I’ve been closely following what’s been happening in Hong Kong. What interests me is how all sides are communicating, how they’re using social media, and also where the industry stands on a big issue such as democracy and transparency.
I reached out to Arun Sudhaman, the CEO of the Holmes Report. Arun is both based in Hong Kong and is one of the leading journalists for the public relations industry worldwide. Here’s our talk on what’s happening in Hong Kong, the impact of social media today, how communicators are struggling with their values and what’s being asked of them, and why purpose is such a hard issue to get right.
What is good is the increasing focus on ethical issues in the industry. We need to talk more about ethics, and realize the importance of this issue. What’s leaves much to be desired is how we are dealing with these issues as an industry. Our associations follow an approach of only investigating an issue once a complaint is made, leading to far too much reaction and not enough pro-active engagement (while I’d like to give the PRCA credit for agreeing to investigate Fleishman, it’s strange how this has occurred – Fleishman has asked the PRCA to investigate its own alleged breach of ethics. Fleishman’s Jim Donaldson is also chair of the PRCA Board of Management).
Many of us feel that censuring Bell Pottinger was the right thing to do after what they did in South Africa. And yet, the complaint against BP wasn’t raised by a public relations practitioner, but rather a political party and a journalist. Anyone who works in public relations will know a story or two about ethical breaches (always about someone else, of course). And yet, we’re not willing to speak up. Is it because we don’t want to speak ill of the industry, or that we don’t want to be seen as a trouble-maker (only own experience with MEPRA would suggest the latter).
Whatever our reasons for not talking, ethical issues are going to compound, given the increasing ease by which anyone can manipulate digital media. We’ve got to ask ourselves if there’s a better way not just to deal with ethical breaches, but also to educate members about ethics in general. This is a reputational issue that impacts us all, and we’ve got to start talking about an approach to ethics that is fit for today. What say you?
So, what can we do to protect our organizations from digital manipulation? Here’s a simple playbook as to what you can do to both prepare and fight back against the fakery.
Give Your Brand a Social Voice
It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said. Communicators need to ensure their organizations are online, they’re on social platforms, and that they’re not just active, but actively engaging with the public. Build up an audience of followers who know your brand, what your brand stands for, and who believe in your brand. When there’s a crisis, it’s these people who will support your brand and defend it against any claim.
Look to Owned Media
Too many organizations have bypassed owned media for social sites, where we lose control. We’ve got to roll this back, and create a portfolio of owned assets online, be they websites, blogs or podcasts, which we control and where the conversation is easier to curate. In other words, switch our focus away from just the big social media sites and to owned mediums where we have the ability to build a narrative that isn’t drowned out by fake accounts, trolls, bots or others who want to drown out our voice.
Take the Crisis Offline
The third element to fighting the fakes is taking the issue offline. If there’s a potential crisis, we have to develop ways to validate what’s going on. That means responding as quickly as possible to an issue online, and getting someone to physically respond, to check if the issue is true or false. This could be for a product defect, a reputational issue, or any other problem that we may face online. Ensure that your traditional complaint channels are integrated with your social media, so you know what’s going on at every touchpoint, and you know what’s real from what could be digital manipulation.
Monitor and Be Informed
The final step is to monitor as well as we can what is being said about the brand. If something is incorrect, step in and address the facts. Listen to what is being said about the brand, learn to spot trends, and look into issues/content which seems out of place. Understand your communities, both your advocates and your detractors, both online and offline. Digital manipulation is easier to spot if you know your online community’s routines and behavior. In addition, ensure you and your team are keeping pace with technology, and experiment where you can with rolling out new tech (one simple way to do this is to work with academia; they’ll be able to help you understand technological developments, and what tools you can use to protect yourself).
If you have any experience of fighting digital manipulation, please do share it. I’d love to hear, and share, your experiences.
