We have much to learn from Asia’s Communicators

Asia-Pacific Association of Communication Directors | LinkedIn

I’m excited. And I’ll tell you why. We’re launching the Asia-Pacific Association of Communication Directors in the Gulf. This matters to me, and should matter to us all. And here’s why. Many of us have looked to the West for instruction on communications. But I believe we need to look towards Asia. And here’s the simple reasons why.

Cultural Foundations

In many respects, our cultures are very similar. The Middle East is a blend of high context cultures, with many things left unsaid. That’s the same for much of Asia, where cultural awareness is key to communicating. We share religious similarities, and common linguistic traits. Our governance structures could also be described as similar, with a certain opaqueness when it comes to public lobbying. And then there’s the growth of regional hubs such as Singapore, which resemble Dubai in many ways.

Similar Challenges

And then there’s the issues that we face. There’s a fascinating research article by Jim Macnamara, Ana Adi, May Lwin, and Ansgar Zerfass about PR management across Asia Pacific. For anyone in the Middle East, it’s like déjà vu, with a focus on digital, issues around trust, linking business needs to communications, and dealing with increasing amounts of information. If anything, we’re closer to Asia-Pacific in our challenges than any other region.

Shared Experiences

What’s fascinating is our shared experiences. Asia’s communicators have dealt with a myriad of challenging issues, such as the Asian Financial Crisis, the SARS and H1N1 pandemics, and a host of political crises. What’s also fascinating to look at is how many communicators in the Middle East hail from Asia. There’s more Asian expats in the Gulf working in communications than from any other region. And we have much to learn from them and from communicators across Asia-Pacific.

The APACD

I believe that the APACD can be a bridge to gap the Gulf and Asia-Pacific. And as the co-chair, alongside my good friend Saba Al-Busaidi, we’re going to work with the APACD to bring their activities to the Gulf, so that we can learn from our colleagues in Asia-Pacific, as well as share our own experiences and abilities with them. That’s why I’m excited. If you want to know more, go and visit their website (click on the below) or reach out to me to know more.

Are We Moving Forward? The State of Play for CSR in the Middle East (Part Two)

This is the second part of a blog I’m writing based on research undertaken by PR agency Cicero & Bernay and YouGov into the state of CSR in the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Yesterday I looked at the first half of the report. Today, I’m going to share the results on employer branding, on the impact of CSR on business, and also of the pandemic on CSR. To reiterate, this is a quantitative survey, and I do have reservations on the views shared. Let’s begin!

The Impact of CSR on Employer Branding

Let’s start with the simple view shared by the majority of executives surveyed – brands/organizations that are seen as more socially responsible find it easier to both attract and retain staff. The first statement, that of “A company’s CSR activities are an important consideration for job seekers,” was agreed with by at least 60% of executives from each region. The second statement, that of “A socially responsible company is deliberately sought out by job seekers,” was also agreed to by the majority of executives (the lowest score was for the Gulf excluding Saudi and the UAE, where only 49% of executives agreed to the statement. The most interesting statement put to those surveyed was, “Employees working in a socially responsible company are more motivated than those working for other companies.” Again, the majority of executives agreed or strongly agreed with this statement. It’s clear that being a socially responsible company is seen as an advantage when it comes to employees.

The statement put to the executives was “A company’s CSR activities are an important consideration for job seekers.”

CSR Impact on Business

There were two statements on how CSR relates to business. The first was, “How do you think adopting CSR affects a company’s business overall?” The overall sentiment was agree/strongly agree, with the lowest score being 80% in the Levant (Jordan and Lebanon). The highest scores were in Saudi (92% agreed or strongly agreed) and the UAE (95% agreed or strongly agreed). The second statement put to those surveyed was, “How important is it for a company to adopt CSR into its business practices?” The response was again overwhelmingly positive, with 92% agreeing or strongly agreeing that adopting CSR positively impacts a company’s business.

The question asked was “How do you think adopting CSR affects a company’s business overall?”

