Twitter and the need to tackle automated, political hate in the Middle East

Twitter has been a huge hit in the Middle East; it has become the one place where everyone can share their views (image source: http://www.sustg.com)

I’ll admit it, Twitter is my favorite social media channel. I love that little blue bird and how it captures the moment. However, we live in a harsh environment in the region and Twitter isn’t without its issues.

I had the privilege to sit down with and talk to Twitter’s local management team recently. Two topics of concern came up: the first was pornography, which is illegal in the Gulf and which Twitter wants to keep off its network in the region; the second was religious extremism and terror-related content, affiliated to the likes of Islamic State, AlQaeda and others.

While I did in part acknowledge that both were issues to tackle, I didn’t fully agree that they were the most pressing problems for the social network. Pornography is much easier to find online, through the use of a VPN, than it is on any social media channel. With religious extremism, much of the conversation has moved onto dark social which cannot be monitored by governments.

Instead, I threw out a different idea. For me, Twitter is the place to come to for discussion and debate, a platform for use by all. However, recent cases have shown that some are automating conversations to dominate discussion.

An example was uncovered by Marc Owen Jones on his research into Bahrain following recent events there. His blog post, which is well worth your time, highlights a key issue facing Twitter when it comes to automated bots hijacking conversations.

While the notion of bot accounts is probably not news to anyone, the evidence here hopefully highlights that much online sectarian discourse is perhaps inflated by those groups or individuals with specific ideological agendas, and the means to do so. Of course we know PR and reputation management companies offer such services, yet their work is often done secretively and behind close doors. Would be interesting to find out who is behind this. It would also suggest that Twitter needs to better regulate spam.

While this isn’t the first time that social media channels have been used unethically in this region (during 2011 bloggers in certain countries were singled out and targeted for retribution through social media), the danger is that automated bots will become more common, taking over conversations and driving real users off Twitter. 

While Twitter has taken action following the work done by Marc Owen Jones, suspending up to 1800 accounts according to his blog post, the team need to be as proactive as possible to take these bots down to ensure that the platform is still a place that welcomes differing points of view. 

More than ever, we in the region need a place for discussion that is independent and welcomes genuine debate. It’d be a shame to see such actions driving people off Twitter and onto closed apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram. 

Twitter can be a force to engage and promote debate in the region, and I hope that it remains so without such bots hijacking conversations for whatever political, sectarian purpose(s).

‘Bigger, Better and Smarter’ – how the Middle East’s PR industry rates its performance & development in 2015/2016

The Benchmark survey looked at communications practice areas. The results suggest media relations will soon be replaced by social media as the top communications priority.

The Benchmark survey looked at communications practice areas. The results suggest media relations will soon be replaced by social media as the top communications priority.

Yesterday was a busy day for the PR industry in the UAE, with two events on the same day. The first, which was organized by bespoke agency Secret PR and named PR Pressure, was held in Dubai and tackled the everyday issues faced by both PR professionals and their friends in the media sector (more on this later). The second event of the day was held by the Middle East Public Relations Association in Abu Dhabi and focused on innovation.

As part of the build-up to the event, MEPRA launched the Benchmark survey. Through a self-assessment approach, the research seeks to understand where the industry is headed, what is being done well and where improvements need to be made. And with 138 responses, including from 100 in-house departments, 34 agencies and 4 senior independent consultants representing over 1,611 PR professionals across 14 Middle East countries, there’s a lot to ponder.

Firstly, let’s look at the issues thrown up by the Benchmark research. According to respondents, the nature of the public relations is changing. While media relations is still seen as the backbone of the sector, the survey’s respondents expect this to change over the course of 2016 as social media becomes more important to clients and different stakeholder groups alike. There’ll be a similar growth in areas such as influencer engagement, employee engagement, and integrated communications.

There are also major challenges to tackle in the region’s communications sector, including the need to demonstrate results and show a return on investment. And then there’s the money issue; it’s clear that falling oil prices and subsequent slowing in the region’s economy is beginning to bite. In 2016, two out of three respondents see investment in PR staying the same or growing, down from 87.0 per cent in 2015. Similarly, the proportion of people who see budgets falling has more than doubled (13.0 per cent in 2015, up to 34.0 per cent in 2016). There does seem to be a silver lining however when it comes to budgets; one in six respondents expect budget growth of more than 20 per cent in 2016.

