One Day #WithoutShoes – How TOMS is getting consumer sustainability spot on

TOMS' sustainability strategy is simple to understand, its aligned to the business, and it's designed with consumers - and social media - in mind

TOMS’ sustainability strategy is simple to understand, its aligned to the business, and it’s designed with consumers – and social media – in mind

It’s fair to say that getting sustainability right is a challenge for most companies; it’s even harder when you throw consumers into the mix. However, every now and then a campaign comes along that makes you sit up and take notice.

Founded in 2006, the US-based shoe retailer TOMS was founded with a strong sense of giving back to communities in need. The company’s promise was simple – for each pair of shoes bought, it would donate another pair of shoes to a child in need. To date, TOMS has given more than 35 million pairs of new shoes to children in need.

This year TOMS brought their global CSR campaign, which has been running for eight years, to the United Arab Emirates. The company has taken its original premise of “One Day without Shoes”, an event where participants do not wear shoes throughout the day in order to raise awareness for TOMS’ goal of giving shoes to children-in-need, online and onto social media.

The concept is a simple yet powerful initiative where they would like people to take a picture of their bare feet and share it on Instagram. With each picture shared, one pair of shoes will be given to a child in need. A simple picture tagged with #WithoutShoes can help the cause and provide a donation.

As of last Thursday afternoon, more than 296,000 children will benefit from the campaign, according to the company’s website. It’d be interesting to see how many UAE consumers got involved (I’ll see if I can get a response from the UAE retailer which has the TOMS franchise, Apparel Group.

The below are just a sample of the 300,000 plus images which have been generated over the past two weeks, both by consumers as well as celebrities and the media. Let’s hope other companies can learn from TOMS and how powerful a simple concept such as this can be for the brand, the consumer and for communities in need.

#WithoutShoes with great friends. 👣#BareFoot #MorningswithMelissa

A photo posted by @morningswithmelissa on

Not the headline one hopes for – Migrant workers, ‘trespassing’, and Qatar’s BBC own goal

A communicator’s job (or part of at the very least) is to generate headlines. Preferably favorable headlines. But even the best of intentions can often come undone.

It’s an understatement to say that Qatar has been under the microscope recently. The country, with a population of just over a million (both nationals and expats) and hundreds of billions of dollars of gas reserves, has often strived to make its mark on the global stage. One such project is the news station Al-Jazeera, which has revolutionized media in the Middle East and beyond.

Qatar’s World Cup bid and subsequent win hasn’t been the success the country may have hoped for however. Ever since Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup by FIFA, it has been subject to criticism by international NGOs about a host of issues ranging from the rights of homosexuals to labor rights.

The biggest concern has been the living conditions of low-income workers, specifically those people who are building the infrastructure for the World Cup.

To their credit (or maybe because there’s little other choice afforded to them), the Qatari government has tried to tackle allegations of poor treatment of migrant workers head on. They have announced new legislation to penalize companies who do not pay workers on time and an amendment to the national labor law to facilitate the payment of workers through direct bank deposits.

Qatar has also been keen to promote the new migrant labor villages that the government has built. As part of its media efforts, the country’s Labor Ministry invited global media last week to view this new accomodation and meet the country’s Labor Minister to talk about Qatar’s push to promote labor rights.

However, things didn’t go quite as expected. I’ll quote from the Guardian below.

A four-strong BBC crew had been invited by the prime minister’s office on an official tour designed to show off new accommodation for migrant labourers, but were arrested by the security services while trying to gather additional material. They were interrogated and jailed for two days, before being released without charge.

The visit was part of a public relations drive, partly overseen by London-based agency Portland, in the wake of an international outcry over the slave-like conditions for workers exposed by a Guardian investigation in September 2013.

Rather than the story being the improvements in living conditions for Qatar’s migrant workers, the headline on the BBC (which was carried across the globe) was BBC team arrested, and held for several days.

It went from bad to worse for Qatar when Qatar’s communications chief explained that the BBC team had been arrested for ‘trespassing’. Again, to quote from The Guardian.

