Northwestern University Qatar: A case study of civil protest through social media

I’m in awe right now. Of one professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. And also the students. They’ve shown that it is possible to hold people to account for their actions and words through civil protest, both online and offline, in the Gulf.

Let’s start from the beginning. Journalism professor Justin Martin recounted how the University’s Dean had responded to student concerns that graduation would be held on the first day of Ramadan during fasting hours by saying to 40 faculty, “They can go to hell.”

This revelation, as well as insights from others, spurred the student campus to take action and voice their views collectively. What’s surprised me is how united the response has been to this incident, and how it’s brought together all nationalities to act together, through voicing their views on social media, through protesting on campus, and through setting up social media channels dedicated to the student campus. A sample of the responses is below.

The response from the University hasn’t been any different from what I’d have expected, with a statement put out that is a sorry/not sorry and which places the blame on Professor Martin himself as the whistleblower (without naming him).

“Over the weekend a series of tweets targeting the dean and members of the staff and faculty at Northwestern University in Qatar was posted. The statements were based on comments and blogs that were made some time ago – from the last academic year to one that was posted 10 years ago.

Supporting the well-being of our community – faculty, staff, and students – is our highest priority, and we take actions like this very seriously. We will continue to monitor this situation and offer our support when needed.

As a community, we all have a responsibility to be respectful of each other and our differences. Over the past decade, there have been instances where we failed to reach that standard and for that, we apologize.

There are no claims of perfection at NU-Q; we are all human; however, we are also one community. It grieves us that someone within NU-Q would try to hurt this community that we all have worked so hard to create.”

In a region where so many grievances aren’t aired out of fear of reprisal (such as termination or deportation), it’s brilliant to see young people in a university standing up so bravely to state their views with respect and civility. The Gulf needs more of us to speak up for what is right, and Dr Martin and Northwestern University in Qatar’s students have shown that it is possible for a group to stand up and advocate for both respect and understanding from those in power. All the power to them, and I hope that NUQatar’s administration both takes the time to actually listen and act.

The Story of Abu Dhabi’s Toll Gate – Why Comms Shouldn’t Need to Clean Up After Others

When things go wrong, the first people to deal with the blow-back are communicators. Organizations need to involve comms early on, to better anticipate what may not work, and what the response will be

It’s been a month of chasing, of phone calls, visits and Tweets. And yet, there was no update, no new information. I’m talking here about my experience with Abu Dhabi’s new toll system. The idea is simple; Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital city, wanted to set up a road toll tax on drivers entering certain areas. To do this, drivers had to register on a website prior to the system going live (there’s already a road toll system operating in the UAE, in Dubai. The Abu Dhabi version is different to Dubai’s).

So far, so good. We had just over a month to get our affairs in order, before the toll gates went live on October 15. I wanted to be proactive, and so I went to the website to register my car. The questions were straightforward – I needed to provide the details of my national ID card, my car plate, an email and password. Simple, you’d think. I must have tried a couple of times, and I couldn’t register. All I kept getting was the below message (which really wasn’t helpful).

“Something went wrong” may be an accurate description of the whole IT system, but it’s not going to help users understand the issue

I call up the contact center. They ask for my national ID number before asking for my name (which I found strange), and then advise me to go in and log an issue. I do this, and register a complaint a whole month before the deadline. The adviser tells me I’ll get a call once the issue is solved. No call comes in for a couple of days. I call up, and there’s no update. What I do understand is that many other people are going through this same experience. I tweet, and get the same response over and over again. I’m not alone, sadly.

The inevitable happens, and the service’s introduction was delayed, from October 15 to January 1.

Given the need to register (if you don’t, you’ll be fined per day), I can imagine that there would have been thousands of people wanting help, and spending time reaching out to the government body in question. These channels would have been handled by the customer service/communication teams. I feel for the people manning the phone lines or the social media accounts, as there’s little they can do to control a situation, besides from repeating the line that “IT is working on it.”

This whole back-and-forth conversation reminds me of how uncommon it is in many regions for both communications to be brought into the design process, and how little user testing there actually is before a new system is rolled out.

It’s simple. A difficult experience erodes trust. A good experience builds trust. Transparency in challenges helps engender trust. Spin does the opposite (and lots of people will know when they’re being spun).

