I’m going to start this post with me eating my own words, and those words were written in 2016. The London-headquartered Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) had just started its operations in Dubai, and I’d criticized them for not engaging with the local association, the Middle East Public Relations Association, and for not being in tune with what the local market needed.
Three years later, I’m happy to say I was wrong. The PRCA MENA chapter has launched a number of big, inspirational initiatives, such as the MENA awards, the Cannes Young Lions for aspiring communicators in the region to present at the world’s biggest marketing event, and even Arabic-language initiatives such as NextGen Arabia to mentor local talent.
What has surprised me about the PRCA MENA has been its ability to expand into the region’s key markets. The organization has chapters both in Egypt and Lebanon, two countries which are the feeders of markets like the United Arab Emirates. The PRCA has moved quickly to establish itself as an entity that is locally based across the region. What has also impressed me is the PRCA’s willingness to reach out and work with other groups.
Where does this leave MEPRA?
For a decade, the Middle East Public Relations Association was the only representative body for communicators in the region. When the PRCA opened up shop in Dubai, my hope was that competition would drive MEPRA forward.
At that time, I was on the MEPRA board and was pushing for geographic growth and more partnerships. Back then, there was a chapter in Qatar, and my hope was that we’d open up in Saudi and Jordan or Lebanon.
Three years later, there’s no chapters outside of the UAE (the Qatar chapter closed down). There are partnerships in place with the CIPR, which is benefiting MEPRA members with additional training options. However, I’d have liked to have seen wider agreements with other organizations to promote certification and best practice sharing (there’s an agreement with the Arthur W. Page Society, but I don’t see how this benefits the mass membership, given Arthur Page is focused on senior practitioners).
I have full confidence in MEPRA’s chair and vice-chair, and I was glad to hear of their plans to do more in Saudi this year. But it’s also clear to me that decisions made to make MEPRA stronger after the PRCA MENA launched in 2016 haven’t resulted in more agility and the ability to get things done quickly.
The region needs a strong local body, and I hope that MEPRA becomes a regional association that is present in the major markets across the region. At the moment, the PRCA seems to have become a membership body that is present where most of the region’s communicators are. And that can only be a good thing as we look to bring the industry together and raise the standard of our profession.
I’ve been around the block, and I’ve read, seen and done so many bizarre things in my profession that I’m rarely phased. But there’s a moment once in a blue moon when I have one of these moments where I’m reliving Arsenio Hall.
What set me off was a piece published by PR Week Middle East. The journalist had interviewed a Dubai-based public relations practitioner. The title was “Journalists and Social Media Influencers are too spoiled.” I’ll share just one quote from the piece, which you can read after subscribing to PR Week.
Social media influencers and journalists are being so spoilt and most brands raise the bar very high because they send expensive gifts and also, they have been bombarded by hundreds of pitches a day. This will make it near enough impossible for our brand stories to get noticed in the sea of emails flooding to their inbox – as well as the number of gifts they receive.”
Firstly, I don’t understand how any PR person can lay the blame on the media when the gifts are being sent by the PR people (Santa, why did you bring me so many presents this year?). And secondly, at least for much of the media, this just isn’t happening.
The Media is Collapsing
Over the past month I’ve heard first hand about three dozen journalists being fired from two of the largest publishers in Dubai, the Gulf’s media hub. They’re either being offered salaries which are up to a third lower than what they’re currently making, or they’re being laid off because the ad money is being put into digital (read Facebook and Google).
Why does this matter to communicators? Firstly, the expertise of these journalists is invaluable; they know their beat given their local experience (most journalists are expats, and new journalists often come from outside of the Gulf) and they’re able to put stories into context (one journalist who was laid off from Gulf News is probably the best investigative journalist in the Gulf today). Secondly, like in other parts of the world, the number of public relations people is increasing, and the number of journalists is decreasing. Publishers are increasingly turning to freelancers, not just to provide copy to but actually run publications (they’re cheaper, as their direct and indirect costs are lower – think no medical insurance, no end-of-service benefits etc).
