The Gulf’s Communications Sector and the Challenge for Authenticity

Is the communications industry in the Gulf authentic enough?

Is the communications industry in the Gulf authentic enough?

I am, sometimes, allowed to get out by my better half. And this month has been replete with communications events. Two in particular come to mind. The first was an anniversary for a well-known communications consultancy firm which was celebrating a milestone for its UAE-based operations. The second was for a social media network which was talking about the largest advertising period in the region, namely Ramadan.

Both events struck me, but probably for the reasons that the organizers hadn’t intended for. At the first event, for the consultancy anniversary, I’d have expected to have seen a couple of nationals. After all, a number of the company’s clients were government bodies and we were in the capital where the ratio of nationals is much higher than in Dubai. But, unfortunately, there was only one national. Instead, the audience was western, English-speaking and middle-aged.

The second event was just as perplexing. Despite Ramadan being a part of Islam (Ramadan is the Islamic month of fasting), I didn’t see a single Arab or Muslim talk about the event. At both events I was left asking myself, where are the personal insights, where’s the local understanding which I can either learn from or relate to?

In truth, these occasions are a microcosm of the communications and marketing industry in the Gulf region. We’re facing an issue with sustainability – there are far too few nationals and Arabic-language speakers in the industry, especially in high-level positions. To me this essentially means that, as we don’t accurately represent the audience we are trying to communicate with, that we’re not able to do our jobs properly.

I often get asked if I can suggest or recommend good talent, both by agencies and clients. Instead, let me offer a different suggestion. Let’s go straight to the source. Do you know how many young, talented nationals and children of expats who have grown up in the UAE are studying communications? We’re talking about at least 3,000 communications students between institutions such as Zayed University, Canadian University in Dubai, Abu Dhabi University, the American University of Sharjah, the American University of Dubai and Middlesex University. And then there’s the Saudis, the Bahrainis and others in the Gulf.

There’s enough talent out there, particularly Arabic-speaking youth, who want to get into the industry. However, we need to engage with them. The below are just a couple of ideas to get us all engaged on making the communications industry sustainable:

1) Get on campus! There are so many on-site events at universities and both agencies and companies need to step in, to both understand how much talent is out there as well as to educate students on what career opportunities are out there for them, especially for nationals who prefer a government job.

2) Mentor, mentor, mentor – the second option is to engage with students over a longer period. Mentoring allows students to learn from middle to senior-level professionals in the industry and for both to exchange their views. In a time where social media dominates, mentors can also learn a great deal from Arab youth on digital trends.

3) Bring in the interns – the longest-lasting and the most meaningful of the three engagements, an internship will allow students to get on-the-job experience with, hopefully, a view to joining the organization they’re interning with. An internship is the closest thing a student will get to a real-life job and will enable them to complement their in-class learnings with hands-on experience.

Organizations such as the Middle East Public Relations Association are promoting all of the above, in the hope that the industry becomes more representative of the communities in which we live. If we’re hoping to communicate as well as we can to all of the audiences that make up the Gulf, we have to take a different approach to hiring and promoting talent. Bringing in the expat with no local experience or understanding is no longer the right thing to do. We have to be authentic if we are going to be relevant. Are you up to the challenge?

The National and how it (finally) got the Saayidat Gas Blast story right

The money picture of the gas blast flat was captured on the second day by The National (image source: The National)

The money picture of the gas blast flat was captured on the second day by The National (image source: The National)

As an ex-journalist who nowadays spends more time in corporate communications than writing for the press, I still enjoy spending time reading what the media produce. One local story was particularly moving for me. On the 24th of March, in the evening, a gas explosion tore through the compound where me and my wife live in Abu Dhabi. My wife felt the blast, which she described as feeling like an earthquake.

As you’d expect, the incident made the news. Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper The National was quick out of the blocks to cover the incident with an online piece posted the same night. While the speed of the output was noteworthy, the paper got several essential facts wrong.

The first was the explosion’s timing – the incident happened at 7.30pm and emergency services were quickly on site afterwards. Secondly, and even more importantly, there were injuries despite the article’s assertion that no injuries were reported (two ambulances were on-site). And thirdly, a stock image of the building was used rather than a picture of the location following the blast (the compound is thirty minutes drive from The National’s offices).

