Erasing the UK’s Soft Power – The Closure of BBC Arabic Radio

According to the BBC, the World Service currently reaches 148m people in an average week

Much of said of soft power, this notion of being able to influence and persuade others through concepts such as culture and entertainment. There is no better example of this than the British Broadcasting Corporation, better known as the BBC. For decades, the BBC has been the go-to place for information throughout much of the world. This was due to the BBC’s range of platforms, most especially its radio service.

This week, the BBC announced the closure of ten different language services on its radio network and the firing of 382 people. These languages include Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Hindi, Tamil and Bengali. While the BBC argues that many people will be able to listen online (and online numbers have been growing according to data released by the Corporation), BBC’s overall global reach in 2020 was 468 million people a week.

One has to wonder what this decision will mean, not just for the BBC (the service will still be running its Arabic-language television service and website), but for the United Kingdom in general. Many people in the world know the UK through the BBC, and primarily the radio service. Radio is easier and cheaper to obtain (especially on short wave), and it can be harder to block than a website.

The last time the BBC had to scrap an Arabic-language initiative was when it cancelled the planned-for news service at short notice. Qatar came in, snapped up the team and formed AlJazeera, which is arguably the most impactful television and online news service the region has.

Given that the UK government seems to be short-sighted enough to lose one of its most powerful soft power assets abroad (the total cost of radio for those ten languages is just under 30 million pounds a year), you do wonder who will come along and do another AlJazeera by setting up their own radio service with some of the most experience journalists and engineers in the radio industry.

Remembering Firdaus Shariff

Firdaus was an exemplary marketing professional, one of the best I’d worked with

Last Friday morning, I received several messages about my former boss. And I still am struggling to believe them. I keep expecting Firdaus Shariff to post something insightful on social media, or share a message about what the marketing team was up to. Firdaus was my former boss and the Vice President Middle East and Africa for Marketing, Communications and Digital Customer Experience at Schneider Electric. I’d known her from her days at Cisco , when she’d worked with my wife. My wife is a woman who is hard to impress, and yet she always had kind words to say about Firdaus and her capabilities. 

Firdaus had worked in the industry for two decades, first at Cisco, then at SAP and finally at Schneider Electric. She was driven to excel, and she always pushed the team to do more. At the same time, she believed that marketing should be both creative and fun; she wanted us to enjoy what we were doing and let loose our imagination. Firdaus didn’t settle for the average or mundane, and many of the campaigns she led were not just impactful but also some of the most engaging work I’d seen (and all of this in a B2B setting).

She also had an eye on the future, and invested heavily in technology to improve both how marketing operated and how she could measure the function. Always one to support and encourage, Firdaus was in many ways a dream to work with. She’d work with you to set the goals, give you what you needed (well, I’ll admit some of what I’d ask for), and then let you loose. Firdaus had an uncanny and rare ability to understand the different functions within her remit, including communications. While she had worked in a pure communications role, she had a sense of what could be done, including with paid media. And she also had a sense for where the industry was headed, joining SAP when the software sector was taking off and then taking the leap to Schneider Electric, a firm that is dedicated to sustainability.  

It’s easy to understate how unique Firdaus was. She was a marketing professional in her prime, who could have done anything she wanted and would succeed with anything she turned her hand to. She was able to combine creativity with technology, and manage her team in a way that would quite literally make the impossible possible. And she was devoted to her family – we’d often share stories about our girls who were both the same age. 

Firdaus is an exemplar of what the industry in our region so desperately needs. For me, that’s her legacy, an example of what we should be looking to become as both individuals and as an industry. Here’s to you Firdaus, to everything that you have achieved and all that you stood for. 

Firdaus with the team earlier on in the year

The Six-Day Working Week, Russian and HK PR people in the UAE

I feel for anyone who works in the service industry. Ever since the UAE moved from a Sunday-Thursday week to Monday-Friday, the sense I’ve gotten is that those working in the service industry have had to work out how to cater to both local/global and regional clients. For many, the answer has been simple – agencies are having to work out rosters of people working over the six days, from Sunday to Friday.

I don’t know how sustainable this is. Dubai is the hub for the region’s creative agencies, many of whom don’t have offices outside of the Emirate. Will clients across the Middle East accommodate the change in the working week? Or will agencies look to open offices (or move/hire people) in countries which still follow the Sunday-Thursday routine?