The Qatari government’s head of communications, Saif al-Thani, said the BBC crew were arrested after departing from an official tour. He said: “We gave the reporters free rein to interview whomever they chose and to roam unaccompanied in the labour villages.

“Perhaps anticipating that the government would not provide this sort of access, the BBC crew decided to do their own site visits and interviews in the days leading up to the planned tour. In doing so, they trespassed on private property, which is against the law in Qatar just as it is in most countries. Security forces were called and the BBC crew was detained.”

The challenge organizations often face is how to ensure that the same message is conveyed across the entirety of the organization. It’s obvious that in Qatar there were differences of opinion which led to the BBC crew being tailed by the security forces once they’d entered the country and to their arrest while doing their job.

The question now for Qatar is how do they go on from here and get the message right, across all of the country’s government and leadership? The media scrutiny is only going to get even more intense, the closer we get to the 2022 World Cup. I’ll continue to watch this story and how it unfolds in the media.

Periscope, Meerkat and why communicators should be live-streaming events

Are you going to make the most of live-streaming services such as Meerkat (left) or Periscope to better communicate your story?

Are you going to make the most of live-streaming services such as Meerkat (left) or Periscope to better communicate your story?

We all love video delivered via the internet, and now there’s several more reasons to love video on the internet. The online community has been raving about the launch of live streaming video apps such as the Twitter-owned Periscope and Meerkat. I’m also excited, but for a different reason. Both Periscope and Meerkat open up a whole world of possibilities for public relations and communication professionals. These live streaming services, both of which were launched this year, will push us further down the line, towards visual communication and away from the old mantra of press releases and traditional media.

Apps such as Periscope and Meerkat enable any and everyone with an iPhone or Android-based smartphone to live stream, at no additional cost and with high-quality streaming. As a communicator, we can now capture and share our stories worldwide or to a select group through Twitter or directly via the apps as the story happens. Live streaming applications are already being used by journalists and commentators in the UAE. Dr James Piecowye of Dubai Eye (@jamesEd_me) and Khaled AlAmeri of The National (@KhaledAlAmeri) are both using Periscope – James to actually stream his radio show live every night as well as events such as Creative Mornings Dubai, Khaled to live stream his views on current affairs. With Periscope, users can comment during the live-stream which in turn fuels the conversation and promotes engagement.

On the PR News website Mark Renfree sums up eloquently why live streaming apps such as Periscope and Meerkat should matter to PR pros.

1) Capture and share the moment as it happens. Live streaming is here and people are using it. Politicians are giving speeches, celebrities are providing fans with virtual backstage access and people are watching their friends make sandwiches using live streaming apps. During a catastrophic fire in New York’s East Village on Thursday, journalists and citizens used live streaming apps to document and share the tragedy as it developed.

2) PR pros can provide a whole new type of content. Streaming apps offer communicators a whole new way to engage their audiences—whether they’re consumers, employees or the general public. Everything from shareholder meetings to PR stunts can now be broadcast and, specifically with Periscope, saved and posted on other channels.

3) Live streaming can give communicators increased control over messages. Streaming apps allow communicators to broadcast content themselves, a task that was usually left to journalists and the news media. Periscope and Meerkat eliminate the middle man between communicators and their audiences.

4) This opens up a new chapter for the hot-mic problem. Nearly everyone, everywhere is now carrying a live streaming video camera. For individuals and brands in the spotlight, these apps are adding to an environment in which there is already little reprieve from the ever-watchful eye of the public.

Did @Khaleejtimes break the UAE’s defamation law with the Muwatana video?

And the viral video of the year goes to this amazing clip which was published by the Dubai-based English language daily Khaleej Times yesterday morning. The video is of a heated discussion between a UAE national female with an expatriate Arab female (possibly the Egyptian actress Abeer Sabry) about what the Arab expat is wearing. The discussion, which is only 1 minute 22 seconds long and is mainly in Arabic, is about the Emirati lady’s disagreement with what the expatriate Arab lady is wearing.

I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of this – there’s the Twitter hashtag #فيديو_المواطنة which tracks the debate – but the video has been a sensation. It was posted at 10am UAE time on the 12th of May, and within 24 hours it has already had over 1.7 million views.

