Clients, Non-Payments and Slow Growth – Is it time for the Middle East’s PR Industry to work together?

A couple of stories broke over the past couple of weeks in the Middle East’s PR industry. This wouldn’t be unusual if it weren’t summer, when little happens. The first piece was the news of additional job losses at Edelman Middle East. The second was the restructuring of FleishmanHillard in Saudi Arabia due to final losses. And the third, which didn’t register in the media, was the closure of a one-person PR agency in Dubai.

There are two issues at play here. The first is management. Edelman’s layoffs aren’t a one-off; the company has made repeated redundancies over the past couple of years, and I feel for all those who joined what is the world’s largest independent PR agency, only for this to happen. Edelman has struggled in the UAE and the wider region, even after the purchase of one of the country’s largest privately-owned agencies, Dabo & Co, in 2015.

The second issue is payment, or a lack of. To quote from the Gulf News piece on FleishmanHillard:

The non-payment of fees, apparently due to a lack of invoicing clients, has impacted their operations forcing the company to reduce their headcount in Riyadh.

The issue also caught the eye of the head of one of the largest agencies in the region. Writing on his LinkedIn feed, Sunil John shared his view on the need for cross-industry action to address non-payment, particularly by governments.

SunilJohn

Slow to No Growth

Let’s give a little context to the PR industry across the Middle East. Over the past two years economies in the Gulf have struggled. Saudi has been in recession for a number of quarters. The UAE’s economy is growing slowly. The fastest growing economy over 2017 was Qatar, with a GDP growth of just over 2 percent. While this may not look particularly bad for those in Europe, many of us in the region can remember a time a decade back when economies were growing double-digit. Slow to no growth is the new norm in the region, and we (and management outside of the region) have got to get used to this, and budget accordingly.

Government Spending Grows

Ironically given lower government spending over the past two years on the back of falling oil prices, the driver of PR spending has been government. Saudi in particular has been spending heavily to transform its reputation globally. I’ve seen a host of medium and large agencies flock to Riyadh to work on Saudi’s Vision 2030, as well as other projects. Political circumstances have resulted in significant sums being spent in both London and Washington. For agencies starved of growth from business, government spending has been a boon.

Payment Terms and Governments

The challenge with government accounts is payment – both payment terms and collection. Government accounts are rarely small, and I’ve heard of terms that can be as long as six months. That’s a long time to wait for payment. And then, there’s the issue of payments being made on time. In my knowledge, it’s rare for a government to pay a bill on time. And if they don’t, what’s the recourse? There’s no higher authority to appeal to, no court you can go to. You chase and chase and chase. And hope you get paid, sooner rather than later.

Is Industry Action Going to Happen?

Sunil John’s call to action is interesting, but it’s not new. I and others have discussed the idea of having non-payment lists with industry bodies such as the Middle East Public Relations Association several years back. My heart desperately wants the large agency heads to come together to agree on what action to take when it comes to black-listing accounts (the WPP agencies could easily take the lead, given the size of their business here). But, despite the hurt the industry is going through, my head say this won’t happen. For every agency that drops a non-paying account, there are ten lining up to pitch. Everyone thinks they can do better on payment.

Sadly, I think there’s a bigger issue at play which doesn’t just affect the PR industry (to give you an example, Saudi’s construction industry has faced payment delays of up to 18 months). The answer is collective action. And it’ll require true leadership from everyone on the agency side, as well as leaders on the client side calling out this behavior. Is anyone ready to make the first move?

Zain Ramadan’s ad, the MBC ban and how politics & business mix in the Middle East

This week Zain put out its Ramadan ad. The Kuwait-based telecommunications company has a reputation for mixing politics into its messaging during the holiest month of the year for Muslims. The company’s advertisement last year, which took on the issue of extremism through a portrayal of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, became a viral hit in the Arab World.

