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.

Local Heroes: Marketing’s ‘Unconventional’ Said Baaghil

image1You may have heard of Said Baaghil before, most likely on a comment thread where he’s thrown a literary grenade into the public on a subject related to branding in the region. An unconventional brand expert in every sense of the word (do you know any other Arab from this region who wears a bow tie, funky-design glasses  and multicolor sneakers?), Said has written extensively on branding and on brands, both globally and regionally.

I caught up with Said to ask him about his love for marketing, how the industry is changing and the advice he’d pass on to others about the industry.

Q: Said, why and how did you get into marketing?

I studied marketing in college but I realized my passion during my sophomore year. I was extremely active on campus, I was the founder of an international club to show diversity. My first passion was creative, something no one did I should do but I also realized that I needed marketing to understand the way forward. I was a below average student and kept a GPA between 2.0 to 2.2 through out my four years, I was less interested in what the professors had to say than I was interested on change and impact.

Q: How has the industry developed?

Well from the time I graduated till now, I would say tremendously. We focused on the marketing mix when my career kicked off but through the years the audience has evolved and marketing had to evolve with them. Today, we speak of brands that sum up the entire experience and not the marketing mix. While many markets evolved, our market [the Middle East] stayed stagnant. So marketing evolved globally, but everything remained as is here in the region.

Q: What’s the achievement you’re proudest of?

My son! As far as work, I have three. In my ten years in Saudi I was able to build two local brands and take them international in the consumer good and fashion retail space. I’m also proud of my brand as an Arab from my house in Khalddya who has taken on global marketing roles, both in the advisory and public speaking spaces.

Q: What would you advise your younger self to do and not do?

I’ll advise him not to follow the herd, but rather to find his purpose, follow his passion and chase his dream. Don’t fear your failures; they are just a test of time. So get up and evolve.

Q: How will the industry evolve? What trends should we watch out for?

We are in the fourth revolution, the digital revolution. Individualism in data is massive so personal brands will take off like never before. I think globalization is under threat as we see major nationalistic movements led by the U.K. And U.S.A.

Local Heroes: The Entrepreneur Osama Natto

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I wanted to change the conversation on this blog, with the launch of a series of Q&As with people I know who are in the region and who are from the region and who are pushing for positive change. First up is Osama Natto, a Saudi gentleman who has worked in a range of roles. Today Osama’s focus is very much on encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation in the Kingdom. He’s touched thousands with his can-do attitude, his belief in local talent, and his love of technology.

I hope Osama will inspire you as much as he does me. If there’s someone you know who deserves a blog post, then please do drop me a note. In the meantime, enjoy the read.

Osama, tell us about your career and the choices that impacted your career?

I started working at a very young age in my father’s hardware shop in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. I used to clean the shelves and place price tags on products. I started with 10 Saudi Riyals a day, which around two and a half dollars. Working at the shop instilled in me workmanship, discipline, and how to be practical. It also built in me the sense of financial independency. I opened my first bank account as soon as I was legally old enough, and I started my first investment. When I joined the King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals I continued to work part time in odd jobs such as lab attendant, teacher assistant, and applications programmer at a shipping company. I also worked freelance as a tutor and research assistant to students. When I was a freshman I noticed a recruiting brochure at the dorm room of one of the senior students. The brochure was for Procter & Gamble. On that day I said to myself, “I will work for one company, I will work for five years only and that company will be Procter & Gamble.” And I did stick to my promise.

So, what made you become an entrepreneur?

My decision to become an entrepreneur was made when I was in my early teens. I was fascinated by success stories of Saudi businessmen such as Alwaleed Bin Talal and Abdulrahman Alzamil. I had my own ventures that made money when I was still in school including selling fireworks during celebration seasons, video production for family and school events, and selling custom made jewelry.

What made me become an entrepreneur is freedom. There is no price on personal freedom. Freedom in decisions, freedom in time, freedom in lifestyle, and financial freedom. This does not necessary mean being wealthy, but instead not being dependent on someone or an organization to make a living.

