Ramadan and the Impact of Social Media

We’re only a week or so away from the holiest month of the Islamic year, when Muslims fast to remember the first revelation of the holy Koran to the Prophet Muhammed. Just as the Middle East has embraced social media, so have Muslims. Ramadan is one of the most active times of the year for social media in the Middle East, on all social media channels, as Muslims reach out to friends and family, as they prepare for the Holy Month, and as they celebrate in the run up to Eid.

First of all, let’s look at Twitter. The short messaging service recorded over 51 million mentions of Ramadan last year, with 8.4 billion impressions.

The number of Tweets during Ramadan in 2015 based on Twitter's own internal statistics

The number of Tweets during Ramadan in 2015 based on Twitter’s own internal statistics

Google’s focus is on YouTube, in particular channels which have a specific relationship with this period of the year. Cooking is initially popular (Ramadan meals are cooked and served at home), followed by religious channels and general entertainment.

YouTube viewership during Ramadan changes dramatically as you can see from this internal Google data

YouTube viewership during Ramadan changes dramatically as you can see from this internal Google data

And last but not least, there’s Facebook. During 2014, 14.6 million Muslims in the MENA region posted 47.6m updates on Ramadan and Eid. The attached presentation from Facebook provides fascinating insights into when Muslims are online and how much more time they’re spending online, as well as the shift towards mobile and a breakdown of chatter by age and sex. Facebook believes that millenials are shifting away from television and towards the internet, which may be disconcerting for advertisers and television networks.

Facebook MENA Ramadan Insights

While it’d be fascinating to understand how Muslims are using Whatsapp and other messaging services to spread religious messages and other related content, I don’t have any data on this (and other) channels.

Whatever you’re planning for Ramadan, do remember the importance of social media channels to Muslims across the region. Make your content engaging (either entertaining or informative), relevant, and shareable. And Ramadan Mubarak!

‘Bigger, Better and Smarter’ – how the Middle East’s PR industry rates its performance & development in 2015/2016

The Benchmark survey looked at communications practice areas. The results suggest media relations will soon be replaced by social media as the top communications priority.

The Benchmark survey looked at communications practice areas. The results suggest media relations will soon be replaced by social media as the top communications priority.

Yesterday was a busy day for the PR industry in the UAE, with two events on the same day. The first, which was organized by bespoke agency Secret PR and named PR Pressure, was held in Dubai and tackled the everyday issues faced by both PR professionals and their friends in the media sector (more on this later). The second event of the day was held by the Middle East Public Relations Association in Abu Dhabi and focused on innovation.

As part of the build-up to the event, MEPRA launched the Benchmark survey. Through a self-assessment approach, the research seeks to understand where the industry is headed, what is being done well and where improvements need to be made. And with 138 responses, including from 100 in-house departments, 34 agencies and 4 senior independent consultants representing over 1,611 PR professionals across 14 Middle East countries, there’s a lot to ponder.

Firstly, let’s look at the issues thrown up by the Benchmark research. According to respondents, the nature of the public relations is changing. While media relations is still seen as the backbone of the sector, the survey’s respondents expect this to change over the course of 2016 as social media becomes more important to clients and different stakeholder groups alike. There’ll be a similar growth in areas such as influencer engagement, employee engagement, and integrated communications.

There are also major challenges to tackle in the region’s communications sector, including the need to demonstrate results and show a return on investment. And then there’s the money issue; it’s clear that falling oil prices and subsequent slowing in the region’s economy is beginning to bite. In 2016, two out of three respondents see investment in PR staying the same or growing, down from 87.0 per cent in 2015. Similarly, the proportion of people who see budgets falling has more than doubled (13.0 per cent in 2015, up to 34.0 per cent in 2016). There does seem to be a silver lining however when it comes to budgets; one in six respondents expect budget growth of more than 20 per cent in 2016.

A fifth of respondents claimed they were world class. Would you agree?

A fifth of respondents claimed they were world class. Would you agree?

