Key to social media is authenticity, Dubai forum hears

UAE leaders have spontaneous and real interactions with the public online, which has made crisis management efficient.

Tom Fletcher is a visiting professor at New York University, teaching at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi. Mr Fletcher is a former British ambassador to Lebanon. Delores Johnson / The National
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DUBAI // The UAE has more open communication with its citizens than people abroad realise, acording to a senior adviser at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy.

Tom Fletcher, former British ambassador to Lebanon, said there was a perception in the West that the region was a more “closed world”.

“But when most people come here, they can see it’s not the case and they can see this effort the Government is making to communicate the whole time,” Mr Fletcher said.

He was speaking on the sidelines of the Public Diplomacy and Government Communication Forum in Dubai on Sunday.

“If you look at the social media of some of the leaders in this region, it’s a lot more personal, authentic and active than what we sometimes get at home, because they’re doing it themselves, whereas often at home, it will be a media adviser crafting things.

“Here, it’s more spontaneous and the key to social media is authenticity.”

Alastair Campbell, former press secretary for UK prime minister Tony Blair, agreed.

“There is much more engagement here than people outside might think,” he said. “The UAE’s digital communication with its citizens is very good and such communication between government and its citizens is vital.”

He said social media had proven efficient in terms of crisis management because “you can move the dial more quickly”.

Setting high objectives and having a strategy to meet them was also key, he said.

“The UAE is doing a pretty amazing job in terms of what they are and how they are seen around the world. I don’t think the UAE has had many crises,” Mr Campbell said.

“The fire at The Address hotel was a tragedy but I think you should always try to learn from everyone, those who do well and those who do badly, because there is no one model.”

Mr Fletcher said the UAE was taking the lead in effectively communicating with its citizens.

“We’re all trying to work out how we can communicate better with our public and we see what happens in the West when governments are looking to improve that communication and it doesn’t always work,” he said.

“Social media means countries in this region can almost jump others elsewhere because [of] the size of the country and because there’s a level of deference.

“You can have interplay with the public and you can’t always do that in the West because there are too many people and not much deference.”

There is more public involvement in decision-making through social media and digital communication, he said.

“You have to bring them with you and explain what you’re doing, so the communication role of the government has increased massively,” Mr Fletcher said.

Seventy years ago, diplomats and ministers did not want public involvement because it was too complicated – something unimaginable now, he said.

“The reality now is we are all communicators,” he said.

The success of politics and diplomacy depends on effective communications, said Dr Bernardino Leon, president of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy.

“It essentially boils down to communication and how the government machineries function while delivering the essential message,” he said.​