CSR in Practice Across MENA

We now get to the why and how. Those surveyed were asked, “Why do you think it’s important for a company to adopt CSR into its business practices?” The primary response, with the exception of the Levant, was to improve the reputation of a company/brand (the Levant response was to secure a company’s future over the long-term, which may be a nod towards Lebanon’s economic distress) . The second isn’t so clear-cut; in Egypt, the Levant and the GCC excluding KSA and the UAE the purpose is to give back to society. In Saudi it is to get free publicity via word-of-mouth advertising. And in the UAE there’s a host of reasons.

The question asked was, “Why do you think it’s important for a company to adopt CSR into its business practices?”

When asked if they have a CSR programme in place, the majority of executives either said no or that they didn’t know. The UAE had the highest response rate, at 46%, followed by Egypt at 43%. The Levant was lowest at 20%. What is confusing here is all of the positive messaging shared by those interviewed beforehand – CSR supposedly helps with brand perception, with fending off competition, and with attracting and retaining talent. And yet why are there so few companies with CSR programmes? And why do so few executives know of their programmes (this also calls into doubt what they say throughout the survey)? The survey did ask why CSR programmes weren’t in place, but as there are no solid numbers to this, only percentages, it’s hard to gauge the reasons why.

There’s questions on how companies benchmark, as well as the importance of CSR to the company and the impact of CSR on the business overall. There’s also questions asked about consumer trust and CSR, supply chains and whether they’d stop doing business with companies that aren’t socially responsible. I’m going to skip these, and head to the last part, which is about CSR and that other C-word, Covid-19.

The Pandemic and CSR

This is the big topic for me, namely what impact has the pandemic had on CSR. The first question was, “How has the pandemic affected your CSR efforts?” For me, this could have been phrased better, as it doesn’t explicitly say if activities have gone up, or if they’re seen as more important by the organization. The Levant fares worst, which isn’t surprising given the freefall being experienced by Lebanon’s economy. The UAE fares best, with 53% saying somewhat/very positively. I find this fascinating, as I know many friends who’ve left CSR roles over the past year in the UAE as well as many charities who are suffering from a lack of cash flow. I’m just not so sure how this relates to reality on the ground.

The question asked was, “How has the pandemic affected your CSR efforts?”

Executives were also asked if CSR has become important (no surprises here, it has), as well as if they intend to keep up their CSR activities in 2022 – Egyptian, Saudi and the UAE executives said they would do more, while Levant and GCC executives said they’d do the same.

When asked what they’d focus on moving forward, there was no one big issue which stood out (I’m not sure why building company reputation is here, seeing as it’s an outcome and not an output). The most common area of focus was employees, which makes sense given mental wellbeing issues faced in 2020 and 2021.

The question asked was, “If your company plans to engage more in CSR in the COVID-19 era and afterwards, what will your company focus on?”

Let’s lots more which could be said about CSR in the region, and I hope any subsequent reports will be both qualitative as well as quantitative (certain responses need much more validation given they don’t fully match up to my own experiences, and those of others I know working in CSR in the region). I’m going to end here for now. If you’d like to see the full report, you can download it from here – https://www.cbpr.me/mena-csr-survey-report-2020/

Are We Moving Forward? The State of Play for CSR in the Middle East (Part One)

This report aimed to uncover insights into how CSR is both perceived and practised in the region (image source: The National)

Corporate Social Responsibility… What is it exactly, and what are organizations doing about it? The UAE-based PR agency Cicero & Bernay Public Relations teamed up with research firm YouGov to understand opinions about the subject across the Gulf, in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

The methodology was simple. The research team surveyed 219 C-suite executives from the UAE, KSA, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. The respondents included decision-makers in key sectors, including aviation,
automotive, banking and finance, construction and real estate, healthcare, and transport (importantly, it doesn’t mention if companies were private or semi-government). Data was collected online. The survey was 16 questions long, and the survey was undertaken in either English or Arabic. The pie charts below detail the industry type and country.

