About alexofarabia

I'm am obsessive compulsive communicator who has lived in the Gulf for almost a decade. Enjoying the challenge of working in a region where you've got to be innovative, patient and determined to make things happen. Miss being a full-time journalist! Miss family even more! Sometimes I mouth off, but more often I grit my teeth and try to encourage change through a smile (not as easy as you think). Despite now living in Dubai Bahrain is home for me.

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.

Why Communicators must stop Virtue Signalling

We’ve got to be honest about the challenges we face and how we deal with them

I just love conferences, especially about communications. There’s always the chance there’ll be a fascinating panel with a group of communicators who share their experiences and insights. I enjoy listening to professionals who tell it like it is, with no embellishments. However, when working in the communications function there’s always a danger that we stick to the narrative and come out with viewpoints that sound wonderful, but which are the opposite of reality.

Last week was one of those occasions. The excellent team at the Holmes Report were in Dubai for their second IN2Summit MENA. The opening, headline session asked if CEOs in the Middle East should take a stand on public debates and policy-making.

Given everything that’s happening, from the introduction of taxation to regional politics, you’d think that CEO activism would be at an all-time high. However, it’s hard for me to remember the last time a CEO in the Gulf spoke up on a hot topic (there are exceptions, and interestingly enough, the CEOs who do speak out often tend to be nationals who are close to government leaders).

I hoped I’d be wrong, and kept any questions to myself. However, when following the debate online, there seemed to be little alignment between what the panelists were saying and what’s actually happening on CEO engagement in the Middle East region. The moderator referenced Nike and Unilever, both great examples from regions where there’s significantly more freedom to engage in political debate.

One speaker commented that: “I believe CEOs should be involved. They should preserve the interests of the country as well as holding core values that are aligned with the government. Change doesn’t always come easy but it’s always necessary.”

Part of our roles as communicators is to agitate for change that will benefit our stakeholders. However, we are being disingenuous by sharing insights that are contrary to what is happening? Do we have activist CEOs who can openly engage on public issues in MENA? If there are more than ten, then please do share their names. I can come up with similar examples – one from two years back focused on whether we are speaking truth to power, which is a rarity in our region.

We need to ask these questions of ourselves, but we also need to be honest with our answers. Virtue signalling doesn’t do us, or those we work with, any good, especially when we need to work to change not just our roles but our environments as well. We must have the courage to speak up honestly, and point out when there are contradictions in what we want to do and what we actually do. This will not only benefit current practitioners, but also future generations (at the event there were several dozen students in attendance).That’s how reputations are built, on aligning our words with our actions.

Jamal’s Legacy – What PR Must Learn & Do Differently

Jamal was not only a remarkable journalist, but he was a wonderful person. I miss him.

It’s been over a month and I’m still in shock at what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who died last month while at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

I knew Jamal. I first met him four years back at a SAGIA event in Riyadh. He was working with HRH Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal at the time, as a media adviser and the head of the soon-to-launch Al-Arab television channel.I knew of Jamal; he was the Arab World’s best-known journalist. Jamal was known for his bravery in tackling taboo subjects, and for being able to read the public mood better than anyone else. Jamal wrote for his readers, not his bosses. He’d twice been fired as editor-in-chief of Saudi’s Al-Watan newspaper. He was a journalist that I admired, both for his courage and also for his character (I’ve never met any editor-in-chief in the Arab world who was more open, more accessible and happier to talk than him – Jamal didn’t have an ego, but rather an appetite for debate and good conversation).

The coverage of what happened to Jamal has been extraordinary. One of the outcomes has been the beginning of a debate about the issue of freedom of speech, with one particularly brave piece by Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg in Arab News (please do read the piece).

I want to focus this blog post instead on the role and responsibility of the PR industry, given the increasing amount of work done by agencies with governments around the world.

The “Everyone Should be Represented” Argument

There’s an argument that is often shared in the PR industry that everyone deserves reputation. This is the line used by individuals such as Lord Tim Bell. This defense, which is akin to the legal requirement for everyone to be offered legal counsel, misses two vital points. The first is the need for equal standards to be applied to all. To quote the previous Chair and Chief Executive of the Public Relations Society of America, Rosanna M. Fiske, who wrote in the Financial Times in 2012:

“We believe every person or organisation has the right to have its voice heard in the global marketplace of ideas. But for PR firms to represent dictatorships that do not afford that same freedom to their own people is disingenuous towards the liberties of a democracy and to democratic societies’ reputations as marketplaces for dissenting ideas.”

Even if we accept this argument, what do we do for those with no money? This is why the legal analogy is false. A lawyer will always be appointed to a defendant, no matter his or her financial status. This is not true in the PR industry. Many agencies do pro-bono work, but I doubt few are representing vulnerable groups in war zones. And that means by default that these people are voiceless. No one knows their stories.

