The relationship between PR practitioners and Journalists in Saudi Arabia

Last week, the Council of Ministers in Saudi urged all government departments and service organizations to appoint spokesmen to provide the media with necessary information and clarifications

The Cabinet meeting, chaired by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, also urged public organizations to respond to media queries and respond to negative reports and  they should also open channels of communication and cooperation with the media and reply to all their questions and clarifications and use their websites for the purpose  .

We consider this move very good news in clarifying information for journalists and the development of the relationship between journalists and the public sector.

This decision confirms the following:

  • Dealing with the media is one of the most important responsibilities of any public relations department
  • The media represents a primary channel for communicating with all of the government departments stakeholders.
  • The media also has the potential to do immense harm to the government reputation if not managed professionally.

In years past, the public relations functionality was envisaged by both the private and public sector institutions and organizations as a luxury rather than a necessity.  This was one of the historical challenges encountered by the public relations industry in Saudi Arabia. However, this foggy and obscure outlook has recently started to clear out.

Despite this improvement, however, not all companies or government departments are on the same degree of understanding of how to optimize the use of public relations. For example, the aim of some private sector corporations or government departments from a PR activity is to try to sell their products and services indirectly through press releases solely. Accordingly, you find them sending scores of press releases to the media, although most of these releases are not even worth publishing.

It is not also surprising to find an abuse of press releases, some of which are published to expose the achievements of the general manager of a given company, institution or organization. Others publish daily press releases through the mass media to cover each and every minor event or occasion.  In certain companies, the criteria of evaluating the role of public relations continue to be restricted to the number of press releases published in the media. This manifests a great degree of confusion because publication of press releases only represents a fraction of the overall, diversified roles, competencies and issues normally taken up by the Public Relations functionality.

On the other hand, there is a lack of awareness among decision-makers towards the PR function. For example, competent bodies of government institutions hardly create any departments of public relations, and when they do, we find that this function is either misused or abused when their role turns into a routine and administrative function that lacks creativity and innovation. This is especially true when the PR function is restricted to covering the visits made by the Chairman or the Director of the respective organization in the absence of any clear or meaningful messages to address the general public served by these institutions or the implementation of innovative programs to educate the masses on the main courses of action and options available to them.

Some facts:

  • There is a desire for all government departments and service organizations to be more active in its media relations.
  • However, the PRD (Public Relation Department) in some government departments appears to have no clear media relations strategy or plan, though which opportunities for coverage can be regularly sought out from within the government departments and service organizations and placed with the media.
  • While a number of press releases are issued annually, the volume appears low for such a large and successful business. Careful analysis by an experienced media handler should enable a greater volume of press release stories to be identified.
  • The government departments and service organizations media list seems only partly developed. More work needs to be done to identify those publications and journalists of greatest importance to the government departments.
  • There appears to be no strategic approach to arranging interviews for the CEO or other senior management. Interviews seem to be held in a responsive and ad hoc manner, with little confidence that the favoured publications are in fact of greatest value to the government departments.
  • The PRD appears not to conduct research into the planned ‘Special Reports’ appearing in trade publications each year. These represent valuable opportunities to secure share-of-voice for government departments, whether through interview (in person or by telephone), press release or background comment.
  • There seems to be no clear strategy for capitalizing upon the media attendance of the major conferences and exhibitions government departments and service organizations attends.
  • The PRD also appears to make little use of other media relations tactics, such as photostories, media briefings or placed articles.
  • Also, The PRD is responsible for managing the reputation of the government departments. However, it is apparent that no reliable data exists on how the government departments and service organizations is currently perceived.

It is therefore recommended that as a matter of priority, opinion research be conducted among the key stakeholder groups of customers, Public, the media, industry peers and the local community.

These findings will reveal any gaps between perceptions of the government departments and service organizations and reality, which will in turn inform the PR Plan. They will also provide the basis for tracking the success of the PRD’s work, as annual surveys of such groups could help identify progress in managing perceptions of the organization.