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.
I’m going to start this post with me eating my own words, and those words were written in 2016. The London-headquartered Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) had just started its operations in Dubai, and I’d criticized them for not engaging with the local association, the Middle East Public Relations Association, and for not being in tune with what the local market needed.
Three years later, I’m happy to say I was wrong. The PRCA MENA chapter has launched a number of big, inspirational initiatives, such as the MENA awards, the Cannes Young Lions for aspiring communicators in the region to present at the world’s biggest marketing event, and even Arabic-language initiatives such as NextGen Arabia to mentor local talent.
What has surprised me about the PRCA MENA has been its ability to expand into the region’s key markets. The organization has chapters both in Egypt and Lebanon, two countries which are the feeders of markets like the United Arab Emirates. The PRCA has moved quickly to establish itself as an entity that is locally based across the region. What has also impressed me is the PRCA’s willingness to reach out and work with other groups.
Where does this leave MEPRA?
For a decade, the Middle East Public Relations Association was the only representative body for communicators in the region. When the PRCA opened up shop in Dubai, my hope was that competition would drive MEPRA forward.
At that time, I was on the MEPRA board and was pushing for geographic growth and more partnerships. Back then, there was a chapter in Qatar, and my hope was that we’d open up in Saudi and Jordan or Lebanon.
Three years later, there’s no chapters outside of the UAE (the Qatar chapter closed down). There are partnerships in place with the CIPR, which is benefiting MEPRA members with additional training options. However, I’d have liked to have seen wider agreements with other organizations to promote certification and best practice sharing (there’s an agreement with the Arthur W. Page Society, but I don’t see how this benefits the mass membership, given Arthur Page is focused on senior practitioners).
I have full confidence in MEPRA’s chair and vice-chair, and I was glad to hear of their plans to do more in Saudi this year. But it’s also clear to me that decisions made to make MEPRA stronger after the PRCA MENA launched in 2016 haven’t resulted in more agility and the ability to get things done quickly.
The region needs a strong local body, and I hope that MEPRA becomes a regional association that is present in the major markets across the region. At the moment, the PRCA seems to have become a membership body that is present where most of the region’s communicators are. And that can only be a good thing as we look to bring the industry together and raise the standard of our profession.
I’ve been around the block, and I’ve read, seen and done so many bizarre things in my profession that I’m rarely phased. But there’s a moment once in a blue moon when I have one of these moments where I’m reliving Arsenio Hall.
What set me off was a piece published by PR Week Middle East. The journalist had interviewed a Dubai-based public relations practitioner. The title was “Journalists and Social Media Influencers are too spoiled.” I’ll share just one quote from the piece, which you can read after subscribing to PR Week.
Social media influencers and journalists are being so spoilt and most brands raise the bar very high because they send expensive gifts and also, they have been bombarded by hundreds of pitches a day. This will make it near enough impossible for our brand stories to get noticed in the sea of emails flooding to their inbox – as well as the number of gifts they receive.”
Firstly, I don’t understand how any PR person can lay the blame on the media when the gifts are being sent by the PR people (Santa, why did you bring me so many presents this year?). And secondly, at least for much of the media, this just isn’t happening.
The Media is Collapsing
Over the past month I’ve heard first hand about three dozen journalists being fired from two of the largest publishers in Dubai, the Gulf’s media hub. They’re either being offered salaries which are up to a third lower than what they’re currently making, or they’re being laid off because the ad money is being put into digital (read Facebook and Google).
Why does this matter to communicators? Firstly, the expertise of these journalists is invaluable; they know their beat given their local experience (most journalists are expats, and new journalists often come from outside of the Gulf) and they’re able to put stories into context (one journalist who was laid off from Gulf News is probably the best investigative journalist in the Gulf today). Secondly, like in other parts of the world, the number of public relations people is increasing, and the number of journalists is decreasing. Publishers are increasingly turning to freelancers, not just to provide copy to but actually run publications (they’re cheaper, as their direct and indirect costs are lower – think no medical insurance, no end-of-service benefits etc).
What is different in the Gulf is that without employment, expats must leave. There’s no gig economy to speak of, as individuals aren’t free to take on multiple roles/jobs (unless they’re nationals), and few ex-journos are willing to set up content shops given the costs of visas and setting up business licences. In addition, those journalists who remain are frequently finding themselves overextended, and they’re being asked to take up non-editorial activities, be it supporting on sales pitches, or arranging events.
