3. The use of core competencies for strategic and effective communication in Lebanon

Communication is the practice and discipline of relaying information between stakeholders, and is based on conceiving how to package and deliver that information for the greatest impact. As such, it relies on continuously evolving practices that, thanks especially to technological innovation, are becoming ever more effective. These form key competency areas that public communication units and officers across the administration should attain and strengthen to ensure that their work generates a dialogue with citizens and a better-informed society.

In the first place, strategies are an essential element to communicate effectively. In this context, these represent a practical operating document, developed and implemented by the relevant team, which lays out how communication activities will be conducted to support an organisation’s overarching goals. It ties specific objectives to be achieved through communications to the objectives of the organisation, and defines an approach for attaining them over a defined period of time. It provides a single, coherent narrative that describes a solution to a problem, and is often supported by one or more plans, which translate the approach into structured lists of actions.

Strategies can be narrow and specific, for instance applying to one key sectoral objective in the short-term, or broad and comprehensive, for instance, developed annually across multiple areas or for the whole-of-government. For the case of public institutions, it is useful to develop such a document (either nation-wide or per ministry) setting the overall approach to communication and establishing the direction of all initiatives to be carried out, consistently with overarching short, medium and long-term policy goals and actions.

Another important element of communicating strategically is to identify the messages, and channels that can make complex policy questions accessible, relatable, and appealing to the widest range of stakeholders. Simply disclosing an official decision on a government portal or relaying the introduction of a new measure via a press release is usually insufficient to ensure the information is reaching the intended audiences and that it stimulates a desired reaction (be it an awareness, an engagement, or a change in behaviour or perception). For this to occur communication professionals resort to messaging, diverse channels and audience insights, as well as evaluation.

Developing and using key messages consistently across all channels is a key pillar of a strategic approach to communication. Messaging allows institutions to build a compelling narrative as a single thread that brings together different actions and events and serves the strategy’s objectives. Consistency of messaging, especially for public offices, is important to maintain trust and avoid that one day’s message conflicts with previous statements that can undermine the credibility of the institution. Good messaging also anticipates and rebuts arguments that can be raised against it, thus mitigating reputational risks. Most importantly, messaging as a competency relies on the ability to use language, imagery, or creative slogans that are compelling.

Audience insights allow public communicators to gain a better understanding of the profiles of people they seek to reach and how they consume information. This in turn helps them develop messaging that is likelier to resonate and identify the ideal communication channels to reach such target audiences. Especially in the case of governments, communication often needs to be addressed to a wide variety of stakeholder groups, which makes a one-size-fits-all approach less viable.

Audience insights can be more or less sophisticated, depending on whether they are based on segmentation by known demographic traits, on data analytics from online platforms, or on precise research through focus groups or behavioural insights (BI) gathered around the specific topics of interest. Nevertheless, this understanding forms the evidence upon which strategies, messages and communication tactics are formulated to be effective.

The baseline understanding from such an exercise can also serve as the benchmark for evaluating the impact of activities against the strategy’s objectives. Related tools vary in their level of sophistication, but it is important at least that a set of performance metrics are specified. Finally, monitoring public discourse across media and digital channels, alongside other insights and evaluation data, offers a highly valuable means of “listening” to stakeholders. This exercise turns communicators into primary interlocutors with citizens, a role that if adequately acknowledged and integrated within decision making can support better policy making.

Beyond the adoption of this strategic approach and of the practices that underpin it, communicators rely on a broad range of tactics to aid them in delivering their messages through engaging content tailored for different channels. Digital and online channels, media relations, events, and campaigns, when deployed strategically, serve to stimulate interaction and debate, expand the reach of key messages and achieve the desired change in perception or behaviour. Other specific competencies additionally apply to areas such as internal or crisis communication that are important components of this function.

Ultimately, applying these competencies requires teams of trained professionals that can perform these time-intensive tasks and make the most of the available tools. Human resources, however, is a recurring challenge for public communication units across OECD countries, as highlighted in the OECD’s 2020 survey Understanding Public Communication (and the upcoming OECD Report Public Communication: The Global Context and the Way Forward). As this chapter will discuss, investing in upskilling officials in charge of this key function (including both political appointees and public officials who are likely to maintain longer-term appointments) can improve the quality of their work, and help prioritise activities and optimise resources vis-à-vis objectives.

