The challenge of control in the age of social media – Garnier, the Israel-Gaza conflict and the threat of boycott

How much damage has Garnier Israel done to the Garnier global brand through its local actions? (image source: http://www.deliberation.info)

Listen long enough to any communicator working for a multinational in an emerging market and they’ll touch on the issue of what is called ‘corporate’. The concept of centralized communications, of control being exerted from head office over global communications is understandable – corporations want to ensure that the message being disseminated is consistent with the aims of the company as a whole. Rather this than each country office doing as they wish, which may result in local messages which are not in alignment with the global communications.

Combine this with the reach and immediacy of social media, and the implications for going off-message can be explosive. Many brands have been implicated in the recent Israel-Gaza conflict, and issues such as this have the ability to polarize opinion, particularly online where millions have been expressing their support for and anger with one side or the other.

While many of the brands who have been targeted by Pro-Palestinian groups advocating for boycotts have in effect kept their own counsel and said nothing (with the exception of Starbucks which took the step of reiterating that it neither operates in Israel nor supports the Israeli army), Garnier was caught out by its local operations.

Halfway through the conflict Garnier Israel had donated 500 gift packs to StandWithUs, an Israeli advocacy group which promotes the country to the world through social media. During July and August StandWithUs also undertook a number of domestic initiatives such as providing gift packs to soldiers on the front line and in support functions.

First, StandWithUS donated the 500 gift packs from Garnier to a group of female Israeli soldiers. The organization then promoted the handout on its social media channels (most prominently on Facebook), with the following comments:

“We are honoured [sic] to be delivering these “girly” care packages for our lovely female IDF fighters!

Today’s delivery of care packages was stocked with thousands of products for our girls protecting Israel. They even received facial soaps and minerals, so they can still take care of themselves, eve while defending the country.

Shout out to the Garnier Israel|גרנייה for the amazing donation of facial soaps, minerals and deodorants!”

Unfortunately for Garnier, the post was quickly picked up by Pro-Palestinian social media goers. As the UK’s Independent newspaper noted on Saturday the 9th of August, the Facebook post alone had been shared over 22,000 times and had garnered 3,000 comments, most of which were calling for a boycott of Garnier products. The post has also inspired a hashtag, #BoycottGarnier, calling for consumers to shop buying the brand. Even Garnier’s own brand ambassador to the Arab World, Hind Sabry, took to the media to voice her displeasure at what had happened. The Independent curated some of the reactions to the post which I’m including below.

A week after the now-infamous post Garnier USA released a comment distancing itself from the donations by Garnier Israel (have a look below). But, is this too little, too late? In a globalized world of brands which are commonplace in every country on the planet and which need to appeal to as many consumers as possible, what can companies do to ensure that the action of local entities doesn’t harm their global image when it seems that nothing can be communicated to an external audience in private?

“Garnier values peace and harmony and has a strict policy of not getting involved in any conflict or political matter. The hand-out of about 500 products was part of a local retailer initiative. This was managed strictly at local market level and we are very sorry if anyone was offended,” Garnier’s Corporate Communications Director Ms Kerr said.

In the age of social media, the assumption has to be that if the message is going to alienate a specific stakeholder group, then just don’t put it out there, period. For corporations the size of Garnier, that’s easier said than done.

PS To make matters even worse, Garnier’s apology has reportedly upset Israelis who have now vowed to stop buying the company’s products according to the Times of Israel.

This Eid, are our words enough or should we do more?

I love Eid, the name given to the two major Muslim festivals. Eid one of those times that reminds me of Christmas or Easter. It’s a time for family, for giving and for being with those that you love. But this year, I’ve not been feeling the same festive spirit. Maybe it’s due to the three-year-long conflict in Syria, which has claimed over 170,000 lives? Maybe it’s the news coming out of Iraq, where one of the world’s oldest civilizations, is on the bring of being torn apart by religious fanatics and sectarianism. Then there’s Libya, where the population has found itself at the mercy of the numerous militias who remained armed and in control after the fall of Gaddafi. And finally, there’s Gaza.

During Eid, it’s customary to wish others a wonderful year ahead; we say to one another, “may every year find you in good health.” This year, I feel the need to do more. In this region, we often feel the need to blame others for our troubles. However, we have to start rolling our sleeves up ourselves, and doing what we need to do to make our region better, for everyone in it.