This year, Zain’s timing is impeccable. The topic of the video is Jerusalem. You can watch the video below (it’s subtitled and includes a couple of nifty cameos by global leaders such as Angela Merkel as well as Donald Trump). There’s also a good description of the video and its context provided by The National’s Naser Al Wasmi. Already there’s been two million views of the video in less than two days.

Zain’s stance on political advertising is unusual. While there’s been a movement in the West for companies to take a stand on political issues that were once deemed to be off-limits (for example, immigration in America), companies in the Middle East rarely speak about wider societal issues.

While Zain’s latest Ramadan video may prove popular with many (Zain has operations in eight countries in the region, including Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon), there’s been reports in the Kuwaiti press that the MBC Group, the largest satellite television station, has banned the airing of the ad on their stations during Ramadan. MBC, which is Saudi-owned, banned the airing of Turkish soap operas in March of this year, a decision which surprised many given the popularity of Turkish dramas across the Middle East but which must be viewed in light of recent Saudi-Turkish relations.

Zain’s Ramadan ad is a rare example of a Middle East business taking the brave decision to use its media voice to take a stance on a political issue. But as has been shown by MBC and other voices online, it’s neither easy nor simple to take on a political issue in a region which is already politically divided across multiple fault lines.

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.

Shock and Awe: What is happening to the Gulf’s Media?

The Gulf is known for many things, but a controversial media isn’t one of them. The region’s media are known for not causing a stir, and for generally towing the line. There are exceptions – some local, Arabic-language radio stations in the Gulf host phone-in shows. One of them didn’t go so well. Here’s the story from The National newspaper.

It was a call for help from a man who couldn’t afford to provide for his family that was cruelly batted down by a prominent radio host.

But in the 24-hours that followed, Ali Al Mazrouei witnessed a justice of sorts when the radio jockey was suspended and his plight was heard in person by the leaders of the country.

The 56-year-old, a father of nine, spoke of his struggle to get by on a relatively low salary and a large family.

When he phoned Ajman Radio’s morning talk show Al Rabia Wal Nas on Thursday, he tried to highlight what rising living costs meant for families like his.

“The expensive prices are a big problem; everything is too expensive, including fuel, and the income is low,” he said.

“We want to provide for our children but we can’t buy anything; when one cannot make his children happy what is the point of living?”

When he spoke of inflation and the cost of basic goods, the show’s co-host Yaqoub Al Awadhi interrupted him to say there “there are retired people whose salaries are Dh10,000 and even used to be Dh7,000″ before the government raised payments.

The anchor went on to suggest that someone who could not live on that amount must have poor skills in managing finances and does not appreciate what he has.

Mr Al Mazrouei responded to say he does not spend money on anything other than his basic needs…

“We want to do good, when we see someone like us, we pray for him and we try to help when we find someone poor like us,” he said.

The radio host replied: “Don’t give anyone anything, just hold your tongue.”

“I don’t accept that you defame my country and say the people are all suffering.

“The salary you receive is from where? Where do you feed your children from? This all doesn’t deserve gratitude?”.

Mr Al Mazrouei responded that “I am an original national of this country, I am a Mazrouei,” as the host started to mumble, “where did you appear in front of me now from?” an expression in Arabic indicating an unpleasant encounter with someone.

The ill-tempered exchange continued for some time.

When news of the argument reached Sheikh Ammar bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, Crown Prince of Ajman, he ordered the suspension of host Yaqoub Al Awadhi.

On Tuesday, Mr Al Mazrouei was received by the Crown Prince and the Ruler of Ajman, Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, while Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, ordered that his situation be looked at immediately and his family helped.

Speaking to The National, the father-of-nine said: “This was the first time that I decided to raise this issue, because life was starting to close its doors in our faces. Instead of just worrying in vain every day I decided to take a proactive step.”

He said he does not want the host to lose his job.

“He jumped from topic to topic [when attacking me], it was so strange, but I say, may Allah guide him.

