Executives promising to go naked on television, Cobone’s PR stunt, and The Address’ post-crisis crisis?

Paul Kenny's fake PR release for Cobone, Ziad El Chaar naked on TV and Emaar's ongoing issues following the Address fire made this week an interesting one for media in the UAE (image source: Arabian Gazette)

Paul Kenny’s fake PR release for Cobone, Ziad El Chaar naked on TV and Emaar’s ongoing issues following the Address fire made this week an interesting one for media in the UAE (image source: Arabian Gazette)

Media in the Middle East is rarely dull, and the past few days have proved that there’s some hilarity as well as serious questions about what people in our region do and then tell to the media.

Let’s start with the real estate brand which is developing a reputation for foot-in-mouth disease. Speaking to the Sunday Times, Damac’s Managing Director Ziad El Chaar told The Sunday Times he would “go on TV naked and resign” if the worst market projections are realised. Aside from the fact that any naked executive dance on television would be illegal in the UAE (at least without a VPN), his comment hasn’t been taken too well judging by the reaction on Arabian Business’ online portal. Maybe there’s some fans of naked real estate executives out there. If so, please do show yourselves so we can get you help…

Another bizarre piece from last week which wasn’t picked up widely. Speaking to an audience of entrepreneurs last week, the founder of discounting site Cobone Paul Kenny admitted that he used a PR stunt to kick-start his business. Shortly after founding the site, Kenny put out a press release claiming that 1,000 vouchers for a discounted pizza had been sold to Cobone consumers. That release, Kenny now claims, was a fake. Let’s quote Kenny from the Arabian Business story.

“We were second to market. GoNabit [an online group buying website founded by Dan Stuart and Sohrab Jahanbani] was first. When we launched, everyone was saying: ‘You are the same as GoNabit,’ which we were but I said we weren’t.

So I went to at Vapiano, which is an Italian restaurant, and bought a thousand pizzas at a huge discount and they sold out by 12pm. I put a big sold out sticker on the site and an hour later I released a press release saying ‘Cobone.com breaks e-commerce record in the Middle East.’

And the truth is that everyone started reading and asking ‘Who is this company Cobone.com?’ ‘What is e-commerce?’ ‘What’s a record?’ You know it created a lot of interest in the business and instantly people started recognising us as a different business.

I remember that a day after you could do a Google search to see we were on around 483,000 websites. First, e-commerce in the Middle East was never covered. Then what is an e-commerce record? What is Cobone.com?

So you got a ball rolling of media interest from that point.”

There’s a popular saying about the luck of the Irish. And there’s another saying about making one’s own luck. Luckily for Kenny, no asked if the news was real (or checked with the restaurant). If they had, his deception may not have worked so well.

And finally, another follow-on story about the New Year’s Eve fire at The Address, from The National in which one owner of property at the hotel lost 1.3 million Dirhams worth of art in the blaze.

Ramin Salsali spoke out this week urging The Address owner Emaar Properties to quickly process residents’ compensation claims as well as repair the property. To quote from the story.

“Until now, they [Emaar] have been very fair and have quickly reacted to accommodate people, put them in hotels, give them the first basic possibilities just to start to recover.”

He expected “a very unbureaucratic and pragmatic approach” from the developer in terms of how claims were handled – especially since a police report last week indicated that an electrical short-circuit from a spotlight caused the blaze.

“The whole world is now watching. The effect on real estate is unbelievable. People have pulled out of contracts where they don’t know about the fire safety of the cladding. It’s not good for Dubai.”

One of the greatest challenges any organization can face is not just the crisis itself, but the post-crisis reflection and learning. Emaar isn’t there yet in terms of dealing with any major grievances from those who lost property and items during the fire (and there’s been remarkably little negativity from any of the hotel’s residents so far), but the communication with this group of people needs to be both clear and quick to get these issues resolved. Otherwise, Salsali’s point about blow-back for the Emirate’s real estate sector may become true. Let’s hope not.