What entrepreneurial lessons would you share with others?

Dream big, look at what is holding you back. Most of what is holding us back are internal factors that can and will be overcome once we understand them. Focus on products that have an impact on people regardless of their age, geographic location or ethnic background. Stay away from service-based businesses as they tend to consume you.

How do you foster innovation, and why does it matter in this region?

Fostering innovation in the region is a bit challenging for many reasons. Understating of innovation, the innovation process, the availability of facilities and resources to foster innovation. Our region needs innovation the most due to the dependence on natural resources and the growing number of population compared to the availability of jobs. Only through innovation can we create new products, new markets and hence new jobs. There is an entrepreneurship movement in the region; what I would like to see is an innovation movement. My current venture is more about innovation and less about entrepreneurship. I want to build the innovative products that the world needs. I want to bring the Arabs back to innovation. Our Arab ancestors innovated many concepts and products which still serve as the basis of many innovations today.

What inspires you?

Nature and beauty inspire me.

How is technology changing how we work in the region?

Technology helped to a big extent to get rid of the borders. Anyone in the region with a computing device and a connection to the internet can create something and sell it to the world. Technology not just gave us access to the consumers around the world, it provided us with research and data available at our figure tips. With technology, you have access to unlimited talent and resources at affordable prices.

On my previous venture, I had millions of dollars and a team over 60 people working with me. In my current venture, I wanted to try something new so I started with $400, built a product by using resources from around the world and sold it to people from around the world by using my laptop and any internet connection that is now widely available and, in some cases, free.

Silicon Valley, Values-Based Communication & Reaction to the ‘Muslim Visa Ban’

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The executive order temporarily banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East from entering the US has sparked fierce debate among both the public as well as tech-focused corporations in America

Another day, another controversy in Washington D.C. This time, it’s about the Presidential executive order halting all refugee admissions and barring temporarily people from seven Muslim-majority countries. I’ve written about how corporations will either follow one of two strategies when dealing with the President – they’ll support his America first agenda (mainly by recycling old news), or they’ll stick to their values and come out against policy shifts such as this one.

Over the weekend, we’ve seen evidence of the latter. A swathe of tech firms, primarily from California’s Silicon Valley, have come out against this policy, which has been described as a ban on Muslims, which they view as both un-American and harmful to attracting talent. Here’s a snapshot of views as reported by the ‘fake news’ website Buzzfeed and Bloomberg:

Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai

“It’s painful to see the personal cost of this executive order on our colleagues,” Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai  wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by Bloomberg News. “We’ve always made our view on immigration issues known publicly and will continue to do so.”

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook

In my conversations with officials here in Washington this week, I’ve made it clear that Apple believes deeply in the importance of immigration — both to our company and to our nation’s future. Apple would not exist without immigration, let alone thrive and innovate the way we do.

I’ve heard from many of you who are deeply concerned about the executive order issued yesterday restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. I share your concerns. It is not a policy we support.

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella

“As an immigrant and as a CEO, I’ve both experienced and seen the positive impact that immigration has on our company, for the country, and for the world. We will continue to advocate on this important topic.”

Facebook’s Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk

Other Silicon Valley CEOs have also stepped in to support those who will be affected by this decision. In a post on Facebook Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick wrote that the company is working out how it can financially support Uber drivers who aren’t able to travel back to the US due to the visa ban.

Airbnb’s Brian Chesky wrote on his own Facebook page that his firm would be supporting those impacted by this ruling with free housing.

The list of tech CEOs who are standing up goes on and on, and I don’t want to repeat too much here from what is an excellent article on Buzzfeed. The US tech sector, an industry that owes much to the talent of immigrants and which leads the world when it comes to innovation and product usage, has essentially spoken with one voice against the Presidential executive order halting all refugee admissions and barring temporarily people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

In contrast, older industries such as the automotive and manufacturing sectors (what could be dubbed the ‘older’ corporate sector) have not shared their views. In what is becoming a battle for hearts and minds across America, this public show of values-based beliefs will not be the last by an industry wary of what the Trump administration means for its future. I’ll leave you with another quote, this time from a wonderful article in The Atlantic on how this will be the first of many disputes between the Trump administration and Silicon Valley.

