Zain and the art of values-based branding in Ramadan

The Kuwait-based telco Zain has led the way on integrating societal messages into its Ramadan advertising campaigns. When will other firms follow suit?

I’ve often talked about the importance of telling a story through values, be it in advertising or through narrative-building. And yet, it still surprises me how few brands in the Middle East are looking to move beyond simple product marketing to embrace a bigger cause. Think of your Nikes, your Ikeas and all of those FMCG firms who are engaging on big societal issues such as race, gender and the environment. Every single big idea I saw when judging Cannes last year was built around the premise that brands need to take a stand on an issue that consumers care about.

There’s one Gulf-based company which understands this. For the past couple of years, the Kuwait-based telecommunications firm Zain has released adverts that are all about a big issue. They’ve tackled terrorism in 2017, the issue of refugees in 2018, and this year they’re tackling the subject of tolerance.

There’s lots to read into this advert, from the messaging around how religion is twisted by those who hold intolerant beliefs, to the issue of the bombing of peoples and places due to their religious affiliation. Even the choice of singers is interesting; one of the singers is Najwa Karam, a Christian Lebanese who has been accused of holding anti-Muslim views. At a time when the issue of tolerance and acceptance is on the agenda of many, including governments, Zain’s team have used their Ramadan budgets to create another values-based advert that people have been talking about (the video is currently #39 on YouTube’s trending list).

I’ll leave the video to do the talking. I wish others would have the marketing bravery to follow in Zain’s footsteps and tackle big societal issues. As marketers, we have the chance to shape societies for the better. Let’s make ads that make people watch to the end as they think over the message, rather than make people click on the skip button after three seconds.

Westernizing the Middle East? Another success for the PR industry…

Remember the last time someone talked about Westernizing the Middle East?

I’m a PR person and former journalist with a long memory. Recent days and talk of tensions in the Gulf have reminded me of a time prior to 2003, when those wise and experienced neo-cons in the West (who know the region much better than those who are from the region) asserted that the invasion of Iraq would transform the Middle East for the better.

The PR industry is responsible for many things. We’ve helped promote transparency, and occasionally gotten our senior leadership to open up to the media and general public. We’ve also been responsible for negating some of the worst crises you’ve never ever heard of. Well, now we’re also responsible for bringing enlightenment to the nether regions of this planet called Earth.

I’m not sure if the BCW CEO Donna Imperato meant to follow in the footsteps of such luminaries as Dick Cheney or John Bolton when she spoke the following words which were quoted by PR Week. But that’s what I pictured when I read the below.


“It’s important to help Westernize the Middle East. It’s good if Western companies are investing there. It will help modernize the governments and culture if you bring Western ideas, thinking and products into that part of the world. Scolding them is not going to help them modernize and make their people freer. I would take on education, destination, and tourism assignments in the Middle East. We’re particularly proud of the Ford ‘Women in the Driving Seat’ work in Saudi Arabia where women got to drive for the first time.”

It’s usually us clients who are putting our foot in our mouths, and our agency partners who rush in to help us. But making such a statement isn’t only reminiscent of colonialism, but also of what happened a decade and a half back (as well as more recently with tensions over Iran).

As communicators our job is to promote understanding. We’re best doing this by seeking to understand our diverse audiences. Donna, I’m always up for a chat as to why the Middle East needs many things, such as more respect for human rights and transparency. However, the last thing we need is more ideas like this which demean the region. And if you’re too busy for a chat, then how about grabbing a copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism. We can then talk about how we can encourage more American school children to learn Arabic numerals in school.

Impartiality in the Middle East – Is Facebook’s Content Plan Doomed to Fail?

Even Lady Justice would struggle with Facebook’s latest idea to moderate content

I love the idea of impartiality, that notion of fairness above all, of equal treatment of all rivals or disputants. The notion of impartiality is difficult to define in practice; we all have our biases. And then there’s the politics of any given situation. It’s fair to say that, given global events, impartiality is becoming increasingly hard to come by. This is especially the case in the Middle East, where the number of conflicts and disputes is sadly increasing between neighbors and nations. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to be perceived as impartial.

Of course, social media hasn’t helped. Social media is the metaphorical can of kerosene that makes disputes explode across cyberspace. But now, the social media companies want to start cracking down on content that fuels hatred and extremism. What is Facebook’s idea? To introduce “an independent oversight board of experts to review its content decisions.”

