I feel for anyone who works in the service industry. Ever since the UAE moved from a Sunday-Thursday week to Monday-Friday, the sense I’ve gotten is that those working in the service industry have had to work out how to cater to both local/global and regional clients. For many, the answer has been simple – agencies are having to work out rosters of people working over the six days, from Sunday to Friday.
I don’t know how sustainable this is. Dubai is the hub for the region’s creative agencies, many of whom don’t have offices outside of the Emirate. Will clients across the Middle East accommodate the change in the working week? Or will agencies look to open offices (or move/hire people) in countries which still follow the Sunday-Thursday routine?
For those working with clients across the region, I’m curious to know how you are managing. Is there anything that can be done to make the workload easier, and/or redress the work-life balance? Or has the change in the UAE’s working week not had an impact?
Another observation over the past couple of months is the number of Russians and Hong Kongers moving to the UAE, particularly in the communications industry. More talent is always a good thing; let’s hope our new arrivals find their feet in the region and get acquainted with its cultures and languages.
Am always happy to hear your views. Please do share them in the comments section below.
Reputations are funny things. They take years to build, and can be lost in a moment. In many ways, the past month will become a period of intense research for those wanting to know more about corporate actions and their impact on reputations.
First up, we have the tragedy of the war in the Ukraine. Responding to both public and political pressure, over 400 global brands have pledged to suspend, pull back or stop operations in Russia, according to the Financial Times. For multinationals to move at this speed is unprecedented. What is most striking is the decisions many have come to, namely to risk not being able to do business in what is a sizable market (Russia’s population is over 144 million) for the short to medium term. While sanctions have pushed them in a certain direction, many are also weighing up public sentiment in the West regarding how they respond (some such as McDonalds aren’t just closing stores, but they’re continuing to pay their Russian staff).
Second, we have another crisis. This time the crisis seems to be more of the company’s own doing. P&O Ferries laid off 800 crew from its ships last week. The news was delivered via a pre-recorded video message, and guards were hired to escort staff off the ships. The firm claimed it had to replace British staff with cheaper labor to save the company and make it viable. All this despite the parent company DP World making record revenues of US$10.8 billion in 2021. The saga, which includes political intrigue (Ministers were told the night before about the mass firings and the government did not vote for a bill to protect workers from mass layoffs the previous year) and the inevitable debate about the legacy of Brexit, has seen both P&O Ferries and DP World being hammered in the UK media (there’s no mention I have seen of this story in the UAE’s press).
If I was to name one university I’d want to study communications at, it would be Zayed University. For sure, the media landscape is not as free or as mature as what you would find in the UK or the USA. And there are issues you cannot touch upon. What makes Zayed University’s College of Communication and Media Sciences so special is its people, in particular the faculty.
For the past couple of years I had the honor of supporting the College as a member of and chair its National Advisory Council. I saw first hand how passionate the faculty were, the quality of their research, and how they kept at their mission of ensuring that every student had the opportunity to learn what communications was, how it should be practiced, and the difference that the function has on an organization and its people.
During that time the College graduated thousands of graduates; the University also began to offer post-graduate courses for communications professionals in the country, with an excellent set of courses for young people, mainly Emiratis, to learn advanced communications theories, so they’d be ready to become industry leaders. If you look around the government communications sector, where many ZU graduates end up, and often those who have the best understanding of communications and are able to execute on plans have been to the College of Communication and Media Sciences.
I won’t stop there. Many ZU CCMS faculty members have contributed significantly to the industry. Take for example the first UAE edition of the Global Capability Framework, which was led by Professors Gaelle Duthler and Ganga Dhanesh. Or the research on gender perceptions, which was undertaken by Dr Zoe Hurley for the Advertising Business Group. We literally have a research gem in our midst, which the industry does not tap into enough.
The Future of CCMS
I have seen all the good that the College of Communication and Media Sciences has done. I am less certain about its future. The University’s leadership is embarking on a program with an organization called Minerva, which is “aimed at ensuring students have cross-disciplinary skills that are relevant in a fast-changing global job market”. This agreement will impact the entire university, including CCMS, and this is despite Minerva not having any prior experience in teaching communications.
While there is not too much I can say about the tie-up, I will say this – I have spent two decades in communications, and I have seen the function evolve at a frantic pace. And the CCMS Faculty can both understand and explain these changes in a way that best prepares their students for success. I’d argue that the greatest barrier to success is not listening to the CCMS faculty and leadership – they know teaching, they know the subject, and they know the industry. They should be the ones who are able to shape the future of the college in a way that will both improve learning and ensure that students remain passionate about a subject which means such much to the country and the region.
