The End of An Era as the D’Abo sisters and Jason Leavy leave Edelman Dabo

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The D’Abo sisters, Jason Leavy and the whole team at Dabo took on, and often won against, global agencies in the region (picture source: Pinterest)

Many in the region’s PR industry will have learned over the past 24 hours that Camilla and Lucy D’Abo are leaving the agency they founded 13 years ago. Jason Leavy, who headed up the agency and then led the brand team after Dabo was acquired by Edelman.

It’s fair to say that the D’Abo sisters and the agency which still bears their name transformed  the PR industry in the Gulf. Whilst Dubai has always been a hub for the comms sector – there’s at least a hundred agencies in the city – there’s always been a stark gap between locally-established firms and global names.

What the sisters were able to do, and what Jason Leavy was able to build on when he joined in 2010, was to establish an agency which grew in size thanks to the quality of the work produced by the entire team. Dabo regularly won business from and against global agencies, and the firm’s headcount grew to over a hundred. They showed that it was possible to build an agency from the ground up that didn’t compete on price, but on the quality of their work. Others have followed them, but they’ve always set the standards as to how an independent agency should run.

After the acquisition by Edelman in 2015, there was also going to be change; it’s rare for founders to stay on for a lengthy period of time. Likewise, Leavy will also be missed. His drive and passion, and his experience and knowledge of the publishing and public relations sectors set him apart from many agency heads.

I’ve leave the last word to one of the founders. I wish them and Jason all the best in their new adventures. “We leave a combined business that offers the very best integrated brand service in the market,” Camilla d’Abo told the Holmes Report. “Our teams and clients are in great hands. This is not a decision we have come to easily, but we both feel that now our commitment to Edelman is complete it is time we explore new opportunities.”

 

 

Expats, Localization and the Need for Balance

The marcomms industry can and should benefit from both local talent as well as foreign expertise (image source: The Daily Telegraph)

There are some places that are so inspiring, they fill me with passion and energy. I just love working with colleagues and friends in London and New York. Their creativity and insights are exceptional. What strikes me most about these places is their ability to absorb talent from abroad, to the extent that you can’t even tell who is the native and who is the immigrant.

Whilst there’s much to admire about how the region’s marcomms industry has developed, there’s still much work to do when it comes to marrying local insights and talent with foreign know-how. For years there’s been a divide between the Gulf’s public and private sectors: the public was staffed by nationals, and the private by expats. Whilst there were exceptions, this was the norm.

There have been changes, both good and bad. The economic changes in countries such as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi, combined with the increasing number of local marketing and communications graduates, have helped to increase the number of nationals working in the private sector. An insistence on hiring nationals in both government and semi government organizations have led to there being fewer expats in comms and marketing roles in both Abu Dhabi and Doha. For many multinationals, there’s still an over reliance on expat communicators, many of whom don’t know or try to learn about either the local language or culture.

I’ve always believed that there should be more locals in marcomms in the Gulf (one such person who is an inspiration to me and who I will always be proud of is my wife, who is both a local and who heads up marcomms for a multinational across the Middle East region). However, we need to place people based on merit, and we need to have structured succession planning in place. Both are missing today, across the public and private sectors.

Let me highlight my point. I live in a city which wants to be a global hub, attracting investment and tourism from abroad. That city’s government has been prioritizing national hiring to such an extent that it’s rare to find a foreigner in a mid or senior level comms post today in either a government or semi government role. What has happened is young nationals who don’t have the necessary experience or knowledge have been brought in (or roles have been left open), and as a result the work done and respect given to the function has dropped. There’s less diversity and inclusion in these government organizations, leading to a lack of understanding of foreign audiences and stakeholders.

I’ve also come across countless multinational executives who don’t understand the importance of hiring local knowledge. To them, global strategy only needs to be translated. There’s no understanding of local insights, and an inability to communicate with local audiences because of the lack of any marketing or communications people who are from or connected to the local population. I’ve known regional comms people in the private sector who’ve never even gone to Saudi, despite it being the biggest market in the Gulf. It’s all too easy to manage issues remotely, and let the agency deal with an issue.

