Northwestern University Qatar: A case study of civil protest through social media

I’m in awe right now. Of one professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. And also the students. They’ve shown that it is possible to hold people to account for their actions and words through civil protest, both online and offline, in the Gulf.

Let’s start from the beginning. Journalism professor Justin Martin recounted how the University’s Dean had responded to student concerns that graduation would be held on the first day of Ramadan during fasting hours by saying to 40 faculty, “They can go to hell.”

This revelation, as well as insights from others, spurred the student campus to take action and voice their views collectively. What’s surprised me is how united the response has been to this incident, and how it’s brought together all nationalities to act together, through voicing their views on social media, through protesting on campus, and through setting up social media channels dedicated to the student campus. A sample of the responses is below.

The response from the University hasn’t been any different from what I’d have expected, with a statement put out that is a sorry/not sorry and which places the blame on Professor Martin himself as the whistleblower (without naming him).

“Over the weekend a series of tweets targeting the dean and members of the staff and faculty at Northwestern University in Qatar was posted. The statements were based on comments and blogs that were made some time ago – from the last academic year to one that was posted 10 years ago.

Supporting the well-being of our community – faculty, staff, and students – is our highest priority, and we take actions like this very seriously. We will continue to monitor this situation and offer our support when needed.

As a community, we all have a responsibility to be respectful of each other and our differences. Over the past decade, there have been instances where we failed to reach that standard and for that, we apologize.

There are no claims of perfection at NU-Q; we are all human; however, we are also one community. It grieves us that someone within NU-Q would try to hurt this community that we all have worked so hard to create.”

In a region where so many grievances aren’t aired out of fear of reprisal (such as termination or deportation), it’s brilliant to see young people in a university standing up so bravely to state their views with respect and civility. The Gulf needs more of us to speak up for what is right, and Dr Martin and Northwestern University in Qatar’s students have shown that it is possible for a group to stand up and advocate for both respect and understanding from those in power. All the power to them, and I hope that NUQatar’s administration both takes the time to actually listen and act.

The Story of Abu Dhabi’s Toll Gate – Why Comms Shouldn’t Need to Clean Up After Others

When things go wrong, the first people to deal with the blow-back are communicators. Organizations need to involve comms early on, to better anticipate what may not work, and what the response will be

It’s been a month of chasing, of phone calls, visits and Tweets. And yet, there was no update, no new information. I’m talking here about my experience with Abu Dhabi’s new toll system. The idea is simple; Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital city, wanted to set up a road toll tax on drivers entering certain areas. To do this, drivers had to register on a website prior to the system going live (there’s already a road toll system operating in the UAE, in Dubai. The Abu Dhabi version is different to Dubai’s).

So far, so good. We had just over a month to get our affairs in order, before the toll gates went live on October 15. I wanted to be proactive, and so I went to the website to register my car. The questions were straightforward – I needed to provide the details of my national ID card, my car plate, an email and password. Simple, you’d think. I must have tried a couple of times, and I couldn’t register. All I kept getting was the below message (which really wasn’t helpful).

“Something went wrong” may be an accurate description of the whole IT system, but it’s not going to help users understand the issue

I call up the contact center. They ask for my national ID number before asking for my name (which I found strange), and then advise me to go in and log an issue. I do this, and register a complaint a whole month before the deadline. The adviser tells me I’ll get a call once the issue is solved. No call comes in for a couple of days. I call up, and there’s no update. What I do understand is that many other people are going through this same experience. I tweet, and get the same response over and over again. I’m not alone, sadly.

The inevitable happens, and the service’s introduction was delayed, from October 15 to January 1.

Given the need to register (if you don’t, you’ll be fined per day), I can imagine that there would have been thousands of people wanting help, and spending time reaching out to the government body in question. These channels would have been handled by the customer service/communication teams. I feel for the people manning the phone lines or the social media accounts, as there’s little they can do to control a situation, besides from repeating the line that “IT is working on it.”

This whole back-and-forth conversation reminds me of how uncommon it is in many regions for both communications to be brought into the design process, and how little user testing there actually is before a new system is rolled out.

It’s simple. A difficult experience erodes trust. A good experience builds trust. Transparency in challenges helps engender trust. Spin does the opposite (and lots of people will know when they’re being spun).

My hope is that this story will be a lesson learned, especially for governmental bodies who want to roll out new technologies, and who need to engage both their communications teams and potential users early on. Communications is there to help, so bring the right people in (preferably those with experience who ask the right questions, anticipate what may happen, and understand how to best engage with an intended audience), listen to their advice, and ensure that these people are part of the whole innovation process, from end to end. I’m sure I speak for many communicators in the region when I say that I don’t want to clean up for others; I simply want to help create a better product or experience which I can talk about. Are you with me?

MBC’s Suicide Bomber Promo (I can’t believe I’m writing this)

The above tweet from MBC has now been deleted

I’m going to say from the outset that everyone makes mistakes. And I also have considerable respect for work the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), the largest broadcaster in the Middle East, has produced (Ahmed Al Shugairi’s Khawatir is the most inspiring program ever aired on Arabic-language television). But what I saw on MBC’s social media channel yesterday horrified me. Before I describe the scene for non-Arabic speakers, I’m going to share the video below.