The second incident comes from Saudi, where a presenter on Bidaya TV told one of his guests live on air that his father had died (the video is below). The reaction was universal condemnation online, with a campaign that criticized the station for manipulating emotions for ratings. BBC Arabic has a full report on the story (it’s in Arabic, of course). A number of the station’s employees were suspended.

There’s been a great deal of change in the Gulf’s media over the past year. Is this an example of the change in sentiment which readers may feel on political issues seeping into other parts of the media? I’m not sure. But it cannot be coincidence for two events to happen in such a short space of time in a region which rarely sees such incidents.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Brand Building and Trust in Saudi and the UAE, Based on YouGov/MEPRA Research (Part 2)

trust-in-blue-marker

This is the second post on the research by YouGov, which was commissioned by the Middle East Public Relations Association and looks into consumer trust, both online and offline, when it comes to advertising and media recommendations in goods and services.

This second post covers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which follows the post from the first four countries yesterday.

Saudi Arabia

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1003 people were surveyed in Saudi Arabia, 64% of whom were Saudi nationals and 36% were expat. When it comes to gender, 56% were male, and 44% were female. Just under 47% were aged between 18 and 29, 31% were between the ages 30 and 39, and 22% were aged over 40.

In terms of geography, just over 30% live in Riyadh, 24% live in Jeddah, 7% in Mecca, 6% in Dammam and 5% in Madinah. The other 28% live outside of these areas.

Finally, 38% described themselves as single, 51% as married with children, and 7% were married but had no children. The remaining 4% were classed either as other or did not respond.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

When it comes to those closest to them, Saudi respondents scored the lowest in the Gulf; only 82% trust in face-to-face conversations with friends and family about products and services. Younger respondents showed the lowest trust; 79% of 18-24 year-olds, compared to 90% of 35-39 year-olds. Saudi nationals scored 79%, and Saudi-based expats 88%. The other large discrepancy was between singles (77%) and those who were married (85%).

When it comes to trust in social media posts by friends and family about products and services, the scores were much better; 54% found such posts trustworthy, compared to 13% who found them untrustworthy. There’s a seven percent difference between young respondents (18-24) who trust the least (52%), and respondents in the 30-34 age bracket, who trust the most (59%). Saudi nationals were also less trusting than expats, with scores of 52% and 59% respectively.

Those surveyed in Saudi did show higher levels of trust in third-party endorsements of products and services, in comparison to a brand’s own positioning; 59% trust third-party endorsements, compared to 7% who don’t. There’s a 15% differential between those working (67%), and those who aren’t working (52%).

Trust in Social Media

Overall, the Saudi respondents showed slightly higher levels of trust (37%) than mistrust (29%) in social media posts by influencers and people with lots of followers on products and services. Men were much more likely to be trustworthy (42%) than women (30%). And those who are working are also more trusting (41%) than those who aren’t (33%).

Social media has become a much more important source of information to the Saudi respondents than it was five years ago (53% agreed with this statement, opposed to 15% who disagreed). This is especially true of younger respondents and those on lower incomes. However, trust is still an issue with what people see online; 43% have low trust in what they see online (this jumps to 52% for those earning US$5333 and higher), compared to 17% who disagree.

When it comes to the most popular social media channels for information on goods and services, Facebook topped the list (28%), followed by WhatsApp (16%), Instagram (14%), and Snapchat (9%). One-tenth (11%) didn’t use any social media. Facebook was least popular among the youth (24%), who prefer visual applications and instant messaging. In contrast, Facebook was the most popular among expats, almost half (49%) of whom use the platform.

Trust in Media & Advertising 

Trust in media for Saudi respondents when it comes to products and service recommendations differed to the rest of the Gulf. Whilst branded websites scored top as the most trusted media (45%), television content, radio news and website articles also rated highly, with scores of 44, 39, and 39 percent respectively. Newspapers came second to last, at 36%, and blogs were the least trusted, at 33%.

