Lessons we can learn from Marriott’s Anti-Islam Tweet and Nike’s Iran Boycott Crises

It’s rare for brands to deal with a reputational crisis so openly in the Middle East. Last week, we had two issues happening at once. First up was Dubai’s JW Marriott Hotel, which took the decision to part ways with celebrity chef Atul Kochhar after he wrote a tweet that offended many Muslims (the offending tweet is below, and you can read the back story here at the Khaleej Times). The hotel terminated Kocchar’s deal with its well regarded Rang Mahal restaurant.

“Following the recent comments made by Chef Atul Kochhar, we have taken the decision to end our agreement with him for Rang Mahal. With the termination of our agreement, Chef Atul will no longer be associated with the restaurant,” Bill Keffer, general manager of the hotel, told Gulf News.

Atul tweet

Atul’s tweet was highly criticized, both by individuals as well as the Marriott itself.

The second reputational issue was faced by Nike. Days before the beginning of the World Cup, Nike announced that it would not be providing equipment (think boots) to the Iranian football team.

“U.S. sanctions mean that, as a U.S. company, Nike cannot supply shoes to players in the Iranian national team at this time,” a company statement said.  “Sanctions applicable to Nike have been in place for many years and are enforceable by law.”

Unsurprisingly, the decision hasn’t gone down well with fans of the Iranian football team, as well as the team’s coach, Carlos Queiroz, who criticized the timing of the announcement.

There are two basic lessons that we can take from the situations Nike and Marriott found themselves in.

1. Do/Continue your Due Diligence – While the Marriott moved quickly to tackle the crisis, the question must be asked of the due diligence undertaken on Atul Kochhar’s views. Every time an agreement is undertaken, the in-house team/agency must check the influencer’s/celebrity’s background, including their social media. And they must ensure that they’re on top of anything which may be perceived as being controversial. Many have pointed to Atul Kochhar’s social media posts prior to last week’s outburst, posts which could be seen as being Islamophobic (the below is just one example of this). While hindsight is a wonderful thing, the Marriott team could have developed an insight into Atul Kochhar’s views through monitoring his social media posts before he wrote something that would have caused the brand reputational damage. This month’s crisis may have been averted.

2. Foresee issues and tackle them proactively – Our role as communicators is to understand what is happening in the outside world, and bring those insights to senior management. We have to be social and political analysts, and we have to be able to monitor issues and foresee the outcomes that will impact our organizations, and work proactively to ensure that an issue doesn’t become a crisis. How Nike’s communications team didn’t foresee what could have happened re Iran and US sanctions is beyond me, as is the possibility for Nike to apply for a permission to be able to supply the team with equipment (boots). It was a major miss, and handed rival Adidas an open goal.

Do you have any additional insights from these two issues? What are your thoughts? As always, I’m happy to hear them. Till then, take care!

Lessons from Cannes (and other awards) on what makes for great PR campaigns

There’s an art to creating great communications campaigns (image source: Cannes Lions)

I’ve just finished judging hundreds of entries for the Cannes Lions. The experience has been overwhelming, not just due to the amount of work submitted but also due to the work’s quality. I’ve judged for years, and there are few competitions that come close to the overall level of excellence (I’d say the Effies, the IABC Gold Quills, and the Holmes Report’s Sabres).

Throughout all of my judging experiences, there’s a couple of simple lessons that communication professionals need to bear in mind. These four steps will help create powerful campaigns that should be worthy of putting into any top-tier awards competition.

1. The Why – Is What you Want to Say Powerful Enough?

First of all, why do you want to communicate. Are you launching a new product, or do you want to improve your company’s reputation. The clearer you are on why you want to engage, the simpler it will be to come up with a narrative that your audience will understand. There’s got to be a strong purpose to your communications, which then links into the second step.

2. The Insight – Listen to your Audience

You know why you want to communicate, but how does your narrative tie into the interests of your audience? Far too often communicators don’t take the time to listen and observe their publics, and simply go out, all guns blazing, with messages that don’t resonate. Powerful insights connect your audience with your narrative in a way that engages them and makes them want to listen to you. If you don’t do this well, your campaign won’t cut through the thousands of messages that we process on a daily basis, and you’ll have made no impact whatsoever. Take your time, do your research, and get out of the office (and off the Powerpoint presentations) to understand what your audience cares about and how you can tap into those emotions. In other words, bring the outside in.

Bold communicators are also ready to tie in their narrative with social issues. This isn’t always easy, and can alienate certain groups if your target audience is the public. However, as business becomes more politicized, I expect communicators (and organizational leaders) to realize that companies can’t shy away from taking a stand on issues that matter both to them and their stakeholders.