Now, let’s start with the big question. How many executives understand what CSR is? The picture here is mixed, with executives in the UAE claiming they know what CSR is, and those in the Gulf outside of the UAE and Saudi Arabia saying they don’t know what CSR is. I’m always a little wary of do you/don’t you questions, as people will often claim knowledge they don’t have (for example, ask anyone if they recycle – no one will say no). What would be fascinating is to compare these sample numbers with global samples, to contrast awareness levels with other regions.

Do Executives Understand CSR?

Moving on, the survey asks how well do you understand CSR. Most respondents say they understand the concept fairly well, with only the UAE having a majority saying they understand CSR very well. There may be a couple of reasons for this. The most obvious may be the number of multinationals (MNCs) based in the UAE. The survey doesn’t mention if executives are from MNCs, but even if they’re not, it may be the influence of MNCs on the regional landscape. It could also be executives overplaying how much they really know.

Defining What CSR Is, And Isn’t

The third question refers to statements to help define what CSR is that respondents either agree or disagree with. CSR is defined here is a traditional sense, in terms of donations (this would fit into what happens on the ground). However, executives don’t feel that CSR should involve companies “making some sacrifices”, and CSR may not have any link to good moral values. The majority of executives also believe that CSR is part of a reputation-building strategy, and that companies should get involved in specific issues (I rarely see this happening). Executives mainly believe that they should be CSR-certified (this is an interesting response, as there’s so few CSR certifications locally). Statement seven is a bizarre one, about CSR being a trade barrier enacted by Western companies – while the majority seem to say they believe this here, country breakdown percentages are much lower, so I assume there’s some data error here. And finally, most executives believe that the primary social responsibility is to make as much profit as possible – I bet their shareholders are proud of this.

Trust and Organizations

The fourth area of focus is on the trust bump a brand can get from engaging in CSR. There’s a general consensus that socially responsible brands are much more trusted than those that are not.

Likewise, there’s a belief among the majority of those surveyed that socially responsible companies can charge a premium for their products or services. And 55 percent said they would not buy a product from a socially irresponsible company. The same sentiments are also reflected in a further question about choosing socially responsible brands over others – the majority of respondents in every country said they’d do this. Finally, most executives said they’d advise friends or family to buy products and services from a socially responsible company. While this information is eye-opening, it begs the question as to why more companies aren’t more engaged in CSR if they see it as a major reputational benefit for their brands that both allows for increased profits and growth with socially-conscious consumers (we’ll get onto that later on, in section two).

Who Is Doing What Regarding CSR?

Now we move on what what people know about who is doing CSR, and where. In the UAE at least, there seems to be an awareness of which countries and which companies are doing CSR (as a country, the UAE has been especially active in developing national CSR programs). In Saudi there’s a higher awareness of which companies are active in CSR. The UAE is seen as the most active country, with 53% of respondents saying the country is the most active in CSR, followed by Saudi at 17% and Egypt at 10%.

That’s it for this post. I’ll write more tomorrow, including on employer branding and also the pandemic’s impact on CSR.

Why Acknowledging Other’s Views Makes for Powerful Engagement

More leaders need to listen to and understand the views of others before speaking

I’ve been reading a fair amount of media of late. In one interview, the executive spoke about how she’d simply walked into an organisation’s reception and asked for a job. In another, the author spoke about how her country is leading the way in gender equality. And in the third piece, an opinion editorial, the author spoke about how much more hope there is now than twelve months back.

All of these views reflect their authors’ experiences and beliefs. What struck me as a reader was how their perspectives were different from my own. For example, I’d never be in a position to walk into any office and say I want to work here, at least not in the region I’m in (it very much felt like a statement made from a perspective of privilege). And for billions of people living in countries which have yet to receive any vaccines, the future is far from hopeful.

The point I’m very much trying to make here is that we all see and understand communications from our own experiences and beliefs. And executives who want to make a specific point need to think about what they’re trying to say through the lens of others.

By acknowledging differences in your argument and talking points, you strengthen your ability to persuade and convince others. Empathy is a powerful means to build partnerships and advocates, and the best way to do this is to listen to and understand what others are saying, especially those who are different than you (that’s why diversity and inclusion are fundamental to effective communications, and why all communication teams should be diverse).