What is different in the Gulf is that without employment, expats must leave. There’s no gig economy to speak of, as individuals aren’t free to take on multiple roles/jobs (unless they’re nationals), and few ex-journos are willing to set up content shops given the costs of visas and setting up business licences. In addition, those journalists who remain are frequently finding themselves overextended, and they’re being asked to take up non-editorial activities, be it supporting on sales pitches, or arranging events.
How Can Communicators Help?
While I’d like to think that the global decline in print media is reversible, I’m not that naive. However, as communicators we have to play a part in supporting the journalists we work with (I’ll always have a soft spot for the media, partly because I respect what they do and partly because I don’t want my job simply to be about working with influencers).
Firstly, we’ve got to clearly state why earned media makes sense to our clients. In an age where trust in other media types is falling, much of the public still believes what they read in their newspapers and magazines. We’ve got to go further than this, and start looking at how we can work with media outlets on concepts such as native publishing. If media engagement matters to us, we have to think how we can support these outlets financially whilst ensuring that editorial and sales lines don’t blur (much of what we do with influencers is paid).
Secondly, I think many of us would benefit from spending a day on the media side. The person quoted in the PR Week article is right in one respect – there’s far too many pitches being made, pitches which aren’t relevant and which add little value to the audiences we’re trying to engage with and influence. We’ve got to move away from the mass-blast press release, and start thinking more critically about how we can create content that is both right for a publication in terms of its audience, and is of a high enough quality for the editor to say, “I’d like to run this piece.”
What I feel will eventually happen is that regional brands will start to move in the direction of organizations in Europe and the US by hiring former journalists as in-house content heads. A part of me would welcome this (the quality of content put out in this region needs to be drastically improved), but a part feels that we’ve got to think long and hard as to how we can work with the media industry to explain why they matter and how they should be considered a critical piece of both communications and advertising strategies for organizations in the region.
Given that last thought, I do hope that the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA) will also step up and support the media sector; MEPRA shared the PR Week story without any comments on its own stated view for or against the “spoiled journalist” opinion. We need leadership in this space, and it’s got to come from industry bodies.
I’m a PR person and former journalist with a long memory. Recent days and talk of tensions in the Gulf have reminded me of a time prior to 2003, when those wise and experienced neo-cons in the West (who know the region much better than those who are from the region) asserted that the invasion of Iraq would transform the Middle East for the better.
The PR industry is responsible for many things. We’ve helped promote transparency, and occasionally gotten our senior leadership to open up to the media and general public. We’ve also been responsible for negating some of the worst crises you’ve never ever heard of. Well, now we’re also responsible for bringing enlightenment to the nether regions of this planet called Earth.
“It’s important to help Westernize the Middle East. It’s good if Western companies are investing there. It will help modernize the governments and culture if you bring Western ideas, thinking and products into that part of the world. Scolding them is not going to help them modernize and make their people freer. I would take on education, destination, and tourism assignments in the Middle East. We’re particularly proud of the Ford ‘Women in the Driving Seat’ work in Saudi Arabia where women got to drive for the first time.”
It’s usually us clients who are putting our foot in our mouths, and our agency partners who rush in to help us. But making such a statement isn’t only reminiscent of colonialism, but also of what happened a decade and a half back (as well as more recently with tensions over Iran).
This time last year, the Global Alliance released the Global Capabilities Framework for Public Relations and Communication Management, the fruit of a two-year research project led by the University of Huddersfield (UK).
This research asked practitioners, educators and employers in eight countries across six continents what they thought public relations is capable of, and how it can best fulfill its potential. The combined outcome, the Global Capability Framework (GCF), can be used by communicators to both assess their own capability and potential, and set their own goals for their own development. The GCF should be also used by employers to understand how to improve their team’s strengths through training. Third, educators should look to the GCF as a basis for their curriculum’s development.