My hope is that this story will be a lesson learned, especially for governmental bodies who want to roll out new technologies, and who need to engage both their communications teams and potential users early on. Communications is there to help, so bring the right people in (preferably those with experience who ask the right questions, anticipate what may happen, and understand how to best engage with an intended audience), listen to their advice, and ensure that these people are part of the whole innovation process, from end to end. I’m sure I speak for many communicators in the region when I say that I don’t want to clean up for others; I simply want to help create a better product or experience which I can talk about. Are you with me?

MBC’s Suicide Bomber Promo (I can’t believe I’m writing this)

The above tweet from MBC has now been deleted

I’m going to say from the outset that everyone makes mistakes. And I also have considerable respect for work the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), the largest broadcaster in the Middle East, has produced (Ahmed Al Shugairi’s Khawatir is the most inspiring program ever aired on Arabic-language television). But what I saw on MBC’s social media channel yesterday horrified me. Before I describe the scene for non-Arabic speakers, I’m going to share the video below.

The video was shared on MBC’s social media account on the evening of the 30th September. It’s effectively a promo for their new series of Arabs Got Talent. Someone wanted to create a video, and they thought it’d be a good idea to depict a would-be suicide bomber on stage, and choosing life instead of destruction.

The dialogue basically conveys the person on stage saying, after he’s opened up his shirt to show the explosive belt, that, “they trained me to blow you all up, but I’ve chosen life and Allah. Can I now sing.” He’s asked by the presenters what he’s doing, and then asked to sing.

There are so many better ways to fight extremism. And there are so many better ways to promote a show (and this is a promo, for anyone who is asking). Given the issues the Middle East faces when it comes to how it is perceived abroad, as well as Islam, who thought this was a good idea? And why did the presenters go along with the idea?

Let’s stop with the stereotyping BS. Extremism is a serious issue, and it should be handled as such, rather than as a prop for a publicity stunt. I’m happy that MBC has taken this down, and I hope that there’ll be discussions internally as to how to better handle such a serious subject, especially by a program which is watched by millions.

Sheikh Mohammed’s ‘Move Ahead Agenda’ and MENA’s need for more CCOs

At the end of August Dubai’s Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum published an open letter to officials. The message, nicknamed his ‘Move Ahead’ agenda by the media, focused on a number of issues, including the need to engage face-to-face with people they are serving, the responsibility to act properly on social media, and the importance of resolving consumer issues head on (you can read a full translation here from The National newspaper; I hope future letters will be translated to English by the government, given the number of non-Arabic speakers in the country).

The underlying thread throughout the agenda was the need to clearly and proactively communicate, to promote dialogue, and to talk through challenging issues, particularly around poor service.

Sheikh Mohammed has long pushed for his country’s government to be one of the best in the world. This month he launched another initiative, to rate the best and worst performing government offices nationwide. The tweet below announced the results of the first round of evaluations, with a listing of the five best and five worst performers.

These efforts will go a long way to improve the quality of services offered to residents in the UAE. But it also got me thinking about the nature of communications in the region. Unlike in Europe or the US, communications in the MENA region is primarily tactical; its aim is to inform, top-down, or externally. There’s less in the way of strategic communications, which is used to promote stakeholder dialogues, develop reputations and set expectations, or plan and co-create with stakeholders to deliver a better product or service.

Over the past couple of years, the UAE has created new governmental roles; today, each ministry has a chief innovation officer, and a chief happiness officer. There isn’t a mandated chief communications officer role, however, which would report directly to a minister, or into the Prime Minister’s Office. My own feeling and experience is that there are not enough government communicators who are aware of new communications models or who have the strategic mindset needed to fulfill Sheikh Mohammed’s ‘New Agenda’. Rather than leading from the front and communicators setting what needs to be done to improve communications, it seems that the communications approach is dictated by the leadership of specific ministries.

Is it time the UAE government mandated that ministries appoint CCOs, invest in their communications abilities and empower those capable enough of transforming government communications? What ideas do you have to improve government communications across the region? Could this be the start of a transformation as to how governments in MENA communicate with their own people, as well as with stakeholders abroad? As always, I’d love to hear your ideas on what role the industry can play in this.

The Importance of Execution: Lessons from the Night of McDonald’s Giveaways

Any idea is only as good as the execution. Which McDonalds found out on Thursday

Now, I love my creativity when it comes to marketing and communications. Especially when it involves bridging the online and offline worlds. McDonalds should have come up with a cracker of an idea.

