Why Acknowledging Other’s Views Makes for Powerful Engagement

More leaders need to listen to and understand the views of others before speaking

I’ve been reading a fair amount of media of late. In one interview, the executive spoke about how she’d simply walked into an organisation’s reception and asked for a job. In another, the author spoke about how her country is leading the way in gender equality. And in the third piece, an opinion editorial, the author spoke about how much more hope there is now than twelve months back.

All of these views reflect their authors’ experiences and beliefs. What struck me as a reader was how their perspectives were different from my own. For example, I’d never be in a position to walk into any office and say I want to work here, at least not in the region I’m in (it very much felt like a statement made from a perspective of privilege). And for billions of people living in countries which have yet to receive any vaccines, the future is far from hopeful.

The point I’m very much trying to make here is that we all see and understand communications from our own experiences and beliefs. And executives who want to make a specific point need to think about what they’re trying to say through the lens of others.

By acknowledging differences in your argument and talking points, you strengthen your ability to persuade and convince others. Empathy is a powerful means to build partnerships and advocates, and the best way to do this is to listen to and understand what others are saying, especially those who are different than you (that’s why diversity and inclusion are fundamental to effective communications, and why all communication teams should be diverse).

Dr Kevin Ruck, Howard Krais and Mike Pounsford have done extensive research into listening and communications. Have a listen yourself into what they’re saying here. And let’s do more to acknowledge the other(s) in proper dialogues.

#MeToo and the Middle East’s media sector – what changed?

We’re a couple of days out from International Women’s Day, the time of year when we all look to gender equality. But I want to get the conversation started now, and on a different issue. A couple of events have gotten me thinking about the issue how women are treated in the media and marketing sectors in our region.

The first was a very brave article by former journalist Reem Abdellatif. Reem is no longer based in the Gulf (and I’ll get to why this is important in a minute) and she penned an op-ed on sexual harassment and assault for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper (if you’re not subscribed to Haaretz, you should be – often the reporting on the Gulf is better than what you’ll see from newspapers in the Gulf).

Reem’s piece is both general and personal, and Reem details her own stories of abuse. Chillingly, she describes one experience of an uninvited sexual proposition by a journalist in Dubai. It’s a story I feel many women here will be able to relate to. I’m sharing a specific piece from that story below.

Some of you may have noticed that I referred to Reem as having been based in the Gulf. She wouldn’t have been able to publish this account if she were still based here. And no media outlet would carry it, even if she weren’t based here. This is due to the region’s defamation laws, which are criminal offenses. And that brings me to my second reminder. Which I can’t even talk about, despite the seriousness of the sexual harassment allegations being made and the fact that everyone would know the organization.

And that for me is the core of the issue. In the Gulf, we can’t talk about sexual harassment, except in broad brushstrokes which have less meaning. The perpetrators get off, scot free, with little impact on their careers or their reputations. While the victims have to live with the abuse for the remainder of their lives.

If the media and marketing industry is serious about tackling gender equality, they’ve got to start with this. And that doesn’t mean making a statement about the issue of gender equality in the company, talking about the need for purpose in communications or bringing in a female head for a couple of years. Rather, it means rooting out the issue of abuse and harassment. What we have to do must include:

  • Trainings on sexual harassment and gender bias at the workplace, for all staff (most especially management);
  • Proper investigations into sexual harassment allegations, including with the authorities – these are criminal offenses, and should be treated as such, and
  • Anyone found guilty of sexual harassment should be blacklisted from agency groups, and future employers should specifically ask about this question when asking for references.

These are the basic steps the industry must take to address the issue. For all the talk about equality and opportunity, if women don’t feel safe in our industry then we’re not going to make any progress on these other issues. Who’s with me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is creativity worth to the Gulf?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communicators can be today’s heroes

Communicators are essential in a crisis. They’re responsible for the safety and well-being of others (image source: Flickr/Pily Clix)

I’m going to start with an admission. I was asked to write a post highlighting all of the good that communicators are doing right now. I’ve thought about the ask, and I’m going to look at the good we can be doing, as well underline the challenges we face (and the potential harm we can cause). But let’s start with the positive.

