Northwestern University Qatar: A case study of civil protest through social media

I’m in awe right now. Of one professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. And also the students. They’ve shown that it is possible to hold people to account for their actions and words through civil protest, both online and offline, in the Gulf.

Let’s start from the beginning. Journalism professor Justin Martin recounted how the University’s Dean had responded to student concerns that graduation would be held on the first day of Ramadan during fasting hours by saying to 40 faculty, “They can go to hell.”

This revelation, as well as insights from others, spurred the student campus to take action and voice their views collectively. What’s surprised me is how united the response has been to this incident, and how it’s brought together all nationalities to act together, through voicing their views on social media, through protesting on campus, and through setting up social media channels dedicated to the student campus. A sample of the responses is below.

The response from the University hasn’t been any different from what I’d have expected, with a statement put out that is a sorry/not sorry and which places the blame on Professor Martin himself as the whistleblower (without naming him).

“Over the weekend a series of tweets targeting the dean and members of the staff and faculty at Northwestern University in Qatar was posted. The statements were based on comments and blogs that were made some time ago – from the last academic year to one that was posted 10 years ago.

Supporting the well-being of our community – faculty, staff, and students – is our highest priority, and we take actions like this very seriously. We will continue to monitor this situation and offer our support when needed.

As a community, we all have a responsibility to be respectful of each other and our differences. Over the past decade, there have been instances where we failed to reach that standard and for that, we apologize.

There are no claims of perfection at NU-Q; we are all human; however, we are also one community. It grieves us that someone within NU-Q would try to hurt this community that we all have worked so hard to create.”

In a region where so many grievances aren’t aired out of fear of reprisal (such as termination or deportation), it’s brilliant to see young people in a university standing up so bravely to state their views with respect and civility. The Gulf needs more of us to speak up for what is right, and Dr Martin and Northwestern University in Qatar’s students have shown that it is possible for a group to stand up and advocate for both respect and understanding from those in power. All the power to them, and I hope that NUQatar’s administration both takes the time to actually listen and act.

The Story of Abu Dhabi’s Toll Gate – Why Comms Shouldn’t Need to Clean Up After Others

When things go wrong, the first people to deal with the blow-back are communicators. Organizations need to involve comms early on, to better anticipate what may not work, and what the response will be

It’s been a month of chasing, of phone calls, visits and Tweets. And yet, there was no update, no new information. I’m talking here about my experience with Abu Dhabi’s new toll system. The idea is simple; Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital city, wanted to set up a road toll tax on drivers entering certain areas. To do this, drivers had to register on a website prior to the system going live (there’s already a road toll system operating in the UAE, in Dubai. The Abu Dhabi version is different to Dubai’s).

So far, so good. We had just over a month to get our affairs in order, before the toll gates went live on October 15. I wanted to be proactive, and so I went to the website to register my car. The questions were straightforward – I needed to provide the details of my national ID card, my car plate, an email and password. Simple, you’d think. I must have tried a couple of times, and I couldn’t register. All I kept getting was the below message (which really wasn’t helpful).

“Something went wrong” may be an accurate description of the whole IT system, but it’s not going to help users understand the issue

I call up the contact center. They ask for my national ID number before asking for my name (which I found strange), and then advise me to go in and log an issue. I do this, and register a complaint a whole month before the deadline. The adviser tells me I’ll get a call once the issue is solved. No call comes in for a couple of days. I call up, and there’s no update. What I do understand is that many other people are going through this same experience. I tweet, and get the same response over and over again. I’m not alone, sadly.

The inevitable happens, and the service’s introduction was delayed, from October 15 to January 1.

Given the need to register (if you don’t, you’ll be fined per day), I can imagine that there would have been thousands of people wanting help, and spending time reaching out to the government body in question. These channels would have been handled by the customer service/communication teams. I feel for the people manning the phone lines or the social media accounts, as there’s little they can do to control a situation, besides from repeating the line that “IT is working on it.”

This whole back-and-forth conversation reminds me of how uncommon it is in many regions for both communications to be brought into the design process, and how little user testing there actually is before a new system is rolled out.

It’s simple. A difficult experience erodes trust. A good experience builds trust. Transparency in challenges helps engender trust. Spin does the opposite (and lots of people will know when they’re being spun).

