Culture, Empathy and Changing Views – Why Communicators Must Be Aware Of How Global Trends Can Impact Local Populations

Have global movements such as Black Lives Matter shifted views on Israel and the Palestinians?

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 indisputable is that civil debate and activism around race in the US and Europe, from causes such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) to colonial historical legacies, is pushing many people to rethink how they view conflicts in the Middle East. There’s been lots of good writing on this recently, such as this piece in the Washington Post on BLM and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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.

Comms Conversations – A Twitter Space to Talk About Big Issues in MENA

I’m excited about being able to take the discussion online through audio

It’s about time we talked openly about big issues for communicators in the Middle East, and what better way to do this than having a conversation in a chat room?

That’s the idea for Comms Conversations, which I’m going to start hosting on Twitter Spaces (I’d have loved to have done on Clubhouse but it’s not usable in the UAE or Oman).

Every couple of weeks, we’ll host a new discussion on Twitter Spaces. For up to an hour, we’ll share views and experiences on big issues we all face.

The first Comms Conversation will happen on Wednesday the 26th May at 11.30am Dubai time. We will be joined by the editor-in-chief of PRovoke Media, Arun Sudhaman.

Join us then, and follow @alex_malouf on Twitter as we speak openly about comms in the region – the good, the bad and everything in between!

We have much to learn from Asia’s Communicators

Asia-Pacific Association of Communication Directors | LinkedIn

I’m excited. And I’ll tell you why. We’re launching the Asia-Pacific Association of Communication Directors in the Gulf. This matters to me, and should matter to us all. And here’s why. Many of us have looked to the West for instruction on communications. But I believe we need to look towards Asia. And here’s the simple reasons why.

Cultural Foundations

In many respects, our cultures are very similar. The Middle East is a blend of high context cultures, with many things left unsaid. That’s the same for much of Asia, where cultural awareness is key to communicating. We share religious similarities, and common linguistic traits. Our governance structures could also be described as similar, with a certain opaqueness when it comes to public lobbying. And then there’s the growth of regional hubs such as Singapore, which resemble Dubai in many ways.

Similar Challenges

And then there’s the issues that we face. There’s a fascinating research article by Jim Macnamara, Ana Adi, May Lwin, and Ansgar Zerfass about PR management across Asia Pacific. For anyone in the Middle East, it’s like déjà vu, with a focus on digital, issues around trust, linking business needs to communications, and dealing with increasing amounts of information. If anything, we’re closer to Asia-Pacific in our challenges than any other region.

Shared Experiences

What’s fascinating is our shared experiences. Asia’s communicators have dealt with a myriad of challenging issues, such as the Asian Financial Crisis, the SARS and H1N1 pandemics, and a host of political crises. What’s also fascinating to look at is how many communicators in the Middle East hail from Asia. There’s more Asian expats in the Gulf working in communications than from any other region. And we have much to learn from them and from communicators across Asia-Pacific.

The APACD

I believe that the APACD can be a bridge to gap the Gulf and Asia-Pacific. And as the co-chair, alongside my good friend Saba Al-Busaidi, we’re going to work with the APACD to bring their activities to the Gulf, so that we can learn from our colleagues in Asia-Pacific, as well as share our own experiences and abilities with them. That’s why I’m excited. If you want to know more, go and visit their website (click on the below) or reach out to me to know more.

Why Acknowledging Other’s Views Makes for Powerful Engagement

More leaders need to listen to and understand the views of others before speaking

I’ve been reading a fair amount of media of late. In one interview, the executive spoke about how she’d simply walked into an organisation’s reception and asked for a job. In another, the author spoke about how her country is leading the way in gender equality. And in the third piece, an opinion editorial, the author spoke about how much more hope there is now than twelve months back.

All of these views reflect their authors’ experiences and beliefs. What struck me as a reader was how their perspectives were different from my own. For example, I’d never be in a position to walk into any office and say I want to work here, at least not in the region I’m in (it very much felt like a statement made from a perspective of privilege). And for billions of people living in countries which have yet to receive any vaccines, the future is far from hopeful.

The point I’m very much trying to make here is that we all see and understand communications from our own experiences and beliefs. And executives who want to make a specific point need to think about what they’re trying to say through the lens of others.

By acknowledging differences in your argument and talking points, you strengthen your ability to persuade and convince others. Empathy is a powerful means to build partnerships and advocates, and the best way to do this is to listen to and understand what others are saying, especially those who are different than you (that’s why diversity and inclusion are fundamental to effective communications, and why all communication teams should be diverse).