The barriers between Trump and the technology world span both values—the industry emphatically leans left on social issues—and interests. Trump’s hostility to immigration, opposition to free trade, and resistance to replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources to combat climate change all clash directly with the constellation of technology industries that rely on importing talent from around the world, sell their products across the globe, and have invested heavily in developing clean-energy alternatives to oil, gas, and coal. Tech leaders are also bracing for Trump to attempt to unravel the net-neutrality rules that Obama’s Federal Communications Commission adopted, and to push against the privacy standards many industry leaders have sought to maintain.

Whilst we won’t know who is winning over the majority of America’s public, it’s good to see organizations in the tech sector standing up for values which they believe in. I hope other organizations and corporations will remain true to the values that they talk about as well.

The American Strongman – A Middle East view on Trump’s first 48 hours as President

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President Trump and his team have shown increasing disdain for the media during their first weekend in office. Some commentators have drawn parallels to my own region (image source: Vocativ)

If the first two days were anything to go by, we’re in for four years of presidential reality TV. From the spectacle of the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States to an impromptu press announcement at the White House (there were no questions, so I won’t call it a briefing), and news interviews by White House staffers attacking the media; all of these events have made for compelling viewing.

Looking in from the outside, here in the Middle East, none of these actions should surprise or startle me. I live in a region where the words media and propaganda are often used to mean the same thing in the Arabic language by the region’s population. I’ve also heard many commentators in the region (and in the US) compare what the Trump administration is doing with the media to how regimes such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein ‘communicated’ (if you want an example, just watch this clip from Saddam’s Minister of Information Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf during the 2003 Iraq invasion).

While there’s been much laughter at some of the messaging (the phrase “alternative facts” is my vote for the dictionary addition of 2017), I’ve seen a number of worrying signs that the Trump Administration wants to take the media and the public down a path that we’re all too familiar with in the region. Here’s why.

  • Delegitimize the Media

The first step on this road is silencing critics. And those who have been most critical of President Trump are the media. During the weekend when visiting Langley, the CIA’s headquarters, he uttered the line, “The reason you’re my first stop is that, as you know, I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” This was in part due to their coverage of the Presidential Inauguration, and their rebuttal of the claims on the number of attendees.

This isn’t a new statement. President Trump has made the claim numerous times, including in April 2016 when he said, “You know we have a great time considering the subject matter is no good. Right? But when we say—look at all those hats, right?—”Make America Great Again.” When we say that—you know somebody, a reporter—by the way the world’s most dishonest people are back there. Look at all the cameras going. Look at all those cameras. It’s unbelievable. They are dishonest. Most of them. Not all of them. But Most of them.”

And, here he is on camera saying the same thing.

The reasoning is simple. American media is independent of any government ownership, and as such it often takes politicians to task for their words and deeds. By delegitimizing the media and going straight to the public through social media (mainly Twitter), President Trump and his administration won’t face the same level of intrusive questioning. The administration has already threatened to hold the media to account, and President Trump has held one press conference since July 2016, during which he claimed CNN and Buzzfeed were fake news sites. A free media is an essential tool to hold governments to account; muzzle the media, discredit them, and you’ll face fewer questions from a diminishing press sector.

Vocativ has run a piece on this, named Trump And The Media: The Arab Dictator’s Guide. It’s a great read for those of you who follow media-related issues.

  • Change the Narrative

President Trump and his team are masters at switching attention from one issue to answer. In his blog, the London-based PR professional Stephen Waddington has listed a number of tactics used to divert attention from hard policy issues to softer social issues. One of my favorites is dead cats, and to quote from Wadds:

Trump uses Twitter as a tactical weapon, hitting out at opponents, and directly countering attacks.

Tweets are literal, short and direct. He uses capital letters, single words and repetition for effect. There can be no uncertainty in the content or context of a message, and he seldom entertains any further discussion.