The National's first story on the Saadiyat gas blast was quick to print but important details were wrong

The National’s first story on the Saadiyat gas blast was quick to print but important details were wrong

The piece didn’t feel as if it was put together in the right fashion, as if there wasn’t anyone on site from the paper to collect statements and talk to the authorities. It felt as if it was a desk-job. There was definitely no photographer on site to take the gold-ticket picture which would have set the stage for the piece.

However, the next day The National upped the ante in their second piece. First of all, they had the picture of the gas-blast flat which the first piece desperately needed. This money shot was supplemented by additional images. The piece confirmed the one injury. The piece was much stronger in terms of its facts as well as the emotional focus of the residents who were in the building when the blast occurred and their fears and concerns.

Was there still an issue? As far I am concerned, yes. The piece was almost a gushing testimonial to the compound’s developer TDIC. I felt as if TDIC had commissioned the piece, rather than having a piece written about them by an objective journalist (disclaimer – both TDIC and The National enjoy shared ownership, though that shouldn’t have any bearing on editorial independence). Have a look at the extract from the article and tell me what your opinion is.

Ionnais Xenakis, 27, a pilot with Etihad, lives on the fourth floor with his wife Erini, 27, a few apartments away from the flat where the explosion occurred.

“I was sitting on the sofa with my husband and baby. We heard a loud noise and a vibration,” Mrs Xenakis said.

“We weren’t sure what it was so we grabbed our baby and dog, and ran. We saw our neighbour Barry who was injured in the explosion. He told us that he turned on his light and then the apartment exploded.

“He has just moved into the building and told us that his gas wasn’t even connected yet. It was a little difficult to get out of the emergency exit because it was dark, and the emergency doors were damaged and blocked the path,” she said.

“We helped him out until the paramedics came. It was tough, but the one thing that we can all agree upon is TDIC’s swift reaction and assistance.

“They supported us like a family. They did more than we expected them to do. I was even given a stroller for my baby by one of the employees.

“They also gave me everything I needed for my baby. They were there, attending to all of our needs about 15 minutes after the explosion.”

TDIC made arrangements for the Xenakis family’s dog and cat to be taken to the Australian Veterinary Clinic in Abu Dhabi.

The third and fourth pieces by The National switched from reporting on the blast to the feelings of the residents and their concerns about the safety of their homes. The third piece was much shorter, but it was all the better for it. The fourth piece followed in a similar vein, and both included quotes from two residents (albeit the same residents). There was also the required comment from the local authorities on the steps they were taking to reassure the public – this gas blast was the second in the capital in the space of a week.

The paper saved the best for last, with a piece at the beginning of this week on the injured man himself and his own story as to what happened that night. The journalist rounded off the piece with a final comment from one of the residents.

Residents were displaced for several days. Some tenants from the blast floor are still being housed at the Anantara Eastern Mangroves by the Tourism Development and Investment Company. They are eager to find out what caused the explosion.

“It’s important to identify the error behind this because I believe it could’ve been prevented,” said L R, a neighbour of Mr Johnson. “A poor man was seriously injured because of this. We don’t need hard lessons and tragic stories to learn from our mistakes.”

The National did the right thing and got the piece right, with rolling coverage on the story and a focus on the facts as well as a human-interest element that rounded off the coverage. The journalist made amends for the initial piece which was lacking in both information and visuals to craft a number of pieces that hit the mark every time. The only thing left to say is to wish the person injured in the blast, Barry Johnson, a speedy recovery. It was a memorable night for all the wrong reasons, and I hope that he will be back on his feet and fully recovered sooner rather than later. I hope to read about Barry’s recovery in The National as soon as it happens.

I’d like to wish Barry Johnson a speedy recovery and I hope to read the news soon in The National (image source: The National)

How to destroy a brand through poor communications – the Nakheel example

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I’ll admit it. Every now and then I do get pangs of schadenfreude when I see brands being pulled up online by the media and the public. However, seeing a brand destroy itself is a different proposition.