Times of Crisis

Communicators are crisis people. We don’t yearn for a crisis (I hope not), but our worth is even clearer during times of stress. Let’s take what’s happening right now. Much of what we are doing is focused on health-related areas, such as developing and sharing messaging on health and safety. We’re literally telling people how to keep themselves and others safe. Smart communicators (and organizations) also understand the need to help others with their mental well-being.

That’s the obvious part of what’s going on right now. But let’s look longer-term. At our best, communicators help engender trust between groups. We can and should promote transparency and engagement, which leads to more trust and conversation. So when the hard times do hit, people have faith in their leadership, and they have the courage to ask hard questions without fear of retribution.

A third simple point for me is that we’re able to see a situation differently. We listen, we empathize, and we share perspectives which others may miss. We’re able to help our leaders better see what is happening, and that should help in terms of their own situational understanding and decision-making.

It’s no surprise to me that the best leaders are brilliant communicators. They listen, they inspire, they are open to feedback (good and bad), and they engage. We can make our organizations better, safer, and more inclusive.

So, that’s where we come out good. It’s not all plain-sailing. First of all, it’s a hard job. Many people I know are working 12 hours plus daily right now, pretty much six days a week. And that’s going to take its toll without any emotional support.

And then there’s our role as the bearers of bad news, and there’s been lots of bad news recently. Far too often, we fall back on silly soundbites to relay information that impacts hundreds, thousands of people (here’s an interesting read in Gulf News by George Kotsolios on how we are not communicating layoffs well). And sometimes it is hard to challenge our leadership, and make them do the right thing or understand a situation differently. At our worst, we can become spin-doctors, pushing out a false message that we may know is wrong or virtue-signalling. And that’s why ethics matters now, more than ever.

I truly believe in the power of communications. And I believe that many of the people I’m proud to call colleagues chose to become communicators because they want to make where they work a better place. We have the ability to inform. And information is empowering (right now, it’s keeping people safe). But we mustn’t lose our morality in what we are doing. We’ve got to ask how we can best help in any given situation, and how we can make the difference.

Our work isn’t easy at all, far from it. Everyone thinks they’re a good communicator. But it’s both a science and an art. The best communicators will transform organizations, cultures and relationships for the better. We can and should be seen as heroes for the work we do and the change that we can bring about.

To do that, we need the best people entering the industry (I’ll admit, for a profession that’s all about reputation building, we do a lousy job of explaining what we do and why we do it). And we’ve got to push for higher standards through certification.

What do you think? Do you have any stories of communicator heroes? If yes, please do share them. We need to tell our own stories better.

And finally, bravo to all of you incredible comms people out there who are working tirelessly to keep people safe, informed and aware. I know how hard this is, and I understand the stresses you are under. You have my respect and my gratitude. You are my heroes.

The Gulf’s PR industry has a diversity problem – here’s how to fix it

Only 22 of the 58 people on PR Week’s 2020 Middle East Power List are ethnically from the region. We’ve got to get more Arab talent into the industry if we’re going to reflect the audiences we engage with

It’s rant time, so apologies. But given what’s happening around the world following the death of George Floyd, someone has to pierce the bubble that envelops the region’s PR industry. I’ve said it before numerous times (here’s another post back from 2017), and I’ll say it again – we have a diversity issue in the industry here in the Gulf. Specifically, we don’t have enough Arabic talent, especially at the top levels of the industry.

If you don’t believe me, look at the latest rankings of the PR Week’s 2020 Power Book for the Middle East. Of the 58 people listed, 22 are from the Middle East. Considering that we’re supposed to be mirroring the people we are engaging with, speaking their language, and understanding their culture and customs, we have to do a much better job of making the industry as open and as inclusive as possible to Middle East nationals (sadly, this isn’t unique to PR – advertising has exactly the same issue).

The diversity issue isn’t just relevant to the private sector. In the Gulf, there are far too few expats working for government, despite the sizable communities from regions such as the Asian sub-continent. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the crisis response plans we’ve seen this year would have been much stronger if the comms teams leading them would have been multi-cultural – they’d have taken into account different cultures, languages, and lifestyles (in places like Singapore coronavirus has spread faster in labor camps, a fact that was initially missed by governments).