And for the next post I’ll be talking daddy issues again. It’s been a while since I posted any stories about my little princess, and I’m looking forward to it!

Snapchat, Messi, and jail – the story of how a Dubai cop breached the cybercrime law

Will this official be behind bars for a video he took of Messi's passport? (picture courtesy of Hilary Clinton's  Twitter feed)

Will this official be behind bars for a video he took of Messi’s passport? (picture courtesy of Hilary Clinton’s Twitter feed)

It’s happened. That social media channel which everyone under the age of 30 is using (that’s why I’m not on it), has got someone into trouble. The ephemeral network Snapchat has gotten one Dubai police officer into trouble, for taking a picture of the passport of Barcelona footballer Lionel Messi when the footballing superstar came to Dubai. The picture, which I am assuming disappeared after being viewed, found its way to the authorities, and the gentleman in question has been charged with falling foul of the country’s 2012 Cybercrime law. The full story, courtesy of the Washington Post, is below:

A police officer in Dubai is facing a six-month prison sentence and a $130,000 fine for posting a video of Lionel Messi’s passport to Snapchat last month. Prosecutors say the act violated the United Arab Emirates’ Cybercrime Law of 2012.

The officer, identified only as a 26-year-old named J.J., appeared in court this week to plead guilty to the accusations, but maintained his intentions weren’t nefarious. Instead, he said he posted the Messi’s passport to Snapchat out of frustration from being denied the chance to meet the star who had traveled to the country on Dec. 27 to attend the Dubai International Sports Conference.

“I waited for Messi’s arrival [at Dubai International Airport] to take a photo with him … but his private escorts informed me that the player was tired and would not be able to take a photo,” J.J. explained in the Dubai Misdemeanors Court (via Gulf News). “Thereafter I walked to the passport control’s office where I saw Messi’s passport on a desk. I grabbed the passport and opened it to the page that contained Messi’s personal details and took video images with my iPhone via Snapchat.”

The video, which can still be found on YouTube, shows Messi’s photograph and data, and a man (presumably J.J.) can be heard narrating over the image.

“This is Messi here in Dubai… what shall I do now? Burn his passport or let it go?” the man says in Arabic in the Snapchat (via the Independent). “Alas… I will let it go.”

Prosecutors seem less alarmed about the man’s narration than the video itself, however.

“What the suspect did is an act punishable by the Cybercrime Law,” prosecutor Al Shamsi told Gulf News. “His behavior is deemed a breach of Messi’s privacy because the passport is considered a private possession just like the details mentioned on it.”

A verdict is expected this week. But, for those on Snapchat, beware! You may think your images disappear, but remember, nothing ever truly disappears once it goes digital.

The Fire, the Selfie and Prison – why you should care about what your friends say online

Was this inappropriate? Most certainly. But what could get you jailed is not just a picture that is in poor taste, but rather the comments your friends make on that post.

Was this inappropriate? Most certainly. But what could get you jailed is not just a picture that is in poor taste, but rather the comments your friends make on that post.

We all do stupid things, and we unfortunately then post these acts of idiocy online. Combine that with a situation like we had during New Year’s Eve, and you’ve got a situation that could at best be described as combustible.

As the flames ravaged Dubai’s The Address Hotel on New Year’s Eve, some people decided to take selfies. A few posted these selfies online, to Instagram and Facebook. At least two people, two young men, were arrested for their selfie (pictured above) while the Emirate’s Public Prosecution investigated their case.

There’s been much speculation online as to why the men were arrested, with many commentators arguing that the action defamed the country and its image – let’s remember that defamation is a criminal offense in the Gulf, with a minimum fine of 500,000 Dirhams and jail time in the UAE (as well as deportation for expatriates). Many have posted selfies at the same location, with smiles, grins and laughs, and such expressions of emotion may have been considered a case of schadenfreude by the authorities.

