The Gulf’s Communications Sector and the Challenge for Authenticity

Is the communications industry in the Gulf authentic enough?

Is the communications industry in the Gulf authentic enough?

I am, sometimes, allowed to get out by my better half. And this month has been replete with communications events. Two in particular come to mind. The first was an anniversary for a well-known communications consultancy firm which was celebrating a milestone for its UAE-based operations. The second was for a social media network which was talking about the largest advertising period in the region, namely Ramadan.

Both events struck me, but probably for the reasons that the organizers hadn’t intended for. At the first event, for the consultancy anniversary, I’d have expected to have seen a couple of nationals. After all, a number of the company’s clients were government bodies and we were in the capital where the ratio of nationals is much higher than in Dubai. But, unfortunately, there was only one national. Instead, the audience was western, English-speaking and middle-aged.

The second event was just as perplexing. Despite Ramadan being a part of Islam (Ramadan is the Islamic month of fasting), I didn’t see a single Arab or Muslim talk about the event. At both events I was left asking myself, where are the personal insights, where’s the local understanding which I can either learn from or relate to?

In truth, these occasions are a microcosm of the communications and marketing industry in the Gulf region. We’re facing an issue with sustainability – there are far too few nationals and Arabic-language speakers in the industry, especially in high-level positions. To me this essentially means that, as we don’t accurately represent the audience we are trying to communicate with, that we’re not able to do our jobs properly.

I often get asked if I can suggest or recommend good talent, both by agencies and clients. Instead, let me offer a different suggestion. Let’s go straight to the source. Do you know how many young, talented nationals and children of expats who have grown up in the UAE are studying communications? We’re talking about at least 3,000 communications students between institutions such as Zayed University, Canadian University in Dubai, Abu Dhabi University, the American University of Sharjah, the American University of Dubai and Middlesex University. And then there’s the Saudis, the Bahrainis and others in the Gulf.

There’s enough talent out there, particularly Arabic-speaking youth, who want to get into the industry. However, we need to engage with them. The below are just a couple of ideas to get us all engaged on making the communications industry sustainable:

1) Get on campus! There are so many on-site events at universities and both agencies and companies need to step in, to both understand how much talent is out there as well as to educate students on what career opportunities are out there for them, especially for nationals who prefer a government job.

2) Mentor, mentor, mentor – the second option is to engage with students over a longer period. Mentoring allows students to learn from middle to senior-level professionals in the industry and for both to exchange their views. In a time where social media dominates, mentors can also learn a great deal from Arab youth on digital trends.

3) Bring in the interns – the longest-lasting and the most meaningful of the three engagements, an internship will allow students to get on-the-job experience with, hopefully, a view to joining the organization they’re interning with. An internship is the closest thing a student will get to a real-life job and will enable them to complement their in-class learnings with hands-on experience.

Organizations such as the Middle East Public Relations Association are promoting all of the above, in the hope that the industry becomes more representative of the communities in which we live. If we’re hoping to communicate as well as we can to all of the audiences that make up the Gulf, we have to take a different approach to hiring and promoting talent. Bringing in the expat with no local experience or understanding is no longer the right thing to do. We have to be authentic if we are going to be relevant. Are you up to the challenge?

The National and how it (finally) got the Saayidat Gas Blast story right

The money picture of the gas blast flat was captured on the second day by The National (image source: The National)

The money picture of the gas blast flat was captured on the second day by The National (image source: The National)

As an ex-journalist who nowadays spends more time in corporate communications than writing for the press, I still enjoy spending time reading what the media produce. One local story was particularly moving for me. On the 24th of March, in the evening, a gas explosion tore through the compound where me and my wife live in Abu Dhabi. My wife felt the blast, which she described as feeling like an earthquake.

As you’d expect, the incident made the news. Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper The National was quick out of the blocks to cover the incident with an online piece posted the same night. While the speed of the output was noteworthy, the paper got several essential facts wrong.

The first was the explosion’s timing – the incident happened at 7.30pm and emergency services were quickly on site afterwards. Secondly, and even more importantly, there were injuries despite the article’s assertion that no injuries were reported (two ambulances were on-site). And thirdly, a stock image of the building was used rather than a picture of the location following the blast (the compound is thirty minutes drive from The National’s offices).

The National's first story on the Saadiyat gas blast was quick to print but important details were wrong

The National’s first story on the Saadiyat gas blast was quick to print but important details were wrong

The piece didn’t feel as if it was put together in the right fashion, as if there wasn’t anyone on site from the paper to collect statements and talk to the authorities. It felt as if it was a desk-job. There was definitely no photographer on site to take the gold-ticket picture which would have set the stage for the piece.

However, the next day The National upped the ante in their second piece. First of all, they had the picture of the gas-blast flat which the first piece desperately needed. This money shot was supplemented by additional images. The piece confirmed the one injury. The piece was much stronger in terms of its facts as well as the emotional focus of the residents who were in the building when the blast occurred and their fears and concerns.

Was there still an issue? As far I am concerned, yes. The piece was almost a gushing testimonial to the compound’s developer TDIC. I felt as if TDIC had commissioned the piece, rather than having a piece written about them by an objective journalist (disclaimer – both TDIC and The National enjoy shared ownership, though that shouldn’t have any bearing on editorial independence). Have a look at the extract from the article and tell me what your opinion is.

Ionnais Xenakis, 27, a pilot with Etihad, lives on the fourth floor with his wife Erini, 27, a few apartments away from the flat where the explosion occurred.

“I was sitting on the sofa with my husband and baby. We heard a loud noise and a vibration,” Mrs Xenakis said.

