Shaping awareness on breast cancer in Saudi – how a local firm won globally for its communications approach

There’s nothing better than getting recognized for good work. What’s even better is to make a difference through your actions. We don’t often get to celebrate our local, Saudi-based public relations industry either because everything comes out of Dubai or our local agencies and companies believe that communications with the media and public begins and ends with a press release.

That doesn’t have to be the case any more in Saudi Arabia. One agency has been looking to change how communications is viewed in the Kingdom. That agency’s name is Adalid, and the founders are Saudi nationals who understand and know not only how the media works but also what communications is capable of.

They’ve notched up a series of impressive wins and campaigns locally since founding the agency two years ago. However, Yahya and Sohaib’s crowning glory is an event that has earned them global recognition. To quote directly from the piece in this summer’s edition of Gulf Marketing Review which can be found here.

“Saudi PR agency takes home two SABRE awards for breast cancer awareness campaign

Jeddah-based Adalid has beaten out 2,000 entries to become the first Saudi-managed and owned public relations firm to win a platinum and gold SABRE award for the one campaign. The much-coveted trophies, which were handed to Adalid’s top executives during the Holmes Group EMEA SABRE Awards ceremony in Prague this May, was in recognition for the success of A Woman’s Stand, a public relations campaign designed to raise awareness of breast cancer among females in Saudi Arabia.

The program, conducted by Adalid Public Relations on behalf of HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud and the Zahra Breast Cancer Association was the unanimous first choice of the SABRE judges…

The campaign, which aimed at raising awareness of breast cancer among women in Saudi Arabia through attempting to create the world’s largest human pink ribbon, worked with traditional media channels such as MBC, women’s magazine Sayidati, and Saudi’s Al-Watan newspaper.

Adalid also utilized social media to both spread awareness of the event as well as mobilize supporters to attend the record-breaking attempt. Thousands of people subscribed to the campaign’s Facebook page and Twitter feeds.

“While this was a professional campaign, it is also one where the benefits reflect directly on my mother, sisters and every single woman, not only Saudi Arabia but across the world,” said Adalid PR’s Managing Director, Yahya Hamidaddin. “Now the Kingdom has demonstrated that there is enough concern to establish a world record and been recognised for its efforts to bring concern over breast cancer out into the open, I am sure we can move forward in the battle to overcome this deeply distressing affliction.”

Adalid was founded in 2009 in Jeddah by a number of Saudi nationals with experience in the public relations industry. The agency extended its geographic reach following the opening of an office in Riyadh last year.

SABRE awards are bestowed annually by The Holmes Group in recognition of a company’s superior achievement in branding and reputation. They are awarded to those public relations, reputation management and brand building campaigns that exemplify a strategic approach in research and planning, innovative thinking, integrity and effectiveness. Gold SABREs recognize the best programmes in specific brand-building and reputation management categories. Only one platinum SABRE is awarded by the judging panel for the best campaign in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region. ”

Just for good measure the boys and their team of dedicated PR professionals not only won the European SABRE award in May, but topped it off with a global award for the best public stunt of 2011. Adalid’s A Woman’s Stand campaign also made the shortlist for the Holmes Report best global public relations campaign of 2011.

What’s amazing about this campaign is that it’s opened the doors for a comprehensive debate on breast cancer in Saudi. The disease, or more to the point discussion about the condition, is often considered a taboo in this conservative country. Since the campaign there have been calls for more initiatives from the public and private sector, and even an order for breast cancer to be a lead topic during Friday sermons (I still cannot imagine how most Muslim preachers would react to this, to discussing a topic that they’d most likely never thought about before, let alone preaching to their followers).

Thank you Yahya, Sohaib and the rest of the team for making this campaign possible, for promoting breast cancer awareness and for showing how good public relations can be in Saudi Arabia. You and the client have I believed made a huge difference to the women of the country and you’ve been awarded for that. Long may your success continue. I just hope the rest of the public relations industry in Saudi as well as Dubai takes note that we can do more than just send out a press release.