However, according to the English-language newspaper 7Days which spoke to the lawyer of the two accused, they were investigated not for the image per se, but rather for the comments made about the image. The argument goes that the person who posts content is also responsible for the comments on that post, even if those comments are not written by the same person but his or her friends, family (or anyone who wants to get you jailed).

Luckily for them, the two were released from prison after a couple of days with no charge after investigators found that there was “no evidence of criminal intent”. However, remember that in future it’s not just your stupidity that could land you in jail, but that of your online contacts as well. Their comments could cross the legal line of what is defined as defamation, so don’t post images or any other type of post that could get you into trouble. Just don’t…

What does Authenticity mean in the Gulf?

Are you being authentic? And what does authenticity mean to us in the Gulf?

Are you being authentic? And what does authenticity mean to us in the Gulf?

The notion of authenticity, that feeling of genuineness, has long been an issue to us communicators. The theory goes that the more authentic we (or our clients) are, the more people will believe us and like us. Even the use of the word authentic has grown; in the US, the word’s use has grown 74.5% since 2012 according to the Holmes Report, to 8,069 press releases and 20,471 media stories.

Well, you’d think that being in a world where everything is online it’d be harder than ever to fake it. Well, an Australian teen with over half a million followers on Instagram has put the sword to that theory. Here’s an excerpt from The Guardian on Essena O’Neill and how she strived to be perfect online:

An Australian teenager with more than half a million followers on Instagram has quit the platform, describing it as “contrived perfection made to get attention”, and called for others to quit social media – perhaps with help from her new website.

Essena O’Neill, 18, said she was able to make an income from marketing products to her 612,000 followers on Instagram – “$2000AUD a post EASY”. But her dramatic rejection of social media celebrity has won her praise.

On 27 October she deleted more than 2,000 pictures “that served no real purpose other than self-promotion”, and dramatically edited the captions to the remaining 96 posts in a bid to to reveal the manipulation, mundanity, and even insecurity behind them.

At a recent event I was chairing, one of the speakers told an anecdote about a Saudi youngster who claimed to be an entrepreneur, partly because it is the popular thing to do and also because he was unemployed. The experience also reminded me of comments left on a popular website about two local entrepreneurs who have set up their own business. Three of the comments were negative, and called into question the ‘authenticity’ of the two young gentlemen. One person wrote, “I have also noticed many so called ‘Entrepreneurs’ are only ‘Instagram-perneurs'”.

The question then comes to mind – who is being genuine and how can we tell if they’re genuine? Will the media challenge people on their achievements? Will the public call out these people? We live in a region where social media is all pervasive and yet, due to various barriers such as culture, language and traditions, it can be truly difficult to know if someone is being genuine or not. For me, the best way to understand the true meaning of authenticity is to grasp its meaning – one who does things himself/herself.

What are your thoughts on authenticity and the Gulf? Do people live to a certain image, or are they true to themselves? And what does this mean for how we communicate? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue.

Flip-Flopping during a crisis – how Damac’s handling of the Trump backlash has proved costly

First you don't see it, then you do. Damac initially removed Trump's name after his comments on Muslims, only to restore it a couple of days after (top photo by Reuters/bottom photo by  Rahul Gajjar of Khaleej Times)

First you don’t see it, then you do. Damac initially removed Trump’s name after his comments on Muslims, only to restore it a couple of days after (top photo by Reuters/bottom photo by Rahul Gajjar of Khaleej Times)

Imagine for a moment, if you will, one of your key business partners/influencers saying something controversial. Imagine that they’ve just racially attacked your most important group of customers. And then imagine that, rather than dumping this partner, you instead flip-flop around the issue and end up not only looking rather foolish, but do yourself and your reputation a fair amount of harm in the process.

If you work at Damac, you don’t need to imagine any of the above. The Dubai-headquartered real estate developer, which counts Donald Trump as one of its business partners, has been flip-flopping since Trump came out with a comment on the 7th of December that there should be a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the United States. This statement, which was made following the deadly shootings in California’s San Bernardino, weren’t the first Trump had made about Muslims. He had previously that he was in favour of shutting down American mosques and establishing a database for all Muslims living in the US or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion.

