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.
While the article meant well, there were so many flaws that I had to write a counter-piece. One of the arguments used was media will have to specialize and focus on audience segmentation – they’ve been doing this for years through B2B publishing. Another was the need for publications to embrace social media – most journalists and publications are online, but it’s rare for digital advertising to replace print revenues.
As a former journalist, I’m passionate about the media. As a communicator, I value the ability of a professional journalist to cut through the crap and get through to the heart of the story, to report the news in a way that the publication’s readers will both understand and appreciate. Granted, we now have a plethora of ways to reach our target audiences, including social media and influencers, but nothing beats a great news piece or feature item. At their best, the media are impartial, influential and engaging.
It’s no secret that newspapers in the Gulf have struggled of late. Advertisers have moved marketing budgets online, mainly to the detriment of print. This isn’t a local phenomenon, and the issue has been discussed at length in the West for years. One answer is charging for content – the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post have used paywalls to drive revenues. They’ve found that people will pay for good content.
The idea has been suggested here too, to charge for content to develop a new revenue stream. The question is, would you pay for locally-produced media? Is it of a high-enough quality for readers to subscribe and pay? My feeling is no. Compared to the US and Europe, there’s little original news or investigative journalism. This is understandable, given who owns many of the newspapers in the region. Publications here are often used to relay a government viewpoint, which explains why there’s so little variation in what you’ll see from paper to paper.
The countries where print thrives promote a plurality of viewpoints. Look at India, where print is thriving. If the print industry wants to succeed, it’s going to have to invest heavily in reporting news that readers want, rather than what owners want to publish. Print has a future, including in the Gulf. But we’ve got to think about what readers want, and will pay for if the media is to become a service people will want to pay for. Otherwise, we’re looking at a slow decline for what once was a thriving industry. I for one hope that day will never come.
We’re a couple of weeks in, and the whole swell of media attention has gradually faded out. The mammoth US$3.1 billion deal by Uber to purchase Careem made headlines globally – it was the largest in the Middle East for a tech startup, and it focused the world’s media on a regional success story. The deal also comes before an IPO that will catapult Uber into the big leagues of the multi-billion dollar tech firms who have gone public. It’s unsurprising that so much attention was paid to the deal between the two dominant ride-hailing apps in the Middle East.
For those of us in the region, what’s also unsurprising is the feeling that many have for both brands. Uber and Careem are Marmite brands, with Middle Eastern consumers either loving or hating them. Some will swear by Careem, and refuse to take an Uber. Given the strength of brand loyalty, it was especially important that the two companies, communications functions and executive teams get the messaging right.
Lessons from Uber – Speed Matters, Keep It Simple and Engage Everyone
I’ve lost count of the number of times that a deal between Uber and Careem has been talked about. I’ve even joked with journalists who seem to get constantly misinformed by the comms teams at the firms. There were leaks, but many of us took the latest piece about any deal with a pinch of salt. When news of the deal was broken on the 24th March by Bloomberg, it seemed different. There were specifics in terms of numbers, on how the Careem brand would disappear into the Uber operation, and on how all shareholders needed to be informed.
Two days later, the deal was confirmed. Uber announced the deal. The format was strange for many of us here, where social media dominates. Instead of a tweet, Uber sent out an email. The copy was short but succinct, with the option of clicking through to Uber’s website. The emailer can be seen in full below.
The email’s message was repeated throughout social media. Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has spent ample time here in Dubai, both giving media interviews to regional press as well as the global newswires, as well as meeting with government bodies to reinforce media interviews to reinforce the message, and government engagement as part of an engagement tour.
On a side note, Uber’s CEO is a dream executive for communicators. He’s composed on camera, he sticks to the message, and he leans in, showing respect for those he’s engaging with. It’s a stark contrast to how things used to be at Uber.
Lessons for Careem – The Messenger Matters
While Uber was straight out of the blocks with a coordinated message, Careem amplified that message through its own social media channels. However, the response was mainly negative, with many users fearing that Careem would become Uber. The Careem comms team understood this, and their messaging was focused on Careem remaining independent post merger.
