Lebanese democracy, which the international media had long lauded as a rarity in the Middle East, is now being mourned in the aftermath of the decision to extend the Parliament’s mandate last month.

With an already five point decline in our ranking on the Democracy Index and a regression in our score on freedom in the Freedom in the World index over the past year, this comes as yet another blow that foretells more backsliding in international indices, and this will carry ramifications for economic growth.

This article does not aim to dwell on any of the political calculations that led to this decision. However, what should make us stop and think is whether the implications of such a decision for our country’s already poor image and reputation could have been better mitigated had political leaders invested more effort into proper communication. Although this may remain debatable, it is certain that better communication could have at least ensured a more favorable public opinion at home with the Lebanese.

When it comes to government or political communication in our part of the world, there is nothing new under the sun. Regardless of the weight increasingly given to this discipline and the proliferation of studies and conferences addressing its acute importance for sound governance and healthy democracy, it has yet to figure on politicians’ radar screens.

If the region’s historically autocratic landscape had been notorious for its ill-managed and one-sided communication with constituencies, recent events have offered several examples of further breakdowns in political communication. We can use them to draw some lessons about effective strategic communication.

Honesty is best policy

Communicating transparently and honestly is crucial in helping achieve the desired impact. No matter how compelling the message is, it will fall flat when the audience questions the integrity of the persons delivering it.

In the United Kingdom, a recent survey revealed that four in five voters believe politicians place their own interest before others. In Lebanon, levels of cynicism toward politicians are even more pronounced.

In our example, it seemed that after months upon months of political disagreements, 97 out of 128 legislators agreed on extending their term in Parliament. This only succeeded in fueling perceptions of back room dealing.

Being open, honest and transparent about the process that led up to the decision would have gone a long way in allaying these suspicions.

Deliver it with a punch

No matter how carefully crafted a message may be, the “how, who and when” of its delivery can play a critical role. Choosing the right format, channel and spokesperson can either engage the audience or undermine the message’s impact.

If the intended message was that constantly bickering political parties came together on this decision to ensure national interest superseded all other considerations or disagreements, its delivery only served to undercut it.

A message of such national resonance requiring a unified decision should have at least warranted a delivery platform that reflects the gravity of the situation. A joint press conference bringing together spokespeople across political lines to discuss the decision would have served to reinforce the message of national interest and would have certainly rendered it more credible.

Rally support around it

In reaction to the extension of the Parliament’s term, the United States’ State Department said the US “strongly rejects” the decision, and the United Nations said the decision was regrettable. Lobbying the international community for their support could have improved the situation on two levels. Internally, a message has far greater impact if it is endorsed by parties other than those who stand to benefit the most from it. On the external front, garnering the support of the international community would have helped in mitigating the decision’s eventual negative impact on image and economic outlook.

Some would disagree that the Lebanese political class do not give any importance to communication. After all, the last election season saw many politicians employing the latest techniques in communication skills and body language. Sadly, very little thought or effort is being put into actually reaching the Lebanese people, to address their concerns and relieve their fears, and maybe, just maybe, shine some light on the ever darkening image we have abroad.

Zeina Loutfi and Ramsay G. Najjar