We’ve got to change these two approaches in the region. There needs to be a balance, an understanding that foreign expertise is often needed whilst initiatives are created to support knowledge transfer to capable locals. Rather than replacing foreign expertise overnight (which has happened in some places), let’s get these professionals to pass on their expertise through job shadow programs, teaching and mentoring. In one of my previous roles I was asked to do this, and I considered it part of my role in developing the local profession. Others should do the same.

Our region can be as diverse and as exciting as London and New York, and I don’t see why the marcomms industry should be any different. Let’s start making use of both local insights and foreign experience, and combining them to create better work. We need balance in approaching this issue. As always, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this issue.

Lessons for the PR Industry from the Dubai Lynx

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The Dubai Lynx highlighted the issues that communicators (and their marketing colleagues) will need to face up to. But is anyone listening?

It was an early morning, but the 6.30am start from Abu Dhabi was certainly worth it. The Dubai Lynx is always worth a visit for anyone working in marketing and communications. The Festival, which is organized by the people behind the Cannes Lions, has been going for over a decade. And, as the two disciplines of marketing and communications coverge, the Dubai Lynx (which billed itself this year as the MENA region’s biggest celebration of creative communications) is becoming a must-attend for communications professionals.

For me, there were two basic takeaways from the Dubai Lynx:

  1. It’s all about data, data, data: Every other word seemed to be data. The push to incorporate data – big, small or something in-between – is understandable; the marcomms industry has always struggled with the question of ROI, and data measurement, when used wisely, should help answer the question of what are organizations getting for their money’s worth. When analyzed well, data will also help marcomms professionals better understand both their audience and their impact. However, what wasn’t mentioned was ‘creativity’. Have we swung too far over to talking about data, rather than marrying data with creativity? While I’m sure there are computers and algorithms that are far smarter than me, I doubt there’s any machine which understands the human mind better than we can. Could a computer have understood why the ice bucket challenge would have gone viral? Or the success of the Chewbacca mom? I doubt it.
  2. Agency Convergence gathers steam: There’s no marketing or communications in our industry anymore, as the list of agencies offering everything under the sun grows longer. Those marketing agencies who were already one-stop shops are going further, and breaking down the internal silos to promote better integration between the various disciplines. Some PR firms are creating new roles, such as creative leads and digital heads. And then there’s the big consultancy firms, the data goliaths such as Accenture, IBM and McKinsey, using their IT know-how and their understanding of strategy to break into the marcomms industry (we’ve already seen this with Accenture and IBM, and expect to see it with McKinsey in this region following their acquisition of marketing firm Elixir). For an industry which used to be mainly focused on media relations about a decade or so ago, this is a seismic shift. Expect to see the gap between those offer an ever-expanding range of services (think creative, digital, public affairs, technology) and those who stick to old-school offerings such as media relations to grow significantly over the coming year.
  3. Marketeers are doing PR (and some of their work is exceptional): One of the best PR executions I’ve seen in a long time was from last week. It was the ‘Fearless Girl’, a statue commissioned by State Street Global Advisors and executed by McCann New York. The concept, which was timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, saw the ‘Fearless Girl’ face off against the famous Wall Street Charging Bull. The stunt symbolized the power of women in leadership and emphasized that companies with women in top positions perform better financially. Ask anyone in the business and they’ll tell you that McCann isn’t a PR agency, but rather a creative. However, much of the work which has been winning plaudits at Cannes recently has essentially been PR work executed by creative agencies.

The PR industry has gone through some remarkable change over the past decade. However, we’re going to see much more disruption over the short and medium term as creatives and consultancies move into new disciplines. Are PR firms ready to both embrace data and expand their own offerings? Or are we about to see another wave of industry consolidation over the coming five years? Time will tell.

Do You Know Your Rights? Public Relations and the Law

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Yes, I also used to have nightmares about lawyers. But don’t worry, they’re a friendly bunch, especially if you work agency-side.

The law! These are the two words that’ll send most PR practitioners running into the distance and over the horizon. Public relations practitioners aren’t always savvy about their legal rights, or what local legislation means for how they (or their clients) operate.