While this approach makes sense, what they failed to do was personalize the message. They should have used their CEO Mudassir Sheikha to record a video message about the acquisition, focusing on why it made sense for Careem and how the company would be staying independent (they could have also turned to their Saudi co-founder Abdullah Elyas to record the same message in Arabic).
Personal messaging matters to the public – they need to see and hear a person they know, rather than a brand. Given the importance to Careem customers of independence from Uber, I ‘m not surprised that an email from Careem’s CEO to employees ‘was leaked’ to the media last week, which re-emphasized that the company will operate as a stand-alone entity (nothing leaks, unless you’re Julian Assange or the White House). The fact that Careem’s comms missed the mark on the independence message on the first day of the deal means that they’re going to have to repeat this message. The lesson here is get the message right the first time around.
What’s also fascinating is to see how Careem’s own users shared messaging the company put out in 2016, focusing directly on how it was better than Uber. The advertising wasn’t so subtle, as you can see from the video below which is still up on Careem’s Youtube site.
Consumers remember what a brand does, especially when it involves direct attacks on competitors. That’s why such activities are pretty rare. Now that Careem is part of Uber, I’m a little surprised these ads are still up on Careem’s social media. Maybe it’s time the team remember that they shouldn’t only look ahead in their messaging, but they should also look behind to what was done previously to see if it doesn’t impact their current messaging.
That’s it from me. If you have any insights you’d like to share, please do get in touch!
I’ve watched over the past couple of weeks as the crisis around the Boeing 737 MAX has grown. Before that, it was Huawei and the suspicion in many Western capitals that the Chinese telecommunications firm was in a position to either spy on or act in favor of the Chinese government through sharing data collected through its network equipment. Before that, there was the McKinsey sagas in South Africa and Saudi Arabia respectively.
As a communications professional, it’s been fascinating (and painful) to watch events unfold. But one thought is stuck in my mind – is there a common thread to all of these events? And is that common thread an internal culture which is neither diverse or inclusive enough to understand and tackle issues before they become crises?
Let’s take Huawei, whose story has been covered in depth by a number of exceptional writers and features (check out Arun Sudhaman’s 4,000 word piece on the Holmes Report website). Huawei is a typical Chinese-headquartered multinational, with senior management being predominantly Chinese nationals. This has proved problematic for Huawei’s understanding of markets such as the US.
“There was always a fundamental lack of trust in non-Chinese. You offer guidance, and are regularly second-guessed,” Huawei’s former US public and government relations department, William Plummer, told the Financial Times. Plummer published a book last September in which he explained how senior local staff in foreign markets were regularly excluded from key decisions whilst Chinese executives second-guessed senior management in local markets out of fear of the company’s founder, throwing into turmoil into the company’s handling of PR and lobbying outside of China.
While McKinsey’s management is more diverse in nature, it could be argued that a an over-aggressive culture and a lack of local understanding resulted in the consultancy giant making one of its biggest ever mistakes. To quote from the New York Times:
McKinsey admits errors in judgment while denying any illegality. Two senior partners, the firm says, bear most of the blame for what went wrong. But an investigation by The New York Times, including interviews with 16 current and former partners, found that the roots of the problem go deeper — to a changing corporate culture that opened the way for an aggressive push into more government consulting, as well as new methods of compensation. While the changes helped McKinsey nearly double in size over the last decade, they introduced more reputational risk.
The firm also missed warning signs about the possible involvement of the Guptas, and only belatedly realized the insufficiency of its risk management for state-owned companies. Supervisors who might have vetoed or modified the contract were not South African and lacked the local knowledge to sense trouble ahead. And having poorly vetted its subcontractor, McKinsey was less than forthcoming when asked to explain its role in the emerging scandal.
McKinsey’s former managing partner told the New York Times that the firm had a “bit of a tin ear” when it came to the initial response. David Lewis, executive director of Corruption Watch, a South African advocacy group, told the NYT that: “For the scale of the fee, they were prepared to throw caution to the wind, and maybe because they thought they couldn’t be touched.” For me, there’s the feeling that the internal culture led McKinsey to make the wrong decision and down a path that would become the biggest crisis in the firm’s history.