In a fairly wide-ranging interview with Abu Dhabi’s The National, Brent C Harris, Director for Global Affairs and Governance at Facebook, spoke about Facebook’s plans to reach out to stakeholders who’d play a role on this oversight board. I’ll quote from him.


The company is embracing a wider set of approaches for how it operates. Our CEO Mark [Zuckerberg] had a comment on the earnings call recently where he talked about how, for when we launch products now that touch societal issues, we are going to go out and consult on them and think in advance about how to build them.

We had discussions pretty much every week internally, and one of the ideas that was proposed was that we should create some board to do a review of really difficult content decisions. I think there was an emerging consensus that it was something worth trying and worth building.

There was a growing sense that the [content] decisions we were taking are ones that we shouldn’t make alone and I don’t think that speaks to any single issue. It is about a growing belief that we don’t believe the decisions should sit solely inside Facebook.

A lot of the matters that will go before the board are the hard questions of trade-offs between those principles and trying to figure out for a specific piece of content, where do you set that line? That line is a hard one at times to figure out.

There has also been fairly consistent set of feedback that the people who should serve [on the board] should be folks who are deeply deliberative and who are impartial.

While I usually applaud any social media firm for opening up and engaging with more transparency, this suggestion of an “impartial board” is also dangerous. Who decides who and what is impartial? Given what is happening in many regions, including my own, how will Facebook ensure that politics doesn’t seep into discussions? Many state actors have manipulated social media for their own ends, and Facebook itself has a terrible track record of sustaining partners with external stakeholders (mainly because it doesn’t seem to listen, just ask Snopes). And, how do you define impartiality in a region which has never been so afflicted by political and sectarian differences?

If they’re going to be transparent about this issue, then Facebook needs to go all in and clearly state who they’re meeting and why (particularly in regions where there’s little to no independent civil society). Otherwise, it just strikes me as another public relations exercise rather than a workable plan which will produce the intended results (and given trust in Facebook is probably at an all-time low, this is not what they need).

And, speaking as a person who cares deeply about the notion of impartiality and fairness on social media, the last thing we need is more news columns on bad ideas which won’t deliver in practice. Facebook, prove me wrong.

Saudi Gazette and the end of print for the Gulf’s papers

The Saudi Gazette has been a print paper for four decades. Going forward, the paper will be digital only.

It’s started. The first major paper in the Gulf has shifted to digital only. Last week, the English-language daily Saudi Gazette announced that it’d be printing a paper copy for the last time. You can see the full announcement here. I’m also quoting from the article.


This is the last hard copy of your favorite newspaper.

No, this is not a requiem for Saudi Gazette. We are not saying Adieu.

We are greeting you with “Hello tomorrow!”

This, in fact, is a new dawn for the newspaper.

Change is the law of nature. Those who do not keep pace with change lag behind.

The newspaper industry has also undergone a sea change in recent years. News no longer breaks on the pages of newspapers.

The reading habits of readers have also changed. They scan headlines on the go and read what interests them at the time and place of their convenience.

While journalism will not die, print is definitely in its death throes. Many big banner newspapers have ceased publication.

In the US more than 500 local newspapers closed between 2004 and 2019. In the UK, some 245 newspapers have ceased publication since 2005. In Canada some 27 dailies have stopped printing.

These include big names like The Independent, The News of the World to name a few.

So in keeping with the times, Saudi Gazette too is going totally digital. This will give us a better and faster platform to keep you abreast of the developments taking place around you and around the world.

We are no longer restricted by column length and width. Now the canvas is wide open.

As we focus on digital dissemination of news, we assure you of exclusive quality content.

The references to Western media who have gone online only are, to me at least, misleading. We’re in a different market, where advertisers are spending less online than their counterparts in the UK or the US. Consumers here are increasingly wanting digital offerings, but they’re not paying for these services, unlike papers such as The Times or the Washington Post. And would the region’s readers pay for the content that the local papers are producing?

For the majority of newspaper publishers in the Gulf, print still makes up the majority of their revenues. And print matters as well when it comes to recognition. No self-deserving publisher in the Gulf would forego print if they had the choice (there’s long been talk of that number of UAE-based publications would go digital only).

I wonder who is next. Now that the Saudi Gazette’s publisher Okaz has crossed the Rubicon of announcing that they’re dropping print, who will be the next print to go online only. And what will this mean for their editorial. If a Gulf newspaper can’t make ends meet with a paper edition, there’s no way they can afford the same editorial staff with digital-only sales offerings.