3. The Strategy & Execution – Go Personal or Go Mass, Blend Online with Offline

Now we get to the fun part, which can make or break a campaign. No matter how good your planning and research is, all your audience will see is the execution of your strategy. Effectively, what do you want your communications to achieve and how are you bringing it to life?

There’s a couple of themes I’ve noticed of late. Either campaigns go as big as possible during their execution, and include as many people from the target audience during the execution itself (this is different from sharing the campaign’s content). Or, they execute an execution with a handful of people, and use that content to tell a person narrative. Both can work very well if tied in well enough with the brand/product narrative and with the audience insight.

What’s also not surprising is how the best campaigns are using both online and offline mediums to amplify the narrative. Print, radio and television plays a role in engaging an audience, whilst digital keeps the engagement alive and allows for dialogue. Some of the most recent campaigns I’ve seen also use dark social; one smart team were creating content solely to be shared on WhatsApp. I expect this trend to gather pace as communicators realize the power of one-to-one or one-to-a-few messaging platforms.

Another noticeable trend is the use of paid media to boost the reach of content. The social media platforms have become masterful at ensuring we have to spend money to reach our audience, no matter how good the content. Influencers help to mitigate the anti-viral nature of social media platforms. Either way, it’s going to cost more to reach your target audience today online than it would have done a couple of years ago. At the very least, creating content has never been easier (or cheaper).

4. The Measurement – Use Indicators that Align with the Business (not AVEs)

Finally, how do you prove your success? The most common measurement was AVEs or advertising value equivalency. Communicators are dropping this measure, but at a rate which is slower than I’d like. Most of the work I’ve judged this year uses AVEs. Another common measure is impressions, basically the number of people exposed to the message.

Smart communicators are shifting to more meaningful indicators. A simple one which does crop up more frequently is sentiment, either in traditional media or online. Communicators are also borrowing from their marketing colleagues, and are using some digital metrics (engagement, CTRs etc), as well as brand measurements focusing on reach and response. Brand measurement helps us understand if the campaign has won viewers’ selective attention and leave a brand-associated impression and if the campaign has triggered a change in behavior or attitudes favorable to the brand.

The ultimate measures are those which are tangible. Has the campaign helped sales, has it raised more money? Has the campaign resulted in a behavioral shift, has it resulted in new regulations? Some communicators are capturing and sharing this, but it’s still only a small percentage (I’d say single digits). This needs to change, especially if communications is to be seen as a strategic function within organizations.

Here’s my four pointers to what makes for an award-winning campaign. As always, I look forward to hearing your inputs. Please do share your thoughts with me.

And best wishes for all those who have entered this year’s Cannes Lions! There’s some outstanding work.

A how-to on the UAE’s “Social Influencer” Licensing & three outstanding questions

It’s almost Ramadan, the time of year when we post and pray. This year’s Ramadan may be a little different, possibly more stressful for some. Under regulations introduced in March by the UAE’s National Media Council (NMC), those making money to promote brands will need to be signed up with an e-media license by June or else face fines and other sanctions.

In the rest of this post, I’ll share the definition of what is an influencer as per the NMC, the process to get certification, as well as three questions I have on issues which maybe aren’t addressed or which have not been talked about. Thank you to Lexis Nexis and Fiona Robertson at AlTamimi for the below.

Who is an “influencer”?

The legislation is straightforward as to who is covered. To quote from the National Media Council:

“Any person who practices the above-mentioned media activities on Social Media, on a commercial basis, shall obtain a prior license from the Council, provided that:
1. It shall have an account on the generally recognized Social Media;
2. Ads that are presented on Social Media shall be subject to the advertising standards that are applicable at the Council;
3. Social Media accounts’ owners who offer paid advertising services shall obtain a license from the National Media Council in accordance with the applicable regulations in this regard and hereunder.
4. The account owner is responsible for the content of the account.”

 

The resolution covers all electronic media across the country. And the NMC defines electronic advertising as “any paid or unpaid form of presentation or promotion of ideas, goods or services by electronic means or network applications”.
For a person to get an e-media license, they’ll also need a trade license. The cost of both will be a minimum 30,000 Dirhams depending on where you buy your trade license (the e-media license is 15,000AED).

How do you get a License?

