordinative and supervisory role and will evolve, from time to time, the communication strategy," said Mohammed al Gergawi, the Minister of Cabinet Affairs, according to WAM. "Ultimately it will contribute to the achievement of the general objectives of the federal strategy of governance." Mr Yousef said he expected the system to take some time before it fully matures. "There could be mistakes in the beginning, but they can be fixed as the process goes on." mhabboush@thenational.ae