For one night only, the fast food chain was giving out freebies including “Night In” apparel and accessories, including McDonalds-branded loungewear, socks, slippers, games, and more. All consumer had to do was order their food on the 19th of this month between 7:00PM until 3:00AM, online, via the call center or an app. All the surprise items were to be distributed randomly on a first come, first serve basis while supplies last.

Sounds good so far. They’d also gone out and promoted the campaign through influencer marketing, as well as via their own social channels.

So, what’s the problem I hear you say? Let’s go back to what I first spoke about, namely execution. If you don’t fulfill your promise, then consumers will get annoyed. And they’ll vent on social media. And there was ALOT of venting at McDonalds.

It gets worse for McDonalds. You know a stunt has failed when the UK’s biggest tabloid covers the story with the headline “Burgers and Lies”. And, on a side note, the response given to the Sun left me scratching my head; surely they could have promised to deliver items to all those customers who missed out (the response is below), rather than focusing on those who did get free swag.

“Thousands of customers received a surprise in their McDelivery orders last night, however we know how popular the limited edition merchandise has been and are sorry that some customers were disappointed not to receive any. This was the most amount of merchandise we’ve ever distributed in the UK and Ireland so we are delighted to see so many customers sharing their McDelivery socks and more on social media.”

How to Prep for Executions

Getting campaigns right takes a great deal of planning and experience. But there are a couple of basic pointers to bear in mind.

  1. Ensure that you have enough materials/gifts to go round. Look at previous campaigns, tally up the anticipated numbers of people who will take part, and order extra so you have a buffer. It’s better to have items left over at the end and your customers happy, than leave customers feeling as if they’ve been cheated (and the same applies to people – if you need more people for a campaign, then bring them in and train them up pronto).
  2. Clearly communicate with your consumers and partners. With this campaign, there were multiple partners involved, including call centers and delivery drivers from different companies. It’s clear that some of these drivers didn’t know about the campaign.
  3. Update these people too with new information. If there’s an issue with delivery and execution, let your call center staff and social media people know so they can proactively share information/share the correct information, rather than sharing incorrect information and making a situation worse.
  4. Treat every consumer as a person. Consumers aren’t stupid – they’ll see how social media accounts are basically copying and pasting responses to every single complaint. Don’t do that – respond like a person, not a bot. Consumers will appreciate it.
  5. If something goes wrong, do your best to fix it. There’s many consumers out there who didn’t get any free gift on Thursday night, and they’re still writing to McDonalds. Get them a gift, and do it asap. A brand can fix any issue, as long as they act quickly, sincerely, and proactively engage the consumer. If they don’t, that consumer will be lost.

That’s it from me for today. If you have any of your own tips to share on executions, please do send them across!

Purpose Marketing: Nada Dairy’s Ad for Saudi National Day Backfires

Nada’s attempt to mix politics with branding have backfired

I’ve spoken previously about the issue of purpose marketing in the Middle East (mainly the lack of any local brand engagement on big issues such as gender equality and sustainability). One popped into my timelines this week. Sadly, it’s an example that will be long remembered for what went wrong, rather than right.

Nada Dairy is one of the largest manufacturers of dairy products in the Gulf. The company decided to create a video in the run up to Saudi National Day this week. The video attempts to draw a line between the Kingdom’s new cultural policies, and those which were promoted several years ago (this is putting it crudely). The video depicts traditional views as backwards.

The issue with this political stance is that you’re clearly alienating a significant number of consumers. The Kingdom isn’t a democracy, but consumers are free to choose whichever brands they want. And this video has demonstrably hurt Nada’s reputation. Boycotts of its products have been trending on Twitter all this week, and the news has even led to boycott calls in Kuwait.

Nada’s response was to “apologize” for the video (which has been pulled from its feeds). The company also states that it recognizes and respects all views. The statement (which is the first image in this post) may not be the end of the issue, given the strength of the online responses. What is clear is marketers must think long and hard as to what positions they take on societal issues and causes, if they want to both be a supporter of societal change as well as a company that builds a loyal consumer following. If Nada’s management believed in these principles, then the brand has to stick with them. No one will believe in a brand that flip-flops on a societal stance.