If there’s one article you should read today, it’s this piece in the Washington Post by Shibani Mahtani and Regine Cabato. Titled “Why crafty Internet trolls in the Philippines may be coming to a website near you”, the article explains what has happened over the past couple of years in the Philippines in relation to the business of social media troll farms.
If you’re not familiar with the idea, I’ll explain. A troll farm is described as an organization whose employees or members attempt to create conflict and disruption in an online community by posting deliberately inflammatory or provocative comments. Traditionally, troll farms were state-led/sponsored (think Russia in the 2016 US elections). This has also happened in other countries. In the article by Mahtani and Cabato, they describe the rise of social media manipulation as an extension of Filipino politics (another great article to read is here, from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba).
As I’ve mentioned, the concept of social media manipulation isn’t new. We’ve had countless reports into what state actors such as Russia, Iran and others have tried to do online, through mass social media manipulation. What’s fascinating about the Washington Post article is how the Philippines is redefining this concept and turning it into an industry (there’s now both negative and positive trolling), how those who provide the troll farm services are now looking not just to politics but to business as well, and, most worryingly for everyone who works in our industry, is how PR firms are quietly offering the service to their clientele.
It doesn’t surprise me that the Philippines is leading the way in the area of troll farming. The country has a young, English-speaking population, a large service industry, and a tough economy. And Facebook is everywhere, controlling what people read and think when it comes to news, politics and business. To quote from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba:
If you want to know what happens to a country that has opened itself entirely to Facebook, look to the Philippines. What happened there — what continues to happen there — is both an origin story for the weaponization of social media and a peek at its dystopian future. It’s a society where, increasingly, the truth no longer matters, propaganda is ubiquitous, and lives are wrecked and people die as a result — half a world away from the Silicon Valley engineers who’d promised to connect their world.
Facebook launched “Free Facebook” in the Philippines in 2013. The idea was to partner with a local carrier to offer a portal of free, basic internet services (Free Basics) that would fuel Facebook’s aggressive global expansion. To Zuckerberg, at least, the experiment was successful. “What we’ve seen in the Philippines is … a home run,” he said in a speech at a 2014 conference in Barcelona. Last November, Facebook partnered with the Duterte government to build an undersea cable system that would connect Philippine internet systems to the rest of Asia and the US.
In 2012, 29 million Filipinos used Facebook. Today, 69 million people — two-thirds of the population — are on Facebook. The remaining one-third does not have access to the internet. In other words, virtually every Filipino citizen with an internet connection has a Facebook account. For many in one of the most persistently poor nations in the world, Facebook is the only way to access the internet.
Social media trolling took off in the Philippines during the 2016 Presidential campaign. And many saw the business opportunity. Washington Post spoke to one PR executive who claims his agency is paid anywhere from about $38,000 to $57,000 — “depending on their needs” — on a month-long retainer for up to eight months.
Others are seeing the possibilities too. The authors of the Washington Post article claimed that “several paid troll farm operations and one self-described influencer say they have been approached and contracted by international clients, including from Britain, to do political work. Others are planning to expand overseas, hoping to start regionally”. One opinion quoted in the story claims that social media trolling in the country is a billion dollar business.
There’s no doubt in my mind that social media trolling will have an impact not just on politics in every democracy around the world (if it hasn’t already), but that these services will be turned towards business, especially the notion of positive trolling, of using fake accounts to talk up a business and their activities. I am also in no doubt that Facebook and the other internet giants will do nothing to stop this (Facebook’s efforts to stop what’s going on in the Philippines have been derisory at best).
So, what can we do as PR practitioners? There’s not that many options on the table. The most obvious one is to both act ethically, and speak up publicly about why ethics matters. We’re not vocal enough about this issue, and we need to change that. Another way to push back is to be more vocal about what we want the tech firms to do. We’ve got to stop treating the likes of Facebook and Google as champions of public relations, and rather as companies who are not doing enough to fight for and on behalf of our publics online.