It’s an approach is known as the dead cat, created by political strategist Lynton Crosby. His response to losing an argument was to throw an issue, known as a dead cat, on the table.

The appearance of a dead cat, albeit metaphorical, is shocking. It quickly shifts attention, forcing opponents to move on and focus on a new issue.

And then there’s a concept called the Overton Window. Developed by political analyst Joseph Overton, this is a spectrum of views which are deemed acceptable to the public. It also explains how  a theory of how a policy that’s initially considered extreme might over time be normalized through gradual shifts in public opinion.

There’s a similar theory in marketing. Known as the Anchoring Effect, this describes a common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions. Once the anchor is set, decisions are then made by adjusting around the initial anchor, regardless of the legitimacy of the actual anchor number. For example, a brand will introduce a new, super premium/expensive toothpaste. That new product will shift perception of the whole category, and push consumers to spend more on toothpaste by choosing the second or third most expensive option.

We’re seeing this use of the Overton Window and the Anchoring Effect in US politics today, with politicians introducing extreme ideas to shift the discourse away from the mainstream and towards their own views and beliefs. They’re changing the narrative over the long-term, to make what was once unpalatable an acceptable argument.

These narrative tactics have been used in countless societies, most recently in countries such as Israel, where the public has accepted once right-wing ideas such as the expansion of settlements. It’s clear that President Trump’s team aren’t interested in answering questions on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, but rather they want to change the narrative around “Making America Great Again”, an idea of little substance but great appeal. We’re used to such efforts in the Middle East (Saddam regularly compared himself to great Iraqi heroes from history, as a means to encourage nostalgia and promote similar ideals).

  • Create a Cult of Personality

It’s also clear that President Trump has a thin skin. He’s repeated countless theories and statements about winning the popular vote (the President claims, without any evidence, that he lost the popular vote based on mass voter fraud). And then there’s the debate around the Inauguration attendance. This President takes things personally. He sees himself as a nation strongman who will change US politics for the betterment of its people. And woe betide those who disagree with him.

What’s also remarkable is how his team speak of the President. During the CIA visit at the weekend Vice President Pence introduced the President by informing the audience that he had never met anyone “who is a greater strategic thinker” on matters of national security. The White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on Sunday that, “I’ve never seen anyone work harder or have more energy than this president.”

If you were to listen to the administration’s messaging, you’d think President Trump is a superman, an Übermensch from the pages of Friedrich Nietzsche. The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman points out the folly in their praise, but how many will believe the fawning praise? And where will this lead us to? Will we see the White House building a cult of personality around the President?

 

As a person who straddles both Eastern and Western cultures, I can see the successes and failures of these societies a different clarity. I admire the US for its freedom of speech (which is enshrined in the Constitution) and for its media industry. I’m also a believer in public debate when it comes to governance. Are the past couple of days a sign of things to come in the US? I hope that I’m mistaken, but over this first weekend of the Trump Presidency I have seen parallels between the two regions when it comes to media messaging. And this isn’t what I want to see for the US. I hope I’m wrong.

 

 

A crisis of competence or character? How to understand (and prepare for) crisis basics

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Are you prepared for the worst? (image source: http://www.adweek.com)

The past 18 months has been a remarkable time for crisis watchers. We’ve watched as global brands and leaders have become embroiled in crises. Some of these have been of their own making (think Sepp Blatter and FIFA, or Volkswagen and emissions). Others have been due to unfortunate circumstances, such as with Emirates flight 521.

As communications professionals out there know, there’s nothing like working on a crisis. In an excellent piece for the Financial Times by David Bond, Rupert Younger, director at the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, sorts crises into two basic definitions – a crisis of competence or a crisis of character. To quote from the piece:

Examples of competence scandals include Toyota’s 2009-11 recall of 4m of its cars because of defective accelerator pedals, or the battery defaults on some of Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft. These, according to Mr Younger, can deliver a direct, and in some cases short-term, hit to a company’s sales figures.

