Over the past few weeks the world watched as people movements toppled regimes across the Arab world. I have been intrigued by the way leaderless bands of people joined hands to form a cohesive force that overthrew a dictator in Tunisia and freed Egypt from a ruler who stayed in the saddle for 30 long years.
As the events unfolded I asked myself this question – how were these youngsters able to communicate effectively within their loosely structured units, overcome numerous obstacles and still remain a strong opposition? Also what did it mean for employee engagement in organizations?
To me, the movements were remarkable from an internal communication perspective – thousands of youth assembling, collaborating and making demands for change without a clear hierarchy and communication framework. There are a few lessons which surface from these world changing events and I wanted to share it here.
In Tunisia, the Jasmine revolution (named after their national flower) began with an immolation attempt and snow balled into a full-fledged revolt against an iron fisted ruler. Using Twitter hashtags that resonated with the protest genesis “#sidibouzid,” (a reference to the town where the self-immolation took place in Tunisia) helped demonstrators leverage the forum for their anger and their plans. Likewsie #jan25 (the day when protests began in Egypt) kept people steadfast on their goals – freedom and change and even minor concessions didn’t unsettle the revolution.
Engage your audience with a common thread
We heard how social media galvanize peopled for a common cause with blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube among the channels used extensively. When internet and phones were cut ham radio amateurs passed messages in Morse code. I am told protestors organized themselves by using Lan lines and coalescing smaller units in neighborhoods. Vigilante groups guarded the neighborhoods from looters and people kept watch on each other. Residents wore arm bands to identify each other and prevent infiltrators from coming into their midst. Handwritten announcements hanging on street windows asked people to register their names for neighborhood defense committees. Young men organized themselves into shifts, and locals brought tea and other snacks. Residents had a reason to feel proud when for once they had their self-worth to celebrate. While countries like Algeria has moved to restrict access to Facebook and Twitter in order to stop protests it never worked in Egypt and Tunisia since people always can find a work around to get information flowing – be it a message to voice translation from Twitter or the Google Groups for mass mailing. Information can’t be controlled.
Respect your audiences’ point of view and encourage free flow of information for better results
The focus of the protests were kept alive with positively directed themes – March of Millions (show of strength), Day of Anger (focus on poverty or lack of economic opportunity), Day of Departure (indicating when they wanted Mubarak out), Day of Martyrs (mourning those who laid down their lives) and Farewell Day (seeing the back of their unpopular leader). What caught my attention were also the symbols of protests – the choice of a central place like Tahirir Square for amplifying their voice, the patriotic fervor and their allegiance to the national flag (the image that struck me most is of jubilant crowds carrying flag waving soldiers on this shoulders after Mubarak’s ouster) and the ability to take time off to pray even amidst so much uncertainty.
Build line of sight with milestones along your communication journey
It is tough to put a finger on who led the revolution. There are many however who can stake a claim. Wael Ghonim, an internet activist who left his family and a well paying job to make a difference, Khaled Said, who was tortured and killed for exposing police corruption and whose Facebook page which gave the Egypt crisis a whole new dimension and Asmaa Mahfouz, the woman who posted a video on Facebook about her taking the decisive step to go to Tahirir Square. All this despite the fear of retribution from the police who were trawling the net for protestors. These protestors took decisions through dialogue at the Square, leveraged the power of the web and focused energies by picking themes that touched peoples’ hearts. Most of the protesters were in their 20s – fearless, committed, determined and selfless. Word of mouth and the power of one vision transformed their charter. Not just that – according to reports, workers in factories (industries such as steel, textile, fertilizers, garments etc) went on strike, sacked their CEOs and self-managed work. Does it have an implication for corporations engaging with employees? Was it an indication of the changes we will witness within firms seeking a change in the old order? Closer home, aren’t we already seeing some organizations infusing fresh blood, reinventing their structures and streamlining business units to be more transparency and accountable? Incidentally, Revolution 2.0 is what Wael plans to call his forthcoming book.
To be relevant and agile there is a need to revisit how current communication frameworks map with organizational goals.
Those who watched the protests over the weeks may have noticed how the demonstrators respected media coverage as well as ensured their communication reflected both in English and Arabic, cognizant of how reach and responsibility could add credibility for their cause. It resulted in protests by expatriate Egyptians and people in other neighboring countries who understood the power of the collective might of society. A state TV news presenter even resigned over the coverage. The images of people cleaning the streets of rubble and rubbish, taking turns to stay on guard against the opposition despite several hundreds of their friends and families who were behind bars made me realize that this campaign had the potential to transform a nation.
Respect your audience and speak in their language
When we look back the leaders in both Tunisia and Egypt were aloof, rarely met with people and made fewer public appearances. Their inability to listen to their people, usage of force instead of dialogue only strengthened the resolve of the protesters.
It isn’t everyday you will see a revolution at work but you know when you got a great internal communication campaign when your people feel inspired and engaged.