Absence of crisis management to save the child rights bill

Child rights bill
(Photo: Envato Elements)
Child rights bill

Ruba Saqr

The writer has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.

The Jordanian government has been sitting idly by while misleading information continues to circulate about the child rights bill, including the false assumption that the proposed legislation gives children the right to change their religion.اضافة اعلان

Seeing how no such article exists in the draft law in the first place, a simple clarification by government should be enough to end the controversy, thus paving the way for the Jordanian public to form opinions based on facts rather than falsehoods.

Two weeks ago, Minister of State for Legal Affairs Wafa Bani Mustafa, who is also head of the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Women Empowerment, made remarks that seem to have been taken out of context on social media and elsewhere.

Herself a former elected member of the House of Representatives, she told MPs attending the first sitting of Parliament’s extraordinary session that Jordan had reservations regarding articles 14, 20, and 21 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, specifically on matters relating to adoption as well as converting to another religion.

Jordan’s first-ever child rights law is based “in spirit” on the UN agreement, which came into existence in 1989 to combat child abuse. While some observers and opinion writers have interpreted her argument as an attempt to defend the law’s relevance to the Jordanian context, controversy could have been avoided by keeping the MPs’ focus on the draft law at hand, instead of inviting criticism of the international law. Many people have also ended up confusing the two, thinking they were one and the same, prompting them to oppose the proposed draft law.

In PR terms, this is a classic case of public backlash that could have been remedied by applying the principles of crisis management and damage control.

There is no excuse for the government to stand by as the child rights bill faces an onslaught of accusations, many of which are completely untrue. Following a blitz of opinion pieces criticizing its lack of communication skills, the government went ahead earlier this year with a “pilot” training program for public sector media spokespersons, saying it would take government communication to a “new level”.

According to statements made in January by Minister of State for Media Affairs and government spokesperson Faisal Shboul, the program aimed to provide a “rapid and direct response” to all kinds of events “round the clock”. He also told Jordan News that the training program would help government institutions tackle fake news and harmful rumors by preparing its team of spokespeople to “respond swiftly to nip them in the bud”.

Incidentally, crisis management was an integral part of the training course, which also included special coaching on media strategy preparation, press-conference management and interviews with broadcast outlets.

Launched by the Jordan Media Institute in partnership with the UNDP, the participants also had the chance to interact virtually with then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who imparted in-depth tips on effective communication with the public, including responding to tricky media inquiries and the smart handling of combative and controversial scenarios.

Ironically, the government has done nothing so far to curb the massive misinformation (and possibly disinformation) campaign targeting the child rights bill. Misinformation is the spread of false news regardless of intent, while disinformation is the deliberate fabrication and distortion of facts to sway public opinion.

This is yet another clear example that government is very good at self-promotion, but when it comes to tangible results, it often fails to rise to the occasion.

This sluggish performance is hardly new to the Jordanian scene; it reaffirms the Jordanian people’s poor perception of the public sector, making it even harder to bridge the gap of trust between government and citizen.
... if the government is serious about fixing its communication problems, it should start thinking seriously about hiring PR professionals with a private sector background ...
If a professional training course by high-level communications specialists is not enough to shake things up, it probably is time for the public sector to think outside the box and search for the root causes of this failure.

To state the obvious, the government is still in dire need of a robust communication and crisis management team that can rise up to the challenge and do the kind of job that any respectable public relations agency can achieve within a mere few days, if not a few hours.

This week, the Committee to Modernize the Public Sector revealed its roadmap for the years 2022–2025, which included the creation of a new “government communications” ministry tasked with streamlining all types of public messaging within a “one government, one voice” approach.

Once established, the envisioned ministry might need to form a special unit to combat online and offline propaganda that target new pieces of legislation, especially draft laws that challenge the status quo, thus have the potential of spurring weaponized disinformation campaigns.

Most importantly, the ministry as a whole will need to “think” and “act” like a private sector communications agency — with the speed, insight, and discipline needed to put a successful damage-control plan in motion.

Frankly speaking, it really is high time for the public sector to move from theory to action, especially that outside a government setting, Jordanian professionals in the PR and communications sector are more than qualified to handle the stresses and challenges of PR.

With many Jordanians working in mid-to-senior positions at reputable global PR consulting agencies in Dubai, like Hill+Knowlton Strategies and Burson-Marsteller, it is quite surprising that the public sector is still grappling with basic communication and public relations concepts, such as coming up with a clear set of controversy-free key messages. Jordanian PR professionals can also be found in multi-national companies here and abroad, yet the government continues to ignore them in its recruitment plans.

One reason could be the higher salary range offered to private-sector employees. But if the government is serious about fixing its communication problems, it should start thinking seriously about hiring PR professionals with a private sector background; it also needs to accept the fact that offering them decent salaries that match their skill level is unavoidable. The government has done this before, several years ago, when the Ministry of Planning ended up recruiting skilled professionals under “special contracts” to jumpstart departments and projects that needed a higher level of skill and experience.

The government needs to try out a new approach so as to get out of its state of stagnation. Hiring PR professionals who can think on their feet when faced with misleading propaganda and disinformation is one way to do just that.

Without a proactive attitude and the experience to handle stressful and tricky PR situations, the government will keep on going round and round in endless circles.

Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.

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