What’s the Middle East’s biggest communications issue? It’s the Arabic language

Arabic is a beautiful, rich language. And yet the communications industry is struggling to attract good Arabic language writers. How can we correct this? (image source: Arab America)

I feel like I’m writing something Kafka-esque. In in the Middle East, a geography of 200 million souls who read and write essentially the same language (I’m going to side-step the awkward question of how Arabic is spoken), and I’m working in communications. And yet, the industry is dominated by non-Arabic language speakers, at least in cities such as Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai.

This isn’t just anecdotal. Overall, just 32% of respondents to PRCA MENA’s inaugural Middle East PR and Communications Census 2019 were nationals of countries in the region. Overall, a fifth of the region’s PR professionals are British, 18% come from India, and the range of other nationalities represented are indicative of the Middle East PR corps having a richly-varied culture mix.

Diversity matters, of course. But I don’t think we even have that when it comes to engagement, given that so much of the content being produced is in English (the most widely spoken language in the UAE isn’t even English, it’s Hindi).

There’s been a concerted push by governments to promote the Arabic language. Friday the 18th of December is the UN Arabic language day. And Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched Madrasa, an online initiative with over a thousand videos to help promote learning of the Arabic language.

The communications industry has to play its part too. There’s obvious benefits to improving our ability to communicate in and create Arabic language content. We’ll be reaching a much wider audience in their language. In addition, understanding a language is one step to understanding a culture and its traditions. And by strengthening our Arabic language capabilities, we’ll be able to put Arabic first and create content that’s not translated (any Arabic language native speaker can spot translated content a mile off).

This isn’t going to be a short-term fix. Many of the Arabic-language experts working on the agency side are from countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Given politics in their own countries, it’s much harder to come across visas for them. We’ve got to do more with the Arab nationals who are already in the Gulf region.

So, what role can we play to change?

Develop Arabic Talent

First of all, we’ve got to foster stronger connections with universities across the
region, and better educate Arab youth on the opportunities that a career in public relations and communications will provide. And we have to do this as an industry. It’s something I hope that the PRCA will continue to work on.

Support Arabic Leadership

Part of the lack of appreciation for the Arabic language is that there aren’t enough Arab nationals in leadership roles, both on the agency side and with clients. Global agencies especially must prioritize fast-tracking Arab talent into leadership roles.

Arabic first

Most of the Arabic content put out by communicators is actually translated from English. We’ve got to turn this around, and start prioritizing Arabic content production, both in the written word, with audio and video. Arabic is such a rich, descriptive language, and so much is lost when content is merely translated.

There’s no better place to start than with myself, and I’m going to commit to writing more myself in Arabic. If you have any suggestions on this subject, please do share them.

What's the biggest challenge for communicators in 2020? Online disinformation & public activism

It’s been seven days since all the optimism, the hangovers, and the excessive fireworks (at least in the Gulf). So, given our bubbles of hope were burst and then shot down in flames on the morning of the second day of this year, what should we be looking forward to over the coming 12 months?

There’s been some brilliant prediction blogs, including this one from Stephen Waddington which is as comprehensive as it gets. But I wanted to focus in on two big issues that we are going to have to deal with, both in the Middle East and globally.

Fake News Campaigns will proliferate

Fake news isn’t new – it’s been around since humans have been able to talk, write and read. What’s so special about now is that, thanks to the internet and our own inability to question what we see being shared by friends and family, it’s easier than ever to create fake news. There’s even a new breed of firms, “Black PR” agencies, who are willing to set up fake sites that look like news portals, create fake news stories, and then spread them online on social media via bots.

Given the state of politics around the world, with nationalism and xenophobia just two of a dozen negative trends that are driving agendas, it’s no surprise that news is being manipulated by politicians, to both boost their own profiles and smear opponents. Buzzfeed has put out a smart news piece on disinformation for hire.

My concern is what will happen when fake news and the people behind these campaigns begin to target companies. We’ve already seen some of this in the Gulf, given the region’s politics. There have been targeted campaigns against national brands, including airliners, banks and pharmaceutical companies. I feel this is only the start, and we’re going to see more fake news campaigns which are designed to blackmail. How many firms will pay up rather than face a barrage of negativity which, although fake, may convince others to stay away from the brand?

