In a multipolar world, communication is a true source of power
As the Arab Spring demonstrated so powerfully, the Middle East is a region on the front lines of a global shift in communication power from authorities to audiences.
Last week, I had a taste of this complex region’s dynamic present — and its future — as a speaker and guest at an outstanding international public relations industry conference in Dubai, organized by the International Public Relations Association’s Gulf Chapter.
Having represented the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management at two PR conferences in the Islamic world in the last four months, I have learned more from these experiences than either audience has learned from me. Here are five reflections on global communication today:
- In a multipolar world, communication is a true source of power.
We are already seeing a transfer in political, economic and cultural power from west to east and north to south; a multipolar world is in our future. While English will remain the world’s dominant language for a long time to come, the growing availability of simultaneous translation on the Internet will reduce its cultural dominance, particularly in the media. Americans who dream of perpetual hegemony will be disappointed (and presidential candidates who promise it do their country a disservice). The influence of the old democracies can, however, remain considerable if they use the strategies of communication: persuasion, dialogue, diplomacy and the creation of consensus. While the decisive, judicious use of military force will remain important in global affairs, unilateralism by any state will have increasingly bitter reputational consequences.
- As citizen reporting generates news, journalism’s role is to add insight.
When news breaks, many of us now hear it first on social networks – and that is as true for professional journalists as it for the rest of us. We need journalists more than ever, though, to add credibility through verification, and insight through analysis. Wadah Khanfar, the visionary former director-general of Al-Jazeera, speaks of ‘the newsroom as think tank.’ He argues that news gathering organizations will develop flatter, more networked structures that allow them to gather news and understand public priorities through social networks. He calls it ‘professionalism, allied with the public,’ citing Al-Jazeera’s necessary means of gathering news during the Arab Spring as a harbinger of this trend. Khanfar does not expect journalistic organizations to ‘merge’ with social networks; the former can never truly embrace spontaneity and reject hierarchy as the latter does without losing both effectiveness and credibility.
- The long-term future for extremism is dim.
This statement may seem overly optimistic in a world plagued by terrorism, state-sanctioned human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing and extremist voices in media and politics. However, the level of violence in society is on a steady, gradual decline. The widespread adoption of social media – even in repressive states – makes citizens more discerning consumers of data, and more likely to question what their leaders tell them. By opening up the world, social media also gives citizens a taste of what is possible. ‘The themes of the future Arab world are business, the economy and jobs,’ says Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the Al-Arab News Channel.
- Intercultural dialogue in civil society is in everyone’s interest.
The level of misunderstanding between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds remains a threat not just to global stability, but to prosperity in both communities. The rhetoric one hears about Israel and Palestine on both sides is particularly dispiriting. We cannot rely on governments to bridge these divides alone; contacts at all levels of civil society are required, and professional communicators have a special duty to play a role.
- Communicators must ‘skill themselves up’ for the job ahead.
When asked about the key to the future of public relations, the first thing cited by Peter Chadlington (founder of Weber Shandwick, currently CEO of Huntsworth PLC) is ‘making our people better – and better informed.’ He advocates hiring more people with successful track records in other sectors and training them in PR, rather than relying principally on lifelong practitioners. Harold Burson, founder of Burson-Marsteller, makes a complementary point in asking, ‘Are we being sufficiently elitist in our entry-level hiring?’ He argues that the public relations industry must ensure its entry-level hires stack up with those in other professions, such as law, finance or marketing.
Depending on whether it is used wisely and ethically, communication can have positive or negative consequences. That is why it is critical for professional communicators to join international dialogues and put their talents to work. This can help bring about economic recovery, political freedom, technological advancement and social justice — not just in the Middle East, but everywhere.