For those working with clients across the region, I’m curious to know how you are managing. Is there anything that can be done to make the workload easier, and/or redress the work-life balance? Or has the change in the UAE’s working week not had an impact?

Another observation over the past couple of months is the number of Russians and Hong Kongers moving to the UAE, particularly in the communications industry. More talent is always a good thing; let’s hope our new arrivals find their feet in the region and get acquainted with its cultures and languages.

Am always happy to hear your views. Please do share them in the comments section below.

A Tale of Two Brand Reputations – MNCs in Russia and P&O’s Sacking of 800 UK Workers

What will the impact of the past couple of weeks be on global brands in Russia? And will P&O Ferries and its parent company DP World come to regret the overnight firing of 800 UK employees? Image by vectorpouch

Reputations are funny things. They take years to build, and can be lost in a moment. In many ways, the past month will become a period of intense research for those wanting to know more about corporate actions and their impact on reputations.

First up, we have the tragedy of the war in the Ukraine. Responding to both public and political pressure, over 400 global brands have pledged to suspend, pull back or stop operations in Russia, according to the Financial Times. For multinationals to move at this speed is unprecedented. What is most striking is the decisions many have come to, namely to risk not being able to do business in what is a sizable market (Russia’s population is over 144 million) for the short to medium term. While sanctions have pushed them in a certain direction, many are also weighing up public sentiment in the West regarding how they respond (some such as McDonalds aren’t just closing stores, but they’re continuing to pay their Russian staff).

Second, we have another crisis. This time the crisis seems to be more of the company’s own doing. P&O Ferries laid off 800 crew from its ships last week. The news was delivered via a pre-recorded video message, and guards were hired to escort staff off the ships. The firm claimed it had to replace British staff with cheaper labor to save the company and make it viable. All this despite the parent company DP World making record revenues of US$10.8 billion in 2021. The saga, which includes political intrigue (Ministers were told the night before about the mass firings and the government did not vote for a bill to protect workers from mass layoffs the previous year) and the inevitable debate about the legacy of Brexit, has seen both P&O Ferries and DP World being hammered in the UK media (there’s no mention I have seen of this story in the UAE’s press).

Both scenarios highlight the challenges facing businesses. The former is forcing firms to take a stance on a conflict, in what could be a precedent for future wars. And the latter is a self-inflicted reputational crisis that P&O Ferries and DP World could have arguably avoided with better judgement (other ferry companies employ foreign labor at a fraction of the cost of UK nationals, the difference is the number of layoffs and how they were conducted). Either way, firms must think about the reputational impact of their actions, especially in a digital world where anyone and everyone can comment in an instant. Just ask DP World’s Chairman and Group CEO about the response to his tweet about speaking with Emirati youth as P&O Ferries security staff were escorting fired workers off the ships… (the responses have been hidden; you can still see quote tweets).

Zayed University and its Importance to the National Communications Industry

Zayed University has graduated thousands of communications graduates. The current College of Communication and Media Sciences is headed up by Dean Dwight Brooks (left)

If I was to name one university I’d want to study communications at, it would be Zayed University. For sure, the media landscape is not as free or as mature as what you would find in the UK or the USA. And there are issues you cannot touch upon. What makes Zayed University’s College of Communication and Media Sciences so special is its people, in particular the faculty.

For the past couple of years I had the honor of supporting the College as a member of and chair its National Advisory Council. I saw first hand how passionate the faculty were, the quality of their research, and how they kept at their mission of ensuring that every student had the opportunity to learn what communications was, how it should be practiced, and the difference that the function has on an organization and its people.

During that time the College graduated thousands of graduates; the University also began to offer post-graduate courses for communications professionals in the country, with an excellent set of courses for young people, mainly Emiratis, to learn advanced communications theories, so they’d be ready to become industry leaders. If you look around the government communications sector, where many ZU graduates end up, and often those who have the best understanding of communications and are able to execute on plans have been to the College of Communication and Media Sciences.