Communicators aren’t just people who write notes, take pictures, or create videos. We tell stories, we tap into people’s emotions and we shape reputations. The country needs that, more than ever, if it is to be seen in the way that the country’s leadership desire. And I hope that Zayed University continues to lead the way here, thanks to the people at the College of Communication and Media Sciences.
What is the importance of a word? As Shakespeare said, a rose is but a rose no matter what it may be called. However, words can have a great deal of meaning, especially when they refer to a subject that can be controversial. Take for example an announcement made yesterday by the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority. The statement reads as below:
Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) has announced the formation of a new division focused on the regulation of integrated resorts. These include hotel operations, convention space, entertainment, restaurants and lounges, spa, retail and gaming facilities.
Following global best practices in the regulation of gaming that operate as part of integrated resorts across various jurisdictions worldwide, the Department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation within RAKTDA will consider the social, cultural, and environmental landscape of the Emirate and cover licensing, taxation, operational procedures, and consumer safeguards. The foremost priority of this new division is to create a robust framework that will ensure responsible gaming at all levels.
The regulatory structure will address the entire gaming enterprise within integrated resorts, requiring compliance with all applicable laws and regulations (including financial crime laws) from operators, suppliers and employees. Additionally, the regulations will cover marketing, advertising, and financial transactions, ensuring that these areas comply with the Department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation.
The question is what is “gaming”? There’s context here. US casino chain Wynn Resorts filed a regulatory note on Tuesday in the United States to announce plans to enter an agreement with the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah for “the development and subsequent management of an integrated resort.” The phrase, first coined in Singapore, refers to a hotel that includes a casino and other amenities and services.
Now, why does this matter you ask? Gambling is forbidden in Islam. And the issue is particularly sensitive in the peninsula of the Arabian Gulf, which is home to the religion’s two most sacred sites. There is no casino in the Gulf, despite the size of the tourism sector in a country like the UAE. And there are other casino operators in the country too; there is a Caesars Palace off of Dubai’s coastline (this property does not offer gambling and operates solely as a hotel, despite allegedly being designed like a casino). And yet, there are no operating casinos, as gambling is illegal onshore. The wording may also be a nod to Islamic religious sensitivities (the closest casinos to the region are in Lebanon and Egypt).
The gambling industry is massive – the casino and online gambling sector is worth over US$230 billion. And the industry is fast growing, at a double-digit annual compound growth rate over the past decade. Given that gambling markets tie into key geographic markets (think America, Europe, China, India and Israel), it would make economic sense for any hotel operator in the region to look at this area. And yet, the issue is the religious taboo, and the concern of what gambling may mean for the region’s young people especially; there’s little mention of the Arabic word for gambling in the local press (the exception being Arabic translations on international news sites and news wires).
And this is why the word “gaming” was used, rather than gambling. The meaning is understood in English, and the avoidance of the meaning is also clear to see in Arabic. Regardless of the wording being used and its obfuscation, the end result will be the same. Unless, Wynn will be truly opening the world’s first hotel resort fully equipped with PS5s and Xboxes. Now, that would be a sight to behold.
A new year, a new job and a new country. Well, the last isn’t exactly true. I’m back in Saudi Arabia, the country I lived in for a number of years over a decade back. And if it wasn’t for the unmistakable Najd accent and the landmarks, I may be fooled into thinking that I was somewhere else. The change in Riyadh alone has been remarkable. There’s the obvious changes, such as women driving (and yes, I’m both enjoying and a little fearful of sitting in the passenger seat as my wife drives me around a town she used to know even better than me). But there’s also a shift in society, in how people deal with each other. There’s more activities in Riyadh, including live shows (I never imagined I’d see an ice show in Riyadh). Society is shifting, partly due to a top-down push and partly due to the relentless energy of the Kingdom’s youth (who make up the majority of the population).
This means opportunities for communications and communicators. For the past two years, the Kingdom has been in many ways the boom market for new accounts, with the launch of government project after government project. And this increasing focus on Saudi Arabia will inevitably translate to demand for more, better communicators on the ground, professionals who both understand the local market (and its language) as well as the media and communications outside of the Kingdom. For the Saudis, this is key. The country I know, and a people who are the most generous and hospitable in the Gulf, is a far cry from how Saudi Arabia is perceived abroad. Open, transparent dialogues will help alter those perceptions.