“We weren’t sure what it was so we grabbed our baby and dog, and ran. We saw our neighbour Barry who was injured in the explosion. He told us that he turned on his light and then the apartment exploded.

“He has just moved into the building and told us that his gas wasn’t even connected yet. It was a little difficult to get out of the emergency exit because it was dark, and the emergency doors were damaged and blocked the path,” she said.

“We helped him out until the paramedics came. It was tough, but the one thing that we can all agree upon is TDIC’s swift reaction and assistance.

“They supported us like a family. They did more than we expected them to do. I was even given a stroller for my baby by one of the employees.

“They also gave me everything I needed for my baby. They were there, attending to all of our needs about 15 minutes after the explosion.”

TDIC made arrangements for the Xenakis family’s dog and cat to be taken to the Australian Veterinary Clinic in Abu Dhabi.

The third and fourth pieces by The National switched from reporting on the blast to the feelings of the residents and their concerns about the safety of their homes. The third piece was much shorter, but it was all the better for it. The fourth piece followed in a similar vein, and both included quotes from two residents (albeit the same residents). There was also the required comment from the local authorities on the steps they were taking to reassure the public – this gas blast was the second in the capital in the space of a week.

The paper saved the best for last, with a piece at the beginning of this week on the injured man himself and his own story as to what happened that night. The journalist rounded off the piece with a final comment from one of the residents.

Residents were displaced for several days. Some tenants from the blast floor are still being housed at the Anantara Eastern Mangroves by the Tourism Development and Investment Company. They are eager to find out what caused the explosion.

“It’s important to identify the error behind this because I believe it could’ve been prevented,” said L R, a neighbour of Mr Johnson. “A poor man was seriously injured because of this. We don’t need hard lessons and tragic stories to learn from our mistakes.”

The National did the right thing and got the piece right, with rolling coverage on the story and a focus on the facts as well as a human-interest element that rounded off the coverage. The journalist made amends for the initial piece which was lacking in both information and visuals to craft a number of pieces that hit the mark every time. The only thing left to say is to wish the person injured in the blast, Barry Johnson, a speedy recovery. It was a memorable night for all the wrong reasons, and I hope that he will be back on his feet and fully recovered sooner rather than later. I hope to read about Barry’s recovery in The National as soon as it happens.

I’d like to wish Barry Johnson a speedy recovery and I hope to read the news soon in The National (image source: The National)

How to destroy a brand through poor communications – the Nakheel example

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I’ll admit it. Every now and then I do get pangs of schadenfreude when I see brands being pulled up online by the media and the public. However, seeing a brand destroy itself is a different proposition.

I’ve been watching Nakheel for some time, and I’ve written about the company and its bad media habits before. The Dubai government-owned real-estate developer is responsible for some of the Emirate’s most iconic projects, including the Palm Jumeirah and The World. However, its customer service is, unfortunately, just as infamous as its successes are famous.

Last week, Sarah Townsend of Arabian Business wrote a scathing piece on Nakheel. Entitled ‘Nakheel PR: The toughest job in Dubai?’, she took a sledgehammer to Nakheel’s reputation The article is well worth a read, especially for those of us whom have spent long enough in the region to forget what quality journalism looks like.

If it were just one person taking aim at Nakheel, the issue would be manageable. However, due to our digital world reputation-bashing is a team sport. The article has gathered seventeen comments, all negative and some from disgruntled Nakheel owners. My favorite is the below.

A comment from a not-very-happy Nakheel property resident on the Palm

A comment from a not-very-happy Nakheel property resident on the Palm

On top of this, Nakheel is facing additional issues regarding its stalled Palm Jebel Ali project. However, it’s not the media which is causing trouble for Nakheel, but rather angry investors who have yet to see their properties take shape after years of delay. To quote from The National.

Hundreds of investors on Dubai’s Palm Jebel Ali have called on developer Nakheel to restart the project.

An estimated 400 to 450 people, most of whom made down payments during Dubai’s boom years between 2004 and 2008, find themselves in financial limbo.

All the units under the Palm Jebel Ali project, including its signature and garden villas and water homes, are “under cancellation”, according to Dubai’s Land Department.

In November, 74 homeowners wrote to Mohammed Al Shaibani, the head of the Ruler’s Court and Dubai Investment Authority, to look into the matter.

“The lack of certainty as to when our homes will be built has caused, and is causing, tremendous financial and emotional suffering for us and our families, and many of us continue to endure ongoing mortgage and rental costs while we are waiting,” the letter says. “Many of us have invested our life savings into the Palm Jebel Ali.”

Over a 100 Palm Jebel Ali owners have set up a group on Twitter with the handle @PJAOwners to lobby the government on their issue (bizarrely Nakheel doesn’t have an account on Twitter and there are several Facebook accounts, none of which seem to be legitimate).

For an organization which claims to be one of the largest and most successful property developers in the world, the media issues that Nakheel has gotten itself into are unforgivable (blacklisting the media doesn’t help). Having said that, many of the company’s issues are rather to do with how they operate. Public relations can never be used as a figleaf for unpopular or damaging actions. As Mark Twain said, “The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.”

At the end of her article Townsend stated that Nakheel are looking for a PR exec to join their ranks. I could be even bolder and suggest that they look at how they do business and rebuild their reputation first. Anything else would be putting the cart before the horse and will continue to destroy what is left of Nakheel’s brand. I’m betting things will get worse for Nakheel in terms of its brand image and reputation. But I won’t take any pleasure from watching this sorry story of a brand being destroyed from within.