I won’t stop there. Many ZU CCMS faculty members have contributed significantly to the industry. Take for example the first UAE edition of the Global Capability Framework, which was led by Professors Gaelle Duthler and Ganga Dhanesh. Or the research on gender perceptions, which was undertaken by Dr Zoe Hurley for the Advertising Business Group. We literally have a research gem in our midst, which the industry does not tap into enough.

The Future of CCMS

I have seen all the good that the College of Communication and Media Sciences has done. I am less certain about its future. The University’s leadership is embarking on a program with an organization called Minerva, which is “aimed at ensuring students have cross-disciplinary skills that are relevant in a fast-changing global job market”. This agreement will impact the entire university, including CCMS, and this is despite Minerva not having any prior experience in teaching communications.

While there is not too much I can say about the tie-up, I will say this – I have spent two decades in communications, and I have seen the function evolve at a frantic pace. And the CCMS Faculty can both understand and explain these changes in a way that best prepares their students for success. I’d argue that the greatest barrier to success is not listening to the CCMS faculty and leadership – they know teaching, they know the subject, and they know the industry. They should be the ones who are able to shape the future of the college in a way that will both improve learning and ensure that students remain passionate about a subject which means such much to the country and the region.

Communicators aren’t just people who write notes, take pictures, or create videos. We tell stories, we tap into people’s emotions and we shape reputations. The country needs that, more than ever, if it is to be seen in the way that the country’s leadership desire. And I hope that Zayed University continues to lead the way here, thanks to the people at the College of Communication and Media Sciences.

What’s in a word? The difference between Gaming and Gambling…

While many expats will get the meaning of the word gaming in this context, the meaning may not be so clear in Arabic and to local audiences

What is the importance of a word? As Shakespeare said, a rose is but a rose no matter what it may be called. However, words can have a great deal of meaning, especially when they refer to a subject that can be controversial. Take for example an announcement made yesterday by the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority. The statement reads as below:

Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) has announced the formation of a new division focused on the regulation of integrated resorts. These include hotel operations, convention space, entertainment, restaurants and lounges, spa, retail and gaming facilities.

Following global best practices in the regulation of gaming that operate as part of integrated resorts across various jurisdictions worldwide, the Department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation within RAKTDA will consider the social, cultural, and environmental landscape of the Emirate and cover licensing, taxation, operational procedures, and consumer safeguards. The foremost priority of this new division is to create a robust framework that will ensure responsible gaming at all levels.

The regulatory structure will address the entire gaming enterprise within integrated resorts, requiring compliance with all applicable laws and regulations (including financial crime laws) from operators, suppliers and employees. Additionally, the regulations will cover marketing, advertising, and financial transactions, ensuring that these areas comply with the Department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation.

The question is what is “gaming”? There’s context here. US casino chain Wynn Resorts filed a regulatory note on Tuesday in the United States to announce plans to enter an agreement with the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah for “the development and subsequent management of an integrated resort.” The phrase, first coined in Singapore, refers to a hotel that includes a casino and other amenities and services.

Now, why does this matter you ask? Gambling is forbidden in Islam. And the issue is particularly sensitive in the peninsula of the Arabian Gulf, which is home to the religion’s two most sacred sites. There is no casino in the Gulf, despite the size of the tourism sector in a country like the UAE. And there are other casino operators in the country too; there is a Caesars Palace off of Dubai’s coastline (this property does not offer gambling and operates solely as a hotel, despite allegedly being designed like a casino). And yet, there are no operating casinos, as gambling is illegal onshore. The wording may also be a nod to Islamic religious sensitivities (the closest casinos to the region are in Lebanon and Egypt).

The gambling industry is massive – the casino and online gambling sector is worth over US$230 billion. And the industry is fast growing, at a double-digit annual compound growth rate over the past decade. Given that gambling markets tie into key geographic markets (think America, Europe, China, India and Israel), it would make economic sense for any hotel operator in the region to look at this area. And yet, the issue is the religious taboo, and the concern of what gambling may mean for the region’s young people especially; there’s little mention of the Arabic word for gambling in the local press (the exception being Arabic translations on international news sites and news wires).

And this is why the word “gaming” was used, rather than gambling. The meaning is understood in English, and the avoidance of the meaning is also clear to see in Arabic. Regardless of the wording being used and its obfuscation, the end result will be the same. Unless, Wynn will be truly opening the world’s first hotel resort fully equipped with PS5s and Xboxes. Now, that would be a sight to behold.

