What does Instagram’s UAE communications remit say about how outsiders understand the region?

Instagram has been a huge hit in Saudi, especially among the Kingdom's youth. How will Instagram's comms team reach out to these groups? (image source: http://sustg.com/)

Instagram has been a huge hit in Saudi, especially among the Kingdom’s youth. How will Instagram’s comms team reach out to these groups? (image source: http://sustg.com/)

Client wins can often make interesting reading, especially when the brand is a household name. Last week was no exception, with the Dubai-based House of Comms winning a brief to represent Instagram in the UAE.

The news caught my attention for a couple of reasons. Firstly, House of Comms is enjoying remarkable success; the agency which was founded in 2012 has expanded rapidly, picked up a host of big name clients and won numerous awards for its work. The agency’s growth reminds me of the rapid rise enjoyed by Dabo & Co (which was eventually bought by Edelman). House of Comms does have an affiliate network across the region, including in the Gulf.

What struck me was Instagram’s choice of market to enter into. While the UAE is the regional public relations hub of the wider Middle East region, I would have thought that the company would have taken a more regional approach to public outreach (Editor’s Note: the agreement with House of Comms is for the UAE, but also includes advisory work for other markets). For instance, the first market to embrace paid influencer marketing, particularly on Instagram, was Kuwait. In terms of numbers on the platform, Saudi is the largest country in the region by far, with a greater number of users than the UAE. Egypt is another key market for the picture and video service. If you’re looking for details on Instagram usage, have a look at the stats below from the second quarter of 2015 from an earlier blog.

In terms of the Gulf, it’s no surprise that Saudi leads the way – there are 10.7 million monthly active users in the Kingdom (just over a third of the population). The UAE follows with 2.2 million monthly users. And, to the West, Egypt has 3.2 million monthly active users. What’s even more impressive is daily active users – a whopping 6.1 million for Saudi, 1.2 million for the UAE, and 1.1 million for Egypt.

In addition, there’s the parent brand to think of. Instagram is owned by Facebook, which has its own PR agency in the region (which is regional). Up until recently, that agency was supporting Instagram. So, why the change? Would having two agencies for the two brands help or hinder media outreach, especially when Instagram is known as a Facebook product?

While the agreement is only for the UAE, I hope that Instagram, one of the most popular social platforms in the Middle East, expands its regional approach to engagement. The Instagram team should have oodles of data to look at when it comes to usage in each and every different country, and they’d be smart to look at Twitter’s model of engaging with influencers to get them onto the platform. Let’s hope that as a digital business, Instagram takes a data-based approach to engagement in an emerging market and work in key markets, rather than follow the much traveled path of using a hub to work remotely instead of actually doing the hard work and going in-country.

The State of the PR Industry in South Africa – key trends shaping business communications

I had the pleasure of being in Toronto recently, a remarkable place in an even more impressive country. I also had the honor of being in the presence of a couple hundred communicators at the World Public Relations Forum. The topic of the forum, which I’ll write more about in due course, was culture and communications. Being from Dubai and covering the MENA region, there was one particular presentation which caught my eye. The topic was the state of the PR Industry in South Africa – key trends shaping business communications.

Undertaken by Daniel Munslow, Principal Consultant at recruiters VMA Group, with support from the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa and the International Association of Business Communicators, the research covered a range of issues, from employment trends, recruitment and outsourcing, to skills development and training, key business challenges, digital media and future proofing. Over 386 communicators from 251 organizations took part in the survey, the majority of them from South Africa, but with responses from Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.

So, what are the learnings?

Challenging Times for Budgets

The communications industry, particularly in South Africa is facing a number of headwinds, including both economic and political pressures. Here are the financial highlights from the executive summary.

• 29% of respondents confirmed their teams had shrunk in the last year;
• 35% of comms budgets have increased, and the exact same amount have decreased their budgets;
• 30% of communicators say their salaries were cut or remained the same year on year;
• Nearly 9% of respondents have started their own consultancies on the back of retrenchments (5% of those surveyed have been retrenched since March 2015);
• Downward pressure on budgets has overtaken skills shortages as the number one concern for communicators. In 2015, 22% said budget was a key challenge for business over the next 12 months, this number has increased to 58%.

What impact will this have on agencies, especially those who are regionally headquartered in Dubai and who have taken a bet on the African market outgrowing the Middle East this year?

There's a great deal of scope for agencies to further their consultancy role with African corporations

There’s a great deal of scope for agencies to further their consultancy role with African corporations

Over three-quarters of in-house communicators outsource 25 percent or less of their communications activities to agencies. While budgetary pressures may limit the demand for agency services in the short term, will Africa follow other regions and embrace outsourcing to communications agencies?