My feeling is that this also reflects the views of certain individuals in government, who want to invest primarily in a single publication as a means to get their message out. While there’s still plenty of money which is being invested in publishing by these individuals, there’s less interest in media plurality. It’s neither helpful to promoting certain narratives, nor is it lucrative.

What does it mean for the PR industry? At its best, more focus on improving online media outlets, including more accurate numbers when it comes to readership and reach. At its worst, it means fewer journalists to work with as online-only publications slim down and focus on translating news from Arabic to English and vice-versa.

I love the Saudi Gazette, and I’ve worked with many of its staff. I hope that they are able to find a way to thrive in this new environment, both editorially and financially. As for the rest of the media industry, expect more digital-only announcements sooner rather than later.

Taking Sides – Questions on and about the Arab Youth Survey

This year’s survey raised a host of questions about not just Arab youth, but whether PR agencies should become part of political disputes in the region

There’s so much which is good about communications in the Middle East – there’s the fast-paced environment, the ability to work across cultures, and an increasing awareness among management that comms matters. However, one area of weakness has always been a paucity of data, which means we’re often left wondering what our audiences are doing and thinking.

Now running for 11 years, the Arab Youth Survey was an initiative by Dubai-headquartered ASDA’A BCW to better understand the largest demographic across the Middle East. The idea was simple – ask people under 30 about their hopes, fears and aspirations. The results of the research could be used to shape government policy, create insights for the private sector and more…

The Methodology

For me, there were two big issues from the survey. The first was who was actually in the survey. For the first time, Qatar was not included. There was no explanation that I’ve seen as to why this happened – given that there’s few issues in traveling to and accessing the country, I can only assume that this was a political decision given everything that has happened between Qatar and the four Arab countries which are in dispute with the country. ASDA’A BCW is headquartered in Dubai, and has substantial business in countries which are in dispute with Qatar. The question I have is this – did ASDA’A BCW not include Qatar for business reasons, or was ASDA’A BCW not allowed to undertake the survey in Qatar by the government (there’s a host of permissions needed to undertake research in many countries across the MENA region). I’ll come back to this issue later on.

They’re not the only questions I have on the issue of how the survey was conducted. My jaw dropped when looking at Yemen; supposedly 50 people were surveyed in Ta’izz and 50 people in Al Hodaydah. How this was possible given both are war zones is beyond me, especially as Syria was excluded also (my assumption is Syria wasn’t included due to the physical risk of undertaking any survey there outside of Damascus).

The other questions I have, I’ve raised before. There’s no description of how the questions were asked (were they structured, semi-structured etc… and who was asking them as well). It goes without saying that this research, presented as is, wouldn’t make it through a single academic peer review. The more transparency there is when it comes to research, the more trust there’ll be in the fairness of the research and the actual findings.

The Insights

This year’s research revealed a number of big insights. One was media consumption.

It may be unsurprising that most young Arabs get their news from social media. What’s not clear is what the actual sources are for their news. I’m going to state this very simply for all those, including media, who simply reshared this insight – social media is a platform, a channel. Facebook doesn’t magically create news. What I’d like to know, and what wasn’t answered, was which are the most popular sources for news on these social platforms. Are they looking to traditional media with digital platforms, digital-only media, or other media outlets (even fake ones). This wasn’t asked, and this was a huge miss as far as I’m concerned.

The other big insight is the issue of religion. Based on the research, young Arabs believe that “religion plays too big of a role in the Middle East.” For me, the statement is too simple (binary choices often are, hence the need for focus groups and open-ended questioning). Why do they feel that this is the case, and what do they mean by reform? Seeing as nearly all the religious institutions are under the control of governments, is this an implied criticism of governments? It’s simply not clear how best to interpret this data apart from they want change.

There’s a host of other insights, such as the youth wanting regional conflicts to end, the demand of the Gulf’s youth that governments continue to subsidize their lifestyles, and how these people are driving e-commerce (that shouldn’t be surprising, given they’re the majority of the population. I was very pleased to see a section on mental health, a topic which has long been a taboo, as well as the impact of drugs, and perceptions towards the quality of education (this is an area which needs drastic reform).

The Issue of Balance

I want to come back to the issue of excluding Qatar, as this is what concerns me the most. For me, communicators are problem-solvers. They are also people who should bring different groups together. By being seen to take sides, we stop being seen as fair and trusted. I keep hearing from regional leaders on the client and agency side about the need to speak truth to power, and the importance of transparency. It’s often harder to see these concepts being put into practice.