Damac’s relationship with Trump International includes branding for two Trump-branded gold courses and a collection luxury villas at the developer’s Akoya project in Dubai. I don’t know the full extent of the relationship, but local newspaper 7DAYS claimed that, in addition to the licensing fees that Damac would have to pay to Trump for the use of his name and image, Trump himself had invested in the project.

Following the controversy around Trump’s latest Muslim statements, Damac put out a statement that could be called, at best, avoiding the issue.

Damac Properties senior vice president Niall McLoughlin told 7DAYS in a statement: “We would like to stress that our agreement is with the Trump Organisation as one of the premium golf course operators in the world and as such we would not comment further on Mr Trump’s personal or political agenda, nor comment on the internal American political debate scene.”

Instead of publicly taking Trump to task and distancing the company from his statements, Damac took a different approach. A couple of days after the outcry, on the 10th of December Damac took Donald Trump down – his image and name that is, from their developments. To quote from 7DAYS.

Hoardings that previously carried photos of the billionaire businessman advertising Damac’s Trump-branded golf course and luxury villas stood bare on Umm Suquiem Road on Thursday, right at the entrance to the development.

All well and good you may think – Damac quietly rebranded their development and distanced themselves from Trump. However, in a further twist, Trump’s name was back on billboards two days later, on the 12th of December. Here’s how the English-daily Khaleej Times put it:

On Friday, a prominent advertising billboard showing Trump golfing that had stood at the Akoya development, where the housing and one of the golf courses is being built, was gone. All that remained of it was the board’s brown wooden background. Another billboard declaring the development “The Beverly Hills of Dubai” still stood nearby.

Trump’s name also appeared to have been pulled off one sign greeting visitors to the complex. The sign, outside a sales office at the site, originally had Trump’s name in lettering on a stone wall. But on Friday the letters were littering the ground in front of it.

A second, similar sign facing a major road was intact with Trump’s name on it. Earlier in the week, that sign had been taken down but by Friday, it was back in place.

“The exterior signage at Trump International Golf Club, Dubai was temporarily removed on Tuesday for a short period of time, however as of last night, the signage is back up and fully intact,” the Trump Organization said in a statement to The Associated Press on Friday.

Also, the Damac webpage dedicated to the Trump PRVT gated community, which is part of the development, appeared to have been removed, leading only to a “not found” page.

Since the development is still under construction, the removal of the branding with Trump’s name and image seemed to be largely symbolic. It was not known if it signaled Damac will outright break the licensing contract.

Damac Properties has declined to comment on the removal of Trump’s name and billboard from the property. It earlier said it “would not comment further on Mr. Trump’s personal or political agenda, nor comment on the internal American political debate scene.”

To change the issue, Damac has switched tactic. Instead of talking politics, the developer announced that it would guarantee rental returns for those buying in its Akoya (Trump-branded) project. The National broke the story last week.

Damac Properties, the developer caught in a storm over its partnership with the controversial US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, is offering lucrative rental returns on some of its properties to lure investors.

Damac, which said it would stick with Trump International despite his anti-Muslim tirade, is providing a 24 per cent rental guarantee on selected units in Dubai, including the Akoya project associated with the billionaire, the developer said in a statement.

Owners of selected properties will be able to secure an eight per cent annual return in the first three years after handover.

The company was offering these returns because it believes the Dubai property market is “set for stable growth in the medium term”, Damac said. “We have seen quite a bit of scaremongering in the market in recent months, which can have a detrimental effect on sentiment in the market,” said Niall McLoughlin, the senior vice president at Damac. “By providing such a high, tax-free offering on our units, we are putting our head above the rest and underwriting any fluctuations that may occur down the line.”

Reputational issues become even more important for companies which are listed, as Damac is. Damac’s shares initially fell 15 percent following the muted response. Investors may also not have appreciated the rental guarantee initiative, as you can see from the share price chart below.