If you have any ideas on the above, please do share them. This is an issue that’ll affect us all. And we have to take collective action to fight back. The real me is signing out for now…
I’m going to start this post with me eating my own words, and those words were written in 2016. The London-headquartered Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) had just started its operations in Dubai, and I’d criticized them for not engaging with the local association, the Middle East Public Relations Association, and for not being in tune with what the local market needed.
Three years later, I’m happy to say I was wrong. The PRCA MENA chapter has launched a number of big, inspirational initiatives, such as the MENA awards, the Cannes Young Lions for aspiring communicators in the region to present at the world’s biggest marketing event, and even Arabic-language initiatives such as NextGen Arabia to mentor local talent.
What has surprised me about the PRCA MENA has been its ability to expand into the region’s key markets. The organization has chapters both in Egypt and Lebanon, two countries which are the feeders of markets like the United Arab Emirates. The PRCA has moved quickly to establish itself as an entity that is locally based across the region. What has also impressed me is the PRCA’s willingness to reach out and work with other groups.
Where does this leave MEPRA?
For a decade, the Middle East Public Relations Association was the only representative body for communicators in the region. When the PRCA opened up shop in Dubai, my hope was that competition would drive MEPRA forward.
At that time, I was on the MEPRA board and was pushing for geographic growth and more partnerships. Back then, there was a chapter in Qatar, and my hope was that we’d open up in Saudi and Jordan or Lebanon.
Three years later, there’s no chapters outside of the UAE (the Qatar chapter closed down). There are partnerships in place with the CIPR, which is benefiting MEPRA members with additional training options. However, I’d have liked to have seen wider agreements with other organizations to promote certification and best practice sharing (there’s an agreement with the Arthur W. Page Society, but I don’t see how this benefits the mass membership, given Arthur Page is focused on senior practitioners).
I have full confidence in MEPRA’s chair and vice-chair, and I was glad to hear of their plans to do more in Saudi this year. But it’s also clear to me that decisions made to make MEPRA stronger after the PRCA MENA launched in 2016 haven’t resulted in more agility and the ability to get things done quickly.
The region needs a strong local body, and I hope that MEPRA becomes a regional association that is present in the major markets across the region. At the moment, the PRCA seems to have become a membership body that is present where most of the region’s communicators are. And that can only be a good thing as we look to bring the industry together and raise the standard of our profession.
I’ve been around the block, and I’ve read, seen and done so many bizarre things in my profession that I’m rarely phased. But there’s a moment once in a blue moon when I have one of these moments where I’m reliving Arsenio Hall.
What set me off was a piece published by PR Week Middle East. The journalist had interviewed a Dubai-based public relations practitioner. The title was “Journalists and Social Media Influencers are too spoiled.” I’ll share just one quote from the piece, which you can read after subscribing to PR Week.
Social media influencers and journalists are being so spoilt and most brands raise the bar very high because they send expensive gifts and also, they have been bombarded by hundreds of pitches a day. This will make it near enough impossible for our brand stories to get noticed in the sea of emails flooding to their inbox – as well as the number of gifts they receive.”
Firstly, I don’t understand how any PR person can lay the blame on the media when the gifts are being sent by the PR people (Santa, why did you bring me so many presents this year?). And secondly, at least for much of the media, this just isn’t happening.
The Media is Collapsing
Over the past month I’ve heard first hand about three dozen journalists being fired from two of the largest publishers in Dubai, the Gulf’s media hub. They’re either being offered salaries which are up to a third lower than what they’re currently making, or they’re being laid off because the ad money is being put into digital (read Facebook and Google).
Why does this matter to communicators? Firstly, the expertise of these journalists is invaluable; they know their beat given their local experience (most journalists are expats, and new journalists often come from outside of the Gulf) and they’re able to put stories into context (one journalist who was laid off from Gulf News is probably the best investigative journalist in the Gulf today). Secondly, like in other parts of the world, the number of public relations people is increasing, and the number of journalists is decreasing. Publishers are increasingly turning to freelancers, not just to provide copy to but actually run publications (they’re cheaper, as their direct and indirect costs are lower – think no medical insurance, no end-of-service benefits etc).