The governance structures for communication discussed in Chapter 2 have made the development and application of sophisticated competencies across Lebanese government ministries challenging. Nonetheless, examples of good practices in several areas are visible, especially among those institutions where clear structures and availability of resources. Notably, as discussed below, these examples are often correlated with donor support.

Respondents to the OECD survey remarked that the recent turbulent period, marked by demonstrations and crises, highlighted the importance of this function across all areas of policy. However, this recognition is not yet matched at the highest levels, nor with the necessary resources.

The prevalently tactical nature of public communication in Lebanon is evident in the relative lack of strategies and the sporadic use of data and evidence on audiences, channels and evaluation. As Figure 3.1 illustrates, only three ministries out of the eight participating in the OECD Survey reported developing such documents, and only two reported developing plans. These examples demonstrate however that despite limited resources or a high-level mandate, institutions can still establish a long-term vision of their activities and what they aim to achieve through it. However, from further discussions with respondents, it emerged that those who noted having strategies in place struggled to design and implement them properly. Overall, it appears that Lebanese ministries apply various competencies but do not do so in line with a particular strategy. Rather, they mainly conduct activities ad hoc with short-term horizons.

Although it did not report having a strategy, the PCM highlighted in its survey response a number of objectives that guide its communications, namely: to promote transparency; to better understand and analyse public opinion; to strengthen trust in government; to improve the implementation of reforms; to manage crisis or emergency situations. These objectives point to a welcome understanding of communication as a policy tool and a means to get closer to citizens. Formalising them in writing would be a desirable first step.

Similarly, other ministries noted a range of more traditional types of objectives for their activities, such as raising awareness of institution policies and services, as well as some more ambitious ones, such as building trust through transparency and influencing behaviour to align with policy goals. However, an overall analysis of their survey responses suggests that efforts to pursue them so far lack consistency and continuity and that the evidence to understand how to pursue such objectives and measure progress is gathered infrequently.

Although half of the surveyed ministries noted insights gathering as a responsibility handled internally (Figure 3.1), Figure 3.2 suggests that a couple of those who answered negatively still do employ audience insights on occasion. No respondent, however, claimed to do so frequently or very frequently. Two ministries noted drawing on audience insights to select which communication channels to use. Similarly, two ministries reported using insights to target specific groups, noting women, youth, and people with special needs or disabilities as targets. For instance, the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) has integrated sign language in video animations developed as part of campaigns and produced tailored content for female audiences around maternal health and breast cancer topics. Similarly, Box 3.1 illustrates in more detail a good use of insights for inclusive and effective campaigns by the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Moreover, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the MoPH used insights and analytics tools to keep track of audience interactions through different social media platforms, and to better direct the paid content provided by Google and Facebook, as revealed in responses to the OECD survey and validation discussions. Building on these existing fruitful practices, Lebanese institutions can look to systematise audience insights in the short term thanks to rapid and freely available analytics from web and social media platforms, which are the second most popular category of communication channels among respondents (Figure 3.4).

Online analytics can similarly provide solutions for simple evaluations of communication activities, especially those conducted through digital channels. Indeed, assessing impact and learning from past activities remains infrequent except for a few ministries (Figure 3.3). Conducting evaluations more rigorously and frequently can be a means for greater buy-in from the leadership levels of institutions. Demonstrating the impact of communication can support the argument for a greater focus on reforming this function and attributing it needed resources. Evaluations can likewise be a means of measuring the contribution of this important function to open government objectives for example. Introducing metrics and targets that align with indicators of transparency and participation, which could be as simple as measuring the reach of previously undisclosed information or tracking levels of two-way interactions with citizens, can shift communication closer to these overarching objectives.

Overall, Lebanese communicators appear to apply the full spectrum of competencies that can enrich their activities and make them more impactful. However, they tend to do so ad hoc and unevenly, with gaps across the administration.

Digital communication is a priority area of competency for Lebanese public communicators to master. Like many sectors, communication has been disrupted by rapid technological change of the last decade that has revolutionised how people consume and share information. Social media has become a primary source of information for a third of the Lebanese population, with 90% on WhatsApp and 81% on Facebook (Wee and Li, 2019[2]). Other networks are still wide-reaching, but more established among younger audiences: 40% of Lebanese actively use Instagram, followed by 35% for YouTube, and 24% for Twitter. (Wee and Li, 2019[2]).