So, what role can we play to change? I’m going to repeat what I’ve said before, as I feel that this is the best way to make the industry better reflect the region that we are in.

Develop Arabic Talent

First of all, we’ve got to foster stronger connections with universities across the
region, and better educate Arab youth on the opportunities that a career in public relations and communications will provide. And we have to do this as an industry.

Support Arabic Leadership

Part of the lack of appreciation for the Arabic language is that there aren’t enough Arab nationals in leadership roles, both on the agency side and with clients. In particular, global agencies must prioritize fast-tracking Arab talent into leadership roles.

Arabic First

Most of the Arabic content put out by communicators is actually translated from English. We’ve got to turn this around, and start prioritizing Arabic content production, both in the written word, with audio and video. Arabic is such a rich, descriptive language, and so much is lost when content is merely translated.

Your Team Should Represent Your Audience

If you are a government comms team, you’re communicating to the public. And if your public is diverse, then your team should represent that diversity. What’s the value in a monocultural communications team that only represents ten percent of the public? Likewise, the private sector in the Gulf needs to attract more nationals (there were only four Gulf nationals on the PR Week list).

This isn’t a problem we are going to solve overnight. But the industry has to find common solutions for the diversity and inclusion issues here in the Gulf. Given what we are going through right now, it doesn’t take a genius to see that government-mandated localization will increase in the private sector. We’ve got to change of our own free will for the better, before it is forced upon us in a way that will harm the quality of our work. It’s your choice. Now what are you going to do about it?

Digital Media Relations this Ramadan – Ideas to Engage

This Ramadan’s media events will look a lot like this. What are you doing to adapt?

It’s the first couple of days of Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for Muslims. It’s a key time too for media relations, with a host of traditions that PR people and journalists follow when it comes to relationship building (to see what I’m talking about, have a look here).

This year is sadly different, given the lockdowns in place across much of the region. But work will continue, and we’ll have to adapt. Here’s a couple of ways you can turn the physical divide into an opportunity to do more online with journalists.

The Ramadan Gift

It’s traditional to share Ramadan gifts with journalists. This would traditionally be something food-related such as dates or chocolate, given that we are fasting all day. The good news is that e-commerce is still functioning, albeit with delivery delays. There is still a challenge however, in that many journalists are working from home rather than work. If you’re thinking of sending over a gift, drop the journalist an email asking for their address details for the purpose of sending a Ramadan gift. They’ll appreciate the gesture.

The Charity Donation

Given the situation facing many across the world right now, it may be a good idea to donate to charity on behalf of the journalists you work with. Ramadan is a time for supporting those in need, and many charities in the Middle East region (or anywhere right now) will allow you to give to charity on behalf of someone else. I’ve done this many times, and it’s always appreciated by the journalists I work with. Do let them know you’re doing this, and ask them if they have a specific charity or cause they’d like to be supported. Given that it’s easier than every to give online, this is a simple but effective way to build relations with journalists whilst also doing good.

The Media Iftar

It’s standard practice to invite a number of media to an Iftar, the meal which breaks the daily fast. This won’t be possible this year due to restaurant closures. Even if restaurants are open, many people may not feel comfortable gathering outside of their homes with non-family members. This is probably the hardest concept to replicate – connecting via teleconference just won’t cut it (I can only imagine the aggravation of having to shout at a screen “turn on the mic” five minutes before the breaking of the fast).

There are other ideas which may work – one could be to arrange food deliveries to the journalists in question (ensuring food deliveries turn up on time during a normal Ramadan is hard enough, and I can’t imagine how difficult it will be with the additional demand this year). Another idea may be for those die-hard enough to value media relations above all else, and that is to hand-deliver food to your journalist contacts. It sounds strange, but it will be appreciated, and it may even be an opportunity for those journalists you’re treating to share a couple of pics of their Iftar.

