Five Insights from Bahrain

In case you missed it (and why I’ve been so quiet for three months), IABC help their first-ever major event in the Gulf. Over 180 attendees, 50 speakers and 40 presentations over two days make EMENAComm arguably the biggest, and, more importantly, the most impactful communications conference in the region. It also gave me the chance to look at the challenges and opportunities that the profession faces.

Here’s my five insights from Bahrain.

1. Why Not Dubai?

Even before we began, there was one issue people were talking about. Whenever I spoke about EMENAComm, there would be two lines of conversation. The first, mainly from friends and colleagues in the UAE, was “Why not do the event in Dubai?” The second was, “We’re so happy you’re doing this in Bahrain!”

Dubai has become the hub for the PR industry across not just MENA, but for much of the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East and Africa. It’s easy to see why: the incredible transport infrastructure and ease of access, including visas on arrival; English being the country’s de-facto language, and relatively simple business ownership rules (for IMEA, that is) mean that Dubai is where many clients and agencies have their regional bases.

Dubai’s position as the PR hub is reflected in the number of events in Dubai – we have a marcomms event every other week in Dubai. This is great for anyone based in Dubai, but what about communicators based outside of Dubai? In one of the conversations I had with an attendee, she thanked IABC for choosing Bahrain, adding that “I can’t remember the last time we had a communications event in Bahrain.”

For agencies in particular, my view is that they’ve got to start looking outside of the UAE and invest locally. In one conversation this week, one agency head noted that Dubai has been saturated for some time with rival firms. In contrast, he added a market like Saudi is still full of PR opportunities, provided that agencies invest locally. It’s time we all – clients, agencies and PR associations – invest in talent and operations where our clients are across the region, including with events that help support talent development.

2. We’re Busy!

The event in Bahrain would have been bigger, had all of those who said they wanted to come actually turn up. Unsurprisingly, we had lots of drop-outs. The response was the standard, “we have too much work.” There’s a couple of points I want to raise here, some of which worry me, and others which may be a silver lining.

First up, whilst its good that we’re being trusted with more strategic work, this comes with a caveat. It seems we’re not willing to push back to our management (one of our speakers dropped out on the Thursday before the event, due to last-minute work commitments – this person had several months notice on the event).

Second, our workload is increasing as we’re being asked to do more by our management (the trust element is good), and yet we’re not being given additional resources to deal with our growing to-do list. What is also concerning is that many communicators, particularly those at a senior level, are not able to take time out to continue learning. We work in a fast-changing profession, and we’ve got to keep up with the latest research, trends and tech if we want to become better communicators.

3. We want to listen, but do we respect people who listen?

Listening was a constant topic of discussion at EMENAComm, and was referenced by speaker after speaker as a skill that we should both use and promote more. I heard rave reviews about the listening workshop conducted by Howard Krais, Kevin Ruck and Mike Pounsford. Attendees all agreed that listening is under-utilized, especially in a region such as the Gulf where management (and communication) is often top-down.

This was music to my ears. And yet there was one moment where I had to pinch myself. I received feedback from one meeting about a person who stated that their aim was to listen and learn during the meeting itself. Another attendee felt that this wasn’t a sign of leadership. To this second person, leadership is about talking. Despite all the buzz around concepts such as engagement and experience, in societies such as the Gulf the idea of a leader can often revolve around the person who is dominating the conversation. How can we promote listening to engage employees and others if we still cling to notions of leadership that prescribe the person at the front must talk (or, at the very least, dominate the conversation).

4. There’s a fascination with psychology

Those talks which got people talking were all about psychology, be it Monkeys and Psychopaths by Ogilvy’s Joe Lipscombe and Nick Driver or Dawn Metcalfe’s talk about creating a stand-up culture. It was great to see communicators delve into why we think the way we do, and look at how they can use those insights to develop better, more impactful campaigns that draw their stakeholders in. There’s much more communicators can do when it comes to understanding human psychology, and factoring in those learnings when we create and execute campaigns. But just seeing the interest in this area gave me so much hope that we are moving in the right direction.

5. Technology matters, but we’re still experimenting

One of the most popular tracks was on technology. Speakers such as Adrian Cropley, Jasna Suhadolc, and Fady Ramzy shared insights into automation, digital marketing and artificial intelligence. For a region that is obsessed with tech and digital (I dare you to find a coffee shop where there’s no one on their smartphone in the Gulf), we’ve yet to use technology as effectively in communications. This may partly be down to the need for comms heads to hire more people with analytical/science backgrounds, but it may also be due to organizational leaders wanting to control the mediums we use. In a question to Meltwater’s Laila Mousa, one attendee admitted he struggled to get his leadership to embrace social media. As digital natives take over organizational leadership roles, I hope our adoption of technology will pick up.

That’s my insights done for now. If you attended EMENAComm and want to share your views, please do drop me a note and write a guest blog for me (you can see all the images here).

That’s all for now. And I promise, I’ll be writing more frequently from now on.

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