Sheikh Mohammed’s ‘Move Ahead Agenda’ and MENA’s need for more CCOs

At the end of August Dubai’s Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum published an open letter to officials. The message, nicknamed his ‘Move Ahead’ agenda by the media, focused on a number of issues, including the need to engage face-to-face with people they are serving, the responsibility to act properly on social media, and the importance of resolving consumer issues head on (you can read a full translation here from The National newspaper; I hope future letters will be translated to English by the government, given the number of non-Arabic speakers in the country).

The underlying thread throughout the agenda was the need to clearly and proactively communicate, to promote dialogue, and to talk through challenging issues, particularly around poor service.

Sheikh Mohammed has long pushed for his country’s government to be one of the best in the world. This month he launched another initiative, to rate the best and worst performing government offices nationwide. The tweet below announced the results of the first round of evaluations, with a listing of the five best and five worst performers.

These efforts will go a long way to improve the quality of services offered to residents in the UAE. But it also got me thinking about the nature of communications in the region. Unlike in Europe or the US, communications in the MENA region is primarily tactical; its aim is to inform, top-down, or externally. There’s less in the way of strategic communications, which is used to promote stakeholder dialogues, develop reputations and set expectations, or plan and co-create with stakeholders to deliver a better product or service.

Over the past couple of years, the UAE has created new governmental roles; today, each ministry has a chief innovation officer, and a chief happiness officer. There isn’t a mandated chief communications officer role, however, which would report directly to a minister, or into the Prime Minister’s Office. My own feeling and experience is that there are not enough government communicators who are aware of new communications models or who have the strategic mindset needed to fulfill Sheikh Mohammed’s ‘New Agenda’. Rather than leading from the front and communicators setting what needs to be done to improve communications, it seems that the communications approach is dictated by the leadership of specific ministries.

Is it time the UAE government mandated that ministries appoint CCOs, invest in their communications abilities and empower those capable enough of transforming government communications? What ideas do you have to improve government communications across the region? Could this be the start of a transformation as to how governments in MENA communicate with their own people, as well as with stakeholders abroad? As always, I’d love to hear your ideas on what role the industry can play in this.

Hong Kong, Social Media and PR’s Values – A Chat with Arun

I’ve been closely following what’s been happening in Hong Kong. What interests me is how all sides are communicating, how they’re using social media, and also where the industry stands on a big issue such as democracy and transparency.

I reached out to Arun Sudhaman, the CEO of the Holmes Report. Arun is both based in Hong Kong and is one of the leading journalists for the public relations industry worldwide. Here’s our talk on what’s happening in Hong Kong, the impact of social media today, how communicators are struggling with their values and what’s being asked of them, and why purpose is such a hard issue to get right.

Enjoy the conversation, follow Arun’s work on the Holmes Report, and share your thoughts!

Is it time for a debate about how the PR sector deals with Ethics?

Why isn’t the PR industry able to get a grip on and deal with ethical breaches? (image source: Greenbiz)

Don’t fall asleep. Please don’t. What I’m going to say matters to our industry and profession. Over the past week there have been a number of big reads about ethical issues. First there was Fleishman and accusations of astroturfing about a project in Manchester. Then there were the revelations about how Monsanto and FTI Consulting sought to discredit journalists and activists who spoke up about Roundup weedkiller. And there was an interesting read from Stephen Waddington on Dominic Cummings, the communications tactics used during the Brexit campaign and why our political campaigning laws are not fit for a world where online advertising now dominates.

What is good is the increasing focus on ethical issues in the industry. We need to talk more about ethics, and realize the importance of this issue. What’s leaves much to be desired is how we are dealing with these issues as an industry. Our associations follow an approach of only investigating an issue once a complaint is made, leading to far too much reaction and not enough pro-active engagement (while I’d like to give the PRCA credit for agreeing to investigate Fleishman, it’s strange how this has occurred – Fleishman has asked the PRCA to investigate its own alleged breach of ethics. Fleishman’s Jim Donaldson is also chair of the PRCA Board of Management).

In some cases, associations aren’t even willing to investigate ethical issues. Case in point is my own experience with MEPRA last year, when I privately and then public asked about how new board members were being added, in a process that was in breach of the bylaws. What was the response, which was supported by many of the board? To paraphrase, “We failed on corporate governance, but you can now go jump…”

Many of us feel that censuring Bell Pottinger was the right thing to do after what they did in South Africa. And yet, the complaint against BP wasn’t raised by a public relations practitioner, but rather a political party and a journalist. Anyone who works in public relations will know a story or two about ethical breaches (always about someone else, of course). And yet, we’re not willing to speak up. Is it because we don’t want to speak ill of the industry, or that we don’t want to be seen as a trouble-maker (only own experience with MEPRA would suggest the latter).

Whatever our reasons for not talking, ethical issues are going to compound, given the increasing ease by which anyone can manipulate digital media. We’ve got to ask ourselves if there’s a better way not just to deal with ethical breaches, but also to educate members about ethics in general. This is a reputational issue that impacts us all, and we’ve got to start talking about an approach to ethics that is fit for today. What say you?