Saudi Arabia and the Promise of its Communications Industry

Saudi’s capital Riyadh has dramatically changed over the past couple of years

A new year, a new job and a new country. Well, the last isn’t exactly true. I’m back in Saudi Arabia, the country I lived in for a number of years over a decade back. And if it wasn’t for the unmistakable Najd accent and the landmarks, I may be fooled into thinking that I was somewhere else. The change in Riyadh alone has been remarkable. There’s the obvious changes, such as women driving (and yes, I’m both enjoying and a little fearful of sitting in the passenger seat as my wife drives me around a town she used to know even better than me). But there’s also a shift in society, in how people deal with each other. There’s more activities in Riyadh, including live shows (I never imagined I’d see an ice show in Riyadh). Society is shifting, partly due to a top-down push and partly due to the relentless energy of the Kingdom’s youth (who make up the majority of the population).

This means opportunities for communications and communicators. For the past two years, the Kingdom has been in many ways the boom market for new accounts, with the launch of government project after government project. And this increasing focus on Saudi Arabia will inevitably translate to demand for more, better communicators on the ground, professionals who both understand the local market (and its language) as well as the media and communications outside of the Kingdom. For the Saudis, this is key. The country I know, and a people who are the most generous and hospitable in the Gulf, is a far cry from how Saudi Arabia is perceived abroad. Open, transparent dialogues will help alter those perceptions.

In true New Year’s style, I’m going to make a few simple predictions about communications in Saudi Arabia. First of all, I believe that the Kingdom will host more foreign agencies over the coming 12 months – you cannot serve the Saudi market from abroad, even from Dubai (and the UAE’s working week shift makes this more difficult). Second, I also believe we’re going to see more home-grown agencies appear, with specializations in new areas such as internal comms and change comms. And we’re going to see more Saudis enter the comms field, which will be essential if we’re going to create the type of professional I believe who can help the function flourish here, a hybrid who can understand both Saudi Arabia and its people as well as the outside world. Both agencies and those client side need to help make this happen by working with universities and giving young Saudis a taste of what communications is all about.

For now, we’re settling in and enjoying the new Saudi Arabia while getting reacquainted will all that makes this country so special. And I’m hoping to both blog and podcast more from this truly special place. If there’s anything you’d like me to write about, please do let me know!

Can we please take corporate governance seriously in the Gulf?

Ethics underpins so much of what we do, and that’s why it matters (image source: brendalutterodt.com)

It’s been a while since I’ve written here (I blame overwork, events, and myself for being tardy). But I do want to share some pieces I’ve written recently for others. Here’s my first, with a look at ethics in the region, starting with a look at a local public relations association (MEPRA, if you’re asking) in a piece I wrote for Campaign Middle East.

Yes, I know you’re yawning. There’s really no way to make this issue sexy. But, the issue of good corporate governance matters. It’s the basis for trust and transparency. When a company or organization is above board, you feel you don’t need to question what’s going on. There’s accountability too, and questions get answered head-on. There’s no spin. And this leads me to why I’m even writing this. Recently a local industry body for the public relations sector announced two new fellowships. The fellows are very good at what they do. But they’re also very much part of that organization, with one of them serving on the strategy board (which puts forwards names for fellowships, unless I’m mistaken), and the other on the executive board (which makes the decisions on the fellowships).

So, why does this matter? It’s a good question, and I was asked this by one of the two new fellows a couple of years back when I raised similar issues. After all, this is an honorific title. Well, I work in a job that is all about reputation. My job is to build and protect reputations. And I truly believe the best way to do this is by being straightforward and open. And I benefit indirectly when others do the same, as my profession becomes more trusted. That’s why associations over the world work hard on their corporate governance. To give you an example, here’s what the International Association of Business Communicators says for nominee eligibility as part of their own corporate governance.

  • Only members of IABC in good standing are eligible to be nominated to be IABC Fellows.
  • The nominee must have been a member of IABC for at least five years. (The years of membership do not have to be consecutive.)
  • Current members of the executive board, the Fellows Selection Committee, and anyone who has served as IABC Chair in the past three years are not eligible.

