IGCF 2021 New Session
UAE Government Media Office Chairman Saeed Al Eter (centre) addressing IGCF in Sharjah on Sunday. Others on the panel are (from right): Badriyah Al Bishr, Dr Abdullah bin Ahmed Al Maghlouth, David Halpern and Mohammed Jalal Al Rayssi Image Credit: Supplied

Sharjah: The global interest in the UAE tripled in 2020 from 2019 thanks to major projects undertaken by the government and its successful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Government Communication Forum (IGCF) heard on Sunday in Sharjah.

Saeed Al Eter, chairman of UAE Government Media Office, told to the audience how the country gained international attention due to the reports on its projects and how it successfully tackled the pandemic.

He said mega projects such as the UAE’s Mars Mission and the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant put a spotlight on the country globally. “The UAE is a country where every day there is something new, and big projects are launched very frequently,” Al Eter later told Gulf News on the sidelines of the conference.

The UAE model

Saeed Al Eter

“The UAE, by its nature, is a global platform for business and economy and hence the international interest in the UAE trebled last year,” he said. Al Eter added that the way the UAE managed the COVID-19 crisis is a model for many other countries to follow.

“That is why lot of media around the world had big interest in knowing exactly how the UAE has managed the crisis.”

The communication expert recollected how the government and the citizens worked together in the country’s battle against the invisible enemy. “Everyone was working as one team – local emirates, the federal government, the private sector and even the influencers on the social media,” he said.

‘It was beautiful’

“Everybody was working as one national team because it touched everyone and all nationalities were involved with all languages and that is why the UAE’s way of handling the crisis was a model for other nations also.

“When you have around 200 nationalities, managing a crisis is a big challenge. But all nationalities coming together and doing that exceptional work was a good model for other countries. It was beautiful.”

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IGCF is now in its 10th edition Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Challenges galore

Al Eter was one of the speakers at a session on ‘The efficacy of communication messages—a cross-disciplinary collaboration involving behavioural science and data analytics.’

Speaking at the session, Al Eter highlighted the challenges faced by governments. He explained how the prevalence of social media has changed the way government communication offices work.

From having just an editorial section with deep political knowledge and awareness about general affairs, now government media offices are required to have multiple communication experts to deal with various aspects of digital communication and social media as well, he pointed out.

“Shaping the government communication is extremely complex now,” Al Eter said.

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The phenomenon of new media has become very important for government and media campaigns, especially through the social media, became more impactful during the COVID-19 pandemic, he observed.

He pointed out that it is not just what the government says that matters in determining the success of any government communication - it is also about how the algorithm works with different online platforms. “The algorithms govern if a message is going up or down [in its online reach].”

Open to interpretation?

Al Eter said how the media interprets government communication also mattered significantly. He cited an example of the recent announcement about the new Green Visa allowing the sponsorship of adult children up to the age of 25 in the UAE.

“One of the media outlets wrote that it was for boys [sons] only. That created confusion and a backlash. Some women’s association and some others said we were being anti-women by not giving the same privilege to the girls. We never thought it would be interpreted that way,” he said.

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Delegates listen to a session at IGCF Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Combating misinformation

Al Eter added that governments also have to tackle misinformation and propaganda spread through fake accounts. He cited the example of France launching a new media section to deal with misinformation.

Another speaker, Mohammed Jalal Al Rayssi, director-general of the Emirates News Agency (WAM), said social media platforms played a major role in combating misinformation and rumours in the UAE during the COVID-19 pandemic. Adopting full transparency and clarity in government communication helped the country with the crisis management, he added.

Al Rayssi said WAM published news in 19 languages while some national media outlets issue special new bulletins in vernacular languages spoken by expat workers from different countries. Since many workers do not have the luxury of smartphones, these efforts ensured they also received the messages sent out on various government communication platforms.

Mohammed Jalal Al Raisi, Director General of the Emirates News Agency (WAM)
Mohammed Jalal Al Rayssi, Director-General, Emirates News Agency (WAM) Image Credit: Supplied

Proactive strategy

Al Rayssi said the government’s proactive communication strategy helped deliver accurate information related to COVID-19 tests and vaccination, helping with the country’s battle against the pandemic.

“There was a certain [person] who said PCR test will cause death and refused to undergo the test. The media office had to then raise awareness [about the importance and safety of the test],” he revealed.

Dr Abdullah bin Ahmed Al Maghlouth, deputy minister for communication agency and official spokesperson at the Saudi Ministry of Media, said governments in GCC countries have been keeping up with social media.

“This is something in which we evolve as we go forward. There is no work without social media. For example, ministries of health now broadcast important messages very quickly through social media,” Al Maghlouth added.

Understanding behaviour

David Halpern, CEO and board director of the Behavioural Insights Team, UK, highlighted the need for taking into consideration the behavioural aspects of the consumers of government communication. He said communication plays a key role in dealing with the pandemic.

“Just because you have a vaccine, it doesn’t mean the people will take it. So, the communication about vaccination matters,” Halpern pointed out. He said communication during the pandemic is “literally between life and death.”

“If we don’t do our job well enough, people don’t understand what the government says. That is a big problem,” he cautioned.