The question is, does this video and its publishing on an open platform break the UAE’s defamation laws? The UAE does not allow for filming of a person without that person’s permission, which I am assuming was not given in this instance. The basics of the UAE’s defamation law are below:

1) It is publicly forbidden to take a picture of another person without their permission.
2) Verbal abuses or gestures (even without the presence of a witness) can also lead to a fine and/or sentence.
3) Defamation via libel (written) or slander (spoken) is dealt by a criminal court as opposed to a civil court, where punishments would only include a monetary fine.

In addition, following the outcry last year about the Ramadan YouTube incident the authorities stated that they would look into online content if it became a matter for ‘public opinion and concern.’ The person who filmed that clip was arrested for defamation and the videos were pulled from YouTube.

The law isn’t clear on what happens when people share content online, but judging by the interest in this video it’s going to be hard to remove the content which has been shared over 24,000 times.

So, the question stands. While there’s a strong possibility that whoever filmed the incident broke the UAE’s defamation law, did the Khaleej Times break the law by posting the video online without the consent of the persons being filmed? Whether yes or no, the muwatana video as it has been named by social media users will become a precedent for other media outlets who are looking to develop their distribution and reach through the use of content shot by their readers and the general public.

And if you haven’t seen the video, here it is below!

When is a brand-celebrity engagement toxic? The Etihad and Landmark stories

Have brand associations between Kidman and Etihad and Khan and Splash helped or hindered their respective brands?

Have brand associations between Kidman and Etihad and Khan and Splash helped or hindered their respective brands?

We just love celebrity endorsements. They’re useful for building brand equity, for improving ad recall, they convey celebrity status to the brand, and help brands stand out from the pack. When done right, celebrity engagements work wonders for the brand. Think Michael Jordan and Nike or Beyonce and Pepsi.

And then there’s what we do in the Middle East, specifically the Gulf. I’ve had a number of views come my way, particularly in relation to two deals which were done recently. The first is for the Abu Dhabi-based airline Etihad. In March Etihad signed up Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman to front up its latest advertising push which focused on Etihad’s redefinition of luxury travel. You can see the video below.

A global name, Kidman is Etihad’s fourth brand ambassador from Australia (can you name the other three, or the airline’s one Frenchman and German sports stars?). The discussion comes in around Etihad’s customer groups and how much the airline’s brand ambassadors actually resonate with these groups. Despite being Abu Dhabi-based and owned by the UAE’s capital, Etihad doesn’t have a single Arabic-speaking or Arab national as a brand ambassador. It’s hard to know how much Kidman would resonate with audiences in the Gulf, but Etihad hasn’t done much to find and leverage off brand ambassadors who’d appeal to Arabs in and around the Gulf (particularly those who are likely to travel in first class).

For Kidman, the association with Etihad has brought its own risks. Just a couple of weeks after the deal with Etihad, Kidman was criticized by a flight attendants’ union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, following her appearance in an advert for an airline it claims treats female employees “deplorably” and operates using “discriminatory labour practices”.

While there’s always a risk of being targeted, and criticized, by a specific interest group as in the case of Kidman, there’s even more risk to a brand’s equity when a celebrity misbehaves (think Tiger Woods and affairs with adult film stars) or does something which consumers may consider to be unethical.

One such example is Bollywood filmstar Salman Khan. Khan, who is an A-list film star in India, is the face of Dubai-based clothing retailer Splash. However, over the past week Khan was found guilty of committing manslaughter in a hit-and-run accident back in 2002 (Khan was allegedly drunk and lost control of his car, which slammed into a group of homeless people sleeping on a pavement).

The editor of Arabian Business, Anil Bhoyrul, penned a strongly-worded opinion piece on the issue only this week. The piece has gone on to become one of the most commented-on pieces in the history of the online news portal.

On a roll, Arabian Business published a piece about a public backlash against Splash for their support of Khan. You can read excerpts below.

Dubai-based Landmark Group is facing a public backlash, after the CEO of one of its leading brands described convicted Bollywood killer Salman Khan as a “great man.”