What I’m saying is possible to do. I work in the business world, and our aim is to serve our consumers, no matter who they are. We don’t allow politics to get in the way. Once your objectivity is questioned, it’s hard to believe what you say. And, we are the builders of reputations. I hope to see ASDA’A BCW giving a voice to every Arab country next year in the 2020 edition of the Arab Youth Survey. That’s my definition of leadership in the communications space, and that’s what we need more of in the region.

You can read more about the survey here.

Update: I’ve been told that permissions were not given to conduct the research in Doha, based on a response at the press conference. If this is true, it may reflect a drop in trust/a belief that an agency in Dubai can’t be fair towards Doha. Honestly, I don’t know which sentiment worries me more.

A Capability Framework for the UAE’s Communicators – Why does this project matter?

This time last year, the Global Alliance released the Global Capabilities Framework for Public Relations and Communication Management, the fruit of a two-year research project led by the University of Huddersfield (UK).

This research asked practitioners, educators and employers in eight countries across six continents what they thought public relations is capable of, and how it can best fulfill its potential.  The combined outcome, the Global Capability Framework (GCF), can be used by communicators to both assess their own capability and potential, and set their own goals for their own development. The GCF should be also used by employers to understand how to improve their team’s strengths through training. Third, educators should look to the GCF as a basis for their curriculum’s development.

What matters most to me is the country frameworks, specifically tailored to large markets where there’s a substantial communications function. There are country frameworks for Australia, Argentina, Canada, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the USA.

To date, there’s not been a country framework for anywhere in the Middle East, but this will change. Zayed University’s College of Communication and Media Sciences is undertaking an initiative, in partnership with the University of Huddersfield (UK), to build a capability framework for communicators and students in the UAE.

For the first time, we will have a practical aid that will help individuals, teams, employers and educators understand what are the key skills that we must focus on to both grow as a profession, and become more influential with our stakeholders. A UAE framework will reflect the cultural and regional variations in public relations as it is practiced in the UAE, and it’ll act as a guide for our future development. It will help us understand where we must improve as a nation if we’re going to become a global leader in communications.

I’m excited about a UAE framework, in terms of what is means for communicators, employers and educators in the country. I’m also excited about how this country framework can become the first of many national frameworks across the wider Middle East. We’re still in our infancy as a function, and we have much more to achieve. National capability frameworks will help us become better communicators in a shorter space of time. Thank you in advance for everyone who will take part in this ambitious project, especially Zayed University’s CCMS.

The Truth Why Print is Struggling in the Gulf – It’s Ownership

As newspapers in both the US and Europe have shown, there’s still money to be made in good journalism. Good quality reporting is key, and that’s where we need investment.

It’s pretty rare these days that I’m moved emotionally by an article, but this one yesterday in the UAE’s The National managed to do the job. It was a commentary piece on how print can not just survive but thrive in today’s digital world.

While the article meant well, there were so many flaws that I had to write a counter-piece. One of the arguments used was media will have to specialize and focus on audience segmentation – they’ve been doing this for years through B2B publishing. Another was the need for publications to embrace social media – most journalists and publications are online, but it’s rare for digital advertising to replace print revenues.

As a former journalist, I’m passionate about the media. As a communicator, I value the ability of a professional journalist to cut through the crap and get through to the heart of the story, to report the news in a way that the publication’s readers will both understand and appreciate. Granted, we now have a plethora of ways to reach our target audiences, including social media and influencers, but nothing beats a great news piece or feature item. At their best, the media are impartial, influential and engaging.

It’s no secret that newspapers in the Gulf have struggled of late. Advertisers have moved marketing budgets online, mainly to the detriment of print. This isn’t a local phenomenon, and the issue has been discussed at length in the West for years. One answer is charging for content – the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post have used paywalls to drive revenues. They’ve found that people will pay for good content.

The idea has been suggested here too, to charge for content to develop a new revenue stream. The question is, would you pay for locally-produced media? Is it of a high-enough quality for readers to subscribe and pay? My feeling is no. Compared to the US and Europe, there’s little original news or investigative journalism. This is understandable, given who owns many of the newspapers in the region. Publications here are often used to relay a government viewpoint, which explains why there’s so little variation in what you’ll see from paper to paper.

The countries where print thrives promote a plurality of viewpoints. Look at India, where print is thriving. If the print industry wants to succeed, it’s going to have to invest heavily in reporting news that readers want, rather than what owners want to publish. Print has a future, including in the Gulf. But we’ve got to think about what readers want, and will pay for if the media is to become a service people will want to pay for. Otherwise, we’re looking at a slow decline for what once was a thriving industry. I for one hope that day will never come.