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.

The Politics of Business – Edelman’s Latest Barometer Summary

Media, NGOs, Government or Business? Who do you trust the most?

It’s safe to say that 2020 wasn’t a vintage year for trust; social media was a cesspool of conspiracy theories related to the pandemic, China, vaccines, and of course US politics (apparently, Washington DC is full of child-kidnapping serial killers who own pizza shops).

The above has been certified fresh by public relations firm Edelman. In its latest annual Trust Barometer survey, the company has done its polling of thousands of people worldwide, and the results are in. Businesses are trusted more than any other group (that includes NGOs, governments and media). Businesses are also seen as the only segment that is both ethical and competent.

There’s a couple of interesting insights from the Trust Barometer on this issue (and I’d advise you to read the whole report, especially the segments on trust in the pandemic). The top line is that the public expects businesses to be more involved in societal issues, especially where others (read government) are failing.

Now, there’s both opportunities and challenges here. It could be argued that business is more trusted because it hasn’t taken sides on issues – that’s beginning to change after events last year and in January 2021, with many firms in the US and Europe weighing in on politics publicly. CEOs are increasingly being listened to on issues that have major societal impact (Brexit is a good example of this in the political space. Other examples could include the impact of technology on employment).

But any political stance a brand or the CEO takes is also going to lead to polarization. Take the example of Nike, Black Lives Matter and boycott campaigns. Any public stance, such as advertising on Fox News, can also be taken as a public stance on politics, and lead to calls for boycott.

Some firms are taking a clear stance on issues such as sustainability through their stated purpose. Unilever is a great example of this – the argument goes that younger consumers are looking for brands that share their beliefs and are acting to improve society. However, I’d argue that many CEOs are still risk-averse, and don’t want to be seen to be offending anyone. This is even more true in non-democratic societies, where governments don’t face public pressure through representative systems (my one criticism of Edelman’s Trust Barometer work is that the public/informed consumers in non-democratic societies cannot freely speak their minds, or are consciously/subconsciously pressured to respond in a certain way). I doubt I’d ever see a CEO in my region speaking in a way that may be interpreted as even mildly critical of the government – they’d be out of a job (and the country if an expat) within 24 hours.

Edelman highlights a number of areas where businesses can build a trust surplus. Some are pretty simple – the climate is an issue that we all should be talking about, including businesses. There’s the response to COVID-19, as well as what we can do to further economic growth, and put long-term “thinking” over short-term profits (my assumption here is that the public are referring to income redistribution). There’s one element which will make every journalist howl with laughter, which is “guarding information quality”. In my view, businesses struggle more than any other group with transparency, so I’d love to have Edelman clarify this point (again, my assumption is that as media is less trusted, businesses have to become better at telling their own stories).

I’m going to leave it at that for now. Do have a look at the full report, and let me know your thoughts. Do you expect businesses to speak more openly in 2021? If yes, why and how? And if no, why not?

We need (much) more inspiration in our marketing this year

Marketing has to be more interesting, more engaging and more memorable in 2021, especially across MENA, if it’s going to stick with target audiences.

Last year, everything changed. And that’s just as true for marketing. Everyone immediately put almost everything they had into digital. We were bombarded by webinars, emailers, and online advertising. It’s understandable why; businesses needed find new opportunities. Marketing was very much functional. But it wasn’t emotional. There was no inspiration.

This approach has to change in 2021, and I’m hoping we’ll see marketing that’ll be memorable. The best marketers realize that a shift needs to take place, because we have changed. Given the lockdowns and move to remote working, most of us are craving person-to-person interaction. The reactions I’ve seen from people attending events such as Gitex underline how much we need to and want to be around people again.

This realization will be acted upon by forward-thinking B2B and B2C brands, and we’re going to see more in-person activations to engage directly with customers and consumers. The best events are going to promote participation, to involve customers and make them part of a bigger story.

The second shift we’re going to see is around brand building itself, with a focus on purpose. The most memorable activities from this year have been brand campaigns about helping others. Take the example of Burger King, which has used its social media channels to promote the restaurant industry, in particular independent outlets.

