A Lack of Quality: Why the Comms Industry needs a professional qualification

Why don't we have a standard certification for the PR industry? Isn't it time we change this?

Why don’t we have a standard certification for the PR industry? Isn’t it time we change this?

I don’t want to offend, but enough is enough. I want to tackle the elephant in the room, the issue that many of us face but few of us have the bravery to talk openly about. We have far too many people in the communications profession who haven’t gotten to where they are on merit or who are unsuited for the role.

You know what I’m talking about, the person who got into the job because his or her father is the best friend of the GM. Or the comms manager who has been appointed because global wants to increase their diversity count (despite all of their customers being male). Or the person who is overseeing comms for a specific industry (let’s say, social media), and yet doesn’t even use the product. Or the employee who has been shunted into communications because the company can’t get rid of them. Or the person who has been employed because of their nationality and there’s a quota, despite their lack of experience (or ability).

We have to tackle the issue of quality in the profession. Why, one may ask? Simply because they represent all of us. Their actions shape the views of others. As communicators, we often talk about a place at the table. We won’t claim that board or management seat, unless we’re qualified and able to add value to the organizations that employ us. And, there’s the issue of agencies, which I’ve talked about before.

Who would hire an accountant who isn’t chartered? Or a lawyer that hasn’t passed their bar exam? And yet, there are many who work in our industry without a single qualification. We need to change this approach to professional qualifications. There are many to choose from, such as the accredited or the chartered status from the CIPR. And there’s the CMP examination from the IABC. There’s a host of qualifications out there.

As an industry, we need to change the debate from years of experience to competency and skills. To me, it’s no longer good enough for organizations to seek out communications professionals with little to no understanding of our profession. There needs to be a concerted effort by our industry, by communications professionals who care about how we are perceived by others, for us to adopt a minimum certification.

Only by making a case for a professional certification, which will act as a symbol of our dedication to continuous study and development and our adherence to ethics and best practices, will we receive the respect and trust that we crave and need to be taken as serious as the profession needs to become a boardroom position.

Are you with me?

How will Snapchat’s Dubai opening change the region’s social media landscape?


The Middle East’s social media scene is going to get much hotter with Snapchat opening up in Dubai (image source: hashtag-me.com)

It’s finally happening. The ephemeral social media network, the reason behind the doggie nose pictures and floral crowns, is coming to the Middle East. Yes, Snapchat is almost here. The story was broken by Communicate Middle East last week, with Cairo-based online publisher Digital Boom adding more details. I’ve included all the information below from both stories.

As reported by multiple industry sources, Snapchat is ready to make its entry into the Middle East market with its first office in Dubai toward the end of this year.

Heading the operation will be Hussein Freijeh, who is best known for his long-standing role with Maktoob – and then Yahoo – for more than a decade, until Yahoo shut down its Middle East operations in late 2015.

While pricing levels have yet to be set for Middle East customers, Snapchat will be offering a number of products, including geofilters and SnapAds. The service, which is especially popular with internet users under the age of 18 across the Gulf region, revealed in June that 150 million people were using the service each day globally, surpassing the daily active users on social media micro-site Twitter. The app had 110 million daily users in December 2015.

Snapchat’s timing of its move into the region is fascinating. The company may IPO as early as March next year, and the Gulf is a fast growing market for the firm’s app (possibly its fastest worldwide). How will brands react? It’s a difficult one to say, as Snapchat has an interesting range of advertising products which are different from anything in the market. In terms of the youth market, Snapchat will be the key platform to use. However, how will this affect spending on other platforms? Will Snapchat pull in dollars from Instagram, its closest rival, or from other platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

What is clear is that with Snapchat opening up its platform to advertising in the MENA region, brands here will have to develop a Snapchat presence and start learning about this unique social media channel. To date, there are few Arab brands on the site (Souq.com, Al Hilal Bank and a couple of hotels are some exceptions I know of), and brands will face a steep learning curve if they’re to get the best out of Snapchat and engage with its young audience.

What makes an award-winning communications campaign?

There's nothing better than being recognized for your communications work. Just make sure you're focusing on these three key points.

There’s nothing better than being recognized for your communications work. Just make sure you’re focusing on these three key points.

I’m fortunate to have been asked to judge many communications campaigns, for the likes of the Middle East Public Relations Association Awards, the Holmes Report’s SABRES, the International Association of Business Communicators’ Quills, and the Global Alliance Comm Prix Awards. That’s many hours spent pouring over communications campaigns.