How Can Communicators Help?
While I’d like to think that the global decline in print media is reversible, I’m not that naive. However, as communicators we have to play a part in supporting the journalists we work with (I’ll always have a soft spot for the media, partly because I respect what they do and partly because I don’t want my job simply to be about working with influencers).
Firstly, we’ve got to clearly state why earned media makes sense to our clients. In an age where trust in other media types is falling, much of the public still believes what they read in their newspapers and magazines. We’ve got to go further than this, and start looking at how we can work with media outlets on concepts such as native publishing. If media engagement matters to us, we have to think how we can support these outlets financially whilst ensuring that editorial and sales lines don’t blur (much of what we do with influencers is paid).
Secondly, I think many of us would benefit from spending a day on the media side. The person quoted in the PR Week article is right in one respect – there’s far too many pitches being made, pitches which aren’t relevant and which add little value to the audiences we’re trying to engage with and influence. We’ve got to move away from the mass-blast press release, and start thinking more critically about how we can create content that is both right for a publication in terms of its audience, and is of a high enough quality for the editor to say, “I’d like to run this piece.”
What I feel will eventually happen is that regional brands will start to move in the direction of organizations in Europe and the US by hiring former journalists as in-house content heads. A part of me would welcome this (the quality of content put out in this region needs to be drastically improved), but a part feels that we’ve got to think long and hard as to how we can work with the media industry to explain why they matter and how they should be considered a critical piece of both communications and advertising strategies for organizations in the region.
Given that last thought, I do hope that the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA) will also step up and support the media sector; MEPRA shared the PR Week story without any comments on its own stated view for or against the “spoiled journalist” opinion. We need leadership in this space, and it’s got to come from industry bodies.
You may not know about Jinn, the supernatural creatures of early Islamic mythology. They’re the inspiration for what would later become Genies. Jinn are full of mischief, and are frequently represented as those behind troubles. They may have been behind what happened in Jordan this month.
This month Netflix released its first original series in the Arabic language. Named Jinn, the story is based between Amman and Petra, where a group of teenagers battle a Jinn they’ve unwittingly released. The production was initially touted as a badge of pride for the country as it seeks to build a local media production industry. However, those feelings soon turned after the first episode was aired on the 13 June. Many Jordanians were incensed about kissing scenes and swearing.
While such behaviors may not be unusual for a Western audience, the reaction of many in Jordan hasn’t surprised me. “This will encourage teenagers to use indecent language in the streets, with their families,” Laith al-Tantawi, a 31-year-old Amman resident, told Fortune.
The public response snowballed. Five days after its release, dozens of Jordanian women signed a statement online that called the series “an offense against Jordan’s moral fiber. We strongly refuse the superficiality of this series, as well as [its scenes] that are offensive to public decency and that exploit minors. It reflects an inappropriate image of Jordan, as it was shot in Petra. The historical city was depicted as a hub for the jinn and a place of deviance.”
Jordanians may be used to seeing American fare on their TV sets in and in their cinemas, but watching actors who look and sound like their own children kissing and swearing is a taboo for many.
Are Cultural Missteps To Blame?
For a company which has become a global producer of content, Netflix made a number of basic mistakes before Jinn was even screened. Firstly, the director is Lebanese, not Jordanian. As was the filming crew. Beirut may only be 300 kilometers from Amman, but the two cultures are very different. What may be acceptable to a Lebanese audience (or parts of it), may not be to a Jordanian audience. And Netflix didn’t have an Arabic-speaking executive who is knowledgeable of the region to supervise the production. Both were simple mistakes to mistake, and simple to rectify.
Did Netflix Overreach With Jordanian Culture
Tackling cultural taboos is never easy. The creators of Jinn didn’t just focus on the supernatural (which many are still superstitious of in the region, just ask any Saudi about Madain Saleh), but they also wanted to portray Jordanian youth differently. Brave as this may have been initially, did the creators/Netflix overreach by seeking to do things so differently? Would taking out the scenes which would have caused so much offense have had such a major impact on the story?