These ideas have won praise globally, even from people who have probably never even stepped into a quick service restaurant. And it’s easy to see why. We want to feel hopeful, and we want to extend a hand to help one another. And we feel elated when we see brands reacting to sentiment and doing the same, especially when a global name is acting to help smaller companies.

The most purposeful brands have done more than advertise; they’ve acted based on their values. They’ve provided services for free, donated products, and helped local communities get through 2020. Take the example of Unilever, which has donated over one hundred million Euros worth of health and hygiene products. And their seminal campaign to make us see beauty differently through Dove’s tribute to healthcare professionals throughout the world.

Purpose can and should also lead to partnership. The world’s biggest issues aren’t going to be solved by individual brands alone. Just look at how the most inclusive firms have rallied to support UN Women’s global campaign about the pandemic’s impact on gender equality. Or how brands have come together to take aim at the negative effect that social media is having on societies.

Looking ahead, we’re going to see more marketing innovation around these new four Ps – participation, purpose, partnerships and people. What I sincerely hope to see is brands from the Middle East applying global learnings to come up with ideas and campaigns that make us cry, laugh and become emotional. After the year we’ve had, we all need to be inspired, and the Middle East’s bravest marketers will lead the way. Those that do take a chance will be rewarded with better brand awareness, perception and purchase intent. Let’s hope for marketing that’ll inspire people in 2021.

Communicators are essential to ending the pandemic

We all want to take off our masks; the sooner we end this pandemic, the better. And communications will be vital to ensuring the public does what it must to support health and safety/vaccination campaigns

It’s the new year, and a time for renewed hope. Just like me, many of you will be happy to see the back of 2020. The pandemic has caused so much harm and devastation. And we have a host of vaccines to choose from to protect us from the worst of the coronavirus. And yet, we’re not over the pandemic yet. The numbers are going up globally, and we can expect the worst spikes in the days to come following socializing over the holidays.

What’s the most frustrating is that the end is in sight. In a matter of months, hundreds of millions of people can and should be vaccinated, providing a level of herd immunity in many countries that’ll slow down the spread of the virus.

While we can end the pandemic, there’s a number of complications. The first is people disregarding health and safety guidance, including the wearing of masks and social distancing – this speeds up the spread of the virus and diverts medical attention to treating the sick and away from inoculation campaigns. The second is those who don’t want to get vaccinated.

Over the past year, those working in the communications industry have been dedicated to supporting their organizations raise awareness of health and safety best practices. They’ve created millions of hours’ worth of content and pushed it out to workforces. They’ve developed an understanding of what types of messaging work, and how to best push this messaging out to make people understand how their behaviors and actions can keep them and their loved ones safe.

Given the fatigue after what we’ve gone through and the reluctance, even skepticism, about vaccinations among the public, it’s time for the communications industry to support and even lead awareness campaigns. Two issues are key – the first is to get home the message that the coronavirus is still rife and we must all behave responsibly. The second is to correct misconceptions and even fake news about new medicines and vaccines (I’m not putting any stock in the social media platforms and their pledges to remove fake news on their sites).

What we need is an industry-led effort, guided and directed by those national and international associations through whom we can combine learnings, ideas and activities. I’m convinced that hundreds or thousands of communicator volunteers would join and help win the trust of the public. For every person who follows mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines, and is convinced to be vaccinated, we’re one step closer to getting case numbers down.

I’ve seen how communicators responded to when the coronavirus first hit; they gave their time and energy for free, and supported colleagues who were struggling with how to respond. And I know that they’ll want to play their part now, to come up with ideas that’ll capture the public’s attention to change both attitudes and behaviors. The idea could be simple as social media visuals for people to use when they’ve been vaccinated or using storytelling for hard-to-reach communities.

There are so many ways for communications around these issues to be done better. If any communicator wants to make a resolution for 2021, let it be for them to have an opportunity to contribute to a global campaign to make the public understand what they need to do and then get them to do it. The art of communication has never been more important, and that’s why for me 2021 should be the year of the communicator. Communications is key to us ending the pandemic as soon as possible.

This piece first ran in Arabian Business.