I’ve been watching Nakheel for some time, and I’ve written about the company and its bad media habits before. The Dubai government-owned real-estate developer is responsible for some of the Emirate’s most iconic projects, including the Palm Jumeirah and The World. However, its customer service is, unfortunately, just as infamous as its successes are famous.

Last week, Sarah Townsend of Arabian Business wrote a scathing piece on Nakheel. Entitled ‘Nakheel PR: The toughest job in Dubai?’, she took a sledgehammer to Nakheel’s reputation The article is well worth a read, especially for those of us whom have spent long enough in the region to forget what quality journalism looks like.

If it were just one person taking aim at Nakheel, the issue would be manageable. However, due to our digital world reputation-bashing is a team sport. The article has gathered seventeen comments, all negative and some from disgruntled Nakheel owners. My favorite is the below.

A comment from a not-very-happy Nakheel property resident on the Palm

A comment from a not-very-happy Nakheel property resident on the Palm

On top of this, Nakheel is facing additional issues regarding its stalled Palm Jebel Ali project. However, it’s not the media which is causing trouble for Nakheel, but rather angry investors who have yet to see their properties take shape after years of delay. To quote from The National.

Hundreds of investors on Dubai’s Palm Jebel Ali have called on developer Nakheel to restart the project.

An estimated 400 to 450 people, most of whom made down payments during Dubai’s boom years between 2004 and 2008, find themselves in financial limbo.

All the units under the Palm Jebel Ali project, including its signature and garden villas and water homes, are “under cancellation”, according to Dubai’s Land Department.

In November, 74 homeowners wrote to Mohammed Al Shaibani, the head of the Ruler’s Court and Dubai Investment Authority, to look into the matter.

“The lack of certainty as to when our homes will be built has caused, and is causing, tremendous financial and emotional suffering for us and our families, and many of us continue to endure ongoing mortgage and rental costs while we are waiting,” the letter says. “Many of us have invested our life savings into the Palm Jebel Ali.”

Over a 100 Palm Jebel Ali owners have set up a group on Twitter with the handle @PJAOwners to lobby the government on their issue (bizarrely Nakheel doesn’t have an account on Twitter and there are several Facebook accounts, none of which seem to be legitimate).

For an organization which claims to be one of the largest and most successful property developers in the world, the media issues that Nakheel has gotten itself into are unforgivable (blacklisting the media doesn’t help). Having said that, many of the company’s issues are rather to do with how they operate. Public relations can never be used as a figleaf for unpopular or damaging actions. As Mark Twain said, “The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.”

At the end of her article Townsend stated that Nakheel are looking for a PR exec to join their ranks. I could be even bolder and suggest that they look at how they do business and rebuild their reputation first. Anything else would be putting the cart before the horse and will continue to destroy what is left of Nakheel’s brand. I’m betting things will get worse for Nakheel in terms of its brand image and reputation. But I won’t take any pleasure from watching this sorry story of a brand being destroyed from within.

Horyou and how one website is looking to bring corporates, charities and volunteers together

Horyou is a platform for social good for corporates, charities and the general public. If you have an idea you'd like to share or you'd like to volunteer go to www.horyou.com.

Horyou is a platform for social good for corporates, charities and the general public. If you have an idea you’d like to share or you’d like to volunteer go to http://www.horyou.com.

Technology can be a wonderful thing, especially when all of the good of the digital world is brought to bear on societal problems. One website I’ve recently been introduced to it Horyou (it’s pronounced Or-You). Horyou’s premise is simple – it is a platform for promoting interaction between corporates, charities and the general public. Horyou aims to transform ideas for social good into action through bringing together these different groups.

While you can check out the Horyou website here and also sign up, I wanted to know more. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Noof Al-Shammary, Marketing & Community Relations Manager for the region, to ask a couple more questions about Horyou and what it means for social causes.

Alex: So tell me, why is Horyou unique? What does it offer to individuals, charities and corporations?

Noof: Horyou is action-oriented platform. It is unique because it facilitates the evolution of ideas to actions with a social platform that offers all users (organization, personalities, members) a dedicated environment where they can share and promote positive actions, exchange quality content, and spark meaningful interactions. Our contribution to social networking is the gathering of a dedicated community of individuals looking to make a difference in their surroundings.