Changing cultures is never easy, and there’ll always be push-back. But what did Netflix achieve with Jinn? Has it promoted debate about the challenges of youth, of their growing pains? Is Jinn equivalent to a Juno, or an Akeelah and the Bee? Will Jinn help to explain how Jordan’s young are struggling to come to terms with an ever-changing society? I don’t think it has. In fact, it may prove harder to faithfully depict Jordanian teenagers again on the big/small screen in the short term.
Would Getting Influencers On Board Helped Deflect Criticism?
For its first Arabic-language original production, Netflix did work to promote Jinn prior to its launch. The series was hailed by Bassel Ghandour of Jordan’s first Oscar-nominated film Theeb, as a “real turning point” for Jordanian representation. Jinn was officially premiered at an upscale Amman golf course flocked by media.
Were these influencers enough? I’m not talking about people with a social media presence, but individuals with standing in society, whose opinion is listened to, respected, and will change minds.
Following the initial outcry, a number of Jordanian governmental bodies put out statements that sought to deflect criticism. Jordan’s Royal Film Commission, which had granted Jinn producers approval to shoot, sidestepped responsibility. “[We neither] condone or approve or encourage the content of a film or series,” the Commission wrote in a statement. “[Jinn is the result of] divergent opinions that reflect the diversity of Jordanian society.”
Jordan’s Tourism Ministry had initially welcomed the show as a means to promote Petra and Jordan to a wider Middle East audience, also sought to sidestep the issue, taking aim at the show’s “lewd scenes” as “a contradiction of national principles… and Islamic values.”
Arguably the most influential people in Jordan are the country’s Royal Family. Prince Ali Bin Hussein, chairman of Jordan’s Royal Film Commission, did seek to draw a line on the controversy in a series of tweets on June 16. He called for respecting people and their differences, writing that, “This is a series, not a documentary. Let us respect people and their differences. Jordan embraces people of all categories, beliefs and lifestyles as long as they are peaceful. Enough is enough. Let’s put an end to this.”
How Should Have Netflix Responded?
Unsurprisingly, Netflix has defended Jinn. The firm put out a media statement that, “Jinn seeks to portray the issues young Arabs face as they come of age, including love, bullying, and more. We understand that some viewers may find it provocative but we believe it will resonate with teens across the Middle East and around the world.”
Netflix also responded to those on social media who were attacking the cast and crew, by saying that it would not tolerate bullying and personal attacks and that it’d continue to provide a safe space for those who love good content.
There’s little that Netflix can do here to assuage the public outrage. It could pull the series, as it did with an episode of Hassan Minhaj’s Patriot Act which criticized Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince last year. However, given the money sunk into Jinn, as well as the precedent this would set (if every broadcaster only aired what the majority of the public approved, television would be a very boring place indeed), this really wasn’t an option.
In this case, I’ll borrow from the medical lexicon and say that prevention is better than cure. if Netflix had better understood local cultural issues, it may have been able to amend the script to avoid any fallout. A first impression matters, and everyone must have been hoping that Jinn would have been both a resounding success, as well as a stepping stone to a local film industry. Given what the response was, from both the public and the government, neither goal has been achieved
Sustainability is such an important part of the work of many firms today, and yet there’s never been a piece of research that seeks to give us a sense of how the practice is doing in the MENA region. That’s no longer the case, thanks to the work undertaken by Sustainable Square. I sat down with the co-founder Monaem Ben Lellahom to talk about what’s happening in the sustainability space and how firms are doing when it comes to alignment with the SDGs, across industries and by regions.
I’ve often talked about the importance of telling a story through values, be it in advertising or through narrative-building. And yet, it still surprises me how few brands in the Middle East are looking to move beyond simple product marketing to embrace a bigger cause. Think of your Nikes, your Ikeas and all of those FMCG firms who are engaging on big societal issues such as race, gender and the environment. Every single big idea I saw when judging Cannes last year was built around the premise that brands need to take a stand on an issue that consumers care about.
There’s one Gulf-based company which understands this. For the past couple of years, the Kuwait-based telecommunications firm Zain has released adverts that are all about a big issue. They’ve tackled terrorism in 2017, the issue of refugees in 2018, and this year they’re tackling the subject of tolerance.