It was a refreshing change to see this issue tackled at this year’s PR Pressure conference. Organized by Secret PR and now held for a second year, the event included a panel of legal minds who were willing to tackle everything from intellectual property (including pitches), to social media and influencers and chasing debts.

I’m going to summarize some of the key points made by the speakers – Cedar White Bradley Group’s Fatema Fathnezad, Norton Rose Fulbright’s Dino Wilkinson, Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson, Lincoln Legal Consultants’ Nasir Ilyas and Rafi Yachou from InDate.info – on a number of areas which are, or should be, of concern to communicators.

Getting Your Contract Right

As Fiona Robertson clearly pointed out, much of what goes wrong legally starts with the contract. Be as precise as possible in terms of deliverables, avoid jargon, and ensure that you understand what recourse you have to legal help in the jurisdiction under which the contract is applicable. You’ll end up spending much less on a good contract than on any legal dispute (up to a tenth according to Robertson), so ensure that the contract is watertight and clear to all parties.

Who owns the Intellectual Property (and pitches)

We work in a content industry, and yet so little of what we do with content is understood within a legal framework. For example, do you ask for consent from those people that your photographer is taking pictures of? Are you clear on when and where content which you have purchased usage rights for can be used? And what happens when your content is misused, such as after a pitch?

Fatema Fathnezad suggested that agencies trademark their logo and services, and include these trademarks on all materials. In addition, before and after a pitch agencies need to communicate in writing that the material being presented is under copyright and that as such the execution of these concepts cannot be undertaken without the agency’s permission and compensation being paid. Remember that you cannot legally own an idea, but you can copyright and protect the execution of that idea.

Social Media and Influencers

This one may be common sense, but the first thing that agencies and clients need to bear in mind is that they need to manage administration rights of social media accounts.

Secondly, when it comes to influencers any paid content must be considered as advertising. Dino Wilkinson pointed out that many influencers in our region are reluctant to clarify to the public when content is paid for, but as per the advertising laws there are rules which must be followed by both brands and influencers (you can see them here).

Like many other jurisdictions around the world, there’s not as much legislation around influencers as they should be (for example, do they need to have a business license to operate). Both Dino and Fiona spoke of the need for agencies to have contracts in place with influencers, and for there to be background checks on the influencer – remember that these people will be representing your brand or your client, and so the proper due diligence should be done.

Chasing Payments/Debts

Some of the most interesting comments were made by Nasir Ilyas and Rafi Yachou on the issue of debts. Some of the inputs were logical – chase on payments before they’re due and reschedule payment terms if the client has issues paying. If non-payment occurs, look to resolve the situation directly but amicably. And get a lawyer involved – up to a quarter of cases are settled by a letter from a lawyer. There are dispute mechanisms available in the country, such as the DIFC Small Claims Tribunal, but these mechanisms will cost you time and money, so beware of what you’re getting yourself into.

Yachou suggested two novel agency approaches to clients – firstly, do a background risk assessment, so that you understand the history of payments both for a particular industry and a specific client. Secondly, there are insurers who will underwrite agency billing; if a client doesn’t pay, the insurer will make up the shortfall. We’re talking about billing in the millions of Dirhams here, so it’s not going to help small agencies, but it is a thought for those medium and larger sized agencies who want to hedge their risks.

Thank you to Secret PR

I want to say a big thank you to Sarah Mohamed and her Secret PR team for arranging this event, which is free to attend and which does tackle the big issues that the industry faces (other topics included the Arabic language and digital). Sarah and the team put a great amount of effort in to make this work, and it’s good to see a group of people take the initiative to educate others. Thank you Sarah!

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Sarah Mohamed is the head of Secret PR and the dynamo behind the PR Pressure event (image source: Campaign Middle East)

Silicon Valley, Values-Based Communication & Reaction to the ‘Muslim Visa Ban’

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The executive order temporarily banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East from entering the US has sparked fierce debate among both the public as well as tech-focused corporations in America

Another day, another controversy in Washington D.C. This time, it’s about the Presidential executive order halting all refugee admissions and barring temporarily people from seven Muslim-majority countries. I’ve written about how corporations will either follow one of two strategies when dealing with the President – they’ll support his America first agenda (mainly by recycling old news), or they’ll stick to their values and come out against policy shifts such as this one.