My hope is that this story will be a lesson learned, especially for governmental bodies who want to roll out new technologies, and who need to engage both their communications teams and potential users early on. Communications is there to help, so bring the right people in (preferably those with experience who ask the right questions, anticipate what may happen, and understand how to best engage with an intended audience), listen to their advice, and ensure that these people are part of the whole innovation process, from end to end. I’m sure I speak for many communicators in the region when I say that I don’t want to clean up for others; I simply want to help create a better product or experience which I can talk about. Are you with me?

MBC’s Suicide Bomber Promo (I can’t believe I’m writing this)

The above tweet from MBC has now been deleted

I’m going to say from the outset that everyone makes mistakes. And I also have considerable respect for work the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), the largest broadcaster in the Middle East, has produced (Ahmed Al Shugairi’s Khawatir is the most inspiring program ever aired on Arabic-language television). But what I saw on MBC’s social media channel yesterday horrified me. Before I describe the scene for non-Arabic speakers, I’m going to share the video below.

The video was shared on MBC’s social media account on the evening of the 30th September. It’s effectively a promo for their new series of Arabs Got Talent. Someone wanted to create a video, and they thought it’d be a good idea to depict a would-be suicide bomber on stage, and choosing life instead of destruction.

The dialogue basically conveys the person on stage saying, after he’s opened up his shirt to show the explosive belt, that, “they trained me to blow you all up, but I’ve chosen life and Allah. Can I now sing.” He’s asked by the presenters what he’s doing, and then asked to sing.

There are so many better ways to fight extremism. And there are so many better ways to promote a show (and this is a promo, for anyone who is asking). Given the issues the Middle East faces when it comes to how it is perceived abroad, as well as Islam, who thought this was a good idea? And why did the presenters go along with the idea?

Let’s stop with the stereotyping BS. Extremism is a serious issue, and it should be handled as such, rather than as a prop for a publicity stunt. I’m happy that MBC has taken this down, and I hope that there’ll be discussions internally as to how to better handle such a serious subject, especially by a program which is watched by millions.

Sheikh Mohammed’s ‘Move Ahead Agenda’ and MENA’s need for more CCOs

At the end of August Dubai’s Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum published an open letter to officials. The message, nicknamed his ‘Move Ahead’ agenda by the media, focused on a number of issues, including the need to engage face-to-face with people they are serving, the responsibility to act properly on social media, and the importance of resolving consumer issues head on (you can read a full translation here from The National newspaper; I hope future letters will be translated to English by the government, given the number of non-Arabic speakers in the country).

The underlying thread throughout the agenda was the need to clearly and proactively communicate, to promote dialogue, and to talk through challenging issues, particularly around poor service.

Sheikh Mohammed has long pushed for his country’s government to be one of the best in the world. This month he launched another initiative, to rate the best and worst performing government offices nationwide. The tweet below announced the results of the first round of evaluations, with a listing of the five best and five worst performers.

These efforts will go a long way to improve the quality of services offered to residents in the UAE. But it also got me thinking about the nature of communications in the region. Unlike in Europe or the US, communications in the MENA region is primarily tactical; its aim is to inform, top-down, or externally. There’s less in the way of strategic communications, which is used to promote stakeholder dialogues, develop reputations and set expectations, or plan and co-create with stakeholders to deliver a better product or service.

Over the past couple of years, the UAE has created new governmental roles; today, each ministry has a chief innovation officer, and a chief happiness officer. There isn’t a mandated chief communications officer role, however, which would report directly to a minister, or into the Prime Minister’s Office. My own feeling and experience is that there are not enough government communicators who are aware of new communications models or who have the strategic mindset needed to fulfill Sheikh Mohammed’s ‘New Agenda’. Rather than leading from the front and communicators setting what needs to be done to improve communications, it seems that the communications approach is dictated by the leadership of specific ministries.

Is it time the UAE government mandated that ministries appoint CCOs, invest in their communications abilities and empower those capable enough of transforming government communications? What ideas do you have to improve government communications across the region? Could this be the start of a transformation as to how governments in MENA communicate with their own people, as well as with stakeholders abroad? As always, I’d love to hear your ideas on what role the industry can play in this.

Purpose Marketing: Nada Dairy’s Ad for Saudi National Day Backfires

Nada’s attempt to mix politics with branding have backfired

I’ve spoken previously about the issue of purpose marketing in the Middle East (mainly the lack of any local brand engagement on big issues such as gender equality and sustainability). One popped into my timelines this week. Sadly, it’s an example that will be long remembered for what went wrong, rather than right.

