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I have just returned from a brilliant couple of days in Jordan with the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) regional communication team of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. The MENA Communications conference 2014 in Amman brought together the UK’s communications specialists from each of posts around the region and the London based staff to share ideas, to build knowledge and strengthen a communications network especially around the use of social and digital media.

The role of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office is to look after British interests overseas so the organisation has both a promotional and a protective role.  In a region that has seen much turbulence over the last few years communication is central to being able to fulfil the FCO’s purpose.  In keeping with every organisation effective communications allows the FCO to deal with the challenges of sudden and unexpected change. 

I was privileged to be one of the speakers at the event, talking around crisis communications, but given the experiences of some of the attendees who have worked in places such as Syria, Egypt, and Israel it did cross my mind that there was a great deal of experience of crisis in the room probably exceeding my own!  Although I was only able to attend a part of the conference I learned a huge amount during my brief time there talking with staff and listening to other speakers.

What did I learn?

1. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office is good at communications! It was clear to me that they have strong teams around the region that are supported well from the London office.  There is an enthusiasm within the team for their work and there is clear evidence that the campaigns they run in advising Britons travelling or working abroad are effective.  As an outsider I began to realise how much work is done by the FCO that goes unnoticed.

2. Social media is a vibrant communication tool in the Middle East and North Africa. Maha Aboueleinein gave a fascinating insight into the demographics of social media usage by country from around the region and tied that into some of the cultural sensitivities around religion and politics.  Whilst social media has been very much embraced by most Arab countries she shared some thoughts around how the internet provides both challenge and opportunity in the Middle East.  Of particular interest to me was how the understanding of what is culturally acceptable from a western perspective is markedly different in the Arab world and how that impacts upon the expectation and understanding of openness and transparency. 

3. A reinforcement of the importance of perspective.  In PR and communications we are often too hasty to focus on the outcomes we desire and put to one side the perspective of the audiences we are trying to reach and influence.  Because much of the discussion at the conference was about societies and communities that have different cultures and a different view of the world it was an important reinforcement to me to take the time to try and see the world the way that others see it.  To have the ability to see another’s perspective is as an important a lesson in life as the “listen first” principle.
4. Social media is very important in crisis communications.  Well, perhaps I knew this already, but what the conference did highlight to me was that when you have a dispersed organisation facing a crisis the complexities to being effective in communication are magnified.  Social media is a very efficient tool in linking parts of a network where everyone needs to be kept informed and ensuring that everyone has the same information available to them. Whilst in the MENA situation the challenge (or at least one of them) is geography on an international scale the principle of having a commitment to communicate can be applied to any organisation that has a number of locations.  The important thing is that those organisations need to be tuned in to how social media can help them.

The MENA conference was a really enjoyable event and a valuable learning experience. As well as the opportunity to build friendships, share ideas and learn from others experiences the event gave me an important moment to reflect on how effective communication can achieve so much.