The power of social media in Saudi – How consumers took on Almarai and won

The past year has been one of transformation across the Middle East. What has happened on the ground has been mirrored online. Today fewer people out there across the Arab world would deny that the internet will make a difference.

The Arab Spring as it has been labeled by the media has affected the way that consumers interact with brands and their products/services. Arab consumers, particularly young consumers, are much more willing to voice their frustrations and concerns online. If pushed, they will also take on brands and coordinate their actions with others online in what could be dubbed concerted campaign-like actions.

We’ve seen a number of examples of consumer-led action in 2011. There’s been the widely publicized #Qtelfail campaign which highlighted how unhappy both foreigners and Qataris were with Qatar’s government-owned telecommunications firm Qtel. Then there was the #VodafoneShokran hashtag which was used by Egyptians to criticize the global telco for its decision to turn off its network during the Egyptian uprising.

Even Saudis have gotten into the habit of getting online to flex their consumer muscle. On July 3 the largest dairy producer in the Middle East Almarai raised the price of a two-liter bottle of fresh milk from seven to eight Saudi Riyals and reduced the size of its one Saudi Riyal laban from 200ml to 180ml. The company had justified the price hikes by pointing to increasing costs for raw materials, packaging and higher wages.

Saudi consumers went online to protest at the price rises. Those on Twitter used the hash tags #mara3i, #StopMara3i to voice their concerns, noting that other diary companies had not raised their prices. A Facebook page calling for a Gulf-wide boycott also attracted hundreds of followers.

Boycott-related images posted on Twitter internet included a photo of Almarai-branded laban bottles in a store overlaid with text reading “Let it rot.” Another picture, from a Saudi Twitter user, featured a bottle of Almarai laban with the caption “Go to Hell My Friend – Saudi Citizens.”

“Usually, companies raise their prices if it suffers losses,” said statement written on a Facebook page set up to boycott Almari’s products. “Well, this is absolutely not the case for Almarai, one of the biggest Saudi companies in terms of revenue. Why does it want to raise profits? Is it willing to form an economic empire at the expense of the crushed citizen?”

Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram published a few of the thousands of comments published online. “They exploit us by increasing prices and consumer protection doesn’t turn a hair,” Abdul Aziz Al Qobeishy said on “together to face the greedy Marai.”

Another Facebook user, Yasser El-Harbi, said “Go on people and AlMarai will remain an unforgotten lesson for vendors in different sectors.”

The outburst and consumer backlash was so pronounced that the Saudi Ministry of Commerce stepped in. The Minister himself issued a decree to force Almarai to revoke the price rises which the company duly did on the 11 July.
In a written statement Almarai defended its initial decision to raise the price of its products.

“In compliance with the resolution issued by the ministry … Almarai is taking the price of its two litre fresh milk and laban pack sizes in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the level that prevailed with immediate effect,” the company said on its website the day after complying with the ministry’s ruling.

“However, Almarai believes that the rationale and justification for the price increase is still valid. We will continue to work with the relevant government authorities to address this issue.”

What’s so striking about the Almarai incident is that it took less than eight days of anger to surface through sites such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs or discussion boards for the Saudi authorities to take action. Almarai is listed on the Saudi stock exchange and its founders/owners include the Saudi Royal family.

It’s even more remarkable when you consider than hardly any traditional media outlets had covered the story prior to the ministry’s decision. That the ministry took notice of the thousands of Saudi consumers who had vented their anger online is an indication of how powerful social media has become.

Contrast this to the decision by Coca Cola and Pepsi to raise the price of a can from one Riyal to one and a half Riyals several years back. Despite a consumer backlash which was led by traditional media outlets such as newspapers the Ministry of Commerce did not step in to rescind the price rise.

I feel in part that social media has become a much better barometer of consumers’ feelings than traditional media in countries like Saudi Arabi. The Almarai boycott is a simple example of this.