When it comes to performance some in the region’s PR sector clearly don’t lack for confidence – a fifth of in-house departments and agencies regard themselves as ‘world class’ (those scoring themselves an average of more than 7.0/10 for both practice and performance, across 12 elements of communications, were rated as ‘world class’). Despite this, there’s clearly a need to improve in terms of doing things differently; scores on the area of innovation were the lowest recorded by the survey. Responses were low (a rating of 2.31 out of 5) for the statement: ‘The PR industry in the Middle East is more innovative than the industry in other regions’ in 2015. Similarly, the statement: ‘Middle East campaigns are not afraid to ‘disrupt’ – to ignore established convention – to stand out and achieve results’ in 2015 was rated as low with a score of 2.49/5.0. This may change in 2016, as 12.6% more respondents expect the industry to become innovative.

Based on the survey results, another area which the industry has to get right is its hiring and retention practices, especially when it comes to attracting graduates, particularly locals. Talent acquisition scored 5.26 out of ten, and staff retention 5.16 out of 10. Graduate recruitment and attracting local talent were even lower, at 4.58 and 4.32 respectively.

Research is one thing, experiences are another. During the PR Pressure event there were strong emotions expressed on the issues of media relations, ethics and talent (check out the hashtag #PRPressure for all of the posts on the event). It was clear from those media who were present and talking about their own interactions with the PR industry that we still have a long way to go if we’re going to become ‘world class’. Similarly, unless we get talent issues right, including a focus on training, development and certification (which is a major failing as far as I’m concerned), then whatever progress we make will be unsustainable. If the industry keeps on bringing expats in to do a job at every level, it’s going to fail in engaging with local audiences (there’s also the issue of forced localization, which I’ll blog about at a later date).

While the industry may feel that it’s moving in the right direction (and in many areas it is), maybe it’s time for a more honest glimpse into the looking glass, to start addressing key areas of what we do and how we do it. I desperately want to believe that we’re ‘bigger, better and smarter’, but while my heart feels one emotion my head thinks something else. I for one am looking forward to next year’s MEPRA Benchmark. And if you want to play your part and fill in the survey, get in touch with MEPRA.

Working Mothers and the Gulf – Will efforts to promote flexible working and gender diversity be a game changer for the region’s women and economy?

Will the region's businesses embrace mom-friendly policies?

Will the region’s businesses embrace mom-friendly policies?

It’s no secret to those of us whom know the Gulf; this region has lagged behind when it comes to women in the workplace, particularly mothers. A number of new organizations are looking to change this, either through working to push for the return of working mothers to the workforce or by calling for more female participation in the board room.

Co-founded by two of the most experienced recruiters in their respective fields in the United Arab Emirates, Hopscotch and Mums@Work are working to transform perceptions about working mothers and promote a change in working practices, such as the introduction of flexible hours and remote working.

Hopscotch's Helen McGuire's own experiences as a career professional who took time out have inspired her to help other women in the Gulf

Hopscotch’s Helen McGuire’s own experiences as a career professional who took time out have inspired her to help other women in the Gulf

“Hopscotch was set up to be much more than a recruitment firm. We’re a support platform to support women and get them back into the workplace. Part time work is doable, but it’s not how it is perceived,” explains Helen McGuire, co-founder and managing director of Hopscotch, which was set up by her and her husband Justin McGuire who himself founded the recruitment agency MCG Associates. “A lot of full time roles are full time simply because that is the standard, that’s the norm. We’re opening up a new talent pool that hasn’t existed before and that means potentially a new way of working for everyone in the region.”

For Louise Karim, the managing director of Mums@Work, her goal is two-fold, namely to promote flexible and part-time working as an option to women who have taken a break from their career for family reasons and to support both these women get back into work as well as corporations who are looking to hire working mothers but don’t know where to start.

“We’ve done our research here and we did a survey [through our parent company Mackenzie Jones] to ask our clients about mums in the workplace. We got an outstanding positive response when we asked if they’d hire mothers,” says Karim. “We also undertook a You Gov Survey which indicated 77% of mothers in the UAE would return to work if flexible options were available.”

