by Abdellatif El-Menawy
Many Arab decision-makers are still not convinced of the importance of communicating with their target audience, and using statistics to illustrate their plans and objectives.
I had a difference of opinion with a senior Arab official about whether it was worthwhile spending money on campaigns to connect with other people, to build a good image, to communicate concepts and to explain positions to them with the aim of gaining understanding and support.
The official questioned the feasibility of such spending, and expressed doubts that the other parties would change their positions.
My response was that this expense was like training the special guard assigned to protect important people. Spending money to train and arm the guards is essential for them to be prepared to face a dangerous situation. If that situation arises, the investment pays dividends. The same applies in communicating with others to build a positive image.
I remembered this when I saw the results of the Arab News/YouGov survey of how Qatar and other Arab countries are perceived in the US. A careful reading of the survey confirms the importance of communication in order to paint a new picture, correct an inaccurate one or emphasize an already positive one. And as Qatar has found to its cost, what is also important is that this effort must be constructive, consistent and continuous, and not just a reaction to a troubling situation.
The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was convinced of the importance of communicating with other people, especially the US. Egypt’s policies while he was president, especially launching the peace process with Israel, were the decisive factor in shaping Egypt’s new and positive image in American society, but he knew the importance of communicating that image too. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that one of the main reasons for the continuing positive image of Egypt is an extension of Sadat’s efforts in the past.
Nearly half of Americans, 47 percent, believe that relations between the US and Egypt are good, but this view is more prevalent in people over 60 than in the younger generation, who are generally less familiar with the region. This confirms that this positive vision is a historic one, especially since we know that Egypt has reduced its efforts in communication and some influential officials underplay its importance.
The UAE comes after Egypt, with 39 percent of Americans looking positively at their country’s relationship with the UAE, followed by Saudi Arabia with 37 percent. This is positive for both countries, especially given the efforts being made in this direction, but better results can be achieved with even greater efforts.
“Spending money to burnish your image is important, but a PR campaign will work only if it is constructive, consistent and continuous — and Doha’s was not.”
Qatar is not well known in the US: Half the Americans surveyed said they did not know enough about it. A large number, 34 percent, associate Qatar with the financing of terrorist groups and 26 percent link it to wealth and ample natural resources. Few Americans, only 5 percent, connect Qatar with positive concepts such as education and charity in poor countries.
At first glance, these results seem to suggest that communication is not so important after all. It is well known that Qatar has extended an extraordinary amount of generosity in recent years with the aim of painting a positive image of itself, but it is clear that this effort and spending went through the wrong channels. Drawing a positive picture that you try to export to the world can be provocative if it is implemented in the wrong way. Qatar’s behavior also contradicted the image of itself that it was trying to communicate. As the survey results said: “Surprisingly, with all the publicity about the 2022 FIFA World Cup, only 16 percent recognize Qatar as the host.”
There are two further important observations. The first is that Al Jazeera seems to have built a strong presence among Americans. However, 63 percent think its news quality is low and 44 percent say it provides a platform for Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist groups. More than half of respondents, 55 percent, support TV channels that censor content that promotes terrorist or hate-related issues.
I think that the formal dealings of the Anti-Terror Quartet with the channel were wrong in mentioning it by name, as that helped to give it exposure. Instead, the Quartet should have approached it by saying in general terms that channels which don’t censor terrorist content are giving the terrorists a platform and could be deemed sympathizers.
The other observation is about the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the Americans do not have a positive perception of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Brotherhood and Hamas, knowledge of the danger of the Brotherhood is decreasing, which means that more effort should be focused on raising awareness.
In general, the survey suggests that a more systematic, coordinated and generous effort in the field of communication is required from the Anti-Terror Quartet in the next phase of their action, and that officials are convinced of the importance of this.