Damac's share price fell after the initial outcry. The share price has also fallen following Damac's attempts to repair the reputational damage through the rental incentive promise.

Damac’s share price fell after the initial outcry. The share price has also fallen following Damac’s attempts to repair the reputational damage through the rental incentive promise.

While I don’t know the relationship between the two, would Damac have been wiser to have taken an initial hit and exited the contract with Trump rather than flip-flopping on the issue, drawing it out and drawing more attention to the brand association? Add in the costs with guaranteeing rental returns in addition to the share drop, and this crisis will prove costly both in the short as well as the long-term. To me, the media and the company’s shareholders the answer about whether or not to dump Trump – and take a short term hit through contractual obligations but save the company’s reputation and keep shareholders and customers happy – seems fairly obvious.

Innovation, Data and Control – Squaring the Circle in Dubai

Can governments in the Middle East find a way to balance control with innovation and access to data?

Can governments in the Middle East find a way to balance control with innovation and access to data?

Someone re-found their mojo this month. The English-language newspaper The National published a number of eye-opening pieces on two issues that are often discussed, but little understood.

The first was an investigative piece (yes, I know!) on the challenges that Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority (RTA) has faced with the disruption caused by app-based taxi providers such as Uber and its local rival Careem. To put the story into context, the RTA does not only regulate taxis in the Emirate of Dubai, but it also manages its own fleet of taxis.

The piece, which is a fascinating insight into how the Emirate is not only run but also how it is looking to balance control with innovation, poses the question of how a government which controls much of the business in the country promotes innovation whilst protecting its revenues. For me, the key paragraphs in the article, written by the newspaper’s business editor Mustafa Alrawi, are below.

In Dubai, The National understands, Uber and Careem have narrowly escaped a clampdown by the regulator that would have significantly curtailed their abilities to operate. The biggest issue has been the alleged failure to maintain prices above taxi fares. On its website Uber states that “ … in Dubai, regulations require our fares be 30 per cent higher than taxi fares”.

It is understood, however, that the regulator had been planning a far stronger response to the practices of private hire companies booked by smartphone app, ahead of new regulations to address the emergence of technology-led companies in the transport sector. These regulations are expected next year, according to previously reported comments from the RTA.

It is understood that the Dubai government stepped in before the row escalated to ensure that innovative companies such as Uber and Careem would not be hamstrung by any action by the RTA. The circular is understood to represent a kind of temporary truce between the regulator and the technology firms maintaining the status quo for now.

A second article the following day in The National touched on another important issue for the country – that of statistics and control over information. Here’s the introduction:

A new law that demands companies seek government approval before carrying out surveys in Dubai could damage the property sector and discourage research in the emirate, experts have warned.

The Dubai government announced a law late last month intended to help enable the Dubai Statistics Center “to establish an advanced statistics system”, according to a statement. But experts zoomed in on a provision in the new law that forbids private companies from “conducting any survey[s] without obtaining authorisation from the Dubai Statistics Center”.

As pointed out by one of those interviewed, there’s no such thing as a data vacuum. The lack of any official data will be filled by rumours, which can prove to be much more damaging.

Professor Joseph Kadane, chair of the American Statistical Association’s committee on scientific freedom, which produces reports for the United Nations on best practice in government statistics, warned that the new law would likely lead to the spread of “uninformed rumours and uncertainty about the extent of the downturn” in Dubai’s property market.

“This will do far more harm to Dubai’s economy than allowing private surveys to be conducted and published,” Mr Kadane said. “International investors, in particular, are sensitive to the quality of the information available to them in deciding where to invest.”

Both articles touch on fundamental issues relating to innovation and data. The underlying theme is control. Governments in the Middle East have long controlled everything around them, including their economies. In today’s digital world, where innovation can come out of nowhere and where data can be created and spread in an instant, governments need to understand that the control of yesterday is no longer possible and instead look to collaborate.

And, on a final note it’s great to see good local reporting. I hope The National keeps it up.