Dr Kevin Ruck, Howard Krais and Mike Pounsford have done extensive research into listening and communications. Have a listen yourself into what they’re saying here. And let’s do more to acknowledge the other(s) in proper dialogues.

#MeToo and the Middle East’s media sector – what changed?

We’re a couple of days out from International Women’s Day, the time of year when we all look to gender equality. But I want to get the conversation started now, and on a different issue. A couple of events have gotten me thinking about the issue how women are treated in the media and marketing sectors in our region.

The first was a very brave article by former journalist Reem Abdellatif. Reem is no longer based in the Gulf (and I’ll get to why this is important in a minute) and she penned an op-ed on sexual harassment and assault for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper (if you’re not subscribed to Haaretz, you should be – often the reporting on the Gulf is better than what you’ll see from newspapers in the Gulf).

Reem’s piece is both general and personal, and Reem details her own stories of abuse. Chillingly, she describes one experience of an uninvited sexual proposition by a journalist in Dubai. It’s a story I feel many women here will be able to relate to. I’m sharing a specific piece from that story below.

Some of you may have noticed that I referred to Reem as having been based in the Gulf. She wouldn’t have been able to publish this account if she were still based here. And no media outlet would carry it, even if she weren’t based here. This is due to the region’s defamation laws, which are criminal offenses. And that brings me to my second reminder. Which I can’t even talk about, despite the seriousness of the sexual harassment allegations being made and the fact that everyone would know the organization.

And that for me is the core of the issue. In the Gulf, we can’t talk about sexual harassment, except in broad brushstrokes which have less meaning. The perpetrators get off, scot free, with little impact on their careers or their reputations. While the victims have to live with the abuse for the remainder of their lives.

If the media and marketing industry is serious about tackling gender equality, they’ve got to start with this. And that doesn’t mean making a statement about the issue of gender equality in the company, talking about the need for purpose in communications or bringing in a female head for a couple of years. Rather, it means rooting out the issue of abuse and harassment. What we have to do must include:

  • Trainings on sexual harassment and gender bias at the workplace, for all staff (most especially management);
  • Proper investigations into sexual harassment allegations, including with the authorities – these are criminal offenses, and should be treated as such, and
  • Anyone found guilty of sexual harassment should be blacklisted from agency groups, and future employers should specifically ask about this question when asking for references.

These are the basic steps the industry must take to address the issue. For all the talk about equality and opportunity, if women don’t feel safe in our industry then we’re not going to make any progress on these other issues. Who’s with me?

Ethics during a Pandemic – An example from the airline sector

Ethics has never mattered more. And communicators need to think carefully about whether their messaging is both accurate and ethical

The past twelve months has been the hardest I can remember as a communicator. And one of the big issues we’re all facing is on ethics. Given it’s ethics month for our profession (thank you for this initiative Global Alliance), I wanted to highlight the issues around ethics. We’re being pushed to get out news that’ll raise confidence in our organizations and industries, but the big downside is obviously sharing information that isn’t fully accurate. The consequence of this is a trust deficit, both in our brands as well as the response to the pandemic.

One example that I saw this past week was from Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-based airline. The company’s CEO spoke to Bloomberg and made the claim, as reported by Bloomberg, that the airline is the first to fully vaccinate its crew (you can see the interview here).

Etihad followed this up with a press release and social media posts, an example of which is below.

I understand the airline’s challenge. The aviation sector has been hit harder than any other industry. And they want to give people the confidence to fly again. They also want to assure governments they’re doing everything they can to keep people safe and not spread the virus.

The danger is that this information isn’t fully accurate. How do you define vaccinated? Well, it turns out our definitions may not be the same as the airline. Reuters did good work and asked that question. It turns out that Etihad hadn’t given all of its staff two doses, which is required by pretty much every available vaccine here in the country (you can read the report here).

In a rush to get out a positive headline, was the decision that the Etihad team took the right one? Will their messaging now engender trust? If Reuters hadn’t have asked the right questions, we wouldn’t have even gotten to the accurate, factual picture behind the headline.

Trust matters more than ever. And we have to be as accurate as we possibly can so that our stakeholders understand what is happening and why. Let me know your stories this ethics month. And let’s remember that ethics will always matter. Our interpretations may differ, but the facts don’t change.

Dubai, the UK Travel Ban and Influencers – would a Diverse Comms team have helped?