Over the weekend, we’ve seen evidence of the latter. A swathe of tech firms, primarily from California’s Silicon Valley, have come out against this policy, which has been described as a ban on Muslims, which they view as both un-American and harmful to attracting talent. Here’s a snapshot of views as reported by the ‘fake news’ website Buzzfeed and Bloomberg:

Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai

“It’s painful to see the personal cost of this executive order on our colleagues,” Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai  wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by Bloomberg News. “We’ve always made our view on immigration issues known publicly and will continue to do so.”

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook

In my conversations with officials here in Washington this week, I’ve made it clear that Apple believes deeply in the importance of immigration — both to our company and to our nation’s future. Apple would not exist without immigration, let alone thrive and innovate the way we do.

I’ve heard from many of you who are deeply concerned about the executive order issued yesterday restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. I share your concerns. It is not a policy we support.

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella

“As an immigrant and as a CEO, I’ve both experienced and seen the positive impact that immigration has on our company, for the country, and for the world. We will continue to advocate on this important topic.”

Facebook’s Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk

Other Silicon Valley CEOs have also stepped in to support those who will be affected by this decision. In a post on Facebook Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick wrote that the company is working out how it can financially support Uber drivers who aren’t able to travel back to the US due to the visa ban.

Airbnb’s Brian Chesky wrote on his own Facebook page that his firm would be supporting those impacted by this ruling with free housing.

The list of tech CEOs who are standing up goes on and on, and I don’t want to repeat too much here from what is an excellent article on Buzzfeed. The US tech sector, an industry that owes much to the talent of immigrants and which leads the world when it comes to innovation and product usage, has essentially spoken with one voice against the Presidential executive order halting all refugee admissions and barring temporarily people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

In contrast, older industries such as the automotive and manufacturing sectors (what could be dubbed the ‘older’ corporate sector) have not shared their views. In what is becoming a battle for hearts and minds across America, this public show of values-based beliefs will not be the last by an industry wary of what the Trump administration means for its future. I’ll leave you with another quote, this time from a wonderful article in The Atlantic on how this will be the first of many disputes between the Trump administration and Silicon Valley.

The barriers between Trump and the technology world span both values—the industry emphatically leans left on social issues—and interests. Trump’s hostility to immigration, opposition to free trade, and resistance to replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources to combat climate change all clash directly with the constellation of technology industries that rely on importing talent from around the world, sell their products across the globe, and have invested heavily in developing clean-energy alternatives to oil, gas, and coal. Tech leaders are also bracing for Trump to attempt to unravel the net-neutrality rules that Obama’s Federal Communications Commission adopted, and to push against the privacy standards many industry leaders have sought to maintain.

Whilst we won’t know who is winning over the majority of America’s public, it’s good to see organizations in the tech sector standing up for values which they believe in. I hope other organizations and corporations will remain true to the values that they talk about as well.

The American Strongman – A Middle East view on Trump’s first 48 hours as President

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President Trump and his team have shown increasing disdain for the media during their first weekend in office. Some commentators have drawn parallels to my own region (image source: Vocativ)

If the first two days were anything to go by, we’re in for four years of presidential reality TV. From the spectacle of the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States to an impromptu press announcement at the White House (there were no questions, so I won’t call it a briefing), and news interviews by White House staffers attacking the media; all of these events have made for compelling viewing.

Looking in from the outside, here in the Middle East, none of these actions should surprise or startle me. I live in a region where the words media and propaganda are often used to mean the same thing in the Arabic language by the region’s population. I’ve also heard many commentators in the region (and in the US) compare what the Trump administration is doing with the media to how regimes such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein ‘communicated’ (if you want an example, just watch this clip from Saddam’s Minister of Information Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf during the 2003 Iraq invasion).