Nada Dairy is one of the largest manufacturers of dairy products in the Gulf. The company decided to create a video in the run up to Saudi National Day this week. The video attempts to draw a line between the Kingdom’s new cultural policies, and those which were promoted several years ago (this is putting it crudely). The video depicts traditional views as backwards.

The issue with this political stance is that you’re clearly alienating a significant number of consumers. The Kingdom isn’t a democracy, but consumers are free to choose whichever brands they want. And this video has demonstrably hurt Nada’s reputation. Boycotts of its products have been trending on Twitter all this week, and the news has even led to boycott calls in Kuwait.

Nada’s response was to “apologize” for the video (which has been pulled from its feeds). The company also states that it recognizes and respects all views. The statement (which is the first image in this post) may not be the end of the issue, given the strength of the online responses. What is clear is marketers must think long and hard as to what positions they take on societal issues and causes, if they want to both be a supporter of societal change as well as a company that builds a loyal consumer following. If Nada’s management believed in these principles, then the brand has to stick with them. No one will believe in a brand that flip-flops on a societal stance.

Getting PR Creative: Technology, Stunts and Film-Making Inspirations

Wendy’s consistently uses technology to engage followers (and a wider audience), often at little to no cost, proving that creativity is possible even on a budget

Are you still stuck sending out press releases on that new executive hire? Or prepping for a new product launch with a stock photo and a couple of lines of text? Communications can often feel that it’s a function which is devoid of creativity. With this post, I wanted to inspire you to think that creativity is possible, even on the tightest of budgets. All you need is insights into your audience, imagination, and the bravery to try something new!

Creativity and Technology

I want to share a couple of technology-related ideas and concepts from big brands. One is as cheap as you can imagine (thank you Wendy’s), and another is more expensive, but also shows how new tech can bring life to a very old product.

First up is Wendy’s Fortnite. Watch the video below to see how a simple creative idea can result in a major impact.

The second concept I wanted to share is from Lego. Lego is a brand which is 87 years old. The product is known by kids and adults worldwide. And yet the brand is trying a host of new technologies to change hold children (and adults) play with the products.

One new concept they’ve launched is Hidden Side. This theme is all about ghosts! What have the good people at Lego done? They’re using augmented reality through an app on our phones to transform how we both look at our lego sets, and play with them. Creating a gaming app certainly isn’t a cheap option, but it does make me think about how new tech can give any brand and its engagement a new lease of life. Have a look at the below video to get an idea of how these new Lego sets change the concept of gameplay.

Creativity for PR Stunts

I do love a good PR stunt. They’re a simple way to garner lots of headlines, and also make a wider point about the brand/product and why it is so special. And PR stunts can be both creative and low-cost. Here’s one from Huawei, which has become a master of both PR stunts and trolling its rivals on their areas of relative weakness. Watch what they did to Apple recently. As an iPhone owner, I wish I was in that line.

Creativity in Film-Making

If you have the budget, and are looking to win over hearts and minds in the long-term or tackle a big issue, then film-making is the way to go. I’m talking here YouTube series, television or streaming services here. Two recent examples reminded me how powerful film-making can be. The first was for the new Dora movie. Whilst I’m not a Dora fan (my daughter is), the sight of a group of four teenage girls dancing to the music and following all the twists and turns brought to life how a well-crafted idea can create millions of fans and also open their minds to new concepts (I don’t think anything/anyone has done as much to promote Spanish to the English-speaking world as Dora).

The second piece of content I saw which brought home to me how powerful film-making can be to tackle big issues was Sacred Games, a fictional story about Mumbai’s gangsters and a plot to transform India. There’s a lynching scene which addresses the issue of religion and hatred in India. The scene is brilliantly shot, and has driven debate on race relations in India today in a way that no brand could do. Have a look at the scene below (it is graphic).

I hope these creative ideas have inspired you as to what you can do to liven up your approach to comms and public relations. Whether you have no budget, or an ATM in your office, there’s lots you can do to get people excited and engaged. So, what are you waiting for?

Hong Kong, Social Media and PR’s Values – A Chat with Arun

I’ve been closely following what’s been happening in Hong Kong. What interests me is how all sides are communicating, how they’re using social media, and also where the industry stands on a big issue such as democracy and transparency.

I reached out to Arun Sudhaman, the CEO of the Holmes Report. Arun is both based in Hong Kong and is one of the leading journalists for the public relations industry worldwide. Here’s our talk on what’s happening in Hong Kong, the impact of social media today, how communicators are struggling with their values and what’s being asked of them, and why purpose is such a hard issue to get right.