What is different in the Gulf is that without employment, expats must leave. There’s no gig economy to speak of, as individuals aren’t free to take on multiple roles/jobs (unless they’re nationals), and few ex-journos are willing to set up content shops given the costs of visas and setting up business licences. In addition, those journalists who remain are frequently finding themselves overextended, and they’re being asked to take up non-editorial activities, be it supporting on sales pitches, or arranging events.
How Can Communicators Help?
While I’d like to think that the global decline in print media is reversible, I’m not that naive. However, as communicators we have to play a part in supporting the journalists we work with (I’ll always have a soft spot for the media, partly because I respect what they do and partly because I don’t want my job simply to be about working with influencers).
Firstly, we’ve got to clearly state why earned media makes sense to our clients. In an age where trust in other media types is falling, much of the public still believes what they read in their newspapers and magazines. We’ve got to go further than this, and start looking at how we can work with media outlets on concepts such as native publishing. If media engagement matters to us, we have to think how we can support these outlets financially whilst ensuring that editorial and sales lines don’t blur (much of what we do with influencers is paid).
Secondly, I think many of us would benefit from spending a day on the media side. The person quoted in the PR Week article is right in one respect – there’s far too many pitches being made, pitches which aren’t relevant and which add little value to the audiences we’re trying to engage with and influence. We’ve got to move away from the mass-blast press release, and start thinking more critically about how we can create content that is both right for a publication in terms of its audience, and is of a high enough quality for the editor to say, “I’d like to run this piece.”
What I feel will eventually happen is that regional brands will start to move in the direction of organizations in Europe and the US by hiring former journalists as in-house content heads. A part of me would welcome this (the quality of content put out in this region needs to be drastically improved), but a part feels that we’ve got to think long and hard as to how we can work with the media industry to explain why they matter and how they should be considered a critical piece of both communications and advertising strategies for organizations in the region.
Given that last thought, I do hope that the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA) will also step up and support the media sector; MEPRA shared the PR Week story without any comments on its own stated view for or against the “spoiled journalist” opinion. We need leadership in this space, and it’s got to come from industry bodies.
You may not know about Jinn, the supernatural creatures of early Islamic mythology. They’re the inspiration for what would later become Genies. Jinn are full of mischief, and are frequently represented as those behind troubles. They may have been behind what happened in Jordan this month.
This month Netflix released its first original series in the Arabic language. Named Jinn, the story is based between Amman and Petra, where a group of teenagers battle a Jinn they’ve unwittingly released. The production was initially touted as a badge of pride for the country as it seeks to build a local media production industry. However, those feelings soon turned after the first episode was aired on the 13 June. Many Jordanians were incensed about kissing scenes and swearing.
While such behaviors may not be unusual for a Western audience, the reaction of many in Jordan hasn’t surprised me. “This will encourage teenagers to use indecent language in the streets, with their families,” Laith al-Tantawi, a 31-year-old Amman resident, told Fortune.
The public response snowballed. Five days after its release, dozens of Jordanian women signed a statement online that called the series “an offense against Jordan’s moral fiber. We strongly refuse the superficiality of this series, as well as [its scenes] that are offensive to public decency and that exploit minors. It reflects an inappropriate image of Jordan, as it was shot in Petra. The historical city was depicted as a hub for the jinn and a place of deviance.”
Jordanians may be used to seeing American fare on their TV sets in and in their cinemas, but watching actors who look and sound like their own children kissing and swearing is a taboo for many.
Are Cultural Missteps To Blame?