Dr Kevin Ruck, Howard Krais and Mike Pounsford have done extensive research into listening and communications. Have a listen yourself into what they’re saying here. And let’s do more to acknowledge the other(s) in proper dialogues.

Goodbye Clubhouse!

Clubhouse was fun for us in the UAE, at least for a couple of weeks

The buzz came and went faster than you can say ‘two-shot vaccination’. Clubhouse has been the invite-only app that everyone has been talking about, at least iPhone users (the application isn’t available on Android phones, yet). The app, which is audio-based and is designed around the idea of creating rooms where people can listen in to speakers in a talk-radio format (think a live stream but with no video), has proved to be wildly popular in the Gulf.

Some users have likened Clubhouse to the early days of social media, where people were open and discussed anything and everything. Eman Hussein wrote a very good piece on how Clubhouse is giving a voice for people to discuss a myriad of socio-political issues in a way that hasn’t been possible for years. Others have speculated that the app would soon be banned or be eroded by fake accounts and trolling.

I’ve loved the application, and the ability to listen in and engage in talks and debates, both scheduled and on the fly. You can find rooms by interest, follow friends and colleagues, and be as involved or as uninvolved as you want. There are talks about current affairs, social issues, and even silence (which is very handy if you’re living in Cairo). And there were also a myriad of PR possibilities for the platform, which made it so exciting.

Sadly for me and all my friends in the UAE, you won’t be able to use Clubhouse. The service has been throttled to the point that the audio is, frankly, inaudible. Have a listen to the below (and Omar is on a 5G connection, which is going to be faster than my wifi).

I don’t know the reasons why this is happening. I assume it’s due to the UAE’s VoIP laws, which requires any application that uses voice over the internet to be regulated (in theory, you can call another individual via Clubhouse, but that’s not really the purpose of the application). Have the country’s networks deemed that Clubhouse is an application whose performance should be reduced to the point that it’s unusable? The only way that the application can be used is via a VPN, which is also not ideal.

It’s a shame that this is happening; Clubhouse looked to be such a fun place to hear others and hold group chats. And it doesn’t help the region in its goal to become a technology leader. But anyone who has lived here for a while knows how these things are (we can’t use Facebook messenger calling, for example). Ah well, anyone up for another WhatsApp group chat?

#MeToo and the Middle East’s media sector – what changed?

We’re a couple of days out from International Women’s Day, the time of year when we all look to gender equality. But I want to get the conversation started now, and on a different issue. A couple of events have gotten me thinking about the issue how women are treated in the media and marketing sectors in our region.

The first was a very brave article by former journalist Reem Abdellatif. Reem is no longer based in the Gulf (and I’ll get to why this is important in a minute) and she penned an op-ed on sexual harassment and assault for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper (if you’re not subscribed to Haaretz, you should be – often the reporting on the Gulf is better than what you’ll see from newspapers in the Gulf).

Reem’s piece is both general and personal, and Reem details her own stories of abuse. Chillingly, she describes one experience of an uninvited sexual proposition by a journalist in Dubai. It’s a story I feel many women here will be able to relate to. I’m sharing a specific piece from that story below.

Some of you may have noticed that I referred to Reem as having been based in the Gulf. She wouldn’t have been able to publish this account if she were still based here. And no media outlet would carry it, even if she weren’t based here. This is due to the region’s defamation laws, which are criminal offenses. And that brings me to my second reminder. Which I can’t even talk about, despite the seriousness of the sexual harassment allegations being made and the fact that everyone would know the organization.

And that for me is the core of the issue. In the Gulf, we can’t talk about sexual harassment, except in broad brushstrokes which have less meaning. The perpetrators get off, scot free, with little impact on their careers or their reputations. While the victims have to live with the abuse for the remainder of their lives.