In true New Year’s style, I’m going to make a few simple predictions about communications in Saudi Arabia. First of all, I believe that the Kingdom will host more foreign agencies over the coming 12 months – you cannot serve the Saudi market from abroad, even from Dubai (and the UAE’s working week shift makes this more difficult). Second, I also believe we’re going to see more home-grown agencies appear, with specializations in new areas such as internal comms and change comms. And we’re going to see more Saudis enter the comms field, which will be essential if we’re going to create the type of professional I believe who can help the function flourish here, a hybrid who can understand both Saudi Arabia and its people as well as the outside world. Both agencies and those client side need to help make this happen by working with universities and giving young Saudis a taste of what communications is all about.
For now, we’re settling in and enjoying the new Saudi Arabia while getting reacquainted will all that makes this country so special. And I’m hoping to both blog and podcast more from this truly special place. If there’s anything you’d like me to write about, please do let me know!
It’s been a while since I’ve written here (I blame overwork, events, and myself for being tardy). But I do want to share some pieces I’ve written recently for others. Here’s my first, with a look at ethics in the region, starting with a look at a local public relations association (MEPRA, if you’re asking) in a piece I wrote for Campaign Middle East.
Yes, I know you’re yawning. There’s really no way to make this issue sexy. But, the issue of good corporate governance matters. It’s the basis for trust and transparency. When a company or organization is above board, you feel you don’t need to question what’s going on. There’s accountability too, and questions get answered head-on. There’s no spin. And this leads me to why I’m even writing this. Recently a local industry body for the public relations sector announced two new fellowships. The fellows are very good at what they do. But they’re also very much part of that organization, with one of them serving on the strategy board (which puts forwards names for fellowships, unless I’m mistaken), and the other on the executive board (which makes the decisions on the fellowships).
So, why does this matter? It’s a good question, and I was asked this by one of the two new fellows a couple of years back when I raised similar issues. After all, this is an honorific title. Well, I work in a job that is all about reputation. My job is to build and protect reputations. And I truly believe the best way to do this is by being straightforward and open. And I benefit indirectly when others do the same, as my profession becomes more trusted. That’s why associations over the world work hard on their corporate governance. To give you an example, here’s what the International Association of Business Communicators says for nominee eligibility as part of their own corporate governance.
Only members of IABC in good standing are eligible to be nominated to be IABC Fellows.
The nominee must have been a member of IABC for at least five years. (The years of membership do not have to be consecutive.)
Current members of the executive board, the Fellows Selection Committee, and anyone who has served as IABC Chair in the past three years are not eligible.
Interestingly, they seek out diverse nominations from their members, just like other associations do.
Now, here’s the other reason why we need to get serious about how we do things as an industry here. I hope I don’t shock anyone when I say that the Middle East isn’t generally known for its transparency or accountability. It may be a stereotype, but this is an image that we shouldn’t be reinforcing through our actions.
I remember the last time I wrote a similar piece, a couple of years back, about the same association that was appointing members to its board in violation of its own charter. The response wasn’t exactly a lesson in reputation management. But I hope that this time around, there’ll be a little more thought given to corporate governance. Given that we work in an industry that’s based on ethics, it should matter to every communications professional how the industry bodies that represent us behave.
I’m going to start this blog by saying what is happening in Afghanistan is truly heartbreaking. The Afghan people deserve better, especially when it comes to our support.
With that, one country has very much been top of mind when it comes to supporting the efforts to get people out of Afghanistan. And that is Qatar. In part it’s good fortune: the country is a couple of hours flight from Kabul; Qatar has the largest US airbase in the region, at Al Udeid, and it also has relations with both the Taliban and NATO (Qatar has been hosting the US-Taliban talks for several years).
But this is only part of the story. Qatar’s Foreign Ministry’s communications team has been exceptional. They’ve done a number of things very well. And they’re an example of how government should be engaging with the media and on social media.
Spell out the story in numbers
Media like numbers. They want to see the full extent of what you’ve done. And every step of the way, the team at Qatar’s Foreign Ministry have been sharing updates on how many people have come through or are being hosted by Qatar. That number is now exceeding 40,000 people.
Make the story personal
There have been so many stories of sorrow, but also hope. Two really stand out for me. The first is how Qatar helped to get out the Afghan female robotics team from Kabul, rushing through paperwork and getting them and their families onto flights. Have a look at the NBC interview conducted with two of the young ladies, who are truly inspiring. Another story which sticks in my mind is how Qatar’s ambassador to Afghanistan and embassy staff in Kabul have been driving people to the airport, going through Taliban checkpoints and using their relations with the Taliban to ensure people safe passage.