Alex: What is Horyou looking to achieve in the region?

Noof: Horyou is a universal platform. We believe in diversity, therefore everything you see on the platform is oriented to enhance positivity. We are working in different regions, including the Middle East, representing an opportunity to continue spreading the concept and practice of social networking with a purpose. We are actively working in both the non-profit and private sectors. Horyou is bringing a social platform to the forefront that can be used to highlight daily good worldwide.

Alex: How can we individuals, charities, and companies contribute and benefit from Horyou?

Noof: Any individual, companies, personalities, or organizations can contribute with their projects, positive actions, knowledge, interactions, and their willingness to be part of this global platform. Everybody’s contribution represents a step towards bringing more good to the world. Horyou is constantly looking for partners, supporters and individuals ready to take part in the promotion of social good.

If you’d like to know more about Horyou, the good people there have produced a short video which sums up their ideas and what they’re trying to achieve. I for one hope to play my part. Will you join me?

Obama and Netanyahu reach out to the masses – how the net helps as well as hinders the message

Politicians who use digital for their messaging need to remember that once it's online, it's there forever (image source: YouTube)

Politicians who use digital for their messaging need to remember that once it’s online, it’s there forever (image source: YouTube)

Politicians love to talk, at least those in the West do. Some politicians talk with a purpose, while others talk for the sake of rhetoric. We’ve had plenty of talk over the past couple of weeks, thanks in part to both global and regional political campaigns.

The net has completely changed how leaders communicate with their audiences. For example, leaders can now directly reach out to whole nations directly and without the need for a medium or intermediary such as the media. Two examples come to mind this week. The first is that of Benyamin Netanyahu, who went over the heads of Israeli media to directly address the Jewish Israeli public to exhort them to vote. In his address, which was posted to his Facebook page, he warned of the Israeli Arab threat. You can have a look at the video below.

While the demagoguery may have worked with the right-wing voters, this and other responses to questions such as the possibility of there being a two-state solution are not helping Netanyahu internationally. In a day and age where everything is on the internet and can be translated by a machine, there’s little to no opportunity for politicians to say one thing to one audience and then do a 180 with a different audience. Netanyahu’s media assertions that his words were misinterpreted are difficult to understand for anyone with an internet connection who can watch his words directly online.

Obama has also been using video this week, to address Iranians on the eve of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. Using the opportunity to reach out directly and talk about the opportunity for an agreement over their nuclear ambitions, Obama’s message is simple and sincere. He’s stepped over the Ayatollahs and the government-controlled media to appeal to Iranians, who can access his speech online (the video is not recorded in high definition, for faster loading for Iranians). I’ve included both the comments and the video below.

“This moment may not come again soon. I believe that our nations have an historic opportunity to resolve this issue peacefully — an opportunity we should not miss. The days and weeks ahead will be critical. Our negotiations have made progress, but gaps remain. And there are people, in both our countries and beyond, who oppose a diplomatic resolution. My message to you — the people of Iran — is that, together, we have to speak up for the future we seek. This year, we have the best opportunity in decades to pursue a different future between our countries.”

There’s no doubt the power of digital to step over the media and appeal directly to the masses. What our leaders need to remember is that whatever is put on this medium is immutable. For politicians who are known for changing their position based on whom they’re talking to such as Netanyahu, digital may come back to haunt them. For others who are trying to reach out and build bridges, such as Obama, video represents the best medium to send a message out to as big an audience as possible.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Do you want to know more about social media in the Middle East? Download the TNS ArabSMIS report here

Do you not know where to start when it comes to social media and the Middle East? This report may be your answer (image source: http://blue16media.com)

Do you not know where to start when it comes to social media and the Middle East? This report may be your answer (image source: http://blue16media.com)

We have our fair share of big events in Dubai and this week was no exception. The past two days has seen the Emirate become the place to be for social media influencers. Whilst we found ourselves invaded by all types of beautiful people (and others) waving their selfie sticks and pouting for the camera, there were some handy takeaways for an audience looking to learn more about how to use social media to build brands for themselves, their companies or their countries. Oh, and Twitter has finally decided to open an office in the MENA region, obviously in Dubai.