Both organizations are looking to tap into what they believe is a significant pool of professionals, many of whom were senior-level executives, who are based in the region but whom don’t feel ready to commit to full time work but would work flexi-hours or remotely if the option was available. As Karim explains, the response has been remarkable.

Mums@Work's Louise Karim (pictured on the right) aims to create a community that will help get moms back into the workplace

Mums@Work’s Louise Karim (pictured on the right) aims to create a community that will help get moms back into the workplace

“Since our launch over a month ago we have had 3,000 CVs, a good percentage of which are very strong candidates, women who were in management and executive positions,” says Karim. “With clients we have had a strong response and our roles range from regional project manager for a multinational retailer, to legal, finance, marketing support. These include full-time flexible work to one or two days a week.”

The reaction to Hopscotch, which was also launched this year, has similarly exceeded expectations states McGuire. The organization, which McGuire describes as being unique in terms of its commitment to training, skills and support through ongoing Workshop series and online resources, has been overwhelmed by a positive response from both corporates and moms who want to get back into work.

“We have been astounded by the response, not just from women, but also from businesses and the media. We imagined some companies would take a little persuasion, but so far the response to bringing a new product to this market which we have done has been really positive.”

As part of their engagement with mothers who have been out of the workforce for some time, both Hopscotch and Mums@Work are going beyond the typical recruitment service and providing additional support to get them ready to re-enter the workforce. Hopscotch is currently running a series of workshops in association with HSBC. In addition to workshops and mentoring, Mums@Work is developing a portal which Karim hopes will turn into a support network for sharing advice, providing guidance and support.

A different approach is being taken by the 30% Club, a movement which was conceived of in the United Kingdom back in 2010 and which found its way to the Gulf last year. The idea is simple – get more women on company boards and they’ll push for a change from within. The 30% Club, which advocates for a minimum of 30% female representation at board level, has spread rapidly around the globe, including in the Gulf where it is being supported by a host of organizations.

Felice Hurst, a board member of the 30% Club in the Gulf, wants to see more female executives sitting on the boards of the region's businesses

Felice Hurst, a board member of the 30% Club in the Gulf, wants to see more female executives sitting on the boards of the region’s businesses

Gender balance on boards not only encourages better leadership and governance, but diversity further contributes to better all-round board performance, and ultimately increased corporate performance for both companies and their shareholders,” explains Felice Hurst, Gulf chapter board volunteer and MENA managing director for Hanson Search. “Women play a very powerful role in the Middle East when it comes to business, and we are witnessing an increased number of women in government, running private businesses, and driving the economy forward in countries such as the UAE, Qatar and Saudi.”

For Hurst, herself a working mother, the issue of getting mothers back into jobs is part of the wider debate about female representation in management. “As an executive recruitment professional, the topic of enhancing the female talent and enabling them to perform well both as Mothers and businesswomen is at the top of the priority list. Women bring in a “new” and often wider perspective to management problem solving, and expanding the female participation in the workforce will expand the pool of talent that the GCC organizations can tap into.”

The argument is also economic, explains Hurst. More female participation will only be better for the local, regional and global economy. “McKinsey recently produced a report “Women Matter” highlighting that companies greatly benefit from gender diversity in leadership positions, with more diversity going hand in hand with higher organizational effectiveness. The report argued that there is an economic case for gender parity, and that advancing equality could add US$12 trillion annually to global GDP by 2025. This is a pressing global issue with huge ramifications not just for the lives and livelihoods of girls and women but, more generally for human development, productivity and GDP growth.”

While it’s too early to tell what impact these organizations and initiatives have made on perceptions and hiring, the fact that we’re seeing a groundswell of support for changing attitudes and policies towards working mothers should be applauded. I for one will be doing what I can to cheer on the 30% Club, Hopscotch and Mums@Work.

What’s in a word? Coverage of Saudi oil minister Ali Al-Naimi’s departure by newswire media and social media reactions

Another week passes by and we witness more remarkable changes in Saudi Arabia. Over the past weekend Saudi King Salman announced a raft of changes which impacted the Kingdom’s government structure as well as those who were tasked with leading the changes.