As a judge, what do I look for? What is, to me, an award-winning campaign? There are three basic points:

  • The reason why: Firstly, what is the logic behind the campaign? What is the organization trying to achieve? And is the why supported by research or insights derived from the stakeholders the organization is looking to engage with and influence. This could be as simple as focus groups, one-to-one interviews, or information derived from surveys. Too many campaigns aren’t supported by research, and as such there’s no logic or a clear, evidence-based objective underpinning the campaign.
  • What was done: We now come to the activation piece, both the strategy and the tactics. How innovative was the overall strategy in terms of its budgeting and composition. How effective were the tactics re stakeholder targeting and engagement. Were the tactics used suitable for the audience, and is there a strong enough idea at the heart of the strategy? How well has the strategy blended together different channels?
  • Where are the results: A well-executed strategy will show not only strong outputs but also clear outcomes and, ideally, business impact. An award-winning campaign will clearly demonstrate the impact their work has had on the organization and stakeholders. And here I’m not referring to AVEs (Advertising Value Equivalencies), but rather other measures such as sentiment analysis, awareness, recognition and credibility. If you want more information on what measurement means, have a look at this white paper by Ketchum’s David Rockland.

If you can get each of these elements right, you’ll stand a good chance at winning an award, no matter the competition. So go and do your good work, and be recognized for it. Good luck, bon chance and bil-tawfiq, especially to all those entering into the MEPRA Awards today and over the past couple of days.

The Role Communicators Have in Promoting Sustainability


I’ve been fortunate in my career to have worked with some amazing brands and organizations. In particular, the most forward-thinking have focused on the issue of sustainability. It’s become a passion for me, as I want my daughter to inherit a world that is better than ours.

I’m often asked to support events on sustainability. One such initiative which I’m very proud of being able to help is that of the UAE’s Ajman Center for Social Responsibility. Launched by the Ajman Chamber this year, the Ajman Center for Social Responsibility aims to promote the concept of sustainability for both the public and private sectors as well as create a resource for sustainability across this emirate. Assisted by the consultancy firm Sustainable Square, the team at the Center have set for themselves a vision of becoming the regional and global reference for social responsibility and sustainability practices. And, judging by the energy they have, I feel they’ll reach this goal.

For many of us communicators in the Middle East region, we’ve taken on the mantle of championing sustainability. Sometimes it’s due to reputational reasons; the need to be seen to be doing good. For others, it’s been about the willingness to tackle an issue that isn’t going away. There’s some confusion around sustainability and the role of communications in the Middle East; I remember well one senior comms professional erroneously commenting  during a public meeting that the function has always been with communications, despite all of the literature from the 1950s and 1960s by Bowen, Freeman and others which argues that organizations have a social obligation to “to pursue those policies, to make those decisions, or to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of the objectives and values of our society.” In short, when it comes to sustainability in the Middle East, we can come across as a confused bunch.

For me, sustainability should be at the heart of any organization – it should be a part of every person’s job function. So, what is the role that communicators should play? We are the change agents, the people whose job it is to tell stories around purpose, and who can best use engagement to win over various stakeholder groups, be they internal (employees, management or shareholders), or external (government, NGOs or the public) as to why there is a need to become more sustainable and how we should get there.

Examples of good sustainability communications work are both global and local in nature. Take for example  the work done by Mars for its M&Ms brand. Mars reached out to the M&Ms consumer base in a smart way, by using the M&Ms characters everyone knows, to talk about initiatives around sustainable cocoa production and other CSR causes by telling the stories through the same M&M characters used to promote the brand.

On a local level, a good communications campaign can be something as simple as promoting safe driving, which environmental and engineering consulting services firm CH2M launched both globally as well as locally.

As communicators, our role is to understand our audience(s), know how to engage with them, and shape messaging that will impact both attitudes and behaviours. It’s never easy to change habits that have been ingrained for years, especially when it comes to sustainability (anyone who has worked on a recycling initiative will know how hard it can be to get people to recycle rather than throw materials into the trash).

However, that’s the beauty of our job as communicators. We’re the front line, the people who take a concept and make it happen with those groups whom we need to come on board. To quote from the United Nations Environmental Program:

Public communication has a key role to play to build on these emerging trends and to make sustainable development approachable and understandable. Informed, motivated and committed people can help us to achieve our sustainability goals. However, communicating effectively about sustainable lifestyles is a challenge. One needs to consider not only what to communicate, but how to communicate it.