Upgrading my sound – the Sennheiser CX 400BT review

Smooth sound, and a lovely on-ear fit – My ears thanked me for trying Sennheiser’s CX400 BT.

I’m doing something a little different for this post. Given the Teams-Time I’ve put in this year, I thought I’d do something for my ears. And when I was offered a chance to review Sennheiser’s new wireless earphones, I jumped at it.

Let’s start with the basics. Sennheiser makes good audio equipment. I own a host of products from the brand, including my first wireless headphones, the MM400, as well as a set of gamer headphones, the GSP670 (my ears have never felt better in that padding). I had high expectations for the CX 400BT, and the company didn’t disappoint.

There’s a host of technology in a very small design (each earbud weights in at six grams). The earbuds are charged through a charging case, which is powered via a USB-C wire. The CX 400BT’s 7mm dynamic drivers deliver a frequency range of 5Hz to 21kHz, and the microphone frequency response is from 100Hz to 10kHz.

The earbuds connect via Bluetooth. While there’s no active noise cancellation, the design does a good job of blocking out ambient noise. I’ve read that you can get up to seven hours of usage on a single charge, but I’ve never had the earbuds run empty. And if you have an iPhone or an Android phone, you can download the Sennheiser Smart Control application. This app lets you control, update and personalize the earbuds.

Design-wise, the earbuds are square-ish, and I’d screw them into place. They do look different, especially compared to stem/droplet designs (my daughter thinks they look like the girl robot from WALL-E). The color choices are simple – it’s either white or black. The earbuds are very comfortable, especially when worn for a long time, thanks to the silicon tips. However, I have had them drop out once or twice when I’ve made a sudden, sharp movement; given that, they’re maybe not the best for the gym.

The earbuds are controlled by touch-sensitive panels. The design is very, very simple and easy to pick up. Tap once on the left earpiece for playback, and one tap on the right answers a call or activates your voice assistant. Two quick taps on the left moves you back a track, and two taps on the right skips forward or ends the call. A long press and hold on either earbud adjusts the volume up or down. The controls are brilliant – they’re always responsive. If you don’t like the setup, you can change the controls via the mobile phone app.

Now, let’s talk about the most important issue, namely sound quality. The audio put out by the earphones is crisp and rich. There’s no distortion, and the bass levels are perfect for me. You’ll have no problem using these earphones for webinars, video conferencing, or your run-of-the-mill phone calls (remember those?). The microphone picked up everything I was saying clearly, and I didn’t have any drop-off in the connection when using the earbuds.

To sum this all up, my ears are much happier with the Sennheiser CX 400BT; my sound has been upgraded. If you’re looking to treat yourself to a better audio experience that’s both comfortable and customizable, then look no further than the Sennheiser CX 400BT.

A Long, Hard Slog: Looking Forward to 2021

You don’t need a crystal ball to see that 2021 will be a tough year for communicators

I hope I haven’t put you off reading this blog, but I wanted to spell out in simple terms what we communicators can expect in 2021. Whilst we do have vaccines and many countries are rolling out inoculation programmes, many of the fundamentals are the same as last year – we’re facing a global pandemic, many people are falling sick, and even more are ignoring health and safety advice. There’ll be more economic ups and downs, lockdowns, and stimulus plans. And communicators will have to do crisis comms on top of their daily work.

Let’s look at the basics, as to where the big focus areas will be in 2021.

Internal Comms is still a top priority

Last year was momentous for internal communications, especially in markets/regions where the function came a distant second to external communications. During the pandemic’s first couple of months, the focus shifted inwards. Communicators were tasked with ensuring employees were educated on health and safety, and in pushing executive messaging. Internal communications came into its own, and the value of good internal communicators was obvious.

Given the state of the pandemic in most countries, I expect that internal communications will remain key to every organization over the next twelve months. Not only will internal comms be top of mind for leadership, we’ll also see more innovation in this space. The number of employee podcasts launched last year in the UAE alone surprised me (though I do wish we’d learn to create content simply and timely, rather than overproduce). We’ll also see more use of martech in the internal comms space in 2021. This is an area to watch and, if you’re a young communicator, focus on for growth and specialization.