Bollywood star Salman Khan, who is a brand ambassador for Splash, was sentenced to five years in jail after being found guilty of killing a homeless man while driving under the influence of alcohol. He is currently on bail pending an appeal.

Khan was appointed as a brand ambassador for Splash in 2013, and is currently featured in a number of advertising campaigns for the retailer’s products. His face appears in several large billboards across Dubai, promoting clothing ranges.

But despite the conviction, Splash CEO Raza Beig said last week: “At Splash we love Salman Khan and we will support him through every up & down. My heart breaks to find out about the verdict but as they say every great man in history has gone through some struggle to achieve greater heights so probably this is his calling. We cannot comment on the judgement and do not believe he deserves it but Allah’s will it is.”

Will this brand association and the support of Splash’s CEO for Khan turn toxic and lead to a public boycott? What’s certain is that the Splash brand will not be helped by the current association with Khan, and the CEO’s stance would appear to be at odds with the opinion of many Splash customers. There is one truth all brands need to bear in mind – the consumer is boss. What matters is not what is important to us as people who manage the brand(s), but rather what is important to them.

What do you think of these celebrity endorsements? Are they flying high or are they a damp squib (excuse the puns). Share your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.

The Dabo-Edelman deal and what it means for the Gulf’s communications industry

What does the Dabo-Edelman deal mean for the region's PR industry?

What does the Dabo-Edelman deal mean for the region’s PR industry?

It’s rare to see any big changes, any mergers and acquisitions, in the region’s public relations sector. The region, especially Dubai, is the home for hundreds of PR agencies and communications consultants. But every now and then a piece of news shakes up the status-quo. The last big acquisition of a Dubai-based agency was in 2008, when Grayling Huntsworth acquired its regional partner Momentum.

Edelman, the world’s largest independent communications agency with 5,000 plus employees and 2014 revenues of 780 million dollars, announced last month that it would acquire Dabo & Co. Founded by sisters Camilla and Lucy d’Abo, the agency has around 65 staff and its clients have included the likes of BMW, Unilever, Canon, DHL, HSBC, Hilton Worldwide, Qantas, Nokia and Rolls-Royce.

The media coverage has focused on what Dabo brings to Edelman. Here’s what Matthew Harrington, global chief operating officer, Edelman, was quoted as saying.

“Globally Edelman looks to invest in firms that are committed to reshaping the focus of the communications marketing industry, and Dabo & Co demonstrates this vision through its highly creative, client-centric approach. As the industry develops in the Middle East, this partnership will position us to create engaging and innovative communications programs that support our clients’ needs.”

For Dabo, the acquisition is the next step in their development. The agency has done a number of things which have set it apart from other regional agencies:

1) The investment in local talent – Dabo has focused on developing the skills of its staff, including everything from regular opt-in lunch and learns to offsites for the whole agency. Dabo does more than this, and provides young, talented executives with the opportunity to stretch their abilities. They’ve had one MEPRA young communicator of the year, Jamal Al Mawed, and another who was the runner-up last year, Rijosh Joseph.

2) Self-promotion – Despite us being in the business of communications, PR agencies are not well-known for promoting their successes. Dabo has bucked this trend and has focused on showcasing its successes through awards and nominations. The agency has won MEPRA, Dubai Lynx, and Campaign ME awards for its communications work, as well as other recognitions such as Great Place to Work.

3) Full-service provision – Dabo was quick to spot the opportunity presented by working with clients to offer a range of services including both digital and events thus making themselves a one-stop shop for all of their clients’ communications needs.

What I’m still trying to understand is what this will bring to the table for Edelman. This isn’t a case of Edelman entering the market – they’ve been in the UAE for a number of years with some high-profile accounts such as Mubadala. Plus, Dabo is UAE-based and so won’t give Edelman a foothold in new geographies. However, the argument being made in the media is that Dabo will allow Edelman to expand its consumer reach – Dabo’s clients are primarily B2C brands which are household names. But again, Edelman globally works with the likes of Unilever, Starbucks, Samsung, and Johnson & Johnson. Has Edelman under-delivered on its business potential in the Middle East to date?

