It’s the media’s job to ask hard questions. And we should listen.

For anyone who has any sense of perspective and basic awareness about what we’ve lived through over the preceding 10 months, it was pretty clear what would happen to Covid cases over the holiday period. Increased social activity, inbound tourism and generally more latitude to enable both led to an increase in positive cases. It was entirely predictable.

And yet, I’m genuinely confused. There have been very few voices criticising social media “influencers” for their behaviour while on their “essential business” trips to the country. For me, there hasn’t been enough focus on the messaging that we are “all in it together” and should, as a result, take the necessary precautions to safeguard one another. And there’s been precious little commentary on lessons learned.

Instead, as the numbers continued to climb, we all looked towards the media and their “irresponsible wording”.

I’m just as critical as anyone of the media; that’s the legacy of my journalistic past – to criticise what others write far too freely. However, it’s folly to lay the blame at the feet of the witness.

I’ve read so many hot takes this week about what has been reported on Dubai and the UAE by the international media: the foreign journalists don’t know us (despite many of them having lived for years here and writing some of the best reporting on the country); we’re doing better than others (I’m sorry, but we’re not New Zealand or South Korea), and “we know best”, which is the new “if you don’t like it, you can leave” argument.

Can anyone say, with any sense of self-respect, that the foreign media is to blame for what’s going on? If they’re not, why do we then attack them for what they write about what has happened over the end-of-year period? Which is, in effect, what all of us saw, either face-to-face or on our social media timelines? And, for those accusing them of this, where were you a month ago when all of this was unfolding?

The value of hard truths

I believe that hard truths are often better for us than being told what we want to hear. The reporting about the case numbers and the reasons behind their rise has acted as a wake-up call for many. It’s focused us all on what we need to do to keep people safe and led the authorities to take steps that’ll stop the spread of the disease. And for that, I’m thankful.

Instead of attacking some media outlets for asking difficult questions – which is, in fact, their job – why aren’t we asking ourselves about the importance of both accountability and tolerance? Across the world over, the media have done some of their most important work in asking why we have responded the way we have. They’ve spoken to the medical experts and they’ve communicated in plain language what we all need to understand, often better than others.

I’d go even farther and say that the best media has helped to save lives. I for one am grateful for the media’s work in 2020, for the reporting and coverage that have helped people truly understand what we are up against. And I expect the same of them in 2021.

For all of our sakes, they should keep on asking hard questions.

Communicators are essential to ending the pandemic

We all want to take off our masks; the sooner we end this pandemic, the better. And communications will be vital to ensuring the public does what it must to support health and safety/vaccination campaigns

It’s the new year, and a time for renewed hope. Just like me, many of you will be happy to see the back of 2020. The pandemic has caused so much harm and devastation. And we have a host of vaccines to choose from to protect us from the worst of the coronavirus. And yet, we’re not over the pandemic yet. The numbers are going up globally, and we can expect the worst spikes in the days to come following socializing over the holidays.

What’s the most frustrating is that the end is in sight. In a matter of months, hundreds of millions of people can and should be vaccinated, providing a level of herd immunity in many countries that’ll slow down the spread of the virus.

While we can end the pandemic, there’s a number of complications. The first is people disregarding health and safety guidance, including the wearing of masks and social distancing – this speeds up the spread of the virus and diverts medical attention to treating the sick and away from inoculation campaigns. The second is those who don’t want to get vaccinated.

Over the past year, those working in the communications industry have been dedicated to supporting their organizations raise awareness of health and safety best practices. They’ve created millions of hours’ worth of content and pushed it out to workforces. They’ve developed an understanding of what types of messaging work, and how to best push this messaging out to make people understand how their behaviors and actions can keep them and their loved ones safe.

Given the fatigue after what we’ve gone through and the reluctance, even skepticism, about vaccinations among the public, it’s time for the communications industry to support and even lead awareness campaigns. Two issues are key – the first is to get home the message that the coronavirus is still rife and we must all behave responsibly. The second is to correct misconceptions and even fake news about new medicines and vaccines (I’m not putting any stock in the social media platforms and their pledges to remove fake news on their sites).

What we need is an industry-led effort, guided and directed by those national and international associations through whom we can combine learnings, ideas and activities. I’m convinced that hundreds or thousands of communicator volunteers would join and help win the trust of the public. For every person who follows mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines, and is convinced to be vaccinated, we’re one step closer to getting case numbers down.

I’ve seen how communicators responded to when the coronavirus first hit; they gave their time and energy for free, and supported colleagues who were struggling with how to respond. And I know that they’ll want to play their part now, to come up with ideas that’ll capture the public’s attention to change both attitudes and behaviors. The idea could be simple as social media visuals for people to use when they’ve been vaccinated or using storytelling for hard-to-reach communities.

There are so many ways for communications around these issues to be done better. If any communicator wants to make a resolution for 2021, let it be for them to have an opportunity to contribute to a global campaign to make the public understand what they need to do and then get them to do it. The art of communication has never been more important, and that’s why for me 2021 should be the year of the communicator. Communications is key to us ending the pandemic as soon as possible.

This piece first ran in Arabian Business.

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.

