There’s a nice piece in Asharq Alawsat that takes a look at official Saudi government spokesmen. It finds that more often than not, going to or through the official spokesman is a fruitless exercise. Some seem to believe their role is as a shield for the senior officials at a ministry or agency. Others seem to see themselves as polishing rags, there to buff up the minister, ministry, and their activities, making everything shiny and bright. A few, as in the Ministries of Interior and Justice, seem to be doing it right, providing quick and accurate information to journalists.

The position of spokesman is relatively new within the Saudi bureaucracy. Governments have a tendency to see information as power and keep it close to the vest. Winkling out information sometimes seems as though you are asking for the officials personal bank details. What these officials fail to realize is that information, like water, flows. It can be channeled and, at times, dammed up, but it will always, eventually find its way. Waiting until it has ‘escaped’, though, means that others, who may or may not share interests with the government, are going to be interpreting, shaping, framing the news. By the time the government gets around to giving its own interpretation, it’s often too late. The message has been massaged by others, be it in foreign media, Twitter and Facebook feeds, or the good old rumor mill.

Having been a spokesman, I do have sympathy with Saudi spokesman. It’s often difficult to get senior officials to understand that they cannot completely control the message. That doesn’t stop them from trying, though. I’m embarrassed by the number of times I’ve had US officials, in Congress and in the executive branch, try and pull back awkward statements they’ve made in public, to try to change history.

There’s another deficient school of management that thinks it good policy to keep the spokesmen in the dark about impending events. The fewer people who know that something is about to happen, the fewer there are to leak it, accidentally or not, the theory goes. The theory goes only a short distance, however. When something goes wrong, the message gets out of control while the spokesperson is trying to figure out just what the hell happened. The issue is wrapped up in a public affairs saying, “If you want us there at the crash, you need us there at the take-off.”

The problems discussed in the article are all very real. They are not uniquely Saudi, however. They are problems of bureaucracy. The Saudi bureaucracy will have to fight through the same swamps of power struggles, ineptitude, and egos that infect all bureaucracies. The Saudis will have to come up with their own solutions, pushed by the media and pulled by publics, and of course spun by officialdom. They can at least be thankful that they don’t have to switch directions and gears every few years following an election.

The trouble with official spokespersons in Saudi Arabia
Amal Baqzai

Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat – In recent years the Saudi press has grown accustomed to pursuing official government spokespersons by various ways and means, incurring many hardships in order to obtain a response to their inquiries. It is therefore not surprising that many official spokespersons are committed to utilizing the tactic of “evasive silence” when responding to any questions put to them by the press, whilst also relying on bureaucratic red-tape in this regard.

Such criticisms continue to surround these “silent” official spokespersons today, to the point that some media figures and journalists have begun to actively seek out officials in order to express their displeasure and pass on complaints against their spokespersons, in an attempt to force these official spokespersons to issue statements and respond to press inquiries. In addition to this, the continuation of this state of affairs means that journalists believe that the appointment of an official spokesperson is akin to a “do not approach” warning sign around an official, namely that all inquiries must be made through this official spokesperson.

Editor-in-Chief of Saudi Arabia’s “Al-Madina” newspaper, Dr. Fahd Aal Aqran informed Asharq Al-Awsat that official spokespersons can be split into two camps, those who are very active, and those who play a negative role.

March:30:2012 - 05:27 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink
2 Responses to “Silent Spokesmen”
  1. 1
    Corey Said:
    March:31:2012 - 11:19 

    I have yet to find any ministry spokesman who will actually return phone calls or even pick up a phone. When one is indeed available, he inevitably asks for questions to be faxed. Of course, these are never answered. The one single exception is the great Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, official spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. Always accessible, always returns calls and always gives a good quote. He should give classes to the rest. He has done more to improve the image of the Ministry of Interior while at the same time giving accurate and worthwhile information. As an aside, he once said that dealing with the Saudi press was difficult because of their lack of professionalism. But dealing with the European and U.S. news services was always a pleasure.

  2. 2
    John Burgess Said:
    March:31:2012 - 16:48 

    There were some who weren’t exactly keen on answering calls from the US Embassy either! Even a face-to-face meeting didn’t always guarantee any transfer of information.

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