Important factors of success include content, messenger, choice of media and tone. Experts are coming to realise that traditional messages from governments and green groups urging the public to adopt the environment into their day-to-day decisions need to be overhauled. Many of these messages are simply too patronising, guilt-laden or disapproving. Instead of turning people on to the environment, they risk switching
them off. The lesson to be learned is that communication styles have to be positive and tailored to different circumstances and cultural contexts.

If you want to know more about communicating sustainable issues, there are people who specialize in this issue. Sustainable Square’s Monaem Ben Lellahom is a great person to approach as he both understands the issue of sustainability as well as how to communicate around it; another person who focuses on sustainability is Stephen King, who focuses on the sustainable development goals. I’d urge you to reach out to either or myself to ask questions about how we can communicate sustainability better in this region.


The Agency-Client Conundrum: How to get the best out of your public relations agency

Working with clients in the region can sometimes be a challenge for agencies. We need to change this (image source: Shamley Productions)

Working with clients in the region can sometimes be a challenge for agencies for a variety of reasons. We need to change this (image source: Shamley Productions)

The one issue I hear about again and again from my friends on the agency side is the difficulty of working with clients. The most common retort is that clients don’t understand how to work with agencies. I’ve even seen agency-side colleagues praising their clients on LinkedIn for being open enough to share information with them, which for me is pretty much the basis of any agency-client relationship.

The current state of affairs between clients and public relations agencies needs to be changed. My friends and colleagues on the client side in particular need to change how they engage with their agencies; we need to understand that shouting, raising our voice, berating agency employees or simply demanding all of their time isn’t the basis for a healthy, long-term relationship that will benefit the client.

So, how do we change this? Here’s a couple of pointers:

  • Agencies are Consultants – For me, my agency team are consultants. They’re not there to be transactional, to give me a press release and then send it out. They’re there to advise me on the external environment, to provide counsel on opportunities and risks, and to support me in my job. More of us need to think consultants rather than simply implementers of basic tasks (and if you’re an agency which lives on press release writing and distribution, you also need to step up your game.
  • Inform them – I’m always amazed by how little agencies know about their clients. And it’s often not their fault. Clients need to give as much information to their agencies as possible. Agency teams are an extension of the client, and they’re representing the client with external stakeholders. Agency teams should be meeting regularly with clients, they should be give access to internal materials, and they should be made to feel that they are a natural extension of the client.
  • Learn how agencies operate – Far too few people on the client side have worked either as media or on the agency side. If client leads don’t have this experience, they need to develop an understanding of how agencies work. This means spending time with the agency teams, listening and observing how they operate. This will help in promoting a better understanding of agencies, which clients can then take back into their own operations.

These three pointers are pretty simple. It’s up to clients to put in the effort, to learn about their agencies and respect the value that agencies can bring when they are empowered by clients. As a client, if you’re not happy with your agency then change agencies. If you’re changing agencies regularly, maybe the problem isn’t on the agency side.

If you’re on either the agency or client side, do let me know your thoughts on the above. What have I missed, and what would you change or add to the above? As always, I’d love to hear from you.

Saudi Telecom, Boycotts, Social Media (راح_نفلسكم#) and Stock Price Impact

Forgive my wordy headline, but there’s a lot to get into this story. Before anything else, let me spell out the context. Saudi and Saudis love social media, but they haven’t been enthused by the efforts of the telecommunication providers in the country to block free call apps or services offered by the likes of FaceTime, SnapChat and WhatsApp. To add insult to injury, consumers have claimed that the Kingdom’s three telcos (Mobily, Saudi Telecom and Zain) have rolled back unlimited data services.

So what have the country’s social media-crazy consumers done? Yes, you guessed right. They’ve taken to social media to call for a boycott. Under the hashtags (which basically means we’ll bankrupt you) and  (boycott telco companies), the idea is simple.

Starting from last weekend, Saudi users have begun to switch off their phones. The hashtag and others have gone viral, and users have taken to Twitter to demand action against the telcos, including physical boycotts of stores.

The ultimate mark of consumer sentiment is cartoons, and Saudi’s most prominent cartoonist Abdullah Jaber stepped in to pen his own thoughts on the issue (the below translates as the Telco company on the right, saying to the consumer, “why are you angry?”

