What’s the Middle East’s biggest communications issue? It’s the Arabic language

Arabic is a beautiful, rich language. And yet the communications industry is struggling to attract good Arabic language writers. How can we correct this? (image source: Arab America)

I feel like I’m writing something Kafka-esque. In in the Middle East, a geography of 200 million souls who read and write essentially the same language (I’m going to side-step the awkward question of how Arabic is spoken), and I’m working in communications. And yet, the industry is dominated by non-Arabic language speakers, at least in cities such as Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai.

This isn’t just anecdotal. Overall, just 32% of respondents to PRCA MENA’s inaugural Middle East PR and Communications Census 2019 were nationals of countries in the region. Overall, a fifth of the region’s PR professionals are British, 18% come from India, and the range of other nationalities represented are indicative of the Middle East PR corps having a richly-varied culture mix.

Diversity matters, of course. But I don’t think we even have that when it comes to engagement, given that so much of the content being produced is in English (the most widely spoken language in the UAE isn’t even English, it’s Hindi).

There’s been a concerted push by governments to promote the Arabic language. Friday the 18th of December is the UN Arabic language day. And Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched Madrasa, an online initiative with over a thousand videos to help promote learning of the Arabic language.

The communications industry has to play its part too. There’s obvious benefits to improving our ability to communicate in and create Arabic language content. We’ll be reaching a much wider audience in their language. In addition, understanding a language is one step to understanding a culture and its traditions. And by strengthening our Arabic language capabilities, we’ll be able to put Arabic first and create content that’s not translated (any Arabic language native speaker can spot translated content a mile off).

This isn’t going to be a short-term fix. Many of the Arabic-language experts working on the agency side are from countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Given politics in their own countries, it’s much harder to come across visas for them. We’ve got to do more with the Arab nationals who are already in the Gulf region.

So, what role can we play to change?

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. It’s something I hope that the PRCA will continue to work on.

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. Global agencies especially 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.

There’s no better place to start than with myself, and I’m going to commit to writing more myself in Arabic. If you have any suggestions on this subject, please do share them.

What's the biggest challenge for communicators in 2020? Online disinformation & public activism

It’s been seven days since all the optimism, the hangovers, and the excessive fireworks (at least in the Gulf). So, given our bubbles of hope were burst and then shot down in flames on the morning of the second day of this year, what should we be looking forward to over the coming 12 months?

There’s been some brilliant prediction blogs, including this one from Stephen Waddington which is as comprehensive as it gets. But I wanted to focus in on two big issues that we are going to have to deal with, both in the Middle East and globally.

Fake News Campaigns will proliferate

Fake news isn’t new – it’s been around since humans have been able to talk, write and read. What’s so special about now is that, thanks to the internet and our own inability to question what we see being shared by friends and family, it’s easier than ever to create fake news. There’s even a new breed of firms, “Black PR” agencies, who are willing to set up fake sites that look like news portals, create fake news stories, and then spread them online on social media via bots.

Given the state of politics around the world, with nationalism and xenophobia just two of a dozen negative trends that are driving agendas, it’s no surprise that news is being manipulated by politicians, to both boost their own profiles and smear opponents. Buzzfeed has put out a smart news piece on disinformation for hire.

My concern is what will happen when fake news and the people behind these campaigns begin to target companies. We’ve already seen some of this in the Gulf, given the region’s politics. There have been targeted campaigns against national brands, including airliners, banks and pharmaceutical companies. I feel this is only the start, and we’re going to see more fake news campaigns which are designed to blackmail. How many firms will pay up rather than face a barrage of negativity which, although fake, may convince others to stay away from the brand?

Will your social media people are able to respond quickly, spot the fakes, and mobilize your followers? Do you know what’s going on when it comes to fake content, how to spot it, and who is behind it? What surprises me is how few practitioners in my part of the world are actively researching this phenomenon. I’m seeing more work being done by academics like Marc Owen Jones around issues such as bots, trolls, and fake news campaigns. If you’re a public relations professional, please do your homework and start educating yourself about these issues before they impact you.