Interestingly, they seek out diverse nominations from their members, just like other associations do.

Now, here’s the other reason why we need to get serious about how we do things as an industry here. I hope I don’t shock anyone when I say that the Middle East isn’t generally known for its transparency or accountability. It may be a stereotype, but this is an image that we shouldn’t be reinforcing through our actions.

I remember the last time I wrote a similar piece, a couple of years back, about the same association that was appointing members to its board in violation of its own charter. The response wasn’t exactly a lesson in reputation management. But I hope that this time around, there’ll be a little more thought given to corporate governance. Given that we work in an industry that’s based on ethics, it should matter to every communications professional how the industry bodies that represent us behave.

The Need for Debate in the Gulf’s Media

There’s nothing people love more than a good debate. But good luck finding this in regional media (image source: Wired)

There was a great article written by Dr Mira Al Hussein where she addresses the duality of the university system in the UAE. She talks about the difference between those who go to public universities, and those who study in private establishments. She shares her insights on how this impacts the country, and what the government can do to address the issue of a future-ready workforce for nationals.

The article hits all the points – it’s to the point, makes great observations, and is designed to spark a debate (which it has done incredibly well online). It’s exactly the type of opinion piece that any editor would be desperate to pick up and publish.

And yet, it’s increasingly difficult to find any type of content published in the Gulf’s media which doesn’t adhere to an official government position. Be it censorship or self-censorship, the outcome is the same. There’s no discussion of ideas, no debate on how to progress. As one friend put it, the media is the last place anyone in the Gulf should go to if they want to debate how the region can make any progress.

Open debate is essential for any society to move forward. It’s not always pretty, but airing thoughts in public helps to drive discussion around different ideas and points of view. Societies which promote this type of openness promote innovation. And yet we’re not benefiting.

Don’t take it from me. Read below the tweet of the UAE’s Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla about why this discussion should be had. I hope we’ll be able to do that, not on social media or on a blog from an institution thousands of miles away. But rather here on the ground, where it matters most. Let’s hope a push from more of us will give the region’s editors the bravery to run more pieces like Mira’s.

Qatar’s reputation building during the Afghanistan crisis

I’m going to start this blog by saying what is happening in Afghanistan is truly heartbreaking. The Afghan people deserve better, especially when it comes to our support.

With that, one country has very much been top of mind when it comes to supporting the efforts to get people out of Afghanistan. And that is Qatar. In part it’s good fortune: the country is a couple of hours flight from Kabul; Qatar has the largest US airbase in the region, at Al Udeid, and it also has relations with both the Taliban and NATO (Qatar has been hosting the US-Taliban talks for several years).

But this is only part of the story. Qatar’s Foreign Ministry’s communications team has been exceptional. They’ve done a number of things very well. And they’re an example of how government should be engaging with the media and on social media.

Spell out the story in numbers

Media like numbers. They want to see the full extent of what you’ve done. And every step of the way, the team at Qatar’s Foreign Ministry have been sharing updates on how many people have come through or are being hosted by Qatar. That number is now exceeding 40,000 people.

Make the story personal

There have been so many stories of sorrow, but also hope. Two really stand out for me. The first is how Qatar helped to get out the Afghan female robotics team from Kabul, rushing through paperwork and getting them and their families onto flights. Have a look at the NBC interview conducted with two of the young ladies, who are truly inspiring. Another story which sticks in my mind is how Qatar’s ambassador to Afghanistan and embassy staff in Kabul have been driving people to the airport, going through Taliban checkpoints and using their relations with the Taliban to ensure people safe passage.

Always be Ready to Engage

The final piece of the puzzle has been the willingness of the Foreign Ministry’s team to engage with the media. The Ministry’s spokesperson is Lolwah AlKhater, and she’s been formidable, reacting online and hosting people on the ground.

The ministry have also pushed back on falsehoods, for example pushing back on a claim by an American woman that she helped get out the robotics team. The quote in there is quite something. And they’ve not pushed Qatar into everything. The story tells itself, but they’ve been on hand to help. Which is what the best communicators do.

I often snipe at government communications in the Gulf, for so many reasons. But Qatar’s Foreign Ministry has shown what a world-class media team can do. They’ve done their country proud.