We have to work towards opening ourselves up and not just tolerating but accepting and embracing those who are different. We should help to educate others, to pass on to them the skills that they will need to find a job and build a career. We need to raise our voices, and tell our governments to work together for the interests of the entire region rather than a select few.

There’s many things that need to be done, and the best people to act are us. For too long we’ve relied on others to help, be it governments at home or abroad. This Eid, I am going to act and volunteer more for the causes that I believe in. I will raise my voice as often and as loud as I can do for those that have been silenced. And, I will donate to charities and organizations that are on the ground and that I know are making a difference.

I hope that these actions, though not much, will make some difference to others. This Eid, what are you doing? Do you feel the same, and, if so, will you join me and turn your words into actions? Let me know.

Coca Cola’s #OpenUp campaign to promote sharing and caring in the Middle East

Coca Cola has hit upon an interesting initiative for its latest digital campaign, with the aim of promoting openness between families. Released with the hashtag #OpenUp on YouTube, Coca Cola has developed two videos over the past eight days. The first, and for me the most moving, is that of Saudi chef Badr. Badr left behind the family tradition of architecture to study and become a cook, which is a rarity in Saudi society. The video and story are both well conceived and directed.

The second video features a social media star from Kuwait, named Ascia. Ascia recounts the challenges she has had to overcome in society as she has pioneered her ideas through Instagram. She thanks her husband Ahmed for the support he has shown her.

What do you think? Are the concepts powerful enough for you to share your #OpenUp story? Do you find them sincere or too scripted? Let me know your thoughts on the content and on Coca Cola’s work here. I’ll keep you posted on any additional videos that Coca Cola posts for this campaign.

Changes in the Region’s Media Scene – BuzzFeed in, Dubai One is out, and we say goodbye to Iain Akerman

In the spirit of Ramadan, here’s a BuzzFeed cat meme to get us all excited! (image source: BuzzFeed)

The summer is traditionally a quiet period for the region; the same goes for Ramadan. This year seems to have been the exception to the rule. First, we had Gulf News reporting that BuzzFeed is considering opening an office in the Middle East. The website publisher, famous for its kitten memes and political coverage, apparently sees an opportunity in Arabic with a local audience, according to the piece written by Gulf News’ Alexander Cornwell.

BuzzFeed, the news and entertainment website best known for its pictures of cats, wants to expand into the Middle East with the launch of an Arabic website.

Launched in 2006, the United States website, which is steadily increasing its hard news content, has already launched UK, Australia, France, Brazil and Español (Spanish) editions. Since November 2013, the website has seen more than 130 million unique monthly visitors, of whom 30 per cent are from outside the United States.

Scott Lamb, Vice-President of International, BuzzFeed, told Gulf News in a phone interview that the Middle East is one of two regions where BuzzFeed is most interested in expanding to.

“There is nothing like BuzzFeed in the Arabic-speaking content,” he said…

Lamb said that there is no set date for the launch of the Arabic language website and that it would have to wait until next year after Germany and India, indicating that the finer details are yet to be worked out.

Asked where BuzzFeed would base its regional operations given that many major international media outlets have set up bureaus in Dubai in recent years while Beirut and Cairo are seen as more traditional regional hubs for news bureaus, Lamb said that it had not been decided.

“We’re not that far down the road,” he said, “We have a fairly big office in London. One possibility would be doing a lot of the coverage from there. But if we were to set up in the region, we would want a physical presence.”

BuzzFeed New York office produces much of its Spanish content.

BuzzFeed started producing hard news content in 2012 with coverage of the US presidential election. Since then it has hired Miram Elder, recruited from The Guardian, as its Foreign Editor.

Internationally, BuzzFeed has had reporters on the ground covering Syria, Iraq and Ukraine. Elder has also led coverage of two topics that are heavily discussed on social media, women’s rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues.

“We saw this very vibrant conversation around the news in those two spheres [and so] we wanted a team to create original content,” Lamb said.

BuzzFeed plans to continue to increase the amount of hard news content, but Lamb said it would not be stepping away from the traditional social media friendly content of cute cats and quizzes that it is still best known for.

“Ideally, we are looking for a 50/50 mix … we try and keep it very balanced,” he said.