A character crisis calls into question the culture and behaviour of a company and its senior executives and often arises out of media scrutiny or criminal or regulatory investigations. Fifa and News International were both crises of character.

The worst type of crisis involves both. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 is a case in point. It was triggered by a disastrous oil rig explosion that called BP’s offshore drilling competence into question. But the company’s response turned the crisis into a far wider issue of trust.

As communicators, our roles have traditionally covered managing the fallout from a crisis. However, whether we like it or not (I hope the former), we’re also becoming the conscience of our organizations. It’s incumbent on us to speak up when we hear about or see an issue that could harm an organization’s reputation. This is easier said than done. Volkswagen is a great example of a crisis of character – dozens of VW employees must have known about the manipulation of data, and yet no one spoke up (or, if they did, the information didn’t get to the right people).

To tackle such a crisis, communicators need to work with executive management to create an ‘incident aware culture’. Employees should feel that they can report issues without reproach or fear of retaliation. Employees also need to feel that they’re working for and in an ethical organization that cares about doing the right thing. This requires continuous communication from and engagement by the board and management, as well as support from legal and HR teams. If things do go wrong, communicators and management need to proactively engage with stakeholders to explain what has happened and why, a strategy known as stealing thunder. This is best defined as an organization “breaking the news about its own crisis before the crisis is discovered by the media or other interested parties” (Arpan & Roskos-Ewoldsen, 2005).

Unfortunately, as has been noted by academics such as An-Sofie Claeys, this type of self-disclosure is rare in practice. As with the case of VW, organizations are tempted to conceal the crisis rather than make it public.

Crises of competence are easier to deal with. However, many of us still aren’t prepared for what happens when this type of crisis occurs. Here’s a simple crisis communications assessment grid developed by the communications team at US firm Timken, which establishes crisis severity based on the type of incident and the involvement of various stakeholders, as well as who needs to be involved.

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For a more detailed look at how to handle a crisis (pre, during and post), then have a look at this post I wrote after meeting with crisis communications expert Caroline Sapriel. And, if you have any feedback on how do deal with a crisis, please do share. I’d love to hear your views.

Recycle Old News or Stick to Brand Values? How will firms deal with Trump?

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Trump’s Twitter attacks have targeted a number of firms. His behavior may not change when he takes up the Presidency today.

Trust me, it’s happening. Today, Donald Trump will be sworn in as President of the United States. And, judging by the past couple of months, Trump will personally run his agenda of making America great again across the entire business community. Shel Holtz has written a fantastic piece about the impact that Trump has when he Tweets about a company which he feels isn’t doing enough to support his American vision.

Companies will have two basic strategies to deal with this new type of political risk; they can either recycle old news, or they can resist Trump’s attacks, and fight back (yes, you read that right, brands will go up against Trump).

We’re already seeing firms come out with a raft of job announcements. This week General Motors said it would invest US$1 billion in its U.S. manufacturing operations, which will lead to the creation or retention of 1,500 jobs, adding that it would also add another 5,000 American jobs “over the next few years” in finance and advanced technology. Fulfilling another Trump pledge, GM announced that around 450 jobs will be returned to the US as GM transfers back parts production from Mexico.

Other firms have also put out jobs announcements. Amazon, whose founder Jeff Bezos publicly rowed with Trump during the election campaign, announced that it’d hire over 100,000 staff over the next 18 months. “It’s a very powerful headline, and the timing certainly makes Trump look good,” Ivan Feinseth, an analyst at Tigress Financial Partners LLC, told Bloomberg. “It’s going to happen in the first year and half of his administration. Bezos couldn’t have set him up any better to look good — timing is everything.”

China’s Alibaba has sought to allay Trump’s Chinese angst by promoting job creation in the US. Last week, Alibaba chairman Jack Ma met with the president-elect to tell him that the Chinese Internet giant would create 1 million jobs for Americans by helping small domestic businesses sell to Asian markets via Alibaba.