Will your social media people are able to respond quickly, spot the fakes, and mobilize your followers? Do you know what’s going on when it comes to fake content, how to spot it, and who is behind it? What surprises me is how few practitioners in my part of the world are actively researching this phenomenon. I’m seeing more work being done by academics like Marc Owen Jones around issues such as bots, trolls, and fake news campaigns. If you’re a public relations professional, please do your homework and start educating yourself about these issues before they impact you.

Public Activism will be everywhere

The second big theme for 2020 will be public activism. There’s been a strong trend towards employee activism over the past couple of years, especially in the US and with sectors such as tech (just look at Google). As people give up on their politicians doing the right thing, they’re going to increasingly call out corporations.

This trend for public activism is going to happen globally. I’m increasingly seeing this in India, given what’s happening there with the new Citizenship Amendment Act. And we’ll also see this around issues such as the environment (just look at Australia).

This rise of citizen activism is going to especially strain organizations that stay on the sidelines or organizations whose ownership is in the hands of an individual with strong views.

What employers need to do is 1) be much better at listening to sentiment, and 2) empathizing with views that are distinct from those held by management. There are far too many tone-deaf leaders out there, and they’re going to drag their company’s brands down with them unless they change how they engage with stakeholders.

Given these two trends, my one hope is that we start to prioritize listening as a key communications skill. It may not sound as sexy as content creation, or artificial intelligence, but the good old-fashioned practice of listening may just save your organization/client from the biggest reputational crises in 2020.

Getting Video Creative – five hacks to improve your media impact

Not everyone can be a Steven Spielberg, but we all have the tools to make much better video content

I’ve been playing around with video recently, partly because I’ve wanted to and partly due to necessity (we all live and die by budgets). I wanted to share with you a couple of simple ideas that you can use in your day to day work to produce much better video. And action!

The Right Lenses

Most of us have brilliant cameras in our pockets. Your smartphones are probably more powerful than five year-old DSLR. But one area which can be improved on your smartphone is the lens itself. If you don’t have over US$1,300 bucks to shell out on the latest iPhone of Galaxy, why not buy a couple of lenses to attach to your camera.

I did that, and shelled out money on lenses from a US firm called moment. Have a look below.

These lenses are simple to mount (you also need to get a case from Moment), and you can get wide, telephoto, and also anamorphic (used for filming) lenses that add so much to your photography and videography. The lenses aren’t that expensive (you can even buy used lenses for about 70 to 90 dollars), but they really make visuals pop, especially the wide and anamorphic lenses. Moment also has a very useful camera app that gives you much more control over your picture-taking (you can set ISO, shutter speed and other wonderful stuff via the app). Check out Moment’s product range here.

Stop the Shake!

The one thing that cameras aren’t great at doing is dealing with shaking hands. But help is available, thanks to the increasing number of gimbals on the marketplace. I bought a DJI Mobile 3, a really handy device that allows me to keep a steady hand whilst filming. Gimbals can do all sorts of things these days, including shooting options such as object tracking and hyperlapse. They’re also being bundled with mobile apps that allow you to quickly edit and share the content. If you’re looking to get rid of the shake, a gimbal is the way to go. This costs about US$100 to US$130 dollars with a kit that includes a stand (which is very, very handy).

Shooting Top Down

The other big change in videography is drone filming. Shooting from the air used to cost a small fortune. Now, that’s been turned on its head, and you can buy a drone with a HD camera for about US$500 dollars. If you want to splurge, you can even now buy a drone with a Hasselblad lens (Hasselblad to cameras is like Ferraris to cars). I splurged for a second DJI project, the Mavic 2 Pro. The latest drones allow you to do a whole host of things that’ll transform your video capabilities (nothing beats hyperlapse or active track which makes the drone automatically follow a moving object).

The Editing Piece

Ok, you’ve got the content but is it going to be the final product? I doubt it! You’re going to need an editing tool. And, ideally, that tool will be on your phone. One of the best and simplest out there is Adobe Premiere Rush, an app that sits on your phone and lets you edit your content (both video and audio).