As if the thought of cat memes alongside Arabic-language LGBT news wasn’t enough, the second piece of news was the closure of Dubai One, the English-language television station run by Dubai Media Incorporated (DMI). The channel, best known for programmes like HerSay and Out and About, will lay off 80 percent of its staff as reported by Arabian Business.

Dubai One was created to cater to expatriates in Dubai and the wider region. The channel has fallen behind the likes of satellite provider OSN and the Saudi-owned giant MBC.

Sarah Ahmed Al Jarman, the general manager for Dubai One, told Arabian Business via email that “we have stopped our 4 locally produced shows”, without elaborating. Al Jarwan also referred any further questions to the DMI inhouse public relations team.

And last but not least, we have to say a sad farewell to the Editor of Campaign Middle East, Iain Akerman. Iain was spoken of by those in the creative and media sectors as a journalist to be both feared and respected – he’d chase his sources for breaking news and he’d often champion investigative journalism. I once remember talking to one agency head who referred to Iain with a pained expression. Iain, I wish there were more like you here. You will be truly missed.

#GazaUnderAttack – using Whatsapp to begin a social media campaign

As you’re on the internet reading this, I’m assuming that you’re aware of the events unfolding in Gaza and Israel. Social media has become part of the campaign on both sides to raise awareness for what is happening.

As of 11pm Gaza time, a campaign has begun on Twitter to talk about what is happening in Gaza and spread the word, using the hashtags #GazaUnderAttack and #PrayForGaza. What’s fascinating is that those behind the campaign have used Whatsapp to spread graphics on the campaign a couple of hours before it began. The tactic should have allowed the organizers to spread the awareness as quickly and as quietly as possible, to group their supporters and get them active on Twitter all at the same time. In essence, you’re creating a wave of support online, without anyone on the other side being forewarned.

I’ll be watching this intently, in the hope that that the two sides call a ceasefire as soon as possible. I for one hope that #GazaUnderAttack can be a force for good, to stop the suffering.

The #GazaUnderAttack image was spread via Whatsapp before the campaign was launched on Twitter

The #GazaUnderAttack image was spread via Whatsapp before the campaign was launched on Twitter

How Twitter is helping to foster debate in the Middle East – #WhatisTheSolutionForLebanon & #ImHalfQatari

Despite social media’s reputation for negativity (and getting people jailed in our region), Twitter and other platforms are ideal for beginning and engaging in debate on social issues (image source: lawrencewray.files.wordpress.com)

What’s exciting about social media in today’s Middle East is how the medium is being used to promote conversations organically, and without prompting from any organization. Two examples of hashtag conversations about issues of national interest are #WhatisTheSolutionForLebanon and #ImHalfQatari.

According to the Beirut-based English-language newspaper the Daily Star, the Twitter-based conversation about Lebanon’s political issues began after a crackdown on terrorist cells across the country, which itself was spurred by three suicide bombings within the country. To quote the article:

“Don’t give visas upon airport arrival” was a very common response on the platform, alongside requests to “elect a president now” and “close off Lebanon’s borders.”

When it came to tweeting solutions to Lebanon’s pitfalls, Twitter users split between pessimists who believed that “there is no solution, Lebanon will never be a country,” and others who felt that certain recommendations would improve the situation.

LBCI reporter Yazbek Wehbe’s tweet expressed the view that “ Lebanon should remain neutral [with respect to] regional problems.”

One user suggested a fresh take on security raids by tweeting “[the ISF] should form a special raid unit comprised of Haifa Wehbe, Maya Diab, and Ammar Houry.”

The #ImHalfQatari hashtag was created by Dr. Amal Al-Malki, Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar. Dr Al-Malki is herself both Qatari, on her father’s side, and Lebanese, on her mother’s. She began the debate after reading an article in the Doha-based Arabic daily Al Raya that suggested Qatari men are increasingly marrying non-Qatari women due to inflated demands for dowries.

The article is excellent and is well worth a read on the state of cultural affairs both in Doha and the wider Gulf in general.

Social media has been criticized by many in the Gulf as a negative phenomenon that often harms both society and individuals. However, as these two hashtags show, Twitter and other social media platforms can be used to foster a positive dialogue about issues that need talking about.