While there’s been much laughter at some of the messaging (the phrase “alternative facts” is my vote for the dictionary addition of 2017), I’ve seen a number of worrying signs that the Trump Administration wants to take the media and the public down a path that we’re all too familiar with in the region. Here’s why.

  • Delegitimize the Media

The first step on this road is silencing critics. And those who have been most critical of President Trump are the media. During the weekend when visiting Langley, the CIA’s headquarters, he uttered the line, “The reason you’re my first stop is that, as you know, I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” This was in part due to their coverage of the Presidential Inauguration, and their rebuttal of the claims on the number of attendees.

This isn’t a new statement. President Trump has made the claim numerous times, including in April 2016 when he said, “You know we have a great time considering the subject matter is no good. Right? But when we say—look at all those hats, right?—”Make America Great Again.” When we say that—you know somebody, a reporter—by the way the world’s most dishonest people are back there. Look at all the cameras going. Look at all those cameras. It’s unbelievable. They are dishonest. Most of them. Not all of them. But Most of them.”

And, here he is on camera saying the same thing.

The reasoning is simple. American media is independent of any government ownership, and as such it often takes politicians to task for their words and deeds. By delegitimizing the media and going straight to the public through social media (mainly Twitter), President Trump and his administration won’t face the same level of intrusive questioning. The administration has already threatened to hold the media to account, and President Trump has held one press conference since July 2016, during which he claimed CNN and Buzzfeed were fake news sites. A free media is an essential tool to hold governments to account; muzzle the media, discredit them, and you’ll face fewer questions from a diminishing press sector.

Vocativ has run a piece on this, named Trump And The Media: The Arab Dictator’s Guide. It’s a great read for those of you who follow media-related issues.

  • Change the Narrative

President Trump and his team are masters at switching attention from one issue to answer. In his blog, the London-based PR professional Stephen Waddington has listed a number of tactics used to divert attention from hard policy issues to softer social issues. One of my favorites is dead cats, and to quote from Wadds:

Trump uses Twitter as a tactical weapon, hitting out at opponents, and directly countering attacks.

Tweets are literal, short and direct. He uses capital letters, single words and repetition for effect. There can be no uncertainty in the content or context of a message, and he seldom entertains any further discussion.

It’s an approach is known as the dead cat, created by political strategist Lynton Crosby. His response to losing an argument was to throw an issue, known as a dead cat, on the table.

The appearance of a dead cat, albeit metaphorical, is shocking. It quickly shifts attention, forcing opponents to move on and focus on a new issue.

And then there’s a concept called the Overton Window. Developed by political analyst Joseph Overton, this is a spectrum of views which are deemed acceptable to the public. It also explains how  a theory of how a policy that’s initially considered extreme might over time be normalized through gradual shifts in public opinion.

There’s a similar theory in marketing. Known as the Anchoring Effect, this describes a common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions. Once the anchor is set, decisions are then made by adjusting around the initial anchor, regardless of the legitimacy of the actual anchor number. For example, a brand will introduce a new, super premium/expensive toothpaste. That new product will shift perception of the whole category, and push consumers to spend more on toothpaste by choosing the second or third most expensive option.

We’re seeing this use of the Overton Window and the Anchoring Effect in US politics today, with politicians introducing extreme ideas to shift the discourse away from the mainstream and towards their own views and beliefs. They’re changing the narrative over the long-term, to make what was once unpalatable an acceptable argument.

These narrative tactics have been used in countless societies, most recently in countries such as Israel, where the public has accepted once right-wing ideas such as the expansion of settlements. It’s clear that President Trump’s team aren’t interested in answering questions on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, but rather they want to change the narrative around “Making America Great Again”, an idea of little substance but great appeal. We’re used to such efforts in the Middle East (Saddam regularly compared himself to great Iraqi heroes from history, as a means to encourage nostalgia and promote similar ideals).

  • Create a Cult of Personality

It’s also clear that President Trump has a thin skin. He’s repeated countless theories and statements about winning the popular vote (the President claims, without any evidence, that he lost the popular vote based on mass voter fraud). And then there’s the debate around the Inauguration attendance. This President takes things personally. He sees himself as a nation strongman who will change US politics for the betterment of its people. And woe betide those who disagree with him.