A fifth of respondents claimed they were world class. Would you agree?

A fifth of respondents claimed they were world class. Would you agree?

When it comes to performance some in the region’s PR sector clearly don’t lack for confidence – a fifth of in-house departments and agencies regard themselves as ‘world class’ (those scoring themselves an average of more than 7.0/10 for both practice and performance, across 12 elements of communications, were rated as ‘world class’). Despite this, there’s clearly a need to improve in terms of doing things differently; scores on the area of innovation were the lowest recorded by the survey. Responses were low (a rating of 2.31 out of 5) for the statement: ‘The PR industry in the Middle East is more innovative than the industry in other regions’ in 2015. Similarly, the statement: ‘Middle East campaigns are not afraid to ‘disrupt’ – to ignore established convention – to stand out and achieve results’ in 2015 was rated as low with a score of 2.49/5.0. This may change in 2016, as 12.6% more respondents expect the industry to become innovative.

Based on the survey results, another area which the industry has to get right is its hiring and retention practices, especially when it comes to attracting graduates, particularly locals. Talent acquisition scored 5.26 out of ten, and staff retention 5.16 out of 10. Graduate recruitment and attracting local talent were even lower, at 4.58 and 4.32 respectively.

Research is one thing, experiences are another. During the PR Pressure event there were strong emotions expressed on the issues of media relations, ethics and talent (check out the hashtag #PRPressure for all of the posts on the event). It was clear from those media who were present and talking about their own interactions with the PR industry that we still have a long way to go if we’re going to become ‘world class’. Similarly, unless we get talent issues right, including a focus on training, development and certification (which is a major failing as far as I’m concerned), then whatever progress we make will be unsustainable. If the industry keeps on bringing expats in to do a job at every level, it’s going to fail in engaging with local audiences (there’s also the issue of forced localization, which I’ll blog about at a later date).

While the industry may feel that it’s moving in the right direction (and in many areas it is), maybe it’s time for a more honest glimpse into the looking glass, to start addressing key areas of what we do and how we do it. I desperately want to believe that we’re ‘bigger, better and smarter’, but while my heart feels one emotion my head thinks something else. I for one am looking forward to next year’s MEPRA Benchmark. And if you want to play your part and fill in the survey, get in touch with MEPRA.

The Gulf’s push to improve its image – why actions speak louder than words

The Gulf's foreign ministers have worked hard to change perceptions of the region abroad. But is there a simpler solution?

The Gulf’s foreign ministers have worked hard to change perceptions of the region abroad. But is there a simpler solution?

I love a good read, especially fiction. But when living in the Gulf, fact can often feel more surreal than fiction. Last week the UAE’s English language daily Gulf News reported on efforts by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council to improve its image abroad, most notably in Europe and the US. To quote from the newspaper:

Foreign media officials in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have stressed the need to formulate a common media strategy that will reflect the positive image of the six member countries abroad.

The officials, who were holding a meeting in the Qatari capital Doha, reviewed plans and suggestions for future actions in their communication drive with the international community.

The GCC, established in 1981, comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“The participants discussed several issues related to the progress of their work, including a common strategy to rectify the distorted image that some Western media have about the countries in the region,” Ahmad Al Buainain, the head of the foreign media department at Qatar News Agency (QNA) said.

“The meeting also discussed several papers and new ideas regarding the way forward for the GCC foreign media in European and Asian countries in order to convey the realities on the ground, he said, quoted by QNA.

Plans include holding seminars and meetings with research centres or organizing events at international functions in Europe and in which the GCC countries are participating, he added.

“This new drive is a continuation of the activities conducted by the foreign media officials at past events,” he said.

Ahmed Mussa Al Dhabyan, the head of media cooperation at the GCC Secretariat General, said that the GCC foreign media officials sought to build on their successful experience and formulate a new strategy that matched the latest developments in the communication field.

