Written by Radu Magdin and Costin Ciobanu
This article is not one about truth (international relations is unfortunately more about shades of grey than choosing between white and black) but about perceptions and crisis communications. In terms of international credibility, Qatar took a massive hit yesterday, as six Muslim countries (three of them members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain) decided not only to severe diplomatic relations but also to cut off land, air and sea travel to and from Doha. Here are some preliminary insights based on our crisis communications and political strategy experience on how a situation like this can be overcome by a country under communications attack. Simply put, Qatar needs to act strategically and needs to act now.
In times of international crisis, the American political scientists have proven, a “rally ‘round the flag” effect is observed – the people coalesce around the leaders, who are seen as the embodiment of national unity. One condition has to be fulfilled for this to happen: the leaders have to quickly prove that they are in control and that the citizens’ immediate needs are treated as a high priority. The international media has already reported that Qataris had swarmed supermarkets after Saudis stopped food trucks at the border; the fears are legitimate even in one of the countries with the world’s highest GDP per capita, as approx. 80% of state’s food requirements are sourced via bigger Gulf Arab neighbours. In a direct and easy-to-understand manner, the population has to be reassured that the crisis will not affect its basic necessities and that the government is well in charge and able to mitigate the potential damages: announcements of concrete supply diversification should be on the public agenda menu.
Humanity, emotional messages, and solidarity are key in such moments. If we are to make a parallel to the “run on the bank” situation, a “run on the supermarkets” development can be countered by showing daily that the authorities have a plan in place to make sure that nothing is missing from the shelves. It might sound trivial, but these small aspects are what matters to the citizens and residents. The image of a strong national alliance, forged around the emir’s vision for the country and bringing together the leaders of big businesses (such as the Qatar Investment Authority or Qatar Airways), has the potential to persuade and reassure; as mentioned earlier, nothing works better in favour of stability than doing the right things and showing a clear plan.
After the domestic concerns are properly addressed, what comes next is activating global networks and calling on friends from around the world: North America, Europe, Middle East or broader Asia. There is nothing more damaging than the perception of isolation and blockade. First, it should not be forgotten or ignored that Qatar hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East, which has played a fundamental role in the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and represents a strategic asset in the fight against Daesh and in the context of the Syrian operations. The US, in a statement by Secretary of State Tillerson, has already offered to broker an agreement and, despite the speculations about the connection between the Trump’s visit to Riyadh and the muscular attitude of Saudi Arabia, this offer should be taken at face value.
Second on this topic, Qatari investments have helped many countries during the recent economic and financial crisis; now the government should bank on these ties: there is no instant gratitude in international relations, but it’s worth a try. Third, the status of a regional mediator and of a country which aims at being a middle power should be leveraged and not counted as a vulnerability: convincing influencers around the world about this in the next days, weeks and minds is key in winning a global perception fight. Fourth, the suspicion that the country defends and supports extremism and terrorism – the main accusation against Qatar – can be dispelled by inviting authoritative academic and media sources to weigh in on the regional situation and fact-check the accusations; a communications war room should be ready to talk round the clock with the world media, including offering a continued stream of news and updates Q&As on the situation. All these elements can form the basis of a new international narrative for Qatar, one aligned with the previously cultivated image of a country punching above its weight in regional and international politics.
More importantly, Qatar should start looking at the causes of its predicament and fully understand why what was deemed as settled in 2014 has only escalated in 2017. An honest analysis of the Rolodex of committed and potential friends could come in handy: a counter-alliance should be set up, to balance things and avoid the feeling of isolation. But more importantly and in view of the 2022 World Cup event, the medium and long-term destabilizing factors should be acknowledged and acted upon: why is this happening, who drives the process and what are all possible solutions to the crisis on the merits.
Saying and doing the right things, sharing information with the Western allies, admitting faults and wrongdoings and pointing towards those who say one thing while doing the opposite, all these will ensure that Qatar will not become a regional scapegoat and will be able to fight back and clear its reputation. Equally important, talking strategically to the global media through interviews and opinion pieces would develop a non-defensive narrative for the country and transform the allies’ attention into trust. Global investments, national security and citizen wellbeing, and the regional fight against extremism and terrorism are all aspects of an integrated strategic communication strategy that, properly designed and implemented, would lower brand attacks and subsequently prevent the extent of backlash observed against Qatar today.
We are sure that many people in Doha or the wider Middle East resonate with these ideas. Bringing together planning and execution and aligning ways, means, and ends is part of the good old strategy playbook, good old fashioned strategists is what Qatar needs. But it has to act now. In such situations, a clear plan with clear messages (simplicity – on repeat mode- works) and perfect attention to details and execution can save the day and make a difference as regards the country’s international reputation and standing.
Radu Magdin and Costin Ciobanu are strategy and communications consultants, former advisors to the Romanian Prime Minister and the President of the Senate
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