Below are the requirements and the process to follow to apply for an e-media license:

e-media license

The three questions

I’m sure there’s lots of questions from people who work in the marketing and communications industry on this new legislation. My three are:

  1. How does this cover children? There are some child stars in the US who have made millions from social media. Think of “Toys Review for kids by a kid!, for example (the six year-old child and his family have made in excess of 10 million dollars). Does the legislation cover this? There are young social media players here such as Rashed Belhasa who I assume are putting out paid content.
  2. What happens to those pushing out content on behalf of employers? The definition of electronic advertising is wide enough to ask me this question. Many employees share content from their employers. I’m assuming this won’t come under the purview of the NMC, but it’d be good for them to explicitly say so.
  3. Is this a blow to the concept of micro-influencers? The idea of people with smaller followings online, say 20,000 on Twitter and Instagram, working with brands has become popular over the past year. Often these people don’t take much money in return for sharing any content or working with a brand. Would they be able to afford the licensing? In addition, would an influencer agency want to take them on board, and bevvy up the cash with the prospect of getting a lower return than working with someone more established, with stronger brand appeal and a greater number of followers?

I guess we’ll find out how this all plays out soon. In the meantime, Ramadan Kareem!

The Global Capability Framework and how it will raise awareness of our roles as communicators among our HR colleagues

The World Public Relations Forum took place last month in Oslo. The event, probably the world’s biggest gathering of international PR professionals, included an announcement by the University of Huddersfield and the Global Alliance on the launch of the Global Capability Framework (GCF).

I’m more than just excited about the GCF. This project, which took two years to complete, defines the capabilities of PR professionals globally (there are country frameworks too for Argentina, Australia, Canada, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom and United States). It’s a design that we can all use to better career plan, manage our teams and their development, recruit for the right skills and develop curricula that will help those practicing PR.

The 11 key capabilities identified by the GCF are of universal value to everyone in the profession (image source: Huddersfield Business School)

What’s more exciting is how the team behind the GCF are bringing this framework to life. They’re working with a team of software engineers to create a tool that’ll enable us to assess both individual and collective capabilities and set developmental goals. A sample visual is below.

I’ll admit that a shot of how the tool works doesn’t do it justice. I’ve seen the tool in action, and the possibilities it provides in terms of not only mapping skills and future development, but also transforming development goals into a training plan are inspiring.

What the Global Capability Framework and the tool also provide is an ability to engage with and educate our friends in HR what communications is. To paraphrase Dr Anne Gregory, Professor of Corporate Communication at the University of Huddersfield and director of the project, we have a capability framework that can be applied globally; reflects cultural and regional variations in public relations as a profession; and is forward looking in its approach which can be used by both global academic and practitioner communities.

What this means is that for the first time, our colleagues in HR have a resource that maps out everything they need to hire communicators, to train communicators, and to develop them over the long term. They also have a tool which will measure progress.

Why does this matter? I’ve often found that the functions we work with, such as Human Resources, don’t know what we do well enough. And yet they’re defining our function for us, they’re writing our job descriptions, they’re involved in hiring, and they’re measuring our success. We’re now talking their language, with a framework which has been developed both both academics and practitioners. The GCF will also help to standardize teaching for future generations of PR professionals.

It’s always been a tragic irony that the world’s community of communicators have struggled to explain exactly what they do and how they do it to their colleagues, particularly in HR and also in management. We now have the means to educate the people we work alongside in Human Resources. Our next challenge is how to educate those above us on our contributions to the organizations we work for.

Thank you to Professor Anne Gregory, Dr Johanna Fawkes, Dr Elizabeth Montoya-Martinez and Dr Royce Turner at the University of Huddersfield in the UK, to Argentina’s Professor Gabriel Sadi, Australia’s Dr Marianne Sison and Dr Katharina Wolf, Canada’s Dr Amy Thurlow and Dr Alex Sevigny, Singapore’s Professor Gregor Half, Spain’s Professor Elena Gutierrez-Garcia, South Africa’s Professor Ronel Rensburg, Sweden’s Professor Jesper Falkheimer and America’s Professor Katerina Tsetsura for all the work and time you’ve put into this. I believe the impact that this work will have on the industry is immense. I’m looking forward to using the GCF tool and helping others better understand what we do.

For more information on the GCF, you can download the complete capability framework and individual frameworks from the University of Huddersfield here.

Creatives, PR and Media – Where are the Gulf’s Faces to Watch?

There’s many young faces to watch in the Gulf’s creative, public relations and media industries, but if you’re looking for Gulf nationals on the agency side you’ll be sorely disappointed. The industry must find ways to solve this issue of diversity and inclusion.