“The world has gone beyond the global village concept and has now become a single house,” he said. “The GCC has a significant political and economic weight and it has a special standing internationally, and therefore it needs to have a foreign media presence that matches its stature,” he said.

Earlier this month, reports surfaced from Washington D.C. that Saudi was hiring a variety of lobbying groups to bolster its public image in the US. Clearly, the Gulf cares about its reputation abroad, especially when the region’s governments see what they feel to be negative coverage.

On his Facebook account, political commentator (and Sharjah royal family member) Sultan Al-Qassemi gave his take on the article in the Gulf news with a list of suggestions to improve the Gulf’s image abroad.

1- Release activists.
2- Suspend capital punishment.
3- Allow political participation.
4- Eliminate Kafeel (sponsorship) system
5- Expand women’s rights.
6- Enact environmental protection.
7- Broaden citizen’s rights.
8- Bolster freedom of expression (yes within “limits”)

I’d make it even simpler. As any good and ethical public relations practitioner will tell you, your actions speak louder than your words. If the region is serious about tackling any negative perceptions or reputation issues abroad, then behaviour which is contradictory to accepted human norms in regions outside of the Gulf (read the West) must be tackled, and free(r) access should be given to the media. With social media and the internet, it is so much harder to hide anything or to spin information or events. Take for example the leaking of documents from Saudi’s Foreign Ministry recently.

The best way to been seen in a positive light is not more seminars or meetings in European capitals with research centers. Instead, one must behave in a positive light, followed by encouraging the media, both local and international, to report without bias.

While I’ve been in this region long enough to know better, I am still an optimist at heart. And I still believe we are capable of change for the better, as this region is magical in so many ways. However, a word of note. If my face turns shades of blue or purple, do please remind me to breathe.

Me, my wife and our baby – a personal story of how the Gulf is letting down its women by denying their children the right to nationality

 

The children of Gulf women married to foreigners are not automatically granted nationality, unlike their male counterparts (image source http://www.flight965.com)

 
I promised I’d write on my experiences as a father and I’m having to start things off on a serious note. As some of you may know, my wife is from this region but I am not. We welcomed into our lives a little princess earlier this year.

The sad story is that in the Gulf region children born to Gulf women, in other words women with a nationality from the six GCC states, who are married to foreign men do not receive their mother’s nationality. This is in contrast to Gulf men who are married to foreign women. Their children do receive their father’s nationality.

It’s important to us that our little one cherishes both her cultures and that she’s recognized as both. She’s fortunate to have a European nationality through me, but, try as we might with visits to interior ministry offices and other government bodies, we realized that there is no formal process for our daughter to become a Gulf national like her mother. This is the same all over the Gulf, despite sporadic exemptions to the contrary.

I’ve heard countless reasons for this, such as the need for Gulf women to marry Gulf men, and the legal requirement that a Gulf national should have only one passport. To me, any discussion is bogus. If I was a Gulf male and my wife was a European foreigner our daughter would have qualified automatically for both nationalities.

I hear lots of news about progress being made it terms of women’s rights in the Gulf, which I applaud. However, until Gulf women are able to give their children everything that their male counterparts can, I cannot contend that women here are anywhere near to being equal to the men.

I hope for change, if not for my wife’s generation, then at least for my daughters. I hope you will join me in calling for a change to how Gulf women and their children are treated in the Gulf.

The Middle East’s love for Instagram (including its adverts)

Here in the Gulf we just love our pictures and photos. We love it so much that you’ll be hard pressed to find many in the Gulf who aren’t on the social media app. Only yesterday and in a period of less than five years Instagram announced that it had crossed the 400 million user mark (the app added 100 million users in the last 10 months alone). Seventy five percent of those 400 million users live outside the US, and the Gulf in particular has taken to the photo and video-sharing application.

In terms of the Gulf, it’s no surprise that Saudi leads the way – there are 10.7 million monthly active users in the Kingdom (just over a third of the population). The UAE follows with 2.2 million monthly users. And, to the West, Egypt has 3.2 million monthly active users. What’s even more impressive is daily active users – a whopping 6.1 million for Saudi, 1.2 million for the UAE, and 1.1 million for Egypt.