Premiere Rush offers lots and lots of benefits, including reframing your video depending on the platform and device you’re shooting for (is it vertical, 9:16, or horizontal, 16:9), graphics templates, and also a sync option so you can start editing on your mobile and continue editing on your computer.

If you’re looking for a simple video editor to start with which is initially free, then try out Adobe Premiere Rush. You can thank me later.

And Subtitles!

Last but not least, please do subtitle your videos. It’s a simple final step that adds a lot of value to your work (how many times have you watched a video and not been able to turn on the sound?). One tool I use is Veed, which is an online subtitling service that uses algorithms to automatically subtitle. You’ll still need to edit those subtitles for mistakes, but Veed makes subtitling pretty simple. And at a cost of US$20 a month, it’s affordable.

Check out Veed and see if it works for you.

Rebranding for ‘soft power’ – examples from the Gulf

Aramco is looking to spend millions on promoting itself (image source: Twosmokingbarrels)

Now is a good time to be in the branding business, at least here in the Gulf. A slew of governments and government-owned assets are launching brand campaigns. At the beginning of the month, the UAE government announced that it’d be launching a national competition to create the first brand entity for the UAE – seven Emirati artists from each of the country’s seven emirates would work to design a logo and slogan to market the country in campaigns abroad. According to The National newspaper, “Once unveiled [the new brand] will be used widely by government departments and in marketing and adverts.”

The aim of the UAE brand is to reflect a truly Emirati character abroad, which will be based on four values. These valies are ‘giving’, ‘tolerance and openness’, ‘credibility’ and the ‘leadership values’ of the country’s founding fathers.

The second brand launch of note was by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, better known as ADNOC. The UAE’s largest oil firm launched its first ever national branding campaign last week, under the tagline ‘energy for life’. The 95-second video commercial which fronts the campaign was shot by Emirati director Ali Mostafa and shows the young Emiratis in areas such as aviation, science, exploration, space, the arts and sports. The new video is below (it’s subtitled in English), and will be shown across the UAE soon in cinemas and on social media.

The third example is from Saudi, Saudi Aramco in particular. The world’s largest oil and gas company, which launched its IPO this month, will, according to the Daily Telegraph, “splash out nearly £200m on a global marketing blitz next year, as the richest company in the world steps out from the shadows and tries to elevate its public profile. The oil behemoth’s huge advertising push will follow its long-awaited flotation next month when it starts trading publicly on the Saudi stock exchange.”

What’s fascinating about these three examples, and others, is how these brand campaigns are being used to build and project soft power. Look for example at the ADNOC video, which features art, humanitarian aid and sports; this isn’t your regular branding campaign for an oil and gas company. Likewise, with the UAE’s national rebranding campaign the focus is on Emirati values – it’ll be fascinating to see how this unusual approach to nation branding resonates with people outside of the region, especially as emirates such as Dubai and most recently Ras Al-Khaimah have built themselves up as tourism destinations in their own right.

Saudi Aramco’s marketing blitz is the most interesting of all. The company is listing in Saudi Arabia, and it hasn’t announced plans to list outside of the Kingdom. According to Reuters, “the Saudi government will face a one-year restriction on selling more Aramco shares following the domestic listing, according to the sources, meaning any overseas IPO is unlikely to be held in 2020.”

The concept of soft power was the American academic Joseph Nye, who served as a senior official in both the state and defence departments. He believed that various concepts such as culture and communications could direct the decisions/behaviour of others without the need for military force. Soft power influences others using intangible concepts like culture, ideology and institutional norms. And it’s a concept that’s usually talked about, and wielded by, governments. Companies don’t talk about soft power (though they do care about reputations).

And that’s not all. Given that both ADNOC and Saudi Aramco are primarily B2B, it seems these exercises are means to create brands that are based on and aligned with a governmental approach to building soft power. But given they are brands whose businesses are based on oil and gas, will this approach to reputation building work with a Western public who are openly agitating for a greener, more sustainable future?

As always, thanks for reading. And let me know your thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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