More significantly, digital platforms offer unparalleled opportunities to have a direct channel of interaction with individual citizens, where up until recently public institutions had depended on media organisations to relay their messages to the general public. Social media in particular allows for direct two-way exchanges, as well as providing rapid and accessible data about what different people care and talk about. These features make it a crucial, yet challenging tool to optimise. For instance, the use of such platforms was particularly central for disseminating key health guidance for citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic, as showcased by examples of innovative and creative responses from multiple OECD countries in Box 3.2.

To this end, an analysis of the surveys and discussions with officials indicated that Lebanese institutions rely greatly on their websites to publish content and information. OMSAR, for instance, stands out for the modernisation of its website that serves as a hub for information on all of its work, its proactive disclosures under ATI Law, and manuals and guides for the public sector on a wide range of administrative processes. However, there is less indication of how they work to attract people to their pages. Websites, on their own, are not always effective vehicles to communicate because they rely passively on users visiting them. Prioritising the delivery of information where audiences are likely to check and engage with it is essential.

This type of communication can similarly be integrated with and support the shift towards digital services envisioned in the Government’s Digital Transformation Strategy, which also includes improvements to institutions’ web portals. Websites also provide a primary interface for citizens to interact with government information and especially for accessing digital services. As such, refining web portals would efficiently contribute to helping achieve broader digitalisation objectives under the OECD Digital Government Review of Lebanon (2020).

Social media channels are common across Lebanese ministries that took part in the OECD survey, all of whom noted having a Facebook and Twitter handle, with a minority (3) also having official YouTube and WhatsApp accounts and one more having an Instagram handle. The choice of these channels is consistent with the prevalence of Facebook as the country’s primary platform, with Twitter being prominent among a smaller but specialised group of stakeholders across the civil society, media, academia, business, and international development sectors. Indeed, all respondents noted overall channel reach as a main criteria for the adoption.

Despite their widespread presence, communicators lamented that social media are insufficiently utilised as channels. In particular, one respondent to the OECD survey noted that engagement on their official handles was low, and recognised digital skills as a barrier for a better application of this competency area. Indeed, low rates of public engagement with official digital channels are often the result of a traditional “one-way” dissemination approach in the use of these platforms rather than one focused on interaction and informed by evidence.

A few good practices exist including that of the Ministry of Public Health in particular which has been conducting sophisticated digital communication, including high volumes of information being provided to citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic via its social media channels and featuring visually engaging content. On this occasion, as mentioned in the OECD survey and by the network of public communicators, the Ministry has also employed paid advertising on digital platforms, thanks to in-kind gifts from the social media companies themselves. Building on this, they further launched the COVID-19 Symptom Checker Chatbot to encourage citizens to conduct self-assessments, and guide them on appropriate steps to take.

Overall, a majority of the eight responding ministries have noted lacking any guidelines for social media, whereas three of them have at least one type (for social media or sponsored content). Such documents can set a baseline for standards and for the ways that official handles can or cannot be used. They can also serve as guiding officials on how to manage content, respond and interact with users on these platforms, in conformity with official requisites (for instance on hate speech, counter-disinformation efforts, or in respect of privacy policies). Moreover, they can provide other criteria to separate political and public communication, enhance the strategic use of digital tools and orient it towards inclusiveness, participation, and policy support.1 In Italy, an interactive set of guidelines has been developed specifically to support communications around the uptake of digital government services (Box 3.3).

While communicating via digital channels can allow Lebanese institutions to have direct interaction with a vast range of audience groups who follow their accounts or access their websites, doing so via the media can help reach vast and different audiences. Indeed, the more diverse the media that public communicators engage with, the wider the reach of its communication in terms of demographic groups.

Media engagement is a more established and traditional competency, since prior to the rise of online channels it was the dominant means of reaching the public. In Lebanon, media relation is well established and the figure of the media advisor and press officer is a common one especially for the political domain of communication. However, responses to the OECD survey suggest a degree of irregularity with which this competency is applied. For instance, a majority of ministries reported preparing media handling plans only ad hoc when preparing to announce a new policy or initiative. Figure 3.5 illustrates the frequency with which responding institutions issue press releases and hold press conferences. While more than half of respondents disseminate press releases at least once a week, a majority conduct press conferences ad hoc or even more rarely.

In many OECD countries, press briefings with government officials open to all journalists (often with simple accreditation procedures) have become a common feature. In Slovenia, regular sessions are held to interact with the media and keep the public informed (Box 3.4). These events allow journalists the opportunity to ask direct questions to officials and get more in-depth substance about their work and policies. In Lebanon, only half of respondents to the survey noted that participation in press conference was open to all journalists. Moreover, insights from OECD interviews with government and external stakeholders suggest that certain media can enjoy privileged access to officials and information in line with the editorial line or political affinity of the publication. One respondent noted in particular that the institution can urge journalists to highlight desired topics and angles. While this is still a reality in much of the world, it can have detrimental effects on trust in media and government, and undermine the role of the media as agents of government accountability.