Countless UK influencers have flown over to Dubai over Christmas, and it’s fair to say that the British public has noticed. With public perception influencing policy, why didn’t the communications team notice this sentiment and flag up the issue to superiors?

If you’re in the UAE, you’ll probably have already seen the news about the UK banning direct flights from the country. If you’re in the UK, you’ll probably be asking yourself how all the influencers who are apparently over in Dubai are now going to get back.

This decision isn’t good for the UAE. But could it have been avoided through better communications? Let’s first look at how both are faring? The UAE’s cases are increasing, but haven’t crossed 4,000 a day. In contrast, the UK is registering over 28,000 a day as I write this. And the UAE is second worldwide for vaccinations of its population, behind Israel. The UAE is targeting half of its population being vaccinated by the end of March.

So what’s prompted this decision by the UK? The UK government says the decision to add the UAE to its red list, alongside Rwanda and Burundi, is in response to new evidence showing the likely spread of a coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa. But does this hold weight? Denmark took a similar step a couple of weeks back, after discovering one passenger on a Dubai-Copenhagen flight who had the new strain.

Any good communicator knows that perception is reality. Dubai and the Northern Emirates were open for business over Christmas, with no lockdown rules in place, unlike most of Northern Europe, meaning that many have traveled to the country for vacations. Sports starts and social media influencers flocked over to Dubai, despite the UK government urging people to travel only for exceptional reasons. And they’ve made headlines; one Celtic player being Covid-19 on return to Scotland and countless influencers being castigated online for enjoying their time in the UAE whilst the UK’s general population was having to follow new, more stringent lockdown rules over Christmas (the below video is especially cringeworthy).

It seems that the UK’s policy has been headline driven. There’s no doubting that. But should the communications teams working for the government have spotted these sentiments earlier and understood what the headlines would mean for policy regarding travel between the two countries?

Simply put, yes. And this is why a lack of diversity works against good communications. Any person familiar with the UK press and the British sentiment/mentality would understand how the overall negative sentiment towards those Brits in Dubai would shape government policy. And they should have flagged this as early as possible to the UAE’s own policymakers, with suggestions on how to counter this perception of the UAE being a place where people could escape to and avoid Covid-19 restrictions.

Over the past decade, there’s been a standing policy in much of the Gulf to localize government communications. The crisis we’ve all faced over the past year underlines why a best practice approach to communications must include employment practices that help the communications function’s diversity mirror the diversity of the overall population.

I hope that one lesson we learn from the past year and the past month is the need to embrace diversity in communications, in all its forms. We should help develop and include more local communicators in the industry, but there’s got to be an understanding that this must be done alongside promoting diversity. Otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves in more avoidable crises as the one we’re facing today.

The Politics of Business – Edelman’s Latest Barometer Summary

Media, NGOs, Government or Business? Who do you trust the most?

It’s safe to say that 2020 wasn’t a vintage year for trust; social media was a cesspool of conspiracy theories related to the pandemic, China, vaccines, and of course US politics (apparently, Washington DC is full of child-kidnapping serial killers who own pizza shops).

The above has been certified fresh by public relations firm Edelman. In its latest annual Trust Barometer survey, the company has done its polling of thousands of people worldwide, and the results are in. Businesses are trusted more than any other group (that includes NGOs, governments and media). Businesses are also seen as the only segment that is both ethical and competent.

There’s a couple of interesting insights from the Trust Barometer on this issue (and I’d advise you to read the whole report, especially the segments on trust in the pandemic). The top line is that the public expects businesses to be more involved in societal issues, especially where others (read government) are failing.

Now, there’s both opportunities and challenges here. It could be argued that business is more trusted because it hasn’t taken sides on issues – that’s beginning to change after events last year and in January 2021, with many firms in the US and Europe weighing in on politics publicly. CEOs are increasingly being listened to on issues that have major societal impact (Brexit is a good example of this in the political space. Other examples could include the impact of technology on employment).

But any political stance a brand or the CEO takes is also going to lead to polarization. Take the example of Nike, Black Lives Matter and boycott campaigns. Any public stance, such as advertising on Fox News, can also be taken as a public stance on politics, and lead to calls for boycott.