Enjoy the conversation, follow Arun’s work on the Holmes Report, and share your thoughts!

Is it time for a debate about how the PR sector deals with Ethics?

Why isn’t the PR industry able to get a grip on and deal with ethical breaches? (image source: Greenbiz)

Don’t fall asleep. Please don’t. What I’m going to say matters to our industry and profession. Over the past week there have been a number of big reads about ethical issues. First there was Fleishman and accusations of astroturfing about a project in Manchester. Then there were the revelations about how Monsanto and FTI Consulting sought to discredit journalists and activists who spoke up about Roundup weedkiller. And there was an interesting read from Stephen Waddington on Dominic Cummings, the communications tactics used during the Brexit campaign and why our political campaigning laws are not fit for a world where online advertising now dominates.

What is good is the increasing focus on ethical issues in the industry. We need to talk more about ethics, and realize the importance of this issue. What’s leaves much to be desired is how we are dealing with these issues as an industry. Our associations follow an approach of only investigating an issue once a complaint is made, leading to far too much reaction and not enough pro-active engagement (while I’d like to give the PRCA credit for agreeing to investigate Fleishman, it’s strange how this has occurred – Fleishman has asked the PRCA to investigate its own alleged breach of ethics. Fleishman’s Jim Donaldson is also chair of the PRCA Board of Management).

In some cases, associations aren’t even willing to investigate ethical issues. Case in point is my own experience with MEPRA last year, when I privately and then public asked about how new board members were being added, in a process that was in breach of the bylaws. What was the response, which was supported by many of the board? To paraphrase, “We failed on corporate governance, but you can now go jump…”

Many of us feel that censuring Bell Pottinger was the right thing to do after what they did in South Africa. And yet, the complaint against BP wasn’t raised by a public relations practitioner, but rather a political party and a journalist. Anyone who works in public relations will know a story or two about ethical breaches (always about someone else, of course). And yet, we’re not willing to speak up. Is it because we don’t want to speak ill of the industry, or that we don’t want to be seen as a trouble-maker (only own experience with MEPRA would suggest the latter).

Whatever our reasons for not talking, ethical issues are going to compound, given the increasing ease by which anyone can manipulate digital media. We’ve got to ask ourselves if there’s a better way not just to deal with ethical breaches, but also to educate members about ethics in general. This is a reputational issue that impacts us all, and we’ve got to start talking about an approach to ethics that is fit for today. What say you?

Has the PRCA become MENA’s industry association for communicators?

I’m going to start this post with me eating my own words, and those words were written in 2016. The London-headquartered Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) had just started its operations in Dubai, and I’d criticized them for not engaging with the local association, the Middle East Public Relations Association, and for not being in tune with what the local market needed.

Three years later, I’m happy to say I was wrong. The PRCA MENA chapter has launched a number of big, inspirational initiatives, such as the MENA awards, the Cannes Young Lions for aspiring communicators in the region to present at the world’s biggest marketing event, and even Arabic-language initiatives such as NextGen Arabia to mentor local talent.

What has surprised me about the PRCA MENA has been its ability to expand into the region’s key markets. The organization has chapters both in Egypt and Lebanon, two countries which are the feeders of markets like the United Arab Emirates. The PRCA has moved quickly to establish itself as an entity that is locally based across the region. What has also impressed me is the PRCA’s willingness to reach out and work with other groups.

Where does this leave MEPRA?

For a decade, the Middle East Public Relations Association was the only representative body for communicators in the region. When the PRCA opened up shop in Dubai, my hope was that competition would drive MEPRA forward.

At that time, I was on the MEPRA board and was pushing for geographic growth and more partnerships. Back then, there was a chapter in Qatar, and my hope was that we’d open up in Saudi and Jordan or Lebanon.

Three years later, there’s no chapters outside of the UAE (the Qatar chapter closed down). There are partnerships in place with the CIPR, which is benefiting MEPRA members with additional training options. However, I’d have liked to have seen wider agreements with other organizations to promote certification and best practice sharing (there’s an agreement with the Arthur W. Page Society, but I don’t see how this benefits the mass membership, given Arthur Page is focused on senior practitioners).

I have full confidence in MEPRA’s chair and vice-chair, and I was glad to hear of their plans to do more in Saudi this year. But it’s also clear to me that decisions made to make MEPRA stronger after the PRCA MENA launched in 2016 haven’t resulted in more agility and the ability to get things done quickly.