Budgets/Owned Content are King for External Comms

On the external side, there’s two issues that’ll determine how well you’ll be able to communicate. The first is money. Specifically, it’s how much money you’ll spend on advertising with your media partners. Last year was brutal for publishers, and the editorial mandate is simple – any editorial space will go to advertisers. I know many editors who aren’t happy with this, but they have little room to maneuver. Unless you have an absolutely brilliant media relations person who’s quite literally related to every journalist out there, you’ll need to up your ad spend if you want to get more coverage.

The other route is owned content. And expect to see more blogs, vlogs and podcasts being launched in 2021 (I’ll admit, I was expecting more in this space in 2020). External communicators are going to focus on their media creation and editing skills in 2021, or spend more money on agencies to help out. There’s still the obvious challenge of amplification – if you’re pushing out via social media, you’ll need to either put ad spend in or work with influencers (including your own employees). The other route to take is using emailers. It’ll be fascinating to watch what happens in the external comms space in 2021.

Fighting Fake News and Rebuilding Trust

The pandemic won’t be over until enough people are immune/following health and safety rules. And, as we’ve seen in 2020, there’s a large segment of society that don’t believe what is said, or just ignore the advice. The biggest challenge for every communicator out there is to work to combat fake news, especially online, as well as regain the trust of the vast majority of the population. I’m already seeing people I know who don’t want to get vaccinated because of what they’re seeing on social media, despite them having relatives who have had this terrible disease.

What’s also apparent is that healthcare communicators need help. Just as the industry came together last spring to help those Communicators who needed support, I feel we need a global effort to come up with ideas and campaigns that’ll promote vaccinations and burst fake need bubbles (I don’t expect any help from the social media platforms on this issue). I’ll write more on this in the coming days.

They’re my three big thoughts for 2021. Let me know yours. And, whatever happens, I wish you all the best of health and success for the coming 12 months.

The best organizations empower employees, the worst force them to be quiet

Far too many organizations don’t empower their employees to speak freely, which is a mistake

A story from America back in November shocked me; it wasn’t about the elections, thank goodness, but rather about an employee of a paint brand who’d been fired after using social media “inappropriately”. Tony Piloseno had built up a following of over 1.2 million accounts on TikTok. His forte was mixing paint. Apparently, his then employer didn’t like that he was doing this on company time whilst using their paints (which he’d paid for) and let him do on the basis of “gross misconduct”.

I shouldn’t have been shocked. I know companies in the Middle East that force their employees to not just refrain from using social media during work hours, but have actually insisted on their employees deleting their social media accounts for fear of what they may say online.

This thinking has always puzzled me, for two reasons. The first is people will always talk, and no organization can stop their employees from sharing their experiences, both good and bad, verbally. Plus it’s easier than ever for people to leave anonymous feedback online (I do wonder how many employer branding people in the region review what employees say about their organizations on sites such as Glassdoor).

Even more importantly, your employees are your best brand ambassadors. Their views and feelings are the living embodiment of everything that is positive and negative about the organization. They’ll speak up with enthusiasm when they’re proud of what the organization is doing, and they’ll increasingly share their views on organizational issues that concern them. And the younger your workforce, the more likely they’ll be speaking about what is going on within your four walls, on open, indexed sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn or on apps such as TikTok.

To me, there’s nothing better and more influential than an employee who is online and who is openly showing their pride in their company because they believe in the company’s vision and actions. They’re brand ambassadors and advocates, who are able to use their passion to influence others, be they potential employees, partners or customers. The better the organization in terms of its policies and actions, employee engagement and care, the more likely you’re going to see employees talking positively about their employers.

Simply by listening to employees online, I can see how well an organization performs in terms of how it treats its workforce, how ethically it does business, and how much it supports societal development. I’ll be able to make a judgement call on whether I’d like to work for that organization from hearing authentic employee sentiment online; this will sway me and countless others much more than a pretty press release, or an executive’s speech filled full of superlatives.

I do hope that more managers in the region grasp this reality, and let their employees voice their views online without fear of retribution. Tony Piloseno has found one such person at his new employer. When asked why he’d hired Tony, Florida Paints co-founder Don Strube said that, “the hard part about paint is finding people who see paint as exciting—and Tony does. Color is what makes the world look great, and Tony was making paint amazing.”

