Culture, Empathy and Changing Views – Why Communicators Must Be Aware Of How Global Trends Can Impact Local Populations

Have global movements such as Black Lives Matter shifted views on Israel and the Palestinians?

The past couple of weeks have been remarkable; we’ve seen many across the world voice their opinion on events in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. What’s been marked is how support for Palestinian rights is growing, especially in the United States. We’ve had voices in Congress stand up and argue that how Palestinian citizens are treated is akin to apartheid. That would have been unthinkable even a decade back.

What’s indisputable is that civil debate and activism around race in the US and Europe, from causes such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) to colonial historical legacies, is pushing many people to rethink how they view conflicts in the Middle East. There’s been lots of good writing on this recently, such as this piece in the Washington Post on BLM and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What’s also been fascinating to see is how local populations in the Gulf, most especially in the UAE and Saudi, have spoken with anger and emotion about what Israel has done, both in Gaza and in Jerusalem. Only last year, the UAE and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords with Israel, formally establishing ties between the three countries (they were followed by Sudan and Morocco).

At the time there was an outpouring of support in the UAE among nationals for the agreement, and little in the way of pushback (there was noticeable pushback in Bahrain). It’s rare for nationals to actively voice their own views online, if those views go against governmental policy. To quote a recent piece by the Associated Press, “No matter what your national priorities are at the moment or regional priorities are at the moment, when stuff like this happens, the Palestinian issue comes back and hits you,” Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla told the AP’s Aya Batrawy.

So, what can these two points teach us? Firstly, global events have never been more interrelated, thanks to the raw filter of social media. And second, raw emotions can still overcome national considerations, especially when it’s a religious issue.

As communicators, we’ve got to be able to understand the implications of these issues for our audiences. We keep talking about reading the room, and being the link between the outside and the inside. Which is true. But how many brands are proactive on these social issues, rather than reactive?

On that note, I did wonder about the timing of an award by the local public relations association last week. They gave out two fellowships, recognising people for their service to the industry. One is the head of communications for the UAE’s foreign ministry, who’s greatest success to date has been communicating the Abraham Accords.

While this person is a fine communicator, couldn’t the association have delayed giving this award? Would it have been more sensitive to do this, in light of people’s feelings about the conflict?

As always, am happy to hear your views. Let me know via the comments or on social media.

Comms Conversations – A Twitter Space to Talk About Big Issues in MENA

I’m excited about being able to take the discussion online through audio

It’s about time we talked openly about big issues for communicators in the Middle East, and what better way to do this than having a conversation in a chat room?

That’s the idea for Comms Conversations, which I’m going to start hosting on Twitter Spaces (I’d have loved to have done on Clubhouse but it’s not usable in the UAE or Oman).

Every couple of weeks, we’ll host a new discussion on Twitter Spaces. For up to an hour, we’ll share views and experiences on big issues we all face.

The first Comms Conversation will happen on Wednesday the 26th May at 11.30am Dubai time. We will be joined by the editor-in-chief of PRovoke Media, Arun Sudhaman.

Join us then, and follow @alex_malouf on Twitter as we speak openly about comms in the region – the good, the bad and everything in between!

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?