The headline grabber, in more ways than one, was the departure of the longstanding oil minister Ali Al-Naimi. Al-Naimi had been an ever-present in government, serving as the oil minister for just over two decades. There had long been talk of Ali Al-Naimi, who is now 80, stepping down. When the time came, it was still a surprise to many.

Rather than talk about the man, who is a legend in the oil industry and is held in high regard by Saudis, I wanted to briefly look at the headlines from the AFP, Bloomberg, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal.

AFP used the word ‘sacked’ in their headline, but then reverted to replaced in the copy. Interestingly, the piece which was on the AFP site is no longer present. The below is from the cached version on Google.

AFP Naimi coverage

Bloomberg, which has scored a number of scoops in the Kingdom recently with its coverage of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, went for the below title which . The news piece was diplomatic in terms of the wording used about All Al-Naimi’s departure, including the use of the verb ‘replaced’ to describe the change in ministers (Ali Al-Naimi’s successor is the Chairman of Saudi Aramco Khalid Al-Falih).

Bloomberg Coverage

Reuters also focused on the incoming minister and used the word replaced.

Reuters coverage

Last but not least, Wall Street Journal initially opted for the word ‘fired’ in their title. After a firestorm on Twitter, including attacks against its Riyadh-based Saudi correspondent (and Saudi national) Ahmed Al-Omran, the title was changed from fired to dismissed (the word fired is still in the url as you can see from the below).

WSJ coverage

The argument that the WSJ team put forward is that the wording was correct – one is appointed to a minister’s post and then one is fired. Fired effectively means the same as replaced, dismissed or sacked. The nuance was lost on many who took offence and reached out directly to Ahmed via Twitter to complain. In a rare display of understanding, the WSJ changed the title. Ahmed Al-Omran also apologized for any offense taken.

In a region where the international media has rarely been given much attention by the national population, the Ali Al-Naimi story underlined a possible change in attitudes brought about by social media and the need to communicate what Gulf nationals feel is a correct story or narrative to the outside world. For these reasons, this will not be the last time that the foreign media comes under scrutiny for the wording they use to describe what is happening on the ground here in the Gulf.

Jailed for switching identities for access to an event – What PR practitioners need to be aware of

Seven people working in or for PR agencies were jailed for three years for switching security cards during WFES.

Seven people working in or for PR agencies were jailed for three years for switching security cards during WFES.

Having been in the region for a fair period of time (my family’s history in the Gulf goes back over half a century), I’ve seen and experienced many a situation. These recollections have helped me to grow, metaphorically speaking, a fairly thick skin. But every now and then, a story emerges that still has the power to shock.

A friend shared the below story with me which is from the local rag 7Days. As a PR professional and a former journalist, I know that the below is common practice. But I’ve never heard of such a punishment.

Seven people have been sentenced to three years in jail for swapping security access to attend an energy summit in Abu Dhabi.

The criminal court handed down the sentences to the men and women from Philippines, India, China and Canada after they were found guilty of misusing official documents and access badges and allowing unauthorised people into the World Future Energy Summit on January 18 of this year.

Official documents stated that the defendants, who included expat employees and visitors, exchanged security access badges to allow others who had not registered to enter the conference.

The court heard this not acceptable as the summit was attended by top local government officials and international dignitaries.

Prosecutors said that in one of the cases, a Public Relations official from a local firm gave her access badge to a male photographer who had been sent by their client to take some pictures of the event.

Security officials spotted the Filipina with a woman’s access badge and he was arrested along with the PR official who offered him the access badge. In court the PR woman admitted to giving him the access badge issued in her name.

“I gave it to him so he could access the area and take photos for one of our clients participating in the exhibition at the summit,” said the PR official.

“I just wanted to facilitate the work of our client.”

She told the judge that she had no idea giving her access badge to another person was illegal or that it could jeopardise security at the summit.

