Public relations in Libya is extremely hard, even for a firm like ours with emerging markets experience. One of our principles is to help educate local media and other influencers to understand the value of what we are doing, which in turn has assisted our expansion into countries and places where others fear to tread.
Like many emerging markets one of the main forms of communication in Libya is the use of big pictures or words displayed on a multitude of roadside billboards. This was a very common practice in the Middle East and continues even now in countries like Iraq. This is just one reason why public relations is tough in Libya, since a press release is often perceived as an advertisement and payment is expected. Needless to say, our firm has never paid for the publication of its press releases and we encourage journalists to appreciate the intrinsic news value of the information provided.
During the Gadhafi regime there was no significant on-the-ground PR agency resource or activity in Libya. Since the regime controlled the media (and content was primarily political) there was little point and certainly none of the major networks made any effort to establish themselves in the country.
Any PR activity was usually ‘projected ‘into Libya, primarily by advertising agencies from either Malta or neighboring Arab countries. This was certainly the case when the Gadhafi regime celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2009 using the advertising agency Grey, based in Beirut, to manage a global press office and media attendance.
So, currently, PR activity in Libya is relatively low-key and primarily focused on press releases, events, and networking. However as Western businesses enter the market, there will be a need for more sophisticated and professional PR expertise, including crisis management. One of the main issues for any agency establishing itself in Libya will be finding the right staff. The solution will either be training Libyans with the ability to quickly learn what is required, or finding Arabic-speaking PR professionals prepared to relocate.
The great opportunity for any PR professional is that, since the end of the revolution against the Gadhafi regime, there has been a steady liberalisation of the media scene in Libya. There has been a proliferation of media across the board with a host of privately-owned outlets being launched; while the state has relaxed its grip on the media that it still owns.
There are currently over 150 newspapers, five magazines, eight national radio stations, 10 regional radio stations and 12 TV channels in Libya. The penetration of international media in the country is very low, with no distribution of international publications at all. However the Arabic BBC World Service is well respected as is Al Jazeera TV. There is only one ISP in the country but despite this the use of social media is very high, at around 79 percent of the population under the age of 35.
When it comes to a challenge like doing PR in Libya, I like to remember the words of the American Civil War general, Nathan Forrest. He said quite simply that the secret to winning was to “Get there first with the most men”. Certainly having first mover advantage creates a real opportunity and getting the right team in place from the start makes a real difference. And I am pleased to say it seems to be paying off.
Nick Chaloner is group general manager at Action Global Communications, the first international PR firm to enter Libya.