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Opinion: The Zeidan government needs to improve its media output

Speaking in a live interview just after midnight yesterday on the eve of the GNC vote on the Political Isolation Law, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan admitted that neither the state nor the government were strong enough yet.

Zeidan, giving a question-and-answer type interview to four different TV stations simultaneously at a roundtable probably for the first time during his tenure, fielded a multiplicity of questions on wide ranging issues.

The Prime Minister was honest in admitting to the media that the whole Libyan state apparatus, as well as his government were still weak. This fact, in my opinion, applies equally to his government’s media output.

Once weekly press conference

The Prime Minister had previously preferred to give a once weekly press conference, often with a number of his ministers by his side, but where he would be the dominant speaker. On the whole, he has tended not to give exclusive interviews and definitely preferred the format of one question, one answer – without giving the media the right to come back to him with detailed follow-up questions.

With the exception of probably the Interior Minister Ashour Shuwail and Oil Minister Abdelbari Arrusi – security and hydrocarbons being the most prominent issues in Libya – the rest of the government ministers have also kept quite a low media profile. They prefer to appear at the side of their Prime Minister at his weekly press conferences. The press conference by Electricity Minister Ali Muhairiq this week, being an exception.

With the political crises in the form of armed militias or thuwar surrounding government buildings precipitated by the Political Isolation Law, Zeidan has come under intense pressure. Leaked reports of the negotiations between his government and the militias have revealed that they have called for his resignation.

As a result, Zeidan decided to speak to the media in a live TV interview starting just after midnight. Midnight is not an ideal time to start a live television interview if you wish to address the majority of the nation and if you wish the majority of the media to disseminate it. This may indicate that Zeidan felt that he had an urgent need to speak to the public and that the decision to broadcast was made quite late in the day.

The format of a once-weekly press conference of one question, one answer has its problems. It may be good for the Prime Minister, in that it gives him the last word, but definitely does not satisfy the media who feel they have a duty and a role to play on behalf of the general public in questioning the Prime Minister.

I would also argue that the classic one question-one answer format is actually not in the long term interest of the Prime Minister and his government. It does not satisfy the media, and more importantly, it does not satisfy the frustrated public. It also gives the impression that the Prime Minister seeks protection from difficult questions or that he lacks confidence.

In my view, by coming out and putting himself in front of the media for serious scrutiny and detailed questioning, it makes the Prime Minister seem more accountable and hence democratic. It allows the public to let off some steam and feel that their Prime Minister is listening to their concerns and bothering to answer some of their questions – all be it through the media.

“Off record briefing”

Another method of interacting with the media that the Ali Zeidan government prefers not to do is the “off record briefing”. It is not clear whether the Zeidan government does not believe in the utility of this method, does not understand it, or simply that it does not trust the media enough to really keep such briefings off record.

Understanding government policy

But what is obvious is that Zeidan is missing out on a major tool to communicate his principles and policies to the public by ensuring that at least in the first instance the media understand them and him. How can the government expect the media to communicate its policies and principles accurately – if the media itself does not fully understand them?

By briefing the media off record the government can better utilize or even exploit the media as a tool to disseminate its policies and messages.

Official spokesperson

The other decision that Ali Zeidan has taken during his office is not to appoint an official spokesperson. The media had asked Zeidan about this issue a few months ago, and his reply was mixed. In the same answer he said that he preferred to speak to the public directly and that he is still looking for the right person.

24/7 media world

The government has also got to up its media output. It has got to up its game in the new 24/7 media world where the social network sites do not have to check their facts, do not need to get confirmation from official sources, are not accountable and do not need to wait for the government to be up and working.

That is why, in my opinion, the government needs an accessible spokesperson who can field media queries instantly and around the clock. The media continues to work – needs to work – and fill the space all week. The Libyan media does not sack its employees and switch off for the rest of the week – until the Zeidan weekly press conference comes round again.

The government needs to fill the media vacuum

Politics and media are a fulltime job. The public read, listen, watch and surf the net – all week – not just on the government’s weekly press conference days. Put crudely, either the Libyan government increases its media output to fill the media space ALL WEEK – or the media and public will fill that gap themselves. And there-in lays the problem. When the media and internet surfing public do not find content, let alone quality content – they will fill the space with anything available.