Public Activism will be everywhere

The second big theme for 2020 will be public activism. There’s been a strong trend towards employee activism over the past couple of years, especially in the US and with sectors such as tech (just look at Google). As people give up on their politicians doing the right thing, they’re going to increasingly call out corporations.

This trend for public activism is going to happen globally. I’m increasingly seeing this in India, given what’s happening there with the new Citizenship Amendment Act. And we’ll also see this around issues such as the environment (just look at Australia).

This rise of citizen activism is going to especially strain organizations that stay on the sidelines or organizations whose ownership is in the hands of an individual with strong views.

What employers need to do is 1) be much better at listening to sentiment, and 2) empathizing with views that are distinct from those held by management. There are far too many tone-deaf leaders out there, and they’re going to drag their company’s brands down with them unless they change how they engage with stakeholders.

Given these two trends, my one hope is that we start to prioritize listening as a key communications skill. It may not sound as sexy as content creation, or artificial intelligence, but the good old-fashioned practice of listening may just save your organization/client from the biggest reputational crises in 2020.

Rebranding for ‘soft power’ – examples from the Gulf

Aramco is looking to spend millions on promoting itself (image source: Twosmokingbarrels)

Now is a good time to be in the branding business, at least here in the Gulf. A slew of governments and government-owned assets are launching brand campaigns. At the beginning of the month, the UAE government announced that it’d be launching a national competition to create the first brand entity for the UAE – seven Emirati artists from each of the country’s seven emirates would work to design a logo and slogan to market the country in campaigns abroad. According to The National newspaper, “Once unveiled [the new brand] will be used widely by government departments and in marketing and adverts.”

The aim of the UAE brand is to reflect a truly Emirati character abroad, which will be based on four values. These valies are ‘giving’, ‘tolerance and openness’, ‘credibility’ and the ‘leadership values’ of the country’s founding fathers.

The second brand launch of note was by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, better known as ADNOC. The UAE’s largest oil firm launched its first ever national branding campaign last week, under the tagline ‘energy for life’. The 95-second video commercial which fronts the campaign was shot by Emirati director Ali Mostafa and shows the young Emiratis in areas such as aviation, science, exploration, space, the arts and sports. The new video is below (it’s subtitled in English), and will be shown across the UAE soon in cinemas and on social media.

The third example is from Saudi, Saudi Aramco in particular. The world’s largest oil and gas company, which launched its IPO this month, will, according to the Daily Telegraph, “splash out nearly £200m on a global marketing blitz next year, as the richest company in the world steps out from the shadows and tries to elevate its public profile. The oil behemoth’s huge advertising push will follow its long-awaited flotation next month when it starts trading publicly on the Saudi stock exchange.”

What’s fascinating about these three examples, and others, is how these brand campaigns are being used to build and project soft power. Look for example at the ADNOC video, which features art, humanitarian aid and sports; this isn’t your regular branding campaign for an oil and gas company. Likewise, with the UAE’s national rebranding campaign the focus is on Emirati values – it’ll be fascinating to see how this unusual approach to nation branding resonates with people outside of the region, especially as emirates such as Dubai and most recently Ras Al-Khaimah have built themselves up as tourism destinations in their own right.

Saudi Aramco’s marketing blitz is the most interesting of all. The company is listing in Saudi Arabia, and it hasn’t announced plans to list outside of the Kingdom. According to Reuters, “the Saudi government will face a one-year restriction on selling more Aramco shares following the domestic listing, according to the sources, meaning any overseas IPO is unlikely to be held in 2020.”

The concept of soft power was the American academic Joseph Nye, who served as a senior official in both the state and defence departments. He believed that various concepts such as culture and communications could direct the decisions/behaviour of others without the need for military force. Soft power influences others using intangible concepts like culture, ideology and institutional norms. And it’s a concept that’s usually talked about, and wielded by, governments. Companies don’t talk about soft power (though they do care about reputations).

And that’s not all. Given that both ADNOC and Saudi Aramco are primarily B2B, it seems these exercises are means to create brands that are based on and aligned with a governmental approach to building soft power. But given they are brands whose businesses are based on oil and gas, will this approach to reputation building work with a Western public who are openly agitating for a greener, more sustainable future?

As always, thanks for reading. And let me know your thoughts.

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