Saudi Telecom in particular has been hit, both in terms of its social media following (the carrier has lost almost 150,000 followers on its Twitter account), as well as its share price which dropped by several percent on Sunday morning after trading opened on the Saudi bourse.


Saudi Telecom’s Twitter account @STC_KSA lost over 140,000 followers in the space of two days as boycott calls spread (source: Twitter Count).


Saudi Telecom’s stock price was also hit on Sunday, with an initial fall of 8% (source: Google Finance)

There’s a further dimension to this story, with some online accounts in the UAE calling for similar action to be taken against the two telco incumbents (see the hashtag  and ).

Is this type of online activism on a single economic issue going to become more common, particularly with the state of finances across the region? And what can communicators do about an issue that is about a product and a strategy that consumers don’t like?

As always, it’d be good to hear your thoughts.

Caroline Sapriel and a masterclass in crisis communications

While I’ve been in the communications industry for a while (read the lines on my face!), every now and then I have the opportunity to meet someone who wows me. I had that feeling two weeks back when I met with Caroline Sapriel. Caroline, who is an expert in crisis management and communications, was invited along by the International Association of Business Communicators to talk about her insights on crises. What with all that is happening globally, it seemed apt to talk about how we can communicate better on issues that have an adverse impact, both on reputations and operations.

First of all, Caroline defined a crisis by three points:

1) Surprise

2) Brevity or shortness of time

3) Threat

What is fascinating is Caroline’s assertion that two-third of crises are smoldering, in other words they’re issues which aren’t tackled properly or which are ignored. However, as Caroline also adds, “most organizations don’t properly understand what a crisis is.”

Now, to the good news. Organizations rarely face true crises, issues which can substantially damage or stop operations and ultimately destroy reputations. However, most crises are still handled incorrectly. Many leaders look to manage a crisis in the same way as they manage through normal times, by forming a consensus and aligning others. However, Caroline states that a crisis needs a different type of behaviour, one that follows a command and control model where one person takes charge and acts decisively, with or without the approval of others. She spelled out five key competencies that leaders need to navigate a crisis.

1) Situational awareness and analysis

2) Sense-making

3) Stakeholder mapping

4) Scenario planning

5) Decision-making in a crisis

Now, let’s come to our role as communicators. Caroline was very kind to share her company’s integrated business contingency framework as well as spell out her 10 commandments of crisis management, which are based on decades of hands-on experience as well as research.

CS&A's integrated business contingency framework seeks to explain how communications and stakeholder management can support organizations in a crisis, through every stage of a crisis.

CS&A’s integrated business contingency framework seeks to explain how communications and stakeholder management can support organizations in a crisis, through every stage of a crisis.

The 10 commandments is also a fantastic read:

#1 Own up to and communicate the problem early on

#2 Recognize that you cannot make what is bad look good

#3 Be prepared for the worst. In a crisis, things get worse before they get better

#4 Prioritize and remember people’s safety is always first

#5 Focus on protecting your credibility and not winning brownie points

#6 Set the course, have a Mission Statement and stick to it

#7 Map and remap issues and stakeholders as the situation develops

#8 Use every available channel to communicate with your stakeholders

#9 If the crisis drags, don’t retreat into a siege. Stay out there!

#10 Manage the aftermath of the crisis. Remember, it’s not over until it’s really over

Caroline adds that in a crisis we can’t control the events, but we can control our credibility.

If you’re wondering how your organization is doing, have a look at the below image which has been developed by Caroline and her organization. The crisis management culture ladder will help you to understand where you are in terms of preparing your organization for a crisis.

CS&A's crisis management culture ladder maps out where organizations are in terms of their ability to manage and learn from a crisis. At the bottom are organizations who essentially don't care as long as they're not caught; at the top are organizations who thrive on and grow with every crisis they encounter. Where are you at?

CS&A’s crisis management culture ladder maps out where organizations are in terms of their ability to manage and learn from a crisis. At the bottom are organizations who essentially don’t care as long as they’re not caught; at the top are organizations who thrive on and grow with every crisis they encounter. Where are you at?

As an additional plus, Caroline has shared a reading list that will help guide you on improving your understanding of crises and what you should do to prepare as a communicator and leader.

On a final note, I’d like to thank Caroline for her time. And if you’re interested in knowing more about Caroline Sapriel, she’s the managing partner and founder of CS&A International, a pioneer and a recognised leader in the field of risk, crisis and business continuity management. For additional information please visit her company’s website.