Some firms are taking a clear stance on issues such as sustainability through their stated purpose. Unilever is a great example of this – the argument goes that younger consumers are looking for brands that share their beliefs and are acting to improve society. However, I’d argue that many CEOs are still risk-averse, and don’t want to be seen to be offending anyone. This is even more true in non-democratic societies, where governments don’t face public pressure through representative systems (my one criticism of Edelman’s Trust Barometer work is that the public/informed consumers in non-democratic societies cannot freely speak their minds, or are consciously/subconsciously pressured to respond in a certain way). I doubt I’d ever see a CEO in my region speaking in a way that may be interpreted as even mildly critical of the government – they’d be out of a job (and the country if an expat) within 24 hours.

Edelman highlights a number of areas where businesses can build a trust surplus. Some are pretty simple – the climate is an issue that we all should be talking about, including businesses. There’s the response to COVID-19, as well as what we can do to further economic growth, and put long-term “thinking” over short-term profits (my assumption here is that the public are referring to income redistribution). There’s one element which will make every journalist howl with laughter, which is “guarding information quality”. In my view, businesses struggle more than any other group with transparency, so I’d love to have Edelman clarify this point (again, my assumption is that as media is less trusted, businesses have to become better at telling their own stories).

I’m going to leave it at that for now. Do have a look at the full report, and let me know your thoughts. Do you expect businesses to speak more openly in 2021? If yes, why and how? And if no, why not?

Communicators are essential to ending the pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece first ran in Arabian Business.

A Long, Hard Slog: Looking Forward to 2021

You don’t need a crystal ball to see that 2021 will be a tough year for communicators

I hope I haven’t put you off reading this blog, but I wanted to spell out in simple terms what we communicators can expect in 2021. Whilst we do have vaccines and many countries are rolling out inoculation programmes, many of the fundamentals are the same as last year – we’re facing a global pandemic, many people are falling sick, and even more are ignoring health and safety advice. There’ll be more economic ups and downs, lockdowns, and stimulus plans. And communicators will have to do crisis comms on top of their daily work.

Let’s look at the basics, as to where the big focus areas will be in 2021.

Internal Comms is still a top priority

Last year was momentous for internal communications, especially in markets/regions where the function came a distant second to external communications. During the pandemic’s first couple of months, the focus shifted inwards. Communicators were tasked with ensuring employees were educated on health and safety, and in pushing executive messaging. Internal communications came into its own, and the value of good internal communicators was obvious.

Given the state of the pandemic in most countries, I expect that internal communications will remain key to every organization over the next twelve months. Not only will internal comms be top of mind for leadership, we’ll also see more innovation in this space. The number of employee podcasts launched last year in the UAE alone surprised me (though I do wish we’d learn to create content simply and timely, rather than overproduce). We’ll also see more use of martech in the internal comms space in 2021. This is an area to watch and, if you’re a young communicator, focus on for growth and specialization.

Budgets/Owned Content are King for External Comms

On the external side, there’s two issues that’ll determine how well you’ll be able to communicate. The first is money. Specifically, it’s how much money you’ll spend on advertising with your media partners. Last year was brutal for publishers, and the editorial mandate is simple – any editorial space will go to advertisers. I know many editors who aren’t happy with this, but they have little room to maneuver. Unless you have an absolutely brilliant media relations person who’s quite literally related to every journalist out there, you’ll need to up your ad spend if you want to get more coverage.

The other route is owned content. And expect to see more blogs, vlogs and podcasts being launched in 2021 (I’ll admit, I was expecting more in this space in 2020). External communicators are going to focus on their media creation and editing skills in 2021, or spend more money on agencies to help out. There’s still the obvious challenge of amplification – if you’re pushing out via social media, you’ll need to either put ad spend in or work with influencers (including your own employees). The other route to take is using emailers. It’ll be fascinating to watch what happens in the external comms space in 2021.

Fighting Fake News and Rebuilding Trust

The pandemic won’t be over until enough people are immune/following health and safety rules. And, as we’ve seen in 2020, there’s a large segment of society that don’t believe what is said, or just ignore the advice. The biggest challenge for every communicator out there is to work to combat fake news, especially online, as well as regain the trust of the vast majority of the population. I’m already seeing people I know who don’t want to get vaccinated because of what they’re seeing on social media, despite them having relatives who have had this terrible disease.

What’s also apparent is that healthcare communicators need help. Just as the industry came together last spring to help those Communicators who needed support, I feel we need a global effort to come up with ideas and campaigns that’ll promote vaccinations and burst fake need bubbles (I don’t expect any help from the social media platforms on this issue). I’ll write more on this in the coming days.

They’re my three big thoughts for 2021. Let me know yours. And, whatever happens, I wish you all the best of health and success for the coming 12 months.