I’ve enjoyed reading about the future of the region’s marcomms sector over the past couple of weeks in Campaign Middle East. The publication has listed the ‘ones to watch’ in the creative, public relations and media sectors. The people featured are an impressive bunch, and just reading about their abilities, potential and experiences at such a young age (they’re all 30 or under) is inspiring.

I was struck, however, by one detail. I didn’t see anyone I recognized as a Gulf national. There was so much talent from countries such as Egypt and Lebanon, but no one from Saudi or the UAE.

For anyone based over here, it’s probably not a surprise that there’s not enough diversity and inclusion in the marcomms industry/function, especially on the Agency side (this listing was Agency-focused). While there are Gulf nationals working agency-side, especially in Bahrain and Saudi, there’s certainly not enough.

How Can We Attract More Nationals?

The marcomms industry isn’t alone in struggling to attract enough young national talent – only one percent of the Emirati labor force is employed in the private sector, compared to 60 percent in government. But the landscape across the Gulf has shifted in a number of countries. Governments in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia are heavily promoting the idea of nationals applying to the private sector. More nationals are also eager to try new fields, particularly in the creative space. Here’s my suggestions on what each party must do to change perceptions and encourage diversity and inclusion.

The Industry and National Misconceptions

Let’s begin with the agencies and private sector firms who hire (the client side). We’ve got to break down the misconceptions and stereotypes around nationals, focusing on two key points. First, there’s the issue of work ethic; for far too long, there’s been a view that Gulf nationals don’t want to and won’t work the longer hours that the private sector asks of them (governments traditionally worked from 7 or 8am to early afternoon). Second, there’s compensation; Gulf nationals have often earned more working for the public sector.

I’m not going to be naive and pretend that these issues don’t exist. In Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE there’s a high differential between private and public sector pay for nationals, as well as additional benefits such as longer vacations.

However, we’ve already seen a shift in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi, where it’s common to find a national working in marketing or comms on the client side. To their credit, some agencies such as Gulf Hill and Knowlton have always looked to hire local in these markets (they had a large roster of Saudis some years back, and they’ve also hired a number of Bahrainis). In these markets governments are both telling their nationals to look towards the private sector and reducing the compensation differential.

For many in the private sector, they’ve not even put in the effort to test if the old stereotypes are true. There’s nowhere near enough engagement with universities across the region, not enough internships for nationals, and little in the way of mentoring. These are low-cost activities, which both agencies and clients should be undertaking. At the very least, they need to look for local talent, so they can benefit from insights that only nationals can bring to the table.

Governments and Talent Development

The private sector is only one half of the challenge. The other is governments.  Understandably, the region has long sought to develop its own talent. The number of nationals working in the marcomms function has risen rapidly, at least on the government side. It’s understandable that many nationals, particularly in Qatar and the UAE, would want to work in the public sector – pay in these two countries is, generally speaking, much higher. Plus, there’s a preference for locals, meaning there’s less competition for positions.This has become a double-edged sword. There’s more marketing and communications jobs in government, pay is better, and there’s less competition for these roles. What this has led to is young nationals being advanced into senior roles, often when they’re not yet ready or experienced enough.

If governments are serious about developing local talent, they’ve got to change this approach to public sector hiring and instead focus on long-term development, in partnership with private sector firms. This could include funded internships, either at home or abroad, as well as engagement with industry associations such as the IABC to promote certifications and long-term career mapping (I’ll share more about this soon). What’s clear is that national communicators who have worked only in one sector are missing out on all the potential learnings and development the other can offer, including the ability to work with and learn from other nationalities and culture (diversity and inclusion is also an issue on the government side).

Advice for Young Gulf Nationals

My advice for any young Gulf national is simple. Go and explore the private sector, understand the training and development it can offer you, and ensure you’ve tried every single option before you go into the public sector. If you’re after a challenge and you’re passionate about what you do, the money and position will follow. But if you want to be the very best you can be, and learn from a wider group of people from around the world, then moving into the private sector will be the best thing that you can do.

Likewise, we need you. We need the industry to be more diverse and inclusive (this equally applies to the public sector, where there aren’t enough expats working today), we need your insights and knowledge, and we need your understanding of the local culture, behavioral psychology, and awareness of how the Gulf’s local communities are changing. Today, we don’t have enough of this on the agency or client side. And it’s our loss. This scenario needs to change.

If you want to talk more, message me. I’m always giving my time to universities, to talk about the profession and help you understand your options. I’m happy to answer any question you may have, and point you in the right direction.