What matters most to me is the country frameworks, specifically tailored to large markets where there’s a substantial communications function. There are country frameworks for Australia, Argentina, Canada, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the USA.
To date, there’s not been a country framework for anywhere in the Middle East, but this will change. Zayed University’s College of Communication and Media Sciences is undertaking an initiative, in partnership with the University of Huddersfield (UK), to build a capability framework for communicators and students in the UAE.
For the first time, we will have a practical aid that will help individuals, teams, employers and educators understand what are the key skills that we must focus on to both grow as a profession, and become more influential with our stakeholders. A UAE framework will reflect the cultural and regional variations in public relations as it is practiced in the UAE, and it’ll act as a guide for our future development. It will help us understand where we must improve as a nation if we’re going to become a global leader in communications.
I’m excited about a UAE framework, in terms of what is means for communicators, employers and educators in the country. I’m also excited about how this country framework can become the first of many national frameworks across the wider Middle East. We’re still in our infancy as a function, and we have much more to achieve. National capability frameworks will help us become better communicators in a shorter space of time. Thank you in advance for everyone who will take part in this ambitious project, especially Zayed University’s CCMS.
We’re a couple of weeks in, and the whole swell of media attention has gradually faded out. The mammoth US$3.1 billion deal by Uber to purchase Careem made headlines globally – it was the largest in the Middle East for a tech startup, and it focused the world’s media on a regional success story. The deal also comes before an IPO that will catapult Uber into the big leagues of the multi-billion dollar tech firms who have gone public. It’s unsurprising that so much attention was paid to the deal between the two dominant ride-hailing apps in the Middle East.
For those of us in the region, what’s also unsurprising is the feeling that many have for both brands. Uber and Careem are Marmite brands, with Middle Eastern consumers either loving or hating them. Some will swear by Careem, and refuse to take an Uber. Given the strength of brand loyalty, it was especially important that the two companies, communications functions and executive teams get the messaging right.
Lessons from Uber – Speed Matters, Keep It Simple and Engage Everyone
I’ve lost count of the number of times that a deal between Uber and Careem has been talked about. I’ve even joked with journalists who seem to get constantly misinformed by the comms teams at the firms. There were leaks, but many of us took the latest piece about any deal with a pinch of salt. When news of the deal was broken on the 24th March by Bloomberg, it seemed different. There were specifics in terms of numbers, on how the Careem brand would disappear into the Uber operation, and on how all shareholders needed to be informed.
Two days later, the deal was confirmed. Uber announced the deal. The format was strange for many of us here, where social media dominates. Instead of a tweet, Uber sent out an email. The copy was short but succinct, with the option of clicking through to Uber’s website. The emailer can be seen in full below.
The email’s message was repeated throughout social media. Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has spent ample time here in Dubai, both giving media interviews to regional press as well as the global newswires, as well as meeting with government bodies to reinforce media interviews to reinforce the message, and government engagement as part of an engagement tour.
On a side note, Uber’s CEO is a dream executive for communicators. He’s composed on camera, he sticks to the message, and he leans in, showing respect for those he’s engaging with. It’s a stark contrast to how things used to be at Uber.
Lessons for Careem – The Messenger Matters
While Uber was straight out of the blocks with a coordinated message, Careem amplified that message through its own social media channels. However, the response was mainly negative, with many users fearing that Careem would become Uber. The Careem comms team understood this, and their messaging was focused on Careem remaining independent post merger.
While this approach makes sense, what they failed to do was personalize the message. They should have used their CEO Mudassir Sheikha to record a video message about the acquisition, focusing on why it made sense for Careem and how the company would be staying independent (they could have also turned to their Saudi co-founder Abdullah Elyas to record the same message in Arabic).