What is creativity worth to the Gulf?

Is creativity valued enough in the Gulf? If yes, then why is the industry not treated as such? (image source: ART + Marketing)

Are you creative? Of course you are. Who isn’t? It may not surprise you that the cultural and creative industry is one of the world’s largest sectors by job creation and economic value. In 2015, EY and UNESCO reported that this sector generated US$2,250 billion a year, or 3% of world GDP at that time. The sector employed 29.5 million people, or 1% of the world’s active population.

The creative sector matters, both globally and to the region. Dubai Media City, the Gulf’s largest creative cluster, is home to 1,600 companies. Abu Dhabi’s TwoFour54 hosts over 600 firms. Other countries are looking to create their own local creative sectors; Saudi Arabia inaugurated its own “Media City” in Riyadh earlier this year.

There’s an awareness at the highest levels of the importance of creative industries; creativity is at the heart of numerous industries and functions, such as entertainment, marketing and branding.

That same sentiment may not always be felt by those working in the creative industry, particularly agencies and freelancers. The impression I often get is that creativity isn’t valued. Why, you may ask? Well, like everything, it comes down to price and payment.

Let’s talk value. I’ve been in the industry long enough to remember when copywriters, journalists and editors would get paid a couple of Dirhams a word. The value of the written word has perpetually fallen, and I’ve seen creatives offered less than one Dirham a word. The quality of what is produced is secondary to its cost.

And then there’s payments. Chasing bills is a way of life for many agencies and freelancers, especially when working with certain government agencies (some government agencies I know are exceptional in paying on time). It’s not unusual for payments to be made up to a year after a job has been completed. I find this behavior puzzling. Government agencies are less likely to have cash issues than their private sector counterparts. And any delay in cash flows inevitably leads to stress on staff salaries and payments to suppliers. There’s also the reputational impact; many of my colleagues in the industry simply don’t want to work with government agencies for fear of not being paid on time.

Given the stress caused to the economy by the pandemic, many creatives are struggling to stay afloat. Being paid on time and at a decent price will help them get through 2020. In contrast, payment delays and underpayment is going to drive many creatives to shut up shop and leave the region.

Good creatives matter. Just ask any marketing head about why creativity matters. Corporate and national brands need the very best minds if they’re going to stand out in the minds of their customers. We need to be encouraging the very best creatives to come to the region and work here. With that sentiment in mind, I’d ask what is creativity worth to the Gulf? I’d argue that the creative industry’s value is more than many of us are willing to pay. And that needs to change.

My experiences with mental health in 2020: How I cope with fatigue and burnout

Your mental health matters. Prioritize taking care of yourself.

I’m just going to get it out there; this year has been awful. There’s literally bad headline news every day. As if that isn’t enough, we have to contend with a once-in-a-century pandemic (just in case you’d forgotten). The implications of what we are all facing are a health crisis, economic crashes, and worse.

Mental health is one issue that I’ve had to face and work on. I’ve worked in communications and marketing for twenty years, and I’ve never struggled more than now. The work seems to be endless, and the “home office”, devoid of any social interaction with colleagues and friends, can mean twelve-hour days without meaningful human engagement. There’s random guilt as well, mainly over seeing friends being laid off while I’m complaining about how much there is to do. And there’s the obvious worries about how to keep others safe. These are the big, substantial concerns. There’s a thousand others which I have to contend with every day.

I’ve always had coping mechanisms to deal with stress and negativity, but I’ve had to adapt them given what we are all living through. And I wanted to share them with you. Even if just one of these mechanisms helps, it’ll have been worth the time and energy put into this piece.

Be Social – When I was commuting, driving between my home and my office, I’d call people on the hands-free and just chat. It was a wonderful way to keep in touch with people. I’m doing the same, but from home. I’m picking up the phone and just calling friends. I dial a number for no reason other than to ask someone how they are. It’s been great to talk with old friends, and it puts me in a different frame of mind, at least for a couple of minutes.