Lebanese institutions can take more creative and inclusive approaches to engage media in support of policy and open government objectives. This can for instance include working on features and special content for broadcast programmes and magazines that go beyond the traditional news cycle to make them accessible and relatable to particular audiences, as per the UK’s Department of Education Campaign on Gender Pay Gap (Box 3.5).

Campaigns are one of the most important tools that public institutions deploy to bring focused attention to a given issue. In OECD countries, campaigns are used in a range of ways, and are increasingly leveraged to support policy goals by growing awareness or nudging desired behaviours, based on insights from behavioural science. Effective campaigns can be resource-intensive and require substantial dedicated planning and execution, but even smaller-scale campaigns can give a useful boost to a policy goal.

In Lebanon, there are considerable disparities between ministries when it comes to communication campaigns. Half of the survey respondents, for instance, claimed that their institution does not conduct them. The other half includes one of the most active ministries across various dimensions of public communication – the Ministry of Public Health, which reported conducting over 50 campaigns in the three years preceding the survey. In 2019 for example, campaign topics included World Antibiotic Awareness Week, National Breast Cancer Day, and Mental Health Awareness.2 These campaigns aim to bring visibility and reduce stigma for specific health conditions, and to encourage screening and prevention among target groups. In a recent example of this approach, an anti-stigma campaign was conducted in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic (Box 3.6).

There are several additional examples of campaigns that indicate scope for rapid gains in this competency area. For instance, in 2019 then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri lent his voice to one of the priority policies of his cabinet to support local industry, launching a nation-wide campaign that put the spotlight on local businesses (Xinhua, 2019[5]). Similarly, with support from UNDP, the Ministry of Finance has been conducting campaigns to encourage citizens to fill out their tax forms and remind them of the deadlines. Likewise, the Institute of Finance runs annual campaigns to explain and simplify the Government’s fiscal budgets to the general public, as discussed as part of the OECD peer review mission.

Like other aspects of communication in Lebanon, donors have a considerable role in sponsoring or driving campaigns directly or through in-kind support for ministries. This is also the case for the Ministry of Public Health, particularly since its response highlighted, like other ministries, that no dedicated budget had been made available for this function. In practice, some ministries’ role in communications campaigns can be limited to approving activities designed and implemented primarily by third-party actors, according to stakeholder accounts during interviews.

In the near term, external support for these activities will remain necessary, but Lebanese institutions can develop a greater role in defining the communication strategy and scope of these efforts and assume greater responsibility in delivering campaigns through their own staff. This can especially be the case of low-cost, smaller-scale types of campaigns.

The competencies discussed in the above sections are applicable across a wide variety of contexts and scenarios. Two contexts in particular, however, present distinct features that have led them to evolve into distinct specialised disciplines of the communication function – internal and crisis communication. Both areas are grounded in the same structural and competency frameworks but present unique characteristics that require dedicated approaches.

Communicating with external stakeholders and citizens is an essential element of delivering policies, information, and listening to public opinions and perceptions. Often, however, a government’s own staff are key ambassadors to carry these messages and deliver them across the full reach of the public sector. This is a central objective of internal communication, which can make public institutions more cohesive and effective.

Internal communication can support dialogue, information sharing, and change management within and across institutions. It deploys standard communication competencies, but tailored to an internal audience whose identity and common features can be known with greater precision than citizens at large, and for whom channels of communication are more direct.

Open Government reforms are one particular area where it is important to foster a cultural shift towards openness and inclusion and promote the principles of transparency, integrity, accountability and participation at all levels – an objective that this communication competency area is well placed to support. First, internal communications can be used to facilitate change management to ensure that public officials are aware of the open government agenda and understand how it will affect their work. Second, internal communication can serve as a means to share knowledge and disseminate good practices across government. In turn, it would also allow officials to become effective spokespeople for the open government agenda within their departments and across government agencies. Finally, internal communications on open government reforms can serve strategic goals, including identifying synergies between public communication officers and access to information officers, co-ordinating communication activities horizontally and vertically across the government, and combating the challenges posed by disinformation (including “fake news”).