Personal messaging matters to the public – they need to see and hear a person they know, rather than a brand. Given the importance to Careem customers of independence from Uber, I ‘m not surprised that an email from Careem’s CEO to employees ‘was leaked’ to the media last week, which re-emphasized that the company will operate as a stand-alone entity (nothing leaks, unless you’re Julian Assange or the White House). The fact that Careem’s comms missed the mark on the independence message on the first day of the deal means that they’re going to have to repeat this message. The lesson here is get the message right the first time around.
What’s also fascinating is to see how Careem’s own users shared messaging the company put out in 2016, focusing directly on how it was better than Uber. The advertising wasn’t so subtle, as you can see from the video below which is still up on Careem’s Youtube site.
Consumers remember what a brand does, especially when it involves direct attacks on competitors. That’s why such activities are pretty rare. Now that Careem is part of Uber, I’m a little surprised these ads are still up on Careem’s social media. Maybe it’s time the team remember that they shouldn’t only look ahead in their messaging, but they should also look behind to what was done previously to see if it doesn’t impact their current messaging.
That’s it from me. If you have any insights you’d like to share, please do get in touch!
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”.
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.
It’s fair to say the corporate communications world is a fairly quiet place in the Gulf, but every now and then there’s a story that even manages to make me go agog. Last week, whilst sitting in the dentist’s clinic, I picked up a copy of the local publication Arabian Business. The front cover was a story on the Abu Dhabi-headquartered airline Etihad. The airline has had a lot of turbulence of late, with a loss of $4.8 billion over a three-year period as investments were pulled in failing airlines.
With this in mind, I was looking forward to a good read about how Etihad was turning things around, and getting back on track. Instead, it’s fair to say the introduction wasn’t what I was expecting, particularly the quotes from the CEO of the airline (who is presumably media-trained). Have a read below, or see the original piece here.
Any good media person (and, by extension, corporate executive) should know that the media won’t always get a story right. It’s our role to protect and build reputations. For the media, their job is to report the news as they find it. This is especially true of newswires, which both seek out business news that isn’t pushed out by the communications team and seek to verify their news reporting through multiple sources.
Why did Etihad’s CEO attack Bloomberg? I’d argue frustration with the reporting, which I understand. Here’s what he should have done.
Use Positive Language – What surprised me more than anything was the use of the language here, especially given who is being talked about. I have a great deal of time for newswire journalists, as they’re often the best in the industry. Negative language sticks in the reader’s mind, and makes everything else pale in comparison. I’ve forgotten everything else in the piece, which is much more positive, due to the negative language used here.
Focus on your Company’s Own Actions – It’s a simple rule of media work that you focus on what you’re doing and the vision behind it. There’ll always be opinions and views on your organization, both good and bad. Reputations are built on actions, and Etihad has been looking to turn around the business and trim losses. That’s the lead story. Instead, the CEO has gifted the journalist a major headline, and re-focused the issue on the story he didn’t like.
You’re always “On The Record” – Even the first comment, about being guarded, was strange. Every time I’ve given media training, I’ve always emphasized that anything an executive says is on the record, regardless of what is placed in front of them. In an interview, it’s good to build a rapport with the journalist, and put them at ease. A likeable executive is one of the best ways to do this (the best example from the aviation sector is the likes of Richard Branson, who always comes across as an interesting person you’d love to have a conversation with).
Ultimately, the media is one channel that communicators use to get information out to the public and other stakeholders. Nobody is right 100% of the time, including even the best journalists. If they’ve written a piece that’s incorrect, a communicator’s job is to get on the phone with them, point out the mistakes, and get on with telling their firm’s story positively.
Calling out the media publicly, through the CEO and in a derogatory fashion, only sours the relationship with both that outlet/journalist and also with the media in general. It also focuses the media on the negative issue, and ensures that the topic becomes front and center in any future media engagement. Any business which does this never gains any reputational value. It makes for a good read, however. So thank you Etihad from one reader for keeping my mind preoccupied whilst I waited to see my dentist.