The video was shared on MBC’s social media account on the evening of the 30th September. It’s effectively a promo for their new series of Arabs Got Talent. Someone wanted to create a video, and they thought it’d be a good idea to depict a would-be suicide bomber on stage, and choosing life instead of destruction.

The dialogue basically conveys the person on stage saying, after he’s opened up his shirt to show the explosive belt, that, “they trained me to blow you all up, but I’ve chosen life and Allah. Can I now sing.” He’s asked by the presenters what he’s doing, and then asked to sing.

There are so many better ways to fight extremism. And there are so many better ways to promote a show (and this is a promo, for anyone who is asking). Given the issues the Middle East faces when it comes to how it is perceived abroad, as well as Islam, who thought this was a good idea? And why did the presenters go along with the idea?

Let’s stop with the stereotyping BS. Extremism is a serious issue, and it should be handled as such, rather than as a prop for a publicity stunt. I’m happy that MBC has taken this down, and I hope that there’ll be discussions internally as to how to better handle such a serious subject, especially by a program which is watched by millions.

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.

Purpose Marketing: Nada Dairy’s Ad for Saudi National Day Backfires

Nada’s attempt to mix politics with branding have backfired

I’ve spoken previously about the issue of purpose marketing in the Middle East (mainly the lack of any local brand engagement on big issues such as gender equality and sustainability). One popped into my timelines this week. Sadly, it’s an example that will be long remembered for what went wrong, rather than right.

Nada Dairy is one of the largest manufacturers of dairy products in the Gulf. The company decided to create a video in the run up to Saudi National Day this week. The video attempts to draw a line between the Kingdom’s new cultural policies, and those which were promoted several years ago (this is putting it crudely). The video depicts traditional views as backwards.

The issue with this political stance is that you’re clearly alienating a significant number of consumers. The Kingdom isn’t a democracy, but consumers are free to choose whichever brands they want. And this video has demonstrably hurt Nada’s reputation. Boycotts of its products have been trending on Twitter all this week, and the news has even led to boycott calls in Kuwait.

Nada’s response was to “apologize” for the video (which has been pulled from its feeds). The company also states that it recognizes and respects all views. The statement (which is the first image in this post) may not be the end of the issue, given the strength of the online responses. What is clear is marketers must think long and hard as to what positions they take on societal issues and causes, if they want to both be a supporter of societal change as well as a company that builds a loyal consumer following. If Nada’s management believed in these principles, then the brand has to stick with them. No one will believe in a brand that flip-flops on a societal stance.

Getting PR Creative: Technology, Stunts and Film-Making Inspirations

Wendy’s consistently uses technology to engage followers (and a wider audience), often at little to no cost, proving that creativity is possible even on a budget

Are you still stuck sending out press releases on that new executive hire? Or prepping for a new product launch with a stock photo and a couple of lines of text? Communications can often feel that it’s a function which is devoid of creativity. With this post, I wanted to inspire you to think that creativity is possible, even on the tightest of budgets. All you need is insights into your audience, imagination, and the bravery to try something new!

Creativity and Technology

I want to share a couple of technology-related ideas and concepts from big brands. One is as cheap as you can imagine (thank you Wendy’s), and another is more expensive, but also shows how new tech can bring life to a very old product.

First up is Wendy’s Fortnite. Watch the video below to see how a simple creative idea can result in a major impact.

The second concept I wanted to share is from Lego. Lego is a brand which is 87 years old. The product is known by kids and adults worldwide. And yet the brand is trying a host of new technologies to change hold children (and adults) play with the products.

One new concept they’ve launched is Hidden Side. This theme is all about ghosts! What have the good people at Lego done? They’re using augmented reality through an app on our phones to transform how we both look at our lego sets, and play with them. Creating a gaming app certainly isn’t a cheap option, but it does make me think about how new tech can give any brand and its engagement a new lease of life. Have a look at the below video to get an idea of how these new Lego sets change the concept of gameplay.

Creativity for PR Stunts

I do love a good PR stunt. They’re a simple way to garner lots of headlines, and also make a wider point about the brand/product and why it is so special. And PR stunts can be both creative and low-cost. Here’s one from Huawei, which has become a master of both PR stunts and trolling its rivals on their areas of relative weakness. Watch what they did to Apple recently. As an iPhone owner, I wish I was in that line.

Creativity in Film-Making

If you have the budget, and are looking to win over hearts and minds in the long-term or tackle a big issue, then film-making is the way to go. I’m talking here YouTube series, television or streaming services here. Two recent examples reminded me how powerful film-making can be. The first was for the new Dora movie. Whilst I’m not a Dora fan (my daughter is), the sight of a group of four teenage girls dancing to the music and following all the twists and turns brought to life how a well-crafted idea can create millions of fans and also open their minds to new concepts (I don’t think anything/anyone has done as much to promote Spanish to the English-speaking world as Dora).

The second piece of content I saw which brought home to me how powerful film-making can be to tackle big issues was Sacred Games, a fictional story about Mumbai’s gangsters and a plot to transform India. There’s a lynching scene which addresses the issue of religion and hatred in India. The scene is brilliantly shot, and has driven debate on race relations in India today in a way that no brand could do. Have a look at the scene below (it is graphic).

I hope these creative ideas have inspired you as to what you can do to liven up your approach to comms and public relations. Whether you have no budget, or an ATM in your office, there’s lots you can do to get people excited and engaged. So, what are you waiting for?

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!