What’s also remarkable is how his team speak of the President. During the CIA visit at the weekend Vice President Pence introduced the President by informing the audience that he had never met anyone “who is a greater strategic thinker” on matters of national security. The White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on Sunday that, “I’ve never seen anyone work harder or have more energy than this president.”

If you were to listen to the administration’s messaging, you’d think President Trump is a superman, an Übermensch from the pages of Friedrich Nietzsche. The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman points out the folly in their praise, but how many will believe the fawning praise? And where will this lead us to? Will we see the White House building a cult of personality around the President?

 

As a person who straddles both Eastern and Western cultures, I can see the successes and failures of these societies a different clarity. I admire the US for its freedom of speech (which is enshrined in the Constitution) and for its media industry. I’m also a believer in public debate when it comes to governance. Are the past couple of days a sign of things to come in the US? I hope that I’m mistaken, but over this first weekend of the Trump Presidency I have seen parallels between the two regions when it comes to media messaging. And this isn’t what I want to see for the US. I hope I’m wrong.

 

 

A crisis of competence or character? How to understand (and prepare for) crisis basics

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Are you prepared for the worst? (image source: http://www.adweek.com)

The past 18 months has been a remarkable time for crisis watchers. We’ve watched as global brands and leaders have become embroiled in crises. Some of these have been of their own making (think Sepp Blatter and FIFA, or Volkswagen and emissions). Others have been due to unfortunate circumstances, such as with Emirates flight 521.

As communications professionals out there know, there’s nothing like working on a crisis. In an excellent piece for the Financial Times by David Bond, Rupert Younger, director at the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, sorts crises into two basic definitions – a crisis of competence or a crisis of character. To quote from the piece:

Examples of competence scandals include Toyota’s 2009-11 recall of 4m of its cars because of defective accelerator pedals, or the battery defaults on some of Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft. These, according to Mr Younger, can deliver a direct, and in some cases short-term, hit to a company’s sales figures.

A character crisis calls into question the culture and behaviour of a company and its senior executives and often arises out of media scrutiny or criminal or regulatory investigations. Fifa and News International were both crises of character.

The worst type of crisis involves both. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 is a case in point. It was triggered by a disastrous oil rig explosion that called BP’s offshore drilling competence into question. But the company’s response turned the crisis into a far wider issue of trust.

As communicators, our roles have traditionally covered managing the fallout from a crisis. However, whether we like it or not (I hope the former), we’re also becoming the conscience of our organizations. It’s incumbent on us to speak up when we hear about or see an issue that could harm an organization’s reputation. This is easier said than done. Volkswagen is a great example of a crisis of character – dozens of VW employees must have known about the manipulation of data, and yet no one spoke up (or, if they did, the information didn’t get to the right people).

To tackle such a crisis, communicators need to work with executive management to create an ‘incident aware culture’. Employees should feel that they can report issues without reproach or fear of retaliation. Employees also need to feel that they’re working for and in an ethical organization that cares about doing the right thing. This requires continuous communication from and engagement by the board and management, as well as support from legal and HR teams. If things do go wrong, communicators and management need to proactively engage with stakeholders to explain what has happened and why, a strategy known as stealing thunder. This is best defined as an organization “breaking the news about its own crisis before the crisis is discovered by the media or other interested parties” (Arpan & Roskos-Ewoldsen, 2005).

Unfortunately, as has been noted by academics such as An-Sofie Claeys, this type of self-disclosure is rare in practice. As with the case of VW, organizations are tempted to conceal the crisis rather than make it public.

Crises of competence are easier to deal with. However, many of us still aren’t prepared for what happens when this type of crisis occurs. Here’s a simple crisis communications assessment grid developed by the communications team at US firm Timken, which establishes crisis severity based on the type of incident and the involvement of various stakeholders, as well as who needs to be involved.

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For a more detailed look at how to handle a crisis (pre, during and post), then have a look at this post I wrote after meeting with crisis communications expert Caroline Sapriel. And, if you have any feedback on how do deal with a crisis, please do share. I’d love to hear your views.