Local Heroes: Marketing’s ‘Unconventional’ Said Baaghil

image1You may have heard of Said Baaghil before, most likely on a comment thread where he’s thrown a literary grenade into the public on a subject related to branding in the region. An unconventional brand expert in every sense of the word (do you know any other Arab from this region who wears a bow tie, funky-design glasses  and multicolor sneakers?), Said has written extensively on branding and on brands, both globally and regionally.

I caught up with Said to ask him about his love for marketing, how the industry is changing and the advice he’d pass on to others about the industry.

Q: Said, why and how did you get into marketing?

I studied marketing in college but I realized my passion during my sophomore year. I was extremely active on campus, I was the founder of an international club to show diversity. My first passion was creative, something no one did I should do but I also realized that I needed marketing to understand the way forward. I was a below average student and kept a GPA between 2.0 to 2.2 through out my four years, I was less interested in what the professors had to say than I was interested on change and impact.

Q: How has the industry developed?

Well from the time I graduated till now, I would say tremendously. We focused on the marketing mix when my career kicked off but through the years the audience has evolved and marketing had to evolve with them. Today, we speak of brands that sum up the entire experience and not the marketing mix. While many markets evolved, our market [the Middle East] stayed stagnant. So marketing evolved globally, but everything remained as is here in the region.

Q: What’s the achievement you’re proudest of?

My son! As far as work, I have three. In my ten years in Saudi I was able to build two local brands and take them international in the consumer good and fashion retail space. I’m also proud of my brand as an Arab from my house in Khalddya who has taken on global marketing roles, both in the advisory and public speaking spaces.

Q: What would you advise your younger self to do and not do?

I’ll advise him not to follow the herd, but rather to find his purpose, follow his passion and chase his dream. Don’t fear your failures; they are just a test of time. So get up and evolve.

Q: How will the industry evolve? What trends should we watch out for?

We are in the fourth revolution, the digital revolution. Individualism in data is massive so personal brands will take off like never before. I think globalization is under threat as we see major nationalistic movements led by the U.K. And U.S.A.

Local Heroes: The Entrepreneur Osama Natto

osamanatto

I wanted to change the conversation on this blog, with the launch of a series of Q&As with people I know who are in the region and who are from the region and who are pushing for positive change. First up is Osama Natto, a Saudi gentleman who has worked in a range of roles. Today Osama’s focus is very much on encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation in the Kingdom. He’s touched thousands with his can-do attitude, his belief in local talent, and his love of technology.

I hope Osama will inspire you as much as he does me. If there’s someone you know who deserves a blog post, then please do drop me a note. In the meantime, enjoy the read.

Osama, tell us about your career and the choices that impacted your career?

I started working at a very young age in my father’s hardware shop in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. I used to clean the shelves and place price tags on products. I started with 10 Saudi Riyals a day, which around two and a half dollars. Working at the shop instilled in me workmanship, discipline, and how to be practical. It also built in me the sense of financial independency. I opened my first bank account as soon as I was legally old enough, and I started my first investment. When I joined the King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals I continued to work part time in odd jobs such as lab attendant, teacher assistant, and applications programmer at a shipping company. I also worked freelance as a tutor and research assistant to students. When I was a freshman I noticed a recruiting brochure at the dorm room of one of the senior students. The brochure was for Procter & Gamble. On that day I said to myself, “I will work for one company, I will work for five years only and that company will be Procter & Gamble.” And I did stick to my promise.

So, what made you become an entrepreneur?

My decision to become an entrepreneur was made when I was in my early teens. I was fascinated by success stories of Saudi businessmen such as Alwaleed Bin Talal and Abdulrahman Alzamil. I had my own ventures that made money when I was still in school including selling fireworks during celebration seasons, video production for family and school events, and selling custom made jewelry.

What made me become an entrepreneur is freedom. There is no price on personal freedom. Freedom in decisions, freedom in time, freedom in lifestyle, and financial freedom. This does not necessary mean being wealthy, but instead not being dependent on someone or an organization to make a living.

What entrepreneurial lessons would you share with others?

Dream big, look at what is holding you back. Most of what is holding us back are internal factors that can and will be overcome once we understand them. Focus on products that have an impact on people regardless of their age, geographic location or ethnic background. Stay away from service-based businesses as they tend to consume you.

How do you foster innovation, and why does it matter in this region?

Fostering innovation in the region is a bit challenging for many reasons. Understating of innovation, the innovation process, the availability of facilities and resources to foster innovation. Our region needs innovation the most due to the dependence on natural resources and the growing number of population compared to the availability of jobs. Only through innovation can we create new products, new markets and hence new jobs. There is an entrepreneurship movement in the region; what I would like to see is an innovation movement. My current venture is more about innovation and less about entrepreneurship. I want to build the innovative products that the world needs. I want to bring the Arabs back to innovation. Our Arab ancestors innovated many concepts and products which still serve as the basis of many innovations today.

What inspires you?

Nature and beauty inspire me.

How is technology changing how we work in the region?

Technology helped to a big extent to get rid of the borders. Anyone in the region with a computing device and a connection to the internet can create something and sell it to the world. Technology not just gave us access to the consumers around the world, it provided us with research and data available at our figure tips. With technology, you have access to unlimited talent and resources at affordable prices.

On my previous venture, I had millions of dollars and a team over 60 people working with me. In my current venture, I wanted to try something new so I started with $400, built a product by using resources from around the world and sold it to people from around the world by using my laptop and any internet connection that is now widely available and, in some cases, free.