Zooming for Islam (or using digital content)

The final idea is pretty simple – it’s using digital channels to connect with your journalist contacts. Teleconferencing is awkward in this region at the best of times, and I can’t imagine how this is going to work for a social event (and I doubt anyone around here is using Houseparty). One alternative may be to keep the social interactions simpler, and instead use more digital content to share with your media contacts. What I do mean? It could be as simple as Ramadan and Eid greeting cards shared over WhatsApp or email, to filming yourself and your team sharing personalized Ramadan greetings and sharing these over messaging apps. You can get creative when it comes to the content you’re making, but just be careful of the channels you’re using; email is more formal, and best for when you don’t know the journalist too well, whereas WhatsApp should be used if you already have a good relationship with the journalist (it’s a pet peeve of many journalists here for them to be WhatsApped by PR people they don’t know, or don’t want to know, well).

These are just a couple of simple ideas for you. If you have any, please do share. And before I end, Ramadan Kareem to you all. It’s a very difficult time for many people, so let’s be mindful of how we can help.

Are Communicators Missing Brand Purpose?

Our stakeholders want us to help on big societal issues. Communicators should be taking the lead on brand purpose (image source: Lokus Design)

Sometimes, well most of the time, we should listen more. Listen without bias, and just sit there and take in what others are saying. This is especially true at conferences, where there’s lots being said but few people listening. I’m can be guilty of not taking my own advice, and this equally applies to me.

Let me explain. The good people of PRovoke (formerly the Holmes Report) held their annual PRovoke MENA event last week. And they asked me to be part of a panel on brand purpose. The idea of brand purpose matters personally to me; I’ve worked for a number of not-for-profits, and I’ve seen how much it matters to a cause when a business steps in to help. And then there’s the bigger picture; given what’s happening in the world around us, the public are demanding that businesses do more on societal issues.

To me, brand purpose isn’t a buzzword. It’s a realization that there’s more to the business world than profit. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing and expect everything to be well if we’re not tackling environmental issues, inequality, poverty or any of the Sustainable Development Goals.

I know that brand purpose isn’t still widely understood or put into practice here, but even I was shocked by what I saw. When we kicked off the panel, I asked the audience of 150 communicators if brands here were doing enough to tackle big societal issues. Only one hand went up. This single vote was even worse in the context of the day’s agenda. The first panel was packed with the country’s biggest brands, talking about how their presence had grown globally. The panel prior to the brand discussion was all about the region’s youth and what they wanted to see in business.

“We want to see brands making more of an impact but we can’t expect a global brand to be 100% ethical overnight,” said Middlesex University student Cham Alatrach who was part of the youth panel. “Small strides do matter. That way you can see the process and what goes behind it. The youth want to see a change, and that doesn’t happen overnight.”

An Issue that Communicator Should Own

As far as I’m concerned, brand purpose should be our cause. Many communicators also include corporate social responsibility in their role, and it’s easy to see why. We engage with stakeholders, we listen to their issues as part of a wider dialogue, and we look to see how we can support their needs. Brand purpose is a natural extension of CSR in many ways. It also matters to employees (it’s the basis of employer branding), and so should be seen as part of internal communications.

My concern is that we’ll miss the boat when it comes to brand purpose, like we did during the introduction of social media. This was an idea based on engagement and dialogue, and yet everyone jumped in, from creatives to media buyers, marketers and even customer support.

How Agencies Can Add Value

I’ve had the good fortune to work with a company that was a pioneer in cause marketing. P&G has been brilliant in creating brands that serve a greater good. For an example of this, look at Pampers-UNICEF and the work this partnership has undertaken to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus.

One aspect of my job with P&G which I’ve enjoyed more than anything else has been the opportunity to create new cause ideas. And this is where agencies can add real value, by understanding what’s happening outside the client’s offices/world, looking at the potential to partner with a charity, and make a real impact on a big issue.

I’d pay an agency good money to give me ideas that would contribute to my brand’s purpose. For me, that’s valuable and strategic. And yet, who was coming up with new concepts? It was the creatives. We’ve got to change this.

It’s About Our Reputation Too

One final thought for all of us. The public relations industry has been maligned for years; we’ve been described as spin doctors, as unethical. For me, I’ve always believed that good communications benefits everyone. And brand purpose goes beyond saying, and focuses on the doing, which is at the core of reputation building. Our actions must speak louder than our words, and nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to leave the office and head home knowing that me and my company have supported a big issue, and contributed to positive change.

I want us all to lead on brand purpose. If you’re struggling with this issue (one of the big challenges is how to win over management), please do reach out to me, and I’ll do my best to help.