This all makes good news for Facebook, Instagram’s owner, which introduced advertising to the platform this month in the MENA region. Facebook rolled out advertising for select partners this month. The launch earlier this month included both regional brands such as telcos Saudi Telecom and Zain and retailers Souq and AlShaya, as well as global advertisers such as Unilever, P&G, Nestle, Mondelez, Visa, L’oreal and Pepsi. The first ad to go live was Souq’s, which you can see below.

Souq's Instagram advert was the first to be seen by Middle East users of the app

Souq’s Instagram advert was the first to be seen by Middle East users of the app

So far, from what I’ve been told, engagement with the adverts has been far higher than expected and much more than these advertisers are used to on Facebook. While there’ll be some negative sentiment from consumers who aren’t used to seeing advertising on their Instagram feeds, it seems that both Facebook and advertisers are onto a winner when it comes to Instagram advertising.

And for those of you curious people out there, the country with the highest penetration, is Bahrain which is closely followed by Kuwait. Both enjoy over 50 percent usage for Instagram; Bahrain’s penetration rate is over seventy five percent. The below visual was shared by social media expert Khaled El-Ahmed, and while the numbers may be slightly off from the above in terms of users, they’re still valid in terms of percentages.

PS For disclosure, I’m a P&G employee.

The definition of ‘Nobness’ – the UAE, social media defamation and differing views from the Gulf

It’s that time of year again. I don’t mean Ramadan of course, the month of charity and kindness, but rather the time of year when we read about a case of defamation. Over the past week there was an outcry in Australia following the arrest of an Australian national in the UAE following comments she put up on Facebook. To quote from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website:

In February, Jodi Magi, 39, took a photo of a car in her Abu Dhabi apartment block that was parked across two disabled parking spaces, without any disability stickers.

She blacked out the number plate and put the photo on Facebook, drawing attention to the seemingly selfish act, but not providing any identifying details or names.

However, someone in the apartment block complained to police and the case went to an Abu Dhabi court in June.

Ms Magi, who has lived in Abu Dhabi since 2012, said she was forced to sign multiple documents in Arabic without any translation.

Two weeks ago (at the beginning of July) she was found guilty of “writing bad words on social media about a person” and told she would be deported.

Magi was deported this week from the UAE following intense media coverage. Her argument was that she didn’t know what she’d done wrong in her Facebook post (which you can see below). Her words were considered to be insulting by the complainant, who wasn’t mentioned in the post, and the court agreed with the complainant and, based on the country’s defamation laws (which I’ve written about here), found Magi guilty, fined her, and sentenced her to be deported.

This is the post which got Magi deported. Magi claimed that nobness referred to an Australian term for the elite, rather than the English insult (image source: Facebook)

This is the post which got Magi deported. Magi claimed that nobness referred to an Australian term for the elite, rather than the English insult (image source: Facebook)

While I’m not going to share my views on this (there’s plenty of comments both for and against the issue, but the law is the law), I will share views and thoughts from the rest of the Gulf where double parking is all too common and where the issue is being raised on social media. First up is Bahrain, where there is an Instagram account called Bahrainidiots. Bahrain’s residents are encouraged to share their images of cars which are double-parked for publication on the account’s Instagram feed – for some pictures have a look below.

View this post on Instagram

بالعرض… Thx jay for the picture

A post shared by You Park Like An Idiot – Bh (@bahrainidiots) on

Similarly, Saudi social media users often share such images, especially on Twitter using the handle #برج_الكلب. Some recent images are below.

The most interesting comments about the issue of defamation came from Doha. Speaking to the English-language news site Doha News, criminal attorney and Qatar’s former justice minister Dr. Najeeb Al Nuaimi said it was “highly unlikely” that an expat or Qatari would be arrested for posting a similar picture as Qatar and the UAE differ in their definitions of defamation. To quote:

“In the UAE, this (incident) is seen as ‘you’re showing someone in a bad light’ or that you’re questioning the duty of the police. They didn’t do their job well, and have let this happen, and now you’re posting it and offending them,” he said.

Here, however, the local government would regard sharing such a photo as a “a mark of public service,” he added, continuing:

“We have Qataris posting all over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (about) things that they don’t like, or wrong things that they see…Here, it’s seen as doing something good.”