It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out for both agencies. Dabo are the rising star, and they’re an example of how those with experience in the industry and some regional know-how can establish an agency in an already-crowded market that will grow and be successful. As for Edelman, will Dabo give them the momentum they need to become one of the top three agencies in the Middle East? I can’t wait to find out!

Hashtag hijacking and the need for authenticity – the #EtisalatChallenge

Let’s face it, social media is entertaining. As communicators, we really do need to think through the consequences of using digital. But sometimes, the best of intentions just aren’t enough. Companies who don’t think through the reasoning behind their campaigns will face a backlash online, including derision, contempt, and abuse.

There are many examples globally of hashtag hijacking; possibly the best is McDonalds and its #McStories campaign. Fortunately for us in the Middle East, we now have our own example of how not to launch a hashtag on Twitter. A couple of days back the Abu Dhabi-based telecommunications operator launched an advertising campaign called the #EtisalatChallenge. The idea is simple enough – Etisalat challenges consumers to find offers and prices that are better than their own and they’ll match or beat that offer. You will literally see the below advert everywhere across the UAE at the moment.

Are you ready for the #EtisalatChallenge?

Are you ready for the #EtisalatChallenge?

Now, there’s a couple of issues here. The first is pretty basic; the UAE’s telco market is a duopoly. Both operators are government-owned and there’s not much in the way of competition when compared to other. The second is Etisalat’s reputation. The company isn’t the most consumer-friendly in terms of its support. Shortly after Etisalat launched its hashtag #EtisalatChallenge (complete with a huge marketing campaign), the hashtag itself was taken over by customers complaining about high costs and poor service.

Despite the obvious backfiring of the campaign (and, as you can see from the tweets below, the campaign has been taken over by negative sentiment), Etisalat has persevered with the #EtisalatChallenge.

What’s even stranger is the number of bots, of Twitter accounts which are automated which have are now tweeting the same message about the campaign.

The other element of the campaign which is intriguing is the number of celebrities that Etisalat has brought in. There is one of Scotland’s finest, Gerald Butler, Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan, and Filipina actress and singer Lea Salonga. Etisalat has also paid a number of the UAE’s leading social media influencers. While the use of social media influencers to support marketing campaigns is becoming standard practice, the #EtisalatChallenge in unusual in that many of the influencers have previously worked for the UAE’s rival operator Du. Have a look below.

Emirati social media celebrity Mthayel Al Ali was a Du supporter

Emirati social media celebrity Mthayel Al Ali was a Du supporter

But now Emirati social media celebrity Mthayel Al Ali is also an Etisalat fan

But now Emirati social media celebrity Mthayel Al Ali is also an Etisalat fan

Egyptian footballer and model Sherif Fayed was part of Du's marketing before his switch to Etisalat

Egyptian footballer and model Sherif Fayed was part of Du’s marketing before his switch to Etisalat

Egyptian footballer and model Sherif Fayed is also a fan of green as he shifts to #EtisalatChallenge

Egyptian footballer and model Sherif Fayed is also a fan of green as he shifts to #EtisalatChallenge

Before her support for the #EtisalatChallenge UAE media personality Diala Ali was a Du supporter.

Before her support for the #EtisalatChallenge UAE media personality Diala Ali was a Du supporter.

From blue to green - UAE media personality Diala Ali shows her support for the #Etisalat Challenge

From blue to green – UAE media personality Diala Ali shows her support for the #Etisalat Challenge

While one can easily fault Etisalat for getting out the cash and spending a fortune on social media endorsements, these online influencers are more to blame in my eyes. They’re doing their own brands more harm than good by changing from one corporate brand to the other so quickly. Their authenticity is at stake, and for someone who runs a social media agency Mthayel Al Ali should understand that authenticity matters to fans, and fans are the reason these people are paid to endorse brands. There’s little long-term thinking from influencers who have worked with Du previously and whom are now working with Etisalat.

Going beyond the pains of creating corporate hashtags (which, in this case clearly don’t work), what was Etisalat thinking? And what is it still thinking, seeing as the campaign is failing so badly? Come on, share with me your #EtisalatChallenge!