The Anglo-Irish author George Bernard Shaw once said that “the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
This phrase is the true embodiment of the situation we have been experiencing in Egypt for decades and painfully over the past 10 years. One can safely argue that the challenges facing the Egyptian government’s endeavours to communicate with its citizens are far greater than the economic hardships felt because of the war in Ukraine, the worst global event the world has seen since World War II.
While ministers and high-ranking officials can be included in reshuffles designed to better face economic pressures, negative perceptions and misconceptions cannot be changed easily, and they are often even fortified with every single decision or activity regardless of its soundness.
Admittedly, the information war waged against the Egyptian state and people during the past decade has yielded significant impacts, epitomised by the widespread pessimism, scepticism, and obvious inability to connect with the conspicuously positive developments witnessed, in varying degrees, in almost all walks of Egyptian life.
This poses a serious question on the level of the adoption and implementation of strategic communications by the government and its appreciation of their fundamental value. The rhetoric of the government and of the president himself reflects this appreciation, but the enormous challenges facing its application are so intertwined that the status quo can seem to be the best option, albeit with some cosmetic changes.
In my view, the biggest challenge has been treating strategic communications as a support function to the government’s national strategy rather than as a main component of it, meaning that there has been a danger that this strategy has not been communicated properly and has been misinterpreted by a large number of citizens. This has created room for those who want to exploit every move taken by the government to fabricate stories, spread rumours, and instil a growing mood of pessimism.
It has also resulted in fragmented efforts that have hindered the creation of a solid national narrative that is believed in, communicated by passionate communicators, and endorsed by a society that is facing economic challenges.
The debate around the role of the Ministry of Information is irrelevant to this challenge as strategic communications do not need a central structure to be effective. What is needed instead is a shared vision, a strategic communications mindset, and a culture infused with passionate and trained communicators in key establishments, especially ministries and government agencies, as the primary sources of information and the first defence against rumours.
This leads us to a second challenge, represented by a mixture of bureaucracy and a lack of passionate and trained personnel. The main reason behind the problem of widespread rumours and the inability to convey a general national narrative as well as sector-specific messages is the lack of a shared strategic communications mindset governing the ill-timed and reactive practices of many media offices within government ministries.
Bureaucracy can be an obstacle to remedying this situation, and creative tactics need to be employed to achieve results and deliver impacts. Suitable personnel can be hard to find if not appropriately remunerated. There should be a consensus on the need to attract the kind of communications professionals that will take up the responsibility of training other passionate and able communicators who can convey a vision for a country that is building mega-projects for the future.
Proactivity and content management pose another challenge to the effective dissemination of information to the public, especially across social media platforms. They are also closely connected to the issue of personnel and bureaucracy.
Professional communicators work according to a crisis communication manual during times of conflict and crisis. This manual is often built to cater to the need for proactivity and reactivity (depending on the nature of the crisis and other factors) and to provide essential content as quickly and accurately as possible to all trained spokespeople and the media such that the crisis can be navigated successfully.
The manual should be treated as a living document that is constantly updated with messages, facts and figures, and different case studies and proof points that can be used across all channels, especially social media, in accordance with the overall strategy and sector-specific strategies.
As social media remains the main battlefield where rumours and pessimism can occupy the higher ground, proactivity and effective content creation and dissemination are the primary weapons to educate people there and to increase their awareness. One of the easiest and most effective tactics to create effective and informative content is to encourage the beneficiaries of initiatives run by the government to share their experiences and feedback on social media.
This should be a dedicated programme within the overall strategic communications strategy that should function as a lever for the national strategy in order that it is able to influence perceptions and attitudes and create a healthy debate based on correct information and not on rumours.
An effective strategic communications strategy needs to understand the various challenges facing the national strategy in addition to the examples above. It needs to adopt a dynamic course of action when building action plans, responsive activities, and initiatives that will help to drive the national narrative, train spokespeople, attract and retain personnel, and instil a culture of optimism and appreciation.
It needs to understand the differences between various segments of the target audience, elevate and increase awareness, create champions and ambassadors from previous beneficiaries, create content with human stories, and nurture a culture of enlightened dialogue.
Strategic communications remain the biggest challenge facing this country as the risks of a disconnect between the people and the achievements of the government will only deepen if we cannot communicate properly in this age of communications and information technology.
* The writer is a strategic communications professional.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.