Finally, there’s Boeing. The airline manufacturer is struggling with a crisis that has grounded worldwide its latest jet, the 737 MAX, after two crashes which share a number of similarities. The first crash happened in Indonesia last October, with the loss of 189 passengers. Following the second crash, this time in Ethiopia in March, Boeing was asked why more wasn’t done to fix the faults found to be responsible for the first crash?
In crisis communications, the most important action is post-crisis, and communicators are told to work with the organization to ensure that lessons are learned, solutions are found, and trust is re-built. This didn’t happen with Boeing – the software fix for the plane’s flight system has yet to be completed, and relatives of those who died in the first accident have questioned Boeing’s response.
Vini Wulandari, sister of one of the ill-fated Lion Air flight’s co-pilots, said that the Ethiopian crash confirmed the suspicions that she and many of the victims’ relatives had about the MAX 8 being a “defective product”.
It’s hard not to be swayed by the argument that uncompromising internal cultures are to blame for poor decision-making; too many similar voices, too few diverse views and an inability to listen have been a cause in each of these crises. That’s why proper inclusion matters, at all levels, as well as an ability to seek out differing viewpoints, especially from outside the organization. As communicators, we have to play a role in promoting both in our workplaces.
I’d love to hear your views on these crises. What’s your view? Message me, or leave a comment.
It’s fair to say the corporate communications world is a fairly quiet place in the Gulf, but every now and then there’s a story that even manages to make me go agog. Last week, whilst sitting in the dentist’s clinic, I picked up a copy of the local publication Arabian Business. The front cover was a story on the Abu Dhabi-headquartered airline Etihad. The airline has had a lot of turbulence of late, with a loss of $4.8 billion over a three-year period as investments were pulled in failing airlines.
With this in mind, I was looking forward to a good read about how Etihad was turning things around, and getting back on track. Instead, it’s fair to say the introduction wasn’t what I was expecting, particularly the quotes from the CEO of the airline (who is presumably media-trained). Have a read below, or see the original piece here.
Any good media person (and, by extension, corporate executive) should know that the media won’t always get a story right. It’s our role to protect and build reputations. For the media, their job is to report the news as they find it. This is especially true of newswires, which both seek out business news that isn’t pushed out by the communications team and seek to verify their news reporting through multiple sources.
Why did Etihad’s CEO attack Bloomberg? I’d argue frustration with the reporting, which I understand. Here’s what he should have done.
Use Positive Language – What surprised me more than anything was the use of the language here, especially given who is being talked about. I have a great deal of time for newswire journalists, as they’re often the best in the industry. Negative language sticks in the reader’s mind, and makes everything else pale in comparison. I’ve forgotten everything else in the piece, which is much more positive, due to the negative language used here.
Focus on your Company’s Own Actions – It’s a simple rule of media work that you focus on what you’re doing and the vision behind it. There’ll always be opinions and views on your organization, both good and bad. Reputations are built on actions, and Etihad has been looking to turn around the business and trim losses. That’s the lead story. Instead, the CEO has gifted the journalist a major headline, and re-focused the issue on the story he didn’t like.
You’re always “On The Record” – Even the first comment, about being guarded, was strange. Every time I’ve given media training, I’ve always emphasized that anything an executive says is on the record, regardless of what is placed in front of them. In an interview, it’s good to build a rapport with the journalist, and put them at ease. A likeable executive is one of the best ways to do this (the best example from the aviation sector is the likes of Richard Branson, who always comes across as an interesting person you’d love to have a conversation with).
Ultimately, the media is one channel that communicators use to get information out to the public and other stakeholders. Nobody is right 100% of the time, including even the best journalists. If they’ve written a piece that’s incorrect, a communicator’s job is to get on the phone with them, point out the mistakes, and get on with telling their firm’s story positively.
Calling out the media publicly, through the CEO and in a derogatory fashion, only sours the relationship with both that outlet/journalist and also with the media in general. It also focuses the media on the negative issue, and ensures that the topic becomes front and center in any future media engagement. Any business which does this never gains any reputational value. It makes for a good read, however. So thank you Etihad from one reader for keeping my mind preoccupied whilst I waited to see my dentist.
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.
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.
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.
“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.