According to OECD surveys and interviews, internal communication is not a common practice across Lebanese government institutions. Rather, internal information is provided in seemingly traditional and primarily paper-based ways. The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest and unequivocal example of the need for internal communication: at a time when government work is shifting online, public sector staff needs to be equipped with the information to keep public offices and services running and manage organisational change. Beyond these urgent challenges, internal communication is also key to support cohesion and the ability of the government to speak with one voice.

Within the context of a shift towards remote and smart working solutions in the public sector, ministries could envision establishing basic channels, such as intranet and newsletters, to share key information and encourage desired actions from civil servants that support policy implementation and service delivery for a more effective public sector (Box 3.7).

Improving how core communication competencies are applied to bring about a more engaging dialogue with citizens rests in good part with building qualified and professional teams. As previously discussed, there is an overarching need to expand the often thinly-staffed communication function across government with additional, professionally-trained communicators. This requires first of all mitigating the volatile nature of the public or political communications positions and establishing mechanisms to preserve institutional memory, such as defining protocols and guidelines that facilitate continuity despite the high staff turnover. Secondly, especially in the context of the public sector hiring freeze, it requires an investment in capacity-building to developing essential skills.

There are considerable gaps in the training background of communication teams across Lebanese ministries. For instance, none of the five ministries who reported having a unit or dedicated staff claimed that they had communication training. Several respondents recognised the need for officers to be trained on working with data and digital tools specifically to be able to communicate effectively where public debates are taking place.

As noted previously in this study, donor organisations are providing important support to several of the communication initiatives being implemented with or by Lebanese government institutions. As an important asset in this space, the Government could consider taking a proactive approach to shaping the collaborations conducted with donors in the context of communication to align with objectives for the professionalisation of its teams. Going an extra step, the government could consider developing a set of professionalisation targets and criteria that donors could contribute towards, rather than pursuing initiatives in a disconnected and piecemeal way. The network of public communicators, or the inter-ministerial committee that has been proposed, could be an ideal forum for steering this process.

Another element that can contribute to this end goal is to conduct capacity-building on key competency areas and dedicated training on tools and platforms that can make the work of communicators more efficient and evidence-based. In order to preserve the institutional knowledge and harmonise the skills across institutions, the Government of Lebanon, in collaboration with international support and expertise, could envision introducing a combination of long-lasting digital training materials (increasingly common in the form of MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses) and more traditional in-person formative workshops. Canada’s School of Public Service showcases a good practice of these training materials (Box 3.8). While the latter type of capacity-building can be more effective in consolidating skills and practices, the former can help ensure a baseline of competencies over time and at a lower cost. This is an aspect that OMSAR could assist in addressing, having developed an e-learning portal for government employees and that covers a vast range of training courses, including recent modules related to COVID-19.


[4] Comunica Italia (2020), “Linee Guida”, https://comunica.italia.it/linee-guida#block-six8theme-page-title.

[6] Mickoleit, A. (2014), “Social Media Use by Governments: A Policy Primer to Discuss Trends, Identify Policy Opportunities and Guide Decision Makers”, OECD Working Papers on Public Governance, No. 26, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5jxrcmghmk0s-en.

[3] OECD et al. (2020), Embracing Innovation in Government: Global trends 2020, Innovative Responses to the COVID-19 Crisis, OECD/OPSI/Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation/World Government Summit, https://trends.oecd-opsi.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/OECD-Innovative-Responses-to-Covid-19.pdf.

[1] UK Government Communication Service (2020), Modern Media Operation: A Guide, https://3x7ip91ron4ju9ehf2unqrm1-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Modern-Media-Operation-guide.pdf.

[2] Wee, J. and S. Li (2019), Politics and Social Media in the Middle East and North Africa: Trends and Trust in Online Information, Arab Barometer, https://www.arabbarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/AB_Media_Report_Final_Public-Opinion-2019-5.pdf.

[5] Xinhua (2019), Lebanon’s PM launches national campaign to support industry, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-07/31/c_138273001.htm (accessed on 3 November 2020).


← 1. Additional guidance on institutional use of social media can be found in Mickoleit, A. (2014[6]), "Social Media Use by Governments: A Policy Primer to Discuss Trends, Identify Policy Opportunities and Guide Decision Makers", OECD Working Papers on Public Governance, No. 26, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/5jxrcmghmk0s-en.

← 2. These and other campaigns are featured on the website of the Ministry of Public Health: https://www.moph.gov.lb/en/Pages/11/1393/awareness-campaigns.

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