For a company which has become a global producer of content, Netflix made a number of basic mistakes before Jinn was even screened. Firstly, the director is Lebanese, not Jordanian. As was the filming crew. Beirut may only be 300 kilometers from Amman, but the two cultures are very different. What may be acceptable to a Lebanese audience (or parts of it), may not be to a Jordanian audience. And Netflix didn’t have an Arabic-speaking executive who is knowledgeable of the region to supervise the production. Both were simple mistakes to mistake, and simple to rectify.
Did Netflix Overreach With Jordanian Culture
Tackling cultural taboos is never easy. The creators of Jinn didn’t just focus on the supernatural (which many are still superstitious of in the region, just ask any Saudi about Madain Saleh), but they also wanted to portray Jordanian youth differently. Brave as this may have been initially, did the creators/Netflix overreach by seeking to do things so differently? Would taking out the scenes which would have caused so much offense have had such a major impact on the story?
Changing cultures is never easy, and there’ll always be push-back. But what did Netflix achieve with Jinn? Has it promoted debate about the challenges of youth, of their growing pains? Is Jinn equivalent to a Juno, or an Akeelah and the Bee? Will Jinn help to explain how Jordan’s young are struggling to come to terms with an ever-changing society? I don’t think it has. In fact, it may prove harder to faithfully depict Jordanian teenagers again on the big/small screen in the short term.
Would Getting Influencers On Board Helped Deflect Criticism?
For its first Arabic-language original production, Netflix did work to promote Jinn prior to its launch. The series was hailed by Bassel Ghandour of Jordan’s first Oscar-nominated film Theeb, as a “real turning point” for Jordanian representation. Jinn was officially premiered at an upscale Amman golf course flocked by media.
Were these influencers enough? I’m not talking about people with a social media presence, but individuals with standing in society, whose opinion is listened to, respected, and will change minds.
Following the initial outcry, a number of Jordanian governmental bodies put out statements that sought to deflect criticism. Jordan’s Royal Film Commission, which had granted Jinn producers approval to shoot, sidestepped responsibility. “[We neither] condone or approve or encourage the content of a film or series,” the Commission wrote in a statement. “[Jinn is the result of] divergent opinions that reflect the diversity of Jordanian society.”
Jordan’s Tourism Ministry had initially welcomed the show as a means to promote Petra and Jordan to a wider Middle East audience, also sought to sidestep the issue, taking aim at the show’s “lewd scenes” as “a contradiction of national principles… and Islamic values.”
Arguably the most influential people in Jordan are the country’s Royal Family. Prince Ali Bin Hussein, chairman of Jordan’s Royal Film Commission, did seek to draw a line on the controversy in a series of tweets on June 16. He called for respecting people and their differences, writing that, “This is a series, not a documentary. Let us respect people and their differences. Jordan embraces people of all categories, beliefs and lifestyles as long as they are peaceful. Enough is enough. Let’s put an end to this.”
How Should Have Netflix Responded?
Unsurprisingly, Netflix has defended Jinn. The firm put out a media statement that, “Jinn seeks to portray the issues young Arabs face as they come of age, including love, bullying, and more. We understand that some viewers may find it provocative but we believe it will resonate with teens across the Middle East and around the world.”
Netflix also responded to those on social media who were attacking the cast and crew, by saying that it would not tolerate bullying and personal attacks and that it’d continue to provide a safe space for those who love good content.
There’s little that Netflix can do here to assuage the public outrage. It could pull the series, as it did with an episode of Hassan Minhaj’s Patriot Act which criticized Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince last year. However, given the money sunk into Jinn, as well as the precedent this would set (if every broadcaster only aired what the majority of the public approved, television would be a very boring place indeed), this really wasn’t an option.
In this case, I’ll borrow from the medical lexicon and say that prevention is better than cure. if Netflix had better understood local cultural issues, it may have been able to amend the script to avoid any fallout. A first impression matters, and everyone must have been hoping that Jinn would have been both a resounding success, as well as a stepping stone to a local film industry. Given what the response was, from both the public and the government, neither goal has been achieved