If the media and marketing industry is serious about tackling gender equality, they’ve got to start with this. And that doesn’t mean making a statement about the issue of gender equality in the company, talking about the need for purpose in communications or bringing in a female head for a couple of years. Rather, it means rooting out the issue of abuse and harassment. What we have to do must include:

  • Trainings on sexual harassment and gender bias at the workplace, for all staff (most especially management);
  • Proper investigations into sexual harassment allegations, including with the authorities – these are criminal offenses, and should be treated as such, and
  • Anyone found guilty of sexual harassment should be blacklisted from agency groups, and future employers should specifically ask about this question when asking for references.

These are the basic steps the industry must take to address the issue. For all the talk about equality and opportunity, if women don’t feel safe in our industry then we’re not going to make any progress on these other issues. Who’s with me?

The Influencer Podcast with Fiona Robertson

When it comes to media law, Fiona is your go-to lawyer (image source: Gala Law Twitter account)

This week, I’m doing something a little different. I had the pleasure of being joined by the Middle East’s leading legal light (try saying that ten times) on all things media related. Fiona Robertson speaks about influencers, media laws, what some hotel brands were doing during 2020, and why communicators should be vetting what goes online. Have a listen, and follow Fiona on her Linkedin page.

Ethics during a Pandemic – An example from the airline sector

Ethics has never mattered more. And communicators need to think carefully about whether their messaging is both accurate and ethical

The past twelve months has been the hardest I can remember as a communicator. And one of the big issues we’re all facing is on ethics. Given it’s ethics month for our profession (thank you for this initiative Global Alliance), I wanted to highlight the issues around ethics. We’re being pushed to get out news that’ll raise confidence in our organizations and industries, but the big downside is obviously sharing information that isn’t fully accurate. The consequence of this is a trust deficit, both in our brands as well as the response to the pandemic.

One example that I saw this past week was from Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-based airline. The company’s CEO spoke to Bloomberg and made the claim, as reported by Bloomberg, that the airline is the first to fully vaccinate its crew (you can see the interview here).

Etihad followed this up with a press release and social media posts, an example of which is below.

I understand the airline’s challenge. The aviation sector has been hit harder than any other industry. And they want to give people the confidence to fly again. They also want to assure governments they’re doing everything they can to keep people safe and not spread the virus.

The danger is that this information isn’t fully accurate. How do you define vaccinated? Well, it turns out our definitions may not be the same as the airline. Reuters did good work and asked that question. It turns out that Etihad hadn’t given all of its staff two doses, which is required by pretty much every available vaccine here in the country (you can read the report here).

In a rush to get out a positive headline, was the decision that the Etihad team took the right one? Will their messaging now engender trust? If Reuters hadn’t have asked the right questions, we wouldn’t have even gotten to the accurate, factual picture behind the headline.

Trust matters more than ever. And we have to be as accurate as we possibly can so that our stakeholders understand what is happening and why. Let me know your stories this ethics month. And let’s remember that ethics will always matter. Our interpretations may differ, but the facts don’t change.

It’s the media’s job to ask hard questions. And we should listen.

For anyone who has any sense of perspective and basic awareness about what we’ve lived through over the preceding 10 months, it was pretty clear what would happen to Covid cases over the holiday period. Increased social activity, inbound tourism and generally more latitude to enable both led to an increase in positive cases. It was entirely predictable.

And yet, I’m genuinely confused. There have been very few voices criticising social media “influencers” for their behaviour while on their “essential business” trips to the country. For me, there hasn’t been enough focus on the messaging that we are “all in it together” and should, as a result, take the necessary precautions to safeguard one another. And there’s been precious little commentary on lessons learned.

Instead, as the numbers continued to climb, we all looked towards the media and their “irresponsible wording”.

I’m just as critical as anyone of the media; that’s the legacy of my journalistic past – to criticise what others write far too freely. However, it’s folly to lay the blame at the feet of the witness.

I’ve read so many hot takes this week about what has been reported on Dubai and the UAE by the international media: the foreign journalists don’t know us (despite many of them having lived for years here and writing some of the best reporting on the country); we’re doing better than others (I’m sorry, but we’re not New Zealand or South Korea), and “we know best”, which is the new “if you don’t like it, you can leave” argument.