In other words, they will start writing about “alleged” and “unconfirmed” and “reported” issues from here, there and everywhere, including those baseless posts on the internet.

Zeidan has on more than one occasion appealed to the media for its professionalism, honesty and its patriotism. What Zeidan sometimes comes across as if he does not understand is that they have a job and he has a job. They do not work for the government. Most of them are trying at least to operate as profit making businesses. They have pages and airwaves to fill. They have copies to sell and they have adverts that they want to attract.

Every day the media must produce output – whether the government is helping fill it or not.

Stay ahead of the curve

The government has got to learn to be media proactive, predictive and productive. It has got to anticipate issues and be and stay ahead of the curve. Currently its main methodology is a responsive one at its weekly Prime Ministerial press conference. In the new modern media era, this is inadequate. The government has got to create content to drip feed to the media. With nearly 30 ministers to call upon, Zeidan should be able to co-ordinate one or two ministerial media outputs every week.

Clever government would dominate – or try to dominate – the media agenda. A clever government would prepare announcements and press releases everyday for the media to chew on. It would overwhelm the media with data and information and drown them – so that they do not have time to follow their own stories or agendas. A professional, competitive, realist (cynical?) government would try to manipulate the media, rather than be manipulated by it. That is real politic, I am afraid.

Government spin – the glass is half full

The government has also got to learn to better “spin” its policies and events. It has got to learn to seek silver linings even in the darkest of clouds. It has got to learn to stress how “half full” the Libyan glass is.

Yes armed militias are on the streets, but successful elections, the first for half a century with no major upheaval. The election results universally accepted. No military coups. No break-up of Libya. The peaceful handovers of power by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Mahmoud Jibril and Al-Kib. Pluralistic society is slowly forming. Divisions of power. A free press. Oil production up to normal. Libya not seeking IMF/World Bank loans. No foreign troops in Libya. Etc, etc.

Fast successes – the perception of progress

But besides historical successes, the government has got to learn to create quick, new successes. It has got to show the public that there is movement and progress. It needs to manipulate and fabricate perceptions of movement, momentum, progress and success. It as much about perception than reality. It is about creating the illusion of movement and success, than real movement and success. Telling the public to be patient when you have a LD 67 bn budget will not work.

Politically naïve

A clever government would not be politically naïve and rely on the good-will of the media. A clever government would have an agenda – rather than be dominated by an agenda by some or all of the media organizations. A clever government would stop being politically naïve and stop relying on the patriotism of the media and realize that the world is about agendas and self interests.

Constructive criticism

Having attended numerous press conferences by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan since he assumed power, I would suggest that he is quite confident and capable in dealing with the media and answering the most difficult of questions. He needs to be briefed more with pre-prepared answers probably. He also needs to learn to give more concise answers. But I suggest he has more confidence in himself and faces the media more often.

I also realize that a Prime Minister’s time is limited, and therefore equally suggest that he has more confidence in his ministers by allowing them to give more press conferences on their own. This is a government that has nearly 30 ministers. It should use them more in order to give more value for money for the public.

Equally, all the media departments of every ministry need to increase their media output.

Moreover, if Zeidan were to appoint an official spokesperson soon, that would take the pressure off him.

Written questions and answers

Another clever and useful ploy would be for the government to accept written questions which the government could choose to respond to orally at press conferences or in writing through press releases or on its website/Facebook page. This especially useful for detailed questions that the government would need time to research and answer.

Winning the media over

History teaches us that it is very important for governments and politicians to try and win the media over. It may be impossible to win over all the sectors of the media, but Zeidan must find his allies and work with them.

I therefore see no reasons why Zeidan cannot increase and improve the media output of his government. Yes, for the sake of the self-fulfilling interest of this media organization, but also for the self interest of Zeidan, his government and of the nation. Because a better Prime Minister and a better government is good for Libya – and good for the media.

Article by Sami Zaptia, Libya Herald.

This article was originally published here.

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