Fix the Miscommunication – Working side-by-side with others makes for simpler communication than email. There’s the body language, the tone and the delivery. None of this is apparent on email. And sometimes I misread the email. And I’ll get snarky, which doesn’t help me or the person I’m communicating with. I often find it’s useful for me to pick up the phone and just chat over the email, so that I’m clear what’s needed. It also helps the relationship, as it shows the other person I’m putting in the extra mile to get the work done.

Find Your Release – Each one of us has a distraction, or even a passion that can distract our minds. For me, it’s early morning walks and writing. These releases help me rebalance, and put me in a good mood. What helps even more is to have a routine that includes these releases. What’s your release? And are you doing it every single day? Switch off your mobile and close the computer. Go and do that release for half an hour at least. It’ll put you in the right frame of mind.

Get Away – I don’t mean right now, of course. What I’m referring to is a break of a couple of days. I didn’t travel this summer, and I love my vacation. What we did do as a family is a staycation for a couple of days. And it was a wonderful release to get away from home, leave the laptop behind and just relax. If you can, get away on a regular basis. Even if it’s only for a couple of days, traveling makes me forget all of the stresses and pressures of work.

Reach Out For Help – I’m very lucky. I have an incredible partner who has worked in senior marcomms roles. She understands my job and its stresses. And I have an amazing five year-old daughter who tells me to “come and play”. They know when I need a break, and they tell me to take it. Others may not have this family support. If you are feeling down, reach out for help. It can be to a friend or a colleague (I’d like to say a charity such as the UK’s Samaritans, and I hope we’ll have such charities here one day soon). Don’t suffer alone, and don’t feel ashamed. Your mental health matters, and it’s a sign of strength to ask for support.

I’ll be speaking more about this and other topics with a brilliant panel arranged by Campaign Middle East on the 26th October at 2pm. Please do join me then – the signup link is below. And in the meantime, do take care of yourself.

Hearing from others – why we’ve got to do more to listen to differing voices online (especially women)

I’m giving this post over to two friends, who have gone through an experience that was uncomfortable at best. Sarah and Shelina have dealt with an issue that they’ve found demeaning, not just to themselves but to how women are seen in general. Their views have been called out. Even when they’ve been asked to share their views, the way they were asked felt wrong, even downright aggressive. The issue has been talked about by another person on the radio. Here’s Sarah’s and Shelina’s time to talk over the issue, in a safe space. Listen to what they have to say, and let’s all do more to listen online with the sake of understanding the other.

Our inability to speak openly, and what this means for progress

More and more people are feeling the need to self-censor. And it’s not a good sign of where we are headed as a region (image source: Pinterest)

It’s been a funny couple of days (I know, it’s 2020). Over the past week, I’ve had two people reach out to me, basically telling me to be careful of what I post. The first was for a piece I wrote mentioning another place and its work on promoting education across the world (which I hope all of us would support). The second was a post mentioning a piece of bread and how much it cost (I’m serious). It goes without saying, more and more of us are self-censoring. And on every issue out there. And that worries me.

Why are they doing it? Partly due to politics, to laws, and to the overall cultural climate around us. We live in an increasingly divided world, where many believe that their viewpoint is the only one that matters. And increasingly, these people are in positions of power. Given the potential reach of social media, where one person can engage with millions, far too many believe that we should only write and share things that agree with them. Ironically, those that break the law whilst agreeing with those in power are not punished. And laws are used to hold others to account for the flimsiest of reasons.

Not knowing where the line is any more, people are remaining silent. Or they’re saying things they don’t believe it. That makes my job as a communicator much harder, as I don’t know if what I’m hearing is true or not. And even if my engagement online is making a difference, how would I know this if people aren’t saying or writing what they feel?

The issue is bigger than this. My belief is that, given enough time and reinforcement, self-censorship extends to our behavior in a number of settings, including our workplaces. We’re less likely to speak up with a new idea, to point out when something isn’t working, or when someone does something wrong. Freedom matters, for our personal lives and for our economies too. I will leave the last word to the American economist Milton Friedman, who was writing about the US, but could have been talking about any place on earth:

I know of no example in time or place of a society that has been marked by a
large measure of political freedom, and that has not also used something
comparable to a free market to organize the bulk of economic activity