Can anyone say, with any sense of self-respect, that the foreign media is to blame for what’s going on? If they’re not, why do we then attack them for what they write about what has happened over the end-of-year period? Which is, in effect, what all of us saw, either face-to-face or on our social media timelines? And, for those accusing them of this, where were you a month ago when all of this was unfolding?

The value of hard truths

I believe that hard truths are often better for us than being told what we want to hear. The reporting about the case numbers and the reasons behind their rise has acted as a wake-up call for many. It’s focused us all on what we need to do to keep people safe and led the authorities to take steps that’ll stop the spread of the disease. And for that, I’m thankful.

Instead of attacking some media outlets for asking difficult questions – which is, in fact, their job – why aren’t we asking ourselves about the importance of both accountability and tolerance? Across the world over, the media have done some of their most important work in asking why we have responded the way we have. They’ve spoken to the medical experts and they’ve communicated in plain language what we all need to understand, often better than others.

I’d go even farther and say that the best media has helped to save lives. I for one am grateful for the media’s work in 2020, for the reporting and coverage that have helped people truly understand what we are up against. And I expect the same of them in 2021.

For all of our sakes, they should keep on asking hard questions.

Dubai, the UK Travel Ban and Influencers – would a Diverse Comms team have helped?

Countless UK influencers have flown over to Dubai over Christmas, and it’s fair to say that the British public has noticed. With public perception influencing policy, why didn’t the communications team notice this sentiment and flag up the issue to superiors?

If you’re in the UAE, you’ll probably have already seen the news about the UK banning direct flights from the country. If you’re in the UK, you’ll probably be asking yourself how all the influencers who are apparently over in Dubai are now going to get back.

This decision isn’t good for the UAE. But could it have been avoided through better communications? Let’s first look at how both are faring? The UAE’s cases are increasing, but haven’t crossed 4,000 a day. In contrast, the UK is registering over 28,000 a day as I write this. And the UAE is second worldwide for vaccinations of its population, behind Israel. The UAE is targeting half of its population being vaccinated by the end of March.

So what’s prompted this decision by the UK? The UK government says the decision to add the UAE to its red list, alongside Rwanda and Burundi, is in response to new evidence showing the likely spread of a coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa. But does this hold weight? Denmark took a similar step a couple of weeks back, after discovering one passenger on a Dubai-Copenhagen flight who had the new strain.

Any good communicator knows that perception is reality. Dubai and the Northern Emirates were open for business over Christmas, with no lockdown rules in place, unlike most of Northern Europe, meaning that many have traveled to the country for vacations. Sports starts and social media influencers flocked over to Dubai, despite the UK government urging people to travel only for exceptional reasons. And they’ve made headlines; one Celtic player being Covid-19 on return to Scotland and countless influencers being castigated online for enjoying their time in the UAE whilst the UK’s general population was having to follow new, more stringent lockdown rules over Christmas (the below video is especially cringeworthy).

It seems that the UK’s policy has been headline driven. There’s no doubting that. But should the communications teams working for the government have spotted these sentiments earlier and understood what the headlines would mean for policy regarding travel between the two countries?

Simply put, yes. And this is why a lack of diversity works against good communications. Any person familiar with the UK press and the British sentiment/mentality would understand how the overall negative sentiment towards those Brits in Dubai would shape government policy. And they should have flagged this as early as possible to the UAE’s own policymakers, with suggestions on how to counter this perception of the UAE being a place where people could escape to and avoid Covid-19 restrictions.

Over the past decade, there’s been a standing policy in much of the Gulf to localize government communications. The crisis we’ve all faced over the past year underlines why a best practice approach to communications must include employment practices that help the communications function’s diversity mirror the diversity of the overall population.

I hope that one lesson we learn from the past year and the past month is the need to embrace diversity in communications, in all its forms. We should help develop and include more local communicators in the industry, but there’s got to be an understanding that this must be done alongside promoting diversity. Otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves in more avoidable crises as the one we’re facing today.