Arab opinion leaders believe official spokespeople from foreign governments to be just as credible as Arab media outlets, according to the Arab Media Outlook Report 2012-2015 from APCO Insight and the Dubai Press Club.

The survey polled opinion leaders throughout the Middle East to measure the performance of official spokespeople and the extent to which the public accepts their statements as credible or reliable.

As individuals who speak about their country’s position and that of their foreign ministers and heads of state, official spokespersons from foreign governments possess high penetration in Arab media outlets: 80 percent of Arab opinion leaders have noticed government spokespersons throughout the past year’s coverage of events in the region. Penetration is even higher in Saudi Arabia, where 91 percent are aware of foreign government spokespersons making statements on Arab media outlets.

“Studies and statistics have shown that Arabic versions of foreign satellite channels do not claim large audiences, which prompted us to look at how spokespersons from foreign governments might be contributing to this trend,” says Mamoon Sbeih, managing director of APCO Worldwide in the Arab region.

“But there is no clear evidence that connects spokespersons from foreign governments to the declining viewership of foreign channels. Our research shows that official spokespeople from foreign governments are clearly part of the Arab media dialogue. They frequently appear in all Arab media outlets and on talk shows and news channels.”

Delivery preferences for non-Arab spokespersons are divided among Arab opinion leaders, where 47 percent prefer that foreign spokespersons are Arabic language speakers, and 44 percent prefer that spokespersons use their native language with Arabic translations. Only 9 percent say they have no preference.

“This suggests that spokespersons should be able to present information in both formats,” says Sbeih. “While we are interested in knowing language preferences for information delivery, it is more important to understand how Arab opinion leaders assess the credibility of the information that is presented.”

Al-Arabiya tops the list of media outlets releasing statements and reports made by foreign government spokespersons in Arabic. Sixty-six percent of opinion leaders indicate that they have either seen, read or heard something issued in Al-Arabiya by an official spokesperson of a foreign government. In addition to Al-Arabiya, opinion leaders were asked awareness of foreign spokespersons in five other media outlets, including Al Jazeera Arabic, BBC Arabic, MBC, and a country’s national news channel.

Media coverage varies by country, where foreign spokespersons on Al Jazeera Arabic are more prevalent in Tunisia (80 percent recall), BBC Arabic in Egypt (87 percent recall), and MBC in Saudi Arabia (81 percent recall).

When asked about the reliability of the statements made by foreign spokespersons, Arab opinion leaders put the most trust in BBC Arabic (75 percent say statements are reliable) and their national news channel (75 percent say statements are reliable). Conversely, only 33 percent of Arab opinion leaders recall foreign spokespersons on their national network.

Although fewer people report awareness of statements in Arabic by foreign government spokespersons on these networks, reliability is extremely high in these situations. Foreign spokespersons able to enter the national news market and appear in Arabic on state channels are viewed as the most reliable information sources.

When seeking and receiving information on current events, opinion leaders find roundtable discussions that include both non-Arab and Arab media (mean score of 6.4) and findings from public opinion surveys (mean score of 6.3) are most valuable when discussing events in the region. Reports or statements issued by foreign government spokesperson in Arabic (mean score of 6.2), and newspaper articles from a non-Arab newspaper (mean score of 6.2) comprised the other top two mentions.

Arab opinion leaders are also seeking information from a variety of sources. More than half mention co-workers (53 percent) and friends and family (51 percent) as information sources on political social events in the Arab region.

The survey also examined the credibility of both the media and non-Arab spokespersons and revealed that there is very little difference in perceptions of the reliability of information.

Opinion leaders were asked to rate the credibility of the media on a zero-to-ten scale, where the average score was 5.9, slightly above the average and also showing that there is room to improve. At the country-level basis, scores are significantly higher in Egypt (mean score of 7.2) and Saudi Arabia (mean score of 6.6). Importantly, the credibility score of non-Arab spokespersons (mean score of 5.5) is not significantly different from media in general.