Competing Media Motivations in the UAE’s Press (and what this means for communicators)

Communicators need to understand the competing agendas in the UAE’s press scene (image source: freepress.net)

I was once told, “to really understand a thing, you must know the reason for its purpose.” I don’t usually begin my posts so philosophically, but this quote seemed a fitting place to start when writing about the media in the United Arab Emirates.

An event caught my eye last month. The UAE’s National Media Council held a one day seminar, primarily for Emirati media professionals and communicators in the government sector. The event was entitled “The Future of Emirati Media”, and the below tweet from the National Media Council’s Chairman summarized a distinctly national view of the UAE media.

I’ve paraphrased below the key points from the above Arabic-language tweets and other material shared on the day:

  1. Work through the media to promote the national agenda.
  2. The media has a shared responsibility to work alongside state institutions and those present on social media to develop the sector.
  3. The media will contribute to the strengthening of the State’s leadership of the regional and global information sector.

The Foreign Perspective

In much of the West and East, the media is called the “fourth estate”, a group that is independent from government and which wields influence over society. Media seeks to report on issues of interest to its stakeholders (readers as well as owners), and will hold individuals, organizations and governments to account.

Essentially, the media has a number of roles, including to inform and by extension educate citizens on issues of importance, to act as a platform for different viewpoints and societal groups to share their own viewpoints and narratives, and to hold those in power to account.

In a country like the UAE, much of the English-language media consists of foreigners who have worked in other countries. Their view-point on what constitutes the media is often different to the national perspective.

What this means for Communicators

It goes without saying that for those working in communications, understanding both perspectives is vital for us to be able to engage effectively with different stakeholders. Media which are aligned with the first viewpoint are focused on the national perspective, especially as it relates to development and leadership. The media which is aligned to the second perspective is focused on sharing news that seeks to inform without the national development frame of reference.

These two viewpoints are also influencing where people work; many UAE nationals will explain that they’ve chosen to work in government communications as they believe it’s part of their contribution to the country’s development. Many foreigners in the media, particularly foreign outlets based in the UAE, will argue that sharing an independent perspective is important to truly understand what is happening in the country (and the wider region).

As always, context is key. Communicators and media need to understand each other’s motivations if we are to be in a position to engage and inform. Communicators and media need to understand these two basic perspectives and what it means for our work, be it talking within a national framework or sharing unique insights that are set within a governmental context. What’s essential here is that communicators appreciate both motivations, and they’re able to adapt as necessary to be able to interact with both media groups (and their respective audiences).

As always, I love to hear your inputs. Please do share!

Breaking Taboos – the issue of Sexual Discrimination in the Middle East’s Marcomms Industry

The #MeToo movement has rarely been discussed in the Middle East. It’s time we start talking seriously about sexual harassment in the region, especially in the marcomms industry (image source: http://www.alaraby.co.uk)

For all the impact that the online social movement #MeToo has brought to much of the world, there’s been little public talk of the challenges that women in the Middle East face when it comes to sexual discrimination. That changed this month, when ArabAd’s Iain Akerman published a piece detailing a recent case of allegations of sexual harassment at one global agency in the UAE.

The article is a must-read for all of us who work in marketing and communications (I was dismayed by a point of view shared by Ricarda Ruecker, vice-president of leadership and organisation development at MCN, that women could be to blame for any harassment they suffer due to their dress or behavior).

I want to applaud Iain and ArabAd for taking on this issue. The allegations are well known in Dubai, but they haven’t been published till now due to the nature of local defamation laws and the understandable reluctance of those women involved to talk about their ordeal publicly. Iain and ArabAd have taken a risk in publishing this piece.

Sadly, there’s so little straight talk on what women here have to deal with in the workplace. There’s lots of PR from certain quarters about the importance placed on women’s rights in certain parts of the region. And yet, I can’t help but ask one question; how does all the talk translate into action? Are companies asked, for example, to published pay scales for their male and female staff, as is now the case in Europe. The answer is no. Do we have enough female management in the industry? My answer would be not enough. And do women in the industry feel that they’re protected from harassment? I don’t feel that they do.

Small steps are being made when it comes to gender parity in the region’s marketing and communications industry. A group that I’m part of, the Advertising Business Group, is pushing to tackle gender stereotypes in the region’s advertising space. But it’s obvious that we need to do more. I’d argue that industry associations should play a larger role in talking about the issue and affording support to female members and organizations on both listening to their concerns in the case of the former, and helping put in place zero-tolerance policies for all types of harassment.

Ultimately, each and every one of us should not only pledge to fight discrimination and harassment, but we should also support anyone who feels that they have been wronged. Nothing justifies discrimination and harassment, and it’s time we started talking more about the issue openly and honestly.