What Almarai also proved is how bad Saudi firms are at communications and public relations. Rather than reaching out to consumers the company acted as if it was immune to criticism. The company’s CEO talked to a business news channel, MBC Al Arabiya, rather than talking to his customers. Almarai issued statements to the Saudi stock market rather than getting people online to start a discussion with disgruntled consumers. The company failed to talk with Saudis who buy its products and was duly punished for ignoring them.

Following the boycott Almarai has set up a communications department, in part to tackle reputational management issues as well as crisis communications. However, I’m not optimistic that if Almarai does try for a second time to raise prices the company will be ready to tackle the backlash. For that to happen, the management needs to understand that they have to reach out to consumers, talk with them both online and offline, and understand their concerns. I hope I am proved wrong.

When actions speak louder than words – Gulf Air’s Straight From The Heart and several hundred sacked employees

For over a month now Bahrain’s national carrier Gulf Air has been running a touching, powerful marketing campaign. Named ‘Straight From The Heart’, the campaign uses both print and multimedia to feature ordinary people who use and rely on Gulf Air, not just for their flights but also for hotels, cars and insurance. Basically, Gulf Air is saying it takes care of its customers and all of their holiday/travel needs.

The campaign is featured all over the island, on billboards and in print, at Bahrain’s cinemas and online and targets as many customer segments as possible in terms of the persons portrayed in the adverts themselves. There’s the Bahraini banker in his thob and guthra, the European male executive, the young female professional, a well-known Bahraini actor and comedian and a local footballer. In the print adverts they each describe a personal experience they’ve had with Gulf Air. It’s a powerful campaign.

There’s just one problem. You could say that Bahrain has been going through a rough patch of late. Ever since February, since protests broke out, the island has gone through a political and economic crisis. Gulf Air has not been spared. To quote from an article in today’s Sunday Times, several hundred employees have been fired from the airline for a variety of reasons.

“At Gulf Air, the national carrier, 250 employees were dismissed for posting comments about the demonstrations on their Facebook accounts and other minor signs of support for the protests. Despite repeated promises that they would be reinstated, including one by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, many have still not got their jobs back.”

As a government-controlled company it appears that Gulf Air has terminated people who objected to the government clampdown on protesters during February and March. From what I’ve been told by people at Gulf Air is that all of those who were fired were Shia Muslims (the government and the Royal Family are Sunni Muslims, while most of the protesters were Shia). Some seem to have been targeted for termination simply because they were Shia, rather than because they’d voiced their concerns about the political situation and crackdown in Bahrain. In total 250 out of a total of 2,000 ground staff were laid off.

As part of the reconciliation process initiated by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, all those who were fired due to reasons related to the protests were supposed to be rehired. Rather than being reinstated, they’ve been ignored by the airline. During a speech televised live on Bahrain TV during the first night of Eid, King Hamad promised all those who had been fired that they’d be taken back. Only after this speech did Gulf Air take action. Fifty people were reinstated, on the proviso that they could be fired at a moment’s notice without legal recourse.

Instead of reappointing the people they’ve gotten rid of, Gulf Air has apparently hired replacements. According to my sources they’re mainly Indian, Sunni Muslims who are earning half of what their Bahraini predecessors took home at the end of the month. Meanwhile the sacked employees and their families are taking legal action against Gulf Air.

The point of this blog is to talk about communications, about marketing and consumers. I’m not going to talk about the politics of what happened. However, I will ask this. In Bahrain, what’s your largest customer base? They’re probably Shia and Bahraini. The population isn’t large either – there’s less than a million Bahrainis. I’m guessing most Bahraini nationals will know someone who was fired during or after the protests.

If you’re looking to build brand equity, alienating your largest customer base by firing several hundred staff isn’t a smart idea. Running a brand building campaign based on emotional values and the tagline Straight From The Heart while all this is happening isn’t what I’d deem to be appropriate either. As always, actions speak louder than words. In the case of Gulf Air, their actions are deafening enough to lose them a good deal of customers as well as money. No advertising can undo the harm done, only common sense.