The most impressive part of the Arab Social Media Influencers Summit was the report. Coming in at a whopping sixty seven pages, the report by research house TNS covers a whole host of areas of social media interest across the MENA region. The study combines both qualitative research with a quantitative survey of more than 7200 users of social media spread evenly
across 18 Arab countries.

If you’re looking to know which channels are used across MENA, then look no further. The report includes stats on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, Google+, and YouTube. It also includes social media usage habits, including time of use, duration of use and devices used. Most importantly, the report looks into attitudes about social media across the region and what people are doing online.

If you’re doing anything online in the MENA region, download this report and start dissecting. You can thank me later, on social media.

The ASMIS Social Media MENA Report

When it comes to social media, advertising and the Middle East, why don’t we have any ethics?

The region loves social media, but its influencers and advertisers are less keen to say when a post is paid for (image source: www.business2community.com)

The region loves social media, but its influencers and advertisers are less keen to say when a post is paid for (image source: http://www.business2community.com)

Who needs ethics right? Ethics are boring, they’re dry, and they mean we have to use disclaimers. Ethics really aren’t fun. But you know what, without them we’d be in a fair amount of trouble. With the Arab Social Media Influencers Summit happening this week in Dubai, and a fair few social media influencers being in town (including quite a few from Kuwait who don’t make it clear that they accept money for posting on their social media channels), I want to reprint this post which I shared with the Media Network Middle East last month. I’d love to hear your views on ethics, or the lack thereof, when it comes to social media and advertising in our region.

While European and American consumers are benefiting from crystal clear regulations on sponsored social media content, there’s little to no clarity here on the same.

We’re awash with social media in our region. Everywhere you go, you’ll see people sliding their fingers left and right, pushing up and pulling down on their smartphone screens. We’re all at it, checking our Instagram accounts, refreshing our Twitter feeds, and posting Facebook updates.

Today we have social media celebrities, people who have become famous through their online activities. There are Instagrammers in Kuwait with over a million followers, Facebookers in the UAE with hundreds of thousands of likes, and Saudi Tweeters with followings equal to the population of Bahrain.

Alongside these social media celebrities we have witnessed the rise of paid posts. Those of you with a keen eye will have noticed how many celebrities online have become more commercial, and have begun to share updates, images and videos promoting brands.

There’s nothing wrong with promotional advertising. Using paid influencer marketing is a common tactic to spread awareness, promote a brand, and to engage social media users across the globe. Online advertising can be more cost effective in terms of measurement and reach.

However, there’s no distinction between an advert and paid-for content. Both involve a payment of some kind by a company for a promotion of its brand or services. Regulators across Europe and the United States have essentially ruled that if money is changing hands, obvious disclosure must occur in-ad. Their reasoning is simple; consumers have a right to know what is an advert and what is not an advert.

While European and American consumers are benefiting from crystal clear regulations on sponsored social media content, there’s little to no clarity here on the same. Consumers here have no authority to turn to or no regulations to guide them on what is and what isn’t sponsored.

There seems to be little eagerness for brands or social media celebrities to advertise what is paid-for content either. This is understandable, as their followers may be less inclined to engage with a post if they know it is sponsored, or even follow a person who they know accepts money for posts.

While this lack of disclosure may appeal in the short term and help to maximise revenues (paid-for posts in Kuwait can fetch up to three thousand dollars per posting), it does nothing to building goodwill and trust with consumers across the region. A lack of honesty and transparency on what social media celebrities are paid to post will negatively affect trust in both the sponsoring brand as well as the celebrity who is accepting the payment in return for sharing the content.

In the US the burden is on brands to ensure that their endorsers, such as bloggers and online influencers) are in compliance in terms of disclosure. Paid-for posts have to include language such as #Ad, Ad: or Sponsored. Even brand posts and shares by a company’s employees have to be clearly labeled to account for the bias.

Either brands can take action and begin to self-regulate, or they can wait for regulators to finally step in and possibly take a harder-line approach to sponsored influencer endorsements. Is risking a reputation and trust, built up over years of marketing, worth risking over a lack of disclosure? I hope the answer is no.