An Increasingly Complex Business Environment

It’s also apparent that African communicators are not only having to deal with financial pressures, but a host of business and organizational issues which are making their jobs much harder.

The top five challenges for African communicators say much about how the industry is changing

The top five challenges for African communicators say much about how the industry is changing

Partly due to the ubiquity of digital, audiences are becoming ever more fragmented. And communicators are also worried about the ability of their leadership to communicate, both internally and externally. There’s a lack of African talent and a need for communicators to skill-up (interestingly, career development is the number one reason people leave their jobs. Remuneration is rated the third reason only). And, as organizations are getting larger, they’re also becoming more complex which is impacting the ability of communicators to engage internally.

There are reasons to be optimistic, particularly when considering the seniority of communicators in South Africa. Forty-five percent of those surveyed responded that they reported into the CEO or MD of their organization.

Nearly half of South African communicators surveyed said they report into the most important executive in their organization

Nearly half of South African communicators surveyed said they report into the most important executive in their organization

A Digital Future

It’s unsurprising that digital is playing a major role in how communicators in South Africa engage with others. Facebook is the most popular channel, followed by Twitter and LinkedIn. Only 17 percent of social media communications is outsourced, with corporations instead preferring in-house resources (for now at least).

These are the most popular social networks among the communicators surveyed in Sub-Saharan Africa

These are the most popular social networks among the communicators surveyed in Sub-Saharan Africa

However, there are still major barriers including a lack of understanding regarding a return on investment, a lack of time and a fear that something inappropriate may be said online.

Barriers to social media in Southern AfricaDespite all the challenges that African communicators face in today’s troubled economic and political environment, there’s a strong belief among those surveyed that the industry will continue to go from strength to strength. Ninety-one percent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed that the influence exerted by the communications function will increase over the next two years.

Additionally, 64 percent of the communications functions surveyed are involved in projects from the get-go, rather than further down the development stage when reputation issues arise.

There’s no doubt that Africa represents an exciting market for the communications industry in the medium to long-term. However, short-term issues will need to be tackled, especially a lack of talent and a skills shortage.

You can download the full VMA Africa Communication Survey 2016 here. For more information on the survey, do reach out to Daniel Munslow at dmunslow@vmagroup.com

Departing but not goodbye – Fida Chaaban and Frank Kane step down from The Entrepreneur and The National

Frank Kane (left), and Fida Chaaban have left their marks on the UAE's media scene.

Frank Kane (left), and Fida Chaaban have left their marks on the UAE’s media scene.

The UAE’s media scene can oft be described as a merry-go-round; journalists change roles almost as frequently as their colleagues in the public relations industry. Every so often, a journalist comes along whom I develop the utmost respect for, both in terms of their professionalism as well as their personality. They’re a pleasure to deal with.

Just like waiting for a bus, not one but two of my favorite media are leaving their roles this summer. The first is a lady who has redefined what it is to be an editor-in-chief of a publication. Fida Chaaban came to the UAE around about two and a half years ago to head up the newly-launched title Entrepreneur Middle East. During that time she’s built up a strong editorial team who aren’t afraid to publish news on its merit (and say no to ethically-inappropriate requests). Fida has gone beyond that and she’s lived the brand – she could be found at any and every event talking about entrepreneurship including the good, the bad, and the public relations. Fida was a pioneer in terms of engagement; in a region where many editors-in-chief are unapproachable, she’d always be online (when did she sleep?), and responding to anyone and everyone.

Fida announced the change and her stepping down in her own fashion by posting an article about it online (it’s well worth a read). She’ll be staying in Dubai, so I’m not saying goodbye but rather I hope to see her back in the media space soon.

The second person is Frank Kane. Few people in the regional PR industry worth their salt don’t know Frank, a man who has been reporting in London for decades and who moved to the UAE around a decade ago. If you want to learn about proper investigative journalism, Frank is the man to listen to. Frank has been with The National for almost seven years, and during that time his column has been a must read for anyone wanting to understand the nuances of business and culture in the country. Frank will be stepping down from The National at the end of this summer, but he’ll be staying in the UAE.

I could share many anecdotes about Frank, but I’ll do with just one. Back in 2008 I was working on a deal between the New York Stock Exchange and Qatar on a multi-million dollar investment. I was talking with the head of a major public relations firm from London and his experienced team, reviewing the media list. Such was the reverence (and apprehension) for Frank that when we got to his name the gentleman in question said, “I’ll deal with Frank”. When you’re equally respected and feared by public relations executives, that’s when you know you have made it as a true journalist.

I’ll miss dealing with both Fida and Frank, and I do hope that both will be back where they need to be (and where we need them to be), behind a desk working on copy that you can’t put down. We need more journalists like them.

PS do follow Fida and Frank on Twitter, at @fida and @frankkanedubai respectively.