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IoIC Live '16: Comms during the Arab Spring

Tales of grenade attacks, hostage rescues and revolution made for a dramatic start to IoIC Live 2016.

The first keynote speaker at the Institute’s annual event was Tony Kay from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who quite possibly has the toughest job in comms.

Fresh from a stint in Canada, he was at the event to talk about his time as the UK’s Consular Regional Director for the Middle East from 2009 until 2012.

It was his job to introduce new flexible working arrangements to staff across 21 countries in the Middle East and North Africa while under pressure of Government cuts. And then the Arab Spring happened right across his region…

Democratic uprisings spread across the region, originating in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly taking hold in Egypt (twice!), Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain.

“It seemed like, as soon as I took on a new country, it dissolved into civil war,” recalls Tony, who was based in Muscat in Oman. His ‘patch’ was the whole of the Gulf, the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran and Syria, plus North Africa, including Egypt, through Algeria and Tunisia to Libya.

“A major task was to introduce a new concept - a cohesive network that was able to flex and surge and adapt to whatever was happening,” he explains.

“One of the main challenges was that I had a cadre of 100-odd staff who were very used to doing stuff their way, although maybe not as effectively or efficiently and they could have been. Working in silos was a particular problem.

“I had to explain a different way of working to a very disparate number of people, including UK diplomats, junior and local staff. How I communicated with local staff in Tehran was very different to how I communicated with ex-pat local staff in Dubai, for example.”

His top tips for coping with comms in such a challenging environment were:

  • Be bold and ambitious in your plan
  • You have to understand the business
  • You have to have staff involved in the process as much as possible
  • Be involved in the process from the start ("If you were asked to sell a chocolate bar, you’d want to be in there tasting the chocolate before the bar was made.")
  • Do stuff with your teams rather than to them
  • Be as honest and transparent as you can.

Tony told how he flew to meet every member of staff in every country face to face.

“I was honest with them,” he recalled. “I told them ‘Over the next three years we’re going to do less stuff better’. I looked them in the eye and told them some people would be out of a job and most people would be doing a different job.”

He also spoke of the empathy needed in such turbulent times, saying: “It’s not enough to care for your staff and teams, we had to give them space to deal with their families as well, it was a broader problem.”

Hardly put off by his experiences in the Middle East, Tony is now heading for Israel to be the FCO’s man in Tel Aviv.
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