One of the publications which wrote about the case, the Abu Dhabi-based English-language daily The National quoted senior Abu Dhabi prosecutor Mohammed Al Dhanhani who explained that Magi was guilty under the 2012 Federal Anti-Information Technology Crimes Law No 5.

“She captured the picture without the consent of the (car’s) owner. She then published the pictures on the web and added insulting phrases.”

Each of these three actions is subject to prosecution under the law, which punishes all violators with a fine and/or jail, and deportation for all expatriates without exceptions, he said.

In an irony not lost on this blogger, while Magi’s state of affairs was playing out The National started its own photo gallery on bad parking in the UAE and posted images on its own website. Based on Al Dhanhani’s own interpretation of the law, is The National also guilty of the same offense under which Magi was sanctioned by capturing pictures without the consent of the car’s owner and then publishing these on the web?

For any lawyers out there, am I right or wrong?

The Gulf’s Communications Sector and the Challenge for Authenticity

Is the communications industry in the Gulf authentic enough?

Is the communications industry in the Gulf authentic enough?

I am, sometimes, allowed to get out by my better half. And this month has been replete with communications events. Two in particular come to mind. The first was an anniversary for a well-known communications consultancy firm which was celebrating a milestone for its UAE-based operations. The second was for a social media network which was talking about the largest advertising period in the region, namely Ramadan.

Both events struck me, but probably for the reasons that the organizers hadn’t intended for. At the first event, for the consultancy anniversary, I’d have expected to have seen a couple of nationals. After all, a number of the company’s clients were government bodies and we were in the capital where the ratio of nationals is much higher than in Dubai. But, unfortunately, there was only one national. Instead, the audience was western, English-speaking and middle-aged.

The second event was just as perplexing. Despite Ramadan being a part of Islam (Ramadan is the Islamic month of fasting), I didn’t see a single Arab or Muslim talk about the event. At both events I was left asking myself, where are the personal insights, where’s the local understanding which I can either learn from or relate to?

In truth, these occasions are a microcosm of the communications and marketing industry in the Gulf region. We’re facing an issue with sustainability – there are far too few nationals and Arabic-language speakers in the industry, especially in high-level positions. To me this essentially means that, as we don’t accurately represent the audience we are trying to communicate with, that we’re not able to do our jobs properly.

I often get asked if I can suggest or recommend good talent, both by agencies and clients. Instead, let me offer a different suggestion. Let’s go straight to the source. Do you know how many young, talented nationals and children of expats who have grown up in the UAE are studying communications? We’re talking about at least 3,000 communications students between institutions such as Zayed University, Canadian University in Dubai, Abu Dhabi University, the American University of Sharjah, the American University of Dubai and Middlesex University. And then there’s the Saudis, the Bahrainis and others in the Gulf.

There’s enough talent out there, particularly Arabic-speaking youth, who want to get into the industry. However, we need to engage with them. The below are just a couple of ideas to get us all engaged on making the communications industry sustainable:

1) Get on campus! There are so many on-site events at universities and both agencies and companies need to step in, to both understand how much talent is out there as well as to educate students on what career opportunities are out there for them, especially for nationals who prefer a government job.

2) Mentor, mentor, mentor – the second option is to engage with students over a longer period. Mentoring allows students to learn from middle to senior-level professionals in the industry and for both to exchange their views. In a time where social media dominates, mentors can also learn a great deal from Arab youth on digital trends.

3) Bring in the interns – the longest-lasting and the most meaningful of the three engagements, an internship will allow students to get on-the-job experience with, hopefully, a view to joining the organization they’re interning with. An internship is the closest thing a student will get to a real-life job and will enable them to complement their in-class learnings with hands-on experience.

Organizations such as the Middle East Public Relations Association are promoting all of the above, in the hope that the industry becomes more representative of the communities in which we live. If we’re hoping to communicate as well as we can to all of the audiences that make up the Gulf, we have to take a different approach to hiring and promoting talent. Bringing in the expat with no local experience or understanding is no longer the right thing to do. We have to be authentic if we are going to be relevant. Are you up to the challenge?