What We Say Isn’t What We Do

What I’m often struck by is the dissonance between people’s views and their actions, especially in developing markets. I’ve seen time and time again senior practitioners tweet a piece of news about democracy in their own country, and yet they’ll be working for an organization that is being criticized by NGOs or single-issue groups. Are they aware of how they look? We live in a digital world, where people try to cultivate a different online persona. And many in the communications industry should know better when it comes to the difference between our online views, which are shared publicly, and our actions.

We also have a bigger issue to face, which is that of denial. When asked about a controversial client action, the most common response from a PR agency was, “we didn’t know.” We’re supposed to be consultants and analysts, the people who know what’s happening both externally and internally. This argument doesn’t wash with me. And it erodes the credibility in our own competency.

When we engage with anything that whiffs of controversy, we should be aware of what we’re getting ourselves into, and we should also be clear with clients as to our red lines. Once those red lines are crossed, we should walk away.

What has happened to Jamal is a tragedy. In the light of his death, I hope that we can all learn to become a more responsible industry. That’s the legacy we owe to him.

How to podcast (on the cheap and dirty)

I love podcasting – it’s simple, it’s cost-effective, and it’s easy to get podcasts out on the web and aggregate them to thousands of people. But there’s this (incorrect) belief that podcasting is expensive (you have to use a studio), that you have to have a sound engineer to edit the files (anyone can do it), and that podcasting is still niche.

Efforts are being made to break down these evil podcasting myths; the inaugural Middle East Podcast Forum, which was held last month, being one example of industry-wide efforts to educate non-Podcasters. I want to add to this, in my own way, and break down some taboos. And if you are a serious podcaster, please don’t hate me.

Step One – Recording the Podcast

This is the easiest part (no really, it is). All you need is a good phone, such as an iPhone or a Google Android, and an app such as Voice Memos. So, rather than me explain it in words, I’ll show you how to do this. Just remember to choose a quiet location.

You can buy mics to plug into your phone, to improve the sound quality. There’s lots out there for the 3.5mm jack, but there are also options for the iPhone lightning connector.

Step Two – Editing the Audio File

Right, you’ve done the recording. So, what’s next? You’ll need to ensure that your file is in the right format. If I’ve used Voice Memos, the file will need to be changed from a m4a format to mp3, which I prefer. Use a site such as Zamzar to convert your file.

Next up is editing the clip itself. There’s a host of programs you can use. My preferred, which is also free, is Realplayer Trimmer. There’s others you can use. Another program, which is also free, is Audacity. My job is simple – I chop off the audio I don’t want at the beginning and the end, and then save the file.

What I do then is add intro and exit music. This makes the podcast sound much more professional, and it gives your podcast series a consistent sound.

You then need to choose your intro and exit music for the podcast. Use premiumbeat.com or another music library to choose music that fits the overarching podcast area of interest. You’ll need 15 second clips, and some sites such as premiumbeat.com already have the music chopped up for you. Do remember that this music will be used on every one of your podcasts, so be comfortable with the music, as you should not change it.

So, you’ve got your intro and exit music. How do you add it into your podcast? Here’s a video showing you how you top and tail your audio file in Audacity.

Step Three – Hosting and Marketing Your Podcast

So, now you have your final audio file. What do you do next? You need to 1) host and 2) submit your podcast to streaming services such as iTunes. I’m not going to go into detail here. Instead, for hosting check out a site such as Soundcloud, which has a handy podcasting guide on how to set up your hosting with them.

For submitting your podcast to streaming services such as iTunes for Podcasts, have a look at this very handy guide.

And that’s it! Now go and Podcast!

When Alex Met Arun: Thoughts on the future of the industry, good corporate governance and values-based engagement

I had the pleasure of speaking with the Holmes Report’s Arun recently, on a host of topics. I interviewed him for a podcast, looking at the future of the communications industry. He asked me about recent corporate governance issues in the Middle East. We also spoke about the rise of values-based communications. Have a listen and enjoy. And get involved by sharing your opinion.

Corporate governance should matter to all of us when it comes to reputation building

I’m sharing this article, which first ran in Communicate Middle East a couple of days back. I care deeply about the industry and about MEPRA, to which I gave five years of board service. My message is simple – we can and must do better when it comes to corporate governance. And MEPRA must lead by example.

“It’s no secret that I care about the communications industry in the region. I’ve done more than my fair share when it comes to supporting people and organizations in becoming more aware of what good communications is all about, and why it’s central to building strong reputations. I’ve also spent years advocating for the adoption of best practices, including good corporate governance, through both my day job and my board positions for several communications associations including the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA), Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and Advertisers Business Group (ABG).

Good corporate governance builds reputation; weak corporate governance undermines trust. I’m not simply talking about following regulations and laws, but also the need to be transparent as well as feel that an organization’s leadership is doing the right thing, listening to concerns and acting with integrity. As a member of the communications industry who is interested in how my profession is perceived, I care about reputations and the need to do the right thing.

One of the organizations I’ve supported, both as a member and through a board position, is the MEPRA. As a member, I’ve always maintained that we must adhere to the strongest standards of corporate governance. It’s integral to our mission of empowering communicators in becoming strategic advisors, particularly to organizational leadership.