Always be Ready to Engage
The final piece of the puzzle has been the willingness of the Foreign Ministry’s team to engage with the media. The Ministry’s spokesperson is Lolwah AlKhater, and she’s been formidable, reacting online and hosting people on the ground.
Who likes to be confused? Who loves to act when so much is uncertain, or unknown? And to quote the infamous Donald Rumsfeld, what do you do when there are so many known unknowns? Not me. But I’m ok with uncertainty. Maybe it’s because of the region I’m in (try getting details on how to travel in the Middle East during Covid, seriously), or maybe it’s because I understand that things evolve, and it’s not always easy to find every single piece of information from the get-go. Things evolve, and we must understand that.
Sometimes, I feel as if I’m in a minority when it comes to being comfortable with uncertainty. I used to work with a firm where everything had to be understood, every fact and detail presented to management. I’d chase and chase and chase, and spend both time and energy to do this. And I’d do this knowing that I wouldn’t be able to get everything asked of me, especially if it was related to government. Either the people I would be asking didn’t have the full picture, they didn’t care (yes, it happens), or they’d be too busy to respond.
In this situation, I’d have to make an educated guess, based on my thoughts and experiences. It’s not perfect, but how many times in our life are we certain of everything? It’s understandable that we crave the safety of certainty. As Author David Rock writes in his book Your Brain at Work, “The brain craves certainty. A sense of uncertainty about the future and feeling out of control both generate strong limbic system responses.”
And that for me is the rub. To paraphrase Eckhart Tolle, “When you become comfortable with uncertainty, Infinite Possibilities open up for communications.”
Those that are uncomfortable with uncertainty are missing out on opportunities to communicate better. And we also become open to trying new things, to experimenting and taking risks. Even though I’ve worked in the industry for two decades, I can never be sure of any outcome. But it doesn’t mean that I won’t try. And that’s because I’m ok with uncertainty, and not knowing all possible factors and outcomes. I’ll collect enough information and look to make a judgement on what I have in front of me.
It’ll do us all good to be ok with uncertainty, and this must be one of the lessons of the past two years (who hasn’t been faced with uncertainty in 2020 and 2021?). Let’s collect and analyze data, and make a judgement. But let’s do it quickly, without excess resources being spent on chasing data or information which we often can’t get or doesn’t exist. The most exciting opportunities often lie beyond the initial uncertainty. Go on, take a risk. It’ll make you a better communicator.
Whoever is in charge of bringing more media investments to Dubai, may luck be on their side. It’s drier out there than a summer spent in the Sahara. The media is suffering. I’ve had some brilliant journalists approach me recently asking about a move to public relations (and even cynical old me has been taken aback by these asks), as they’re under so much pressure from others, be it sales or management, that they feel they can’t do their jobs. And then there’s the difficulty in getting a good story published; more and more, if you’re not advertising, you’re not getting coverage (unless you’re the government).
I truly get this; media outlets need to make money and I have countless conversations with marketing teams as to why this matters and why they should put money into local publications (often the response is, we’re paying the PR agency and so we should get coverage – this drives me nuts and reflects one of the many misunderstandings of how PR and media works).
Let’s be straight. The number of media outlets reporting straight news is dropping. And those working in communications for brands need to have a Plan B. So, what’s your Plan B? How are you getting out your message?
We all know about social media, and there’s always the option to boost messaging using advertising (especially on the social media sites). But I’m still surprised by how few organizations here, especially local brands, are using their owned media to get out their messaging.
I’m not going to go into too much detail, but there’s so many audio choices – think podcasts and audio chat rooms like Clubhouse and TwitterSpaces – and there’s the “traditional” option of a blog page. Blogs like this one can be done for next to no costs and technical expertise, and they can be used to build up a long-term audience through email signups and social media. If you want to, you can start off by posting articles to LinkedIn (though I’d always recommend your own site for SEO purposes). And there’s also vlogs, video blogs, which is how many “social media influencers” started out.
And then there’s your own influencers, namely your employees. I’ve often found them to be brilliant at pushing out your company’s news on their own social media feeds. There are tools to push out content to them, such as LinkedIn Pulse or Sprinklr. But you don’t need an app – you could even push to them content via email and incentivize their posting.
Technology is making it much, much easier for organizations to create their own channels to push out content. Yes, the media matters a great deal. But smart communicators need to think about what they can do to create new channels for pushing out good messaging and content. What I’ve listed above is just a sampling of what you can do with the owned media element of the PESO model. And I can’t wait to see what you come up with. As always, please do share ideas. The more we share, the better we all get.
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 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.