The key speakers at the conference included United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

The defendants can appeal their sentences within 14 days after the ruling was issued


With the number of events that are held in the UAE and the cost of entry, it’s not uncommon for photographers and even junior PR professionals from the agency side to resort to borrowing someone else’s badge. While it’s not the best or most ethical route to take, when you’re on a deadline and when you don’t have an hour or two to wait to get a new entry badge, it’s understandable that someone may take another’s badge to get access to do their job as quickly as possible. I’ve seen this countless times with big events. And I’ve seen people getting caught, which usually involves a ticking off from security for having (and using) someone else’s badge.

However, being jailed for three years in prison (which will presumably be followed by deportation for those expats who are involved) is something else entirely; I’ve never seen the like before. In future, just be careful when faced with a similar situation. Seven people from our industry being bars is hard to countenance. I’d hate to see anyone I know going to prison for the same reason.

Keep Calm, Say Nothing – QNB’s response to the customer data hack crisis

Qatar National Bank's reputation has literally gone down like the Titanic according to this visual from a reader of Doha News (source: Doha News)

Qatar National Bank’s reputation has literally gone down like the Titanic according to this visual from a reader of Doha News (source: Doha News)

Like it or not, there will be times when the proverbial @#$% hits the fan. Each and every organization will go through a crisis. What matters is how an organization responds to the crisis and communicates this response.

Before I talk about the bank in question, I want to step to talk a little about crisis communications. Crisis comms is an artform, and some people (who get paid lots of money) do crisis comms for a full time living. When dealing with a crisis, communications theory states that there are three steps. The first is pre-crisis, which involves setting up a team and processes (the who and the how), and then practising for situations that are likely to occur. The second phase is the crisis itself, and the third is post-crisis and fixing the issue.

Last week someone allegedly released a huge amount of customer data which was hacked from Qatar National Bank. The 1.4 gigabyte file was put online for download. A data hack of customer information is one of the worst things that can happen to a retail bank. But it gets worse. To quote from Doha News.

The data included the financial and personal information of thousands people, many of them QNB customers, and is being spread widely on social media and file-sharing websites.

Cyber security experts said as many as 400,000 customers could be affected, in what is being called one of Qatar’s biggest data breaches.

Since yesterday, several customers have reported attempts to break into their bank accounts, although these appear to have been blocked before any transfers took place.

Others have said there have been attempts to access and even alter their social media accounts.

Yes, it was that bad. But instead of communicating and advising customers on what to do and how to keep themselves safe, QNB’s media team didn’t say a thing. Well, almost. Again, back to Doha News.

More than 24 hours after the data breach became public, QNB has not answered questions from Doha News on what actions customers should take to protect themselves and many customers say they have yet to be contacted by the bank.

Online, it has continued to respond to questions by pointing to yesterday’s statement that said it does not comment on “social media speculation,” even though the confidential information about thousands of its customers is online for anyone to access.

According to the reaction of dozens of customers, some of the information is correct. And yet, even QNB’s Call Center and retail branches are holding fast and not saying anything. One customer was allegedly told that the allegations were ‘propaganda’.

All credit to Doha News. The Qatar-based news website has covered the issue from its beginning with a level of thoroughness that should be a lesson for all local media outlets in the region. The last piece it ran was about a website which could help QNB customers check if they were hacked or not.

Doha News has also been doing much of the work which should have been done by QNB itself, namely advise customers on what is happening, tell them what action they should take and why. QNB’s silence on the issue is a classic example of how organizations in the region used to deal with a crisis prior to the advent of social media. You dig your head in the sand and hope it’ll go away. Well, this is what they’ve done and their reputation has gone down with the Titanic.

Instead, they should have been responding through all consumer-focused communications channels, including social media (a digital crisis consultant I respect greatly and ex-head of comms for the BBC, Donald Steel, advises that any online response should take no longer than 15 minutes). By acknowledging the problem, by explaining how their customers can keep safe, and by promising a review of their security setup, QNB would have helped to have turned a crisis into an opportunity to demonstrate both transparency and concern for customers and their well-being.

In their response (or lack thereof) QNB has looked archaic and they’ve compounded the damage by seeming not to care. I hope that others take stock of the online backlash and understand that when it comes to a crisis in the Gulf, silence is never golden.