Given that, I’m confused as to how at least three members have been added to the organization’s Strategy Board in the months following the Annual General Meeting on February 5. There was no member’s vote on their nomination and no communication sent to members besides the update on the website. And I’m struggling to reconcile this with what’s stated in the MEPRA Charter. I’ll quote from the Charter:

  • The Boards shall be elected from MEPRA’s members.
  • The election will take place at the Annual General Meeting to be held each year or at an Extraordinary General Meeting if required and agreed by a majority of the Executive Board.
  • The Executive Board shall be responsible for establishing the nomination and election process each year, provided always that: nominations for each office of the Boards will be invited from the members of the association when giving notice of the Annual General Meeting. The Executive Board must receive all nominations in writing in reasonable time before the date of the Annual General Meeting. Every nomination shall be supported by at least two voting members of the Association. The Executive Board will circulate the list of nominations to members not less than two weeks prior to the Annual General Meeting.
  • Election will be by a simple majority of the members eligible to vote.
  • Voting will be by secret ballot.
  • All MEPRA members are eligible to vote in the election of the Strategy Board. Only members of the Strategy Board are eligible to vote in the election of the Executive Board. Only members of the Executive Board are eligible to vote in the election of Chair and Vice Chair. No member may vote for him or herself.
  • If for any reason a member of the Boards is unable to serve for a full two years the vacancy will be advised to the members and the Executive Board may fill the vacancy from any candidates that express an interest in filling the vacancy and which have the competencies required in order to fill the relevant role. The decision of the Executive Board in relation to filling vacancies shall be final.

This article won’t win me many plaudits, and I expect that I’ll be criticized for openly airing this. However, we must be able to have the courage to speak honestly, even to those in power. Speaking truth to power means that we believe deeply in what we say, that we care, and that we understand the risks of not doing so. Doing what’s right, rather than what is politically convenient, is incumbent on all of us.

It would be easier for me – or any of us – not to say anything. I was asked by a board member, “Why do you care?” I care because I am part of this region and this industry. Reputations matter, especially for a body that represents what we do. I believe in the region’s talent, and our ability to break down misperceptions about the Middle East when it comes to corporate governance.

I also realize that if we are not transparent, if we don’t engage proactively, and if we don’t follow our own rules, we will not have the trust that we need to raise the profession from one that simply executes to one that advises and guides a company and its board to do the right thing.

If you don’t believe me, that’s fine. I may be taking all of this too seriously. However, go and ask any Abraaj shareholder about the implications of weak corporate governance. If you still don’t understand the need to build strong corporate governance and its role in reputation building, then maybe communications isn’t the right role for you.

Ethics and why it should matter more than ever to today’s communicators

If there’s ever a word to kill a conversation, it’s ethics. Despite our job being all about reputations, we’ve not given ethics the importance and time that it deserves. This is changing, thanks in part to the efforts of a number of associations, including the Global Alliance, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ), the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO), and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), there’s a renewed focus on putting ethics at the heart of what we do and why we do it.

But why does ethics matter, really? Let me first state the obvious; communications has undergone a drastic change over the past decade, owing to the rise of digital channels and social media platforms. Today, it’s easier than ever to reach a global audience through the likes of Facebook or Google. And it’s also easier than ever to manipulate these platforms, to share messages that are false through personas which are fake.

I’m not talking theory here. We all saw the work that was undertaken by Bell Pottinger in South Africa, which led to its collapse. I live in a region which is being consumed by online trolls, botnets and other unethical activity, much of which is reported to be undertaken not by individuals but by organizations.

It is in this context that we need to renew our commitment to undertaking the best ethical practice, which will apply to every single one of us, no matter where we work and how long we’ve spent in the industry.

The sixteen principles which were announced this week by the Global Alliance are a guide that we should all use in terms of how we ourselves practice and represent our profession. We have a responsibility to society, to our stakeholders and to fellow professionals to uphold these principles in everything that we say and we do.

Looking back, what I’m most proud of when I read over the ethics announcement made by the Global Alliance today is that the taskforce that has worked on this represents the majority of associations and communicators worldwide. There’s a growing realization that we need to step up and not just demonstrate that we are against unethical practices as one, but that we’re adopting best practices. We want to be an industry that promotes positive messages, rather than a profession which is known by monikers such as ‘spin doctors’.

Jean and the other task force members have put significant thought and energy into this project, and this is only the beginning. You’ll find resources such as case studies, podcasts, newsletters and advisories that will bring ethics to life through storytelling. This archive will grow, thanks to you and your submissions from around the world. We have to ensure that ethics remains at the core of our industry, and that we feel able to stand up when we see or are asked to do something which is unethical.

I’d like to thank Jean, Jose Manuel and everyone who has given time to bring this project to life. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for their efforts to promote a stronger, more ethical communications and public relations industry. My last request is to all of you. Please use these resources, learn from them and let them guide you when it comes to ethical communications. Let’s be known as an industry that is one of, if not the most, ethical in terms of what we say and what we do.

This post first appeared on the Global Alliance website.