The region needs a strong local body, and I hope that MEPRA becomes a regional association that is present in the major markets across the region. At the moment, the PRCA seems to have become a membership body that is present where most of the region’s communicators are. And that can only be a good thing as we look to bring the industry together and raise the standard of our profession.

“Spoiled Journalists” – Why Communicators Should Support MENA’s Declining Media Sector

The Gulf’s media has had a shocking year so far, with a series of journalist layoffs in the UAE. Is there anything that communicators can do to support the journalists they work with?

I’ve been around the block, and I’ve read, seen and done so many bizarre things in my profession that I’m rarely phased. But there’s a moment once in a blue moon when I have one of these moments where I’m reliving Arsenio Hall.

What set me off was a piece published by PR Week Middle East. The journalist had interviewed a Dubai-based public relations practitioner. The title was “Journalists and Social Media Influencers are too spoiled.” I’ll share just one quote from the piece, which you can read after subscribing to PR Week.

Social media influencers and journalists are being so spoilt and most brands raise the bar very high because they send expensive gifts and also, they have been bombarded by hundreds of pitches a day. This will make it near enough impossible for our brand stories to get noticed in the sea of emails flooding to their inbox – as well as the number of gifts they receive.”

Firstly, I don’t understand how any PR person can lay the blame on the media when the gifts are being sent by the PR people (Santa, why did you bring me so many presents this year?). And secondly, at least for much of the media, this just isn’t happening.

The Media is Collapsing

Over the past month I’ve heard first hand about three dozen journalists being fired from two of the largest publishers in Dubai, the Gulf’s media hub. They’re either being offered salaries which are up to a third lower than what they’re currently making, or they’re being laid off because the ad money is being put into digital (read Facebook and Google).

Why does this matter to communicators? Firstly, the expertise of these journalists is invaluable; they know their beat given their local experience (most journalists are expats, and new journalists often come from outside of the Gulf) and they’re able to put stories into context (one journalist who was laid off from Gulf News is probably the best investigative journalist in the Gulf today). Secondly, like in other parts of the world, the number of public relations people is increasing, and the number of journalists is decreasing. Publishers are increasingly turning to freelancers, not just to provide copy to but actually run publications (they’re cheaper, as their direct and indirect costs are lower – think no medical insurance, no end-of-service benefits etc).

What is different in the Gulf is that without employment, expats must leave. There’s no gig economy to speak of, as individuals aren’t free to take on multiple roles/jobs (unless they’re nationals), and few ex-journos are willing to set up content shops given the costs of visas and setting up business licences. In addition, those journalists who remain are frequently finding themselves overextended, and they’re being asked to take up non-editorial activities, be it supporting on sales pitches, or arranging events.

How Can Communicators Help?

While I’d like to think that the global decline in print media is reversible, I’m not that naive. However, as communicators we have to play a part in supporting the journalists we work with (I’ll always have a soft spot for the media, partly because I respect what they do and partly because I don’t want my job simply to be about working with influencers).

Firstly, we’ve got to clearly state why earned media makes sense to our clients. In an age where trust in other media types is falling, much of the public still believes what they read in their newspapers and magazines. We’ve got to go further than this, and start looking at how we can work with media outlets on concepts such as native publishing. If media engagement matters to us, we have to think how we can support these outlets financially whilst ensuring that editorial and sales lines don’t blur (much of what we do with influencers is paid).

Secondly, I think many of us would benefit from spending a day on the media side. The person quoted in the PR Week article is right in one respect – there’s far too many pitches being made, pitches which aren’t relevant and which add little value to the audiences we’re trying to engage with and influence. We’ve got to move away from the mass-blast press release, and start thinking more critically about how we can create content that is both right for a publication in terms of its audience, and is of a high enough quality for the editor to say, “I’d like to run this piece.”

What I feel will eventually happen is that regional brands will start to move in the direction of organizations in Europe and the US by hiring former journalists as in-house content heads. A part of me would welcome this (the quality of content put out in this region needs to be drastically improved), but a part feels that we’ve got to think long and hard as to how we can work with the media industry to explain why they matter and how they should be considered a critical piece of both communications and advertising strategies for organizations in the region.

Given that last thought, I do hope that the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA) will also step up and support the media sector; MEPRA shared the PR Week story without any comments on its own stated view for or against the “spoiled journalist” opinion. We need leadership in this space, and it’s got to come from industry bodies.

As always, I’d welcome your views.