Job creation in the US is a tactic that many firms will seek to copy over the coming months as Trump takes charge. How many of these announcements will stack up, who knows. We’ll only know for sure after the space of months or years. However, many brands will be tempted to win favor with Trump’s administration and stay out of his crosshairs by pushing job news. The questions many will ask are, is the news real (for example, will Alibaba really be able to create a million jobs for Americans?), and is the news old? It’s been alleged that the GM announcement was planned as far back as 2014.

The other approach that companies will take is to stand up to Trump. Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, Richard Levick, president and CEO of the Levick public relations and communications firm explained why.

“Other companies will realize that the king doesn’t have a lot of clothing here,” he said. “At some point in the not too -distant future, a company will realize that there is greater value in being courageous and standing up to the president.”

To date, the best example of a brand fighting back against Trump is Vanity Fair. The publication, whose editor Graydon Carter has long been a critic, ran a piece in December last year titled, “Trump Grill Could Be The Worst Restaurant In America”. Needless to say, it didn’t go down well with the President-Elect.

The magazine responded  instantly, running a headline banner ad across its own and other sites entitled “The Magazine Donald Trump Doesn’t Want You to Read.” The result was 40,000 new subscribers.

“Vanity Fair played that perfectly,” Scott Farrell, an expert in crisis management and the president of Golin Corporate Communications, told the New York Times. “‘This was the magazine that Trump doesn’t want you to read.’ I think their response was consistent with the brand’s DNA.”

Firms will either have to proactively plan to put out information that will appeal to the new administration. Or they’ll have to plan on how to respond to a potential attach. Whatever they do, brands will have to move with speed, to counter Trump’s use of Twitter. Whichever route brands take, crisis comms experts (and the rest of us) are going to have an interesting four years. Unless someone turns off the WiFi in Trump Towers, that is.

Influencers & the Importance of Credibility – an Example from SeaWorld Abu Dhabi

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When choosing influencers, brands and publishers need to ask themselves if the person has the credibility and expertise to influence others.

As anyone working in comms will have noticed, 2016 was the year of the influencer. That trend will not only continue into 2017, but it’ll pick up pace. Everywhere you will look, you’ll see brands and organizations working with influencers to address public issues with their stakeholders.

There’s many issues around working with influencers. One, which I’m going to highlight here, is the importance of credibility. Often brands (or publishers) will seek out an influencer  who has a wide following and is popular. That’s unfortunately not the best approach to follow. Instead, brands need to think about credibility, by asking themselves if the influencer they’d like to work with is 1) an expert in this field, and 2) has talked about the issue before, and 3) are considered to have integrity.

I’ve talked about this topic before, most notably when Etisalat brought on-board a load of social media influencers from rival Du. It’s a topic I’ll probably have to keep coming back to again and again, as brands (and publishers) keep on making the same basic mistake.

A fellow communications professional shared with me an opinion piece from the Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper yesterday. It was on why Abu Dhabi and SeaWorld will be a good fit, and why both will benefit the wider environment. The piece was written by Khalid AlAmeri, a well-known and well-respected influencer.

The piece is well-written in terms of the argument, and while I could argue to the contrary I’m going to focus on the choice of the influencer. Firstly, Khalid writes prolifically on entrepreneurship and issues around Emiratisation. He’s well-known and admired for this work. However, he’s not an expert on the environment or wildlife (if he is, his expertise should be highlighted here). He’s highlighted some criticisms of SeaWorld, which is the sign of an experienced writer who knows how to engage in a debate. But again, why should I believe someone who firstly isn’t an expert in the field, and who hasn’t written previously on the subject.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not an easy task to find influencers on issues that aren’t mainstream (fashion, food and travel). However, there are organizations in the UAE which do oversee the environment, such as the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (which I assume Khalid references in the piece), or the Emirates Diving Association. There are also associations and people who take part in marine life conservation, such as the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project. These bodies would have made for a much more powerful and compelling argument, primarily due to their expertise. Knowing this, I’d be much less willing to question their lines of argument. As it stands, Khalid’s opinion piece is weakened due to his lack of credibility in this area (as opposed to his expertise on entrepreneurship). To me, that lack of expertise weakens an argument rather than promotes it.