MENA governments must utilize social media: Report

KUWAIT: MENA government must 'speak the language of social media ' according to report published last week by Booz and Company. The report notes the importance of social media in connecting governments with their citizens, but added that regional governments have only recently started taking notice, anda are really trying to utilize it properly. Given the amount of time people spend interacting with the media, it is certainly food for thought.

Ramez Shehadi, a partner with Booz and Company in Beirut, revealed "A study conducted by Insights MENA in December 2010 shows that the average user in the region spends up to nine hours a day interacting with media - whether accessing the Internet, watching television, or texting."  What's more, Booz and Company's report noted that Facebook subscriptions in the region increased by an average of 30 percent between the months of January and April 2011.
Local social media and communications expert, Hind Al-Nahedh, revealed that 68 percent of women in Kuwait use Facebook. As of yet, however, Al-Nahedh said "Social media in the Middle East, so far, has been used more for political motives than for brand marketing communication. Its use during the Arab Spring made it important in the region, and people started taking notice." She continued, "the region is still adapting to social media, possibly because of our cultural values and background. Each country adapts and uses it in a different way, and major uses of it here at the moment are news updates, discussing politics, blogging, and small business marketing through Facebook pages etc."
However, for governments looking to connect with their constituents, it's not as simple as joining Twitter or making a Facebook account. When it comes to social media, the report noted that governments must carefully tend to their online channels to ensure that they meet  national objectives. According to the report, this is of particular importance, given the more public stage that social media provides, "Social media has created a realm where users constantly share information, track responses, and explore news and opinion in a transparent environment."
Al-Nahedh also highlighted the importance of creating such an environment in Kuwait using social media, "I encourage, and would strongly recommend, the Kuwaiti government to better listen to what people are saying online. It is important to give the people space to engage with the government regarding direction and initiatives, and activating e-gov social media will provide the ideal platform for this." She added, "Some GCC governments have become very active in social media nowadays."

"It would be amazing to be able to contact government officials directly through Twitter," said 24-year-old graduate student, Fahad. "It would increase accountability, because you can't start up and then ignore comments from followers. It would be nice to be able to get a direct answer or at least, some insight," he added. A 32-year-old mother of three, Shaikha, said "I would certainly follow prominent Kuwaiti politicians. It would be great to see them make that extra effort to connect with citizens and keep us more involved."

Creating the ideal social media platform is certainly not a simple task. Danny Karam, Senior Associate with Booz and Company in Beirut, noted the importance of investing not only money, but also time into building effective social media channels, "Establishing effective social media channels at the core of a government's engagement strategy is not as simple as setting aside the necessary funds and creating a department tasked with the responsibility of building it." He added, "In many cases, it will require a fundamental rethinking of how the government communicates with residents, an embrace of transparency and collaboration, and a willingness to establish a platform without a clear sense of how it will be used."

Booz and Company's report adds that governmental social media efforts should include e-Communication, in the form of providing information, e-Contribution, which provides constituents with the chance to offer feedback and raise concerns, and e-Participation and e-Inclusion, which includes constituents in participation and includes them in government processes. These are all key aspects used by governments who made a successful transition to social media, the report noted.
Al-Nahedh agreed that improved communication is a key benefit that can be expected when governments successfully utilize social media, noting that it can greatly amplify communication between constituents and the government in a timely manner. This, she added, allows for governments to react to issues as they arise and break down barriers. Al-Nahedh further added, "Social media totally revolutionizes how governments reach their public. For example, it totally changed the American elections. A columnist, Chris O'Brien, even said that social media in 2012 will make the 2008 elections feel like the dark ages of digital world. During the Kuwait elections, the main focus was the #omma2012 hashtag on Twitter."
According to Al-Nahedh, Twitter is growing into the fastest, most popular tool for Kuwaitis to keep up with the news and stay updated. She added, however, that it was not utilized to its full potential during the elections, "The usage during elections was effective, but basic, and was not conducted in the most strategic manner. Many are resistant to trying new tools and are so accustomed to their usual marketing methods. There's the perception here that social media only reaches the youth."