Netflix, the Jinn controversy, cultural mistakes and how to win over a tough audience

Jinn was the first Netflix production in Jordan. The backlash against Jinn could have been foreseen and proactively tackled, if Netflix executives had better understood the Jordanian public and not made basic errors with filming ad the script

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

Huawei, Boeing and McKinsey – When Internal Cultures Cause Reputational Crises

How much are reputational crises related to internal cultures, and an ability (or inability) to take into account a variety of diverse viewpoints?

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”.

“The [Ethiopian] crash shows that 737 MAX 8 is a manufacturing fail from the beginning,” Vini Wulandari, sister of one of the ill-fated Indonesian airline Lion Air flight’s co-pilots, told the South China Morning Post. “When I first heard about [the Ethiopian crash] I was sad because I am familiar with the sadness that the victims’ families must feel and I was also sad because the 737 MAX 8 should have been grounded after the Lion Air crash. Maybe because it was only one accident, so a lot of people thought there was no need for immediate [action].”

Was Boeing’s internal culture to blame, in particular Boeing’s urgent desire to come up with a new airplane that would compete head on with rival Airbus’ new models? It’s hard not to be convinced that Boeing rushed the 737 MAX’s design after reading a bombshell report in the New York Times.

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.


Why Communicators must stop Virtue Signalling

We’ve got to be honest about the challenges we face and how we deal with them

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.

Corporate governance should matter to all of us when it comes to reputation building

I’m sharing this article, which first ran in Communicate Middle East a couple of days back. I care deeply about the industry and about MEPRA, to which I gave five years of board service. My message is simple – we can and must do better when it comes to corporate governance. And MEPRA must lead by example.

“It’s no secret that I care about the communications industry in the region. I’ve done more than my fair share when it comes to supporting people and organizations in becoming more aware of what good communications is all about, and why it’s central to building strong reputations. I’ve also spent years advocating for the adoption of best practices, including good corporate governance, through both my day job and my board positions for several communications associations including the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA), Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and Advertisers Business Group (ABG).

Good corporate governance builds reputation; weak corporate governance undermines trust. I’m not simply talking about following regulations and laws, but also the need to be transparent as well as feel that an organization’s leadership is doing the right thing, listening to concerns and acting with integrity. As a member of the communications industry who is interested in how my profession is perceived, I care about reputations and the need to do the right thing.

One of the organizations I’ve supported, both as a member and through a board position, is the MEPRA. As a member, I’ve always maintained that we must adhere to the strongest standards of corporate governance. It’s integral to our mission of empowering communicators in becoming strategic advisors, particularly to organizational leadership.

Given that, I’m confused as to how at least three members have been added to the organization’s Strategy Board in the months following the Annual General Meeting on February 5. There was no member’s vote on their nomination and no communication sent to members besides the update on the website. And I’m struggling to reconcile this with what’s stated in the MEPRA Charter. I’ll quote from the Charter:

  • The Boards shall be elected from MEPRA’s members.
  • The election will take place at the Annual General Meeting to be held each year or at an Extraordinary General Meeting if required and agreed by a majority of the Executive Board.
  • The Executive Board shall be responsible for establishing the nomination and election process each year, provided always that: nominations for each office of the Boards will be invited from the members of the association when giving notice of the Annual General Meeting. The Executive Board must receive all nominations in writing in reasonable time before the date of the Annual General Meeting. Every nomination shall be supported by at least two voting members of the Association. The Executive Board will circulate the list of nominations to members not less than two weeks prior to the Annual General Meeting.
  • Election will be by a simple majority of the members eligible to vote.
  • Voting will be by secret ballot.
  • All MEPRA members are eligible to vote in the election of the Strategy Board. Only members of the Strategy Board are eligible to vote in the election of the Executive Board. Only members of the Executive Board are eligible to vote in the election of Chair and Vice Chair. No member may vote for him or herself.
  • If for any reason a member of the Boards is unable to serve for a full two years the vacancy will be advised to the members and the Executive Board may fill the vacancy from any candidates that express an interest in filling the vacancy and which have the competencies required in order to fill the relevant role. The decision of the Executive Board in relation to filling vacancies shall be final.

This article won’t win me many plaudits, and I expect that I’ll be criticized for openly airing this. However, we must be able to have the courage to speak honestly, even to those in power. Speaking truth to power means that we believe deeply in what we say, that we care, and that we understand the risks of not doing so. Doing what’s right, rather than what is politically convenient, is incumbent on all of us.

It would be easier for me – or any of us – not to say anything. I was asked by a board member, “Why do you care?” I care because I am part of this region and this industry. Reputations matter, especially for a body that represents what we do. I believe in the region’s talent, and our ability to break down misperceptions about the Middle East when it comes to corporate governance.

I also realize that if we are not transparent, if we don’t engage proactively, and if we don’t follow our own rules, we will not have the trust that we need to raise the profession from one that simply executes to one that advises and guides a company and its board to do the right thing.

If you don’t believe me, that’s fine. I may be taking all of this too seriously. However, go and ask any Abraaj shareholder about the implications of weak corporate governance. If you still don’t understand the need to build strong corporate governance and its role in reputation building, then maybe communications isn’t the right role for you.