There’s lots to read into this advert, from the messaging around how religion is twisted by those who hold intolerant beliefs, to the issue of the bombing of peoples and places due to their religious affiliation. Even the choice of singers is interesting; one of the singers is Najwa Karam, a Christian Lebanese who has been accused of holding anti-Muslim views. At a time when the issue of tolerance and acceptance is on the agenda of many, including governments, Zain’s team have used their Ramadan budgets to create another values-based advert that people have been talking about (the video is currently #39 on YouTube’s trending list).
I’ll leave the video to do the talking. I wish others would have the marketing bravery to follow in Zain’s footsteps and tackle big societal issues. As marketers, we have the chance to shape societies for the better. Let’s make ads that make people watch to the end as they think over the message, rather than make people click on the skip button after three seconds.
I’m a PR person and former journalist with a long memory. Recent days and talk of tensions in the Gulf have reminded me of a time prior to 2003, when those wise and experienced neo-cons in the West (who know the region much better than those who are from the region) asserted that the invasion of Iraq would transform the Middle East for the better.
The PR industry is responsible for many things. We’ve helped promote transparency, and occasionally gotten our senior leadership to open up to the media and general public. We’ve also been responsible for negating some of the worst crises you’ve never ever heard of. Well, now we’re also responsible for bringing enlightenment to the nether regions of this planet called Earth.
“It’s important to help Westernize the Middle East. It’s good if Western companies are investing there. It will help modernize the governments and culture if you bring Western ideas, thinking and products into that part of the world. Scolding them is not going to help them modernize and make their people freer. I would take on education, destination, and tourism assignments in the Middle East. We’re particularly proud of the Ford ‘Women in the Driving Seat’ work in Saudi Arabia where women got to drive for the first time.”
It’s usually us clients who are putting our foot in our mouths, and our agency partners who rush in to help us. But making such a statement isn’t only reminiscent of colonialism, but also of what happened a decade and a half back (as well as more recently with tensions over Iran).
I love the idea of impartiality, that notion of fairness above all, of equal treatment of all rivals or disputants. The notion of impartiality is difficult to define in practice; we all have our biases. And then there’s the politics of any given situation. It’s fair to say that, given global events, impartiality is becoming increasingly hard to come by. This is especially the case in the Middle East, where the number of conflicts and disputes is sadly increasing between neighbors and nations. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to be perceived as impartial.
Of course, social media hasn’t helped. Social media is the metaphorical can of kerosene that makes disputes explode across cyberspace. But now, the social media companies want to start cracking down on content that fuels hatred and extremism. What is Facebook’s idea? To introduce “an independent oversight board of experts to review its content decisions.”
The company is embracing a wider set of approaches for how it operates. Our CEO Mark [Zuckerberg] had a comment on the earnings call recently where he talked about how, for when we launch products now that touch societal issues, we are going to go out and consult on them and think in advance about how to build them.
We had discussions pretty much every week internally, and one of the ideas that was proposed was that we should create some board to do a review of really difficult content decisions. I think there was an emerging consensus that it was something worth trying and worth building.
There was a growing sense that the [content] decisions we were taking are ones that we shouldn’t make alone and I don’t think that speaks to any single issue. It is about a growing belief that we don’t believe the decisions should sit solely inside Facebook.
A lot of the matters that will go before the board are the hard questions of trade-offs between those principles and trying to figure out for a specific piece of content, where do you set that line? That line is a hard one at times to figure out.
There has also been fairly consistent set of feedback that the people who should serve [on the board] should be folks who are deeply deliberative and who are impartial.
While I usually applaud any social media firm for opening up and engaging with more transparency, this suggestion of an “impartial board” is also dangerous. Who decides who and what is impartial? Given what is happening in many regions, including my own, how will Facebook ensure that politics doesn’t seep into discussions? Many state actors have manipulated social media for their own ends, and Facebook itself has a terrible track record of sustaining partners with external stakeholders (mainly because it doesn’t seem to listen, just ask Snopes). And, how do you define impartiality in a region which has never been so afflicted by political and sectarian differences?
If they’re going to be transparent about this issue, then Facebook needs to go all in and clearly state who they’re meeting and why (particularly in regions where there’s little to no independent civil society). Otherwise, it just strikes me as another public relations exercise rather than a workable plan which will produce the intended results (and given trust in Facebook is probably at an all-time low, this is not what they need).
And, speaking as a person who cares deeply about the notion of impartiality and fairness on social media, the last thing we need is more news columns on bad ideas which won’t deliver in practice. Facebook, prove me wrong.