When it comes to advertising, there’s a slight drop in trust among respondents. Television advertising is the most trusted, at 38%, followed by billboards at 37%, and radio at 31%. Online advertising is the least trusted, at 28%. A higher percent of respondents (32%) found online advertising untrustworthy than trustworthy.

When asked if they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago, 55% agreed and 13% disagreed. Men and those married with children were most likely to trust advertising less today than five years back. Saudis scored the lowest when it came to the impact of fake news on their trust in media sources. Only 58% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media. In contrast, 11% disagreed.

United Arab Emirates

united-arab-emirates-map

At 1010, the respondent base for the UAE was the largest from all the countries surveyed. Of this total, 18% were Emirati nationals, 24% Arab expats, 55% Asian expats, and just under 3% Western.

When it comes to gender, 65% were male, and 35% were female. Just under 42% were aged between 18 and 29, 38% were between the ages 30 and 39, and 20% were aged over 40.

In terms of salary, 37% earned over US$2,666 a month, 18% earned between US$1,066 and $2,665, 12% earned between US$533 and US$1,065, 8% earned between US$266 and US$532, and 7% earned less than US$265. The remaining 18% didn’t give their salary.

In terms of geography, 33% live in Abu Dhabi, 41% live in Dubai, 17% in Sharjah, and the remaining 9% outside those three Emirates.

Finally, 35% described themselves as single, 52% as married with children, and 11% were married but had no children. The remaining 2% were classed either as other or did not respond.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

Approximately 84% of those polled said they trusted face-to-face recommendations of products and services from their friends and family. The groups which exhibited the highest levels of trust were Western nationals (96%) and those earning over US$2,666 a month. Those groups who exhibited the lowest trust were earners below US$266 (70%) and those people living in other Emirates (77%).

When asked the same question about online, social media-based recommendations from friends and family, that number dropped to 55%. Young people aged between 18 and 24 were most likely to trust such recommendations (60%), as were Emirati, Arab Nationals and Westerners (65%, 66%, and 64% respectively). Asian expats (48%) and those living in Sharjah (49%) recorded the lowest levels of trust.

Conversely, almost two-thirds of people (63%) have more trust in what a third party says about a good or a service than what a brand says about its own goods and services.

Trust in Social Media

Only 39% of respondents trusted online recommendations from social media influencers or people with large followings. Unsurprisingly, considering how much time they spend online, younger people aged between 18 and 24 years are more likely to trust such recommendations (45%), as are Emiratis (52%).

Social media has become the most important source of information for people; 57% said social media has become a key source of information about goods and services today compared to five years back. However, half of the respondents also said that they have little trust in what they see on social media.

On social media Facebook is by far the most useful source of information for goods and services, with 52% of respondents using the site to know more about brands. Whatsapp was second, at 17%, and LinkedIn was third, with 10%. Surprisingly, Asian nationals and Westerners are the major outliers here, with only 45% and 44% respectively using Facebook, and 21% of Asians using WhatsApp as their preferred social media platform (I’m still not convinced however that a messaging app can be defined as a social media platform).

Trust in Media & Advertising 

For advertising, the most trusted formats were television and billboards (both at 45%), followed by radio (41%), and online (37%). Over half of respondents (57%) said they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago. This was most noticeable among those who were married and didn’t have children (75%), and those earning over US$5333 (64%).

Brand websites scored higher than both media and advertising for trustworthiness; 53% of respondents said they trust corporate websites. Trust in print publications, in newspapers and magazines, was highest, at 48%, followed by radio and television, both of which scored a 44% trust rating. Blogs were the least trusted source of information, at 39%. When asked about fake news and their trust in the media, the UAE respondents polled like their Saudi counterparts. Only 59% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media, with 10% disagreeing.

A Guide to Media Relations in Ramadan (and Eid)

Firstly, Ramadan Kareem! I know I’m late (it’s the workload), but I wanted to share a guide on how to deal with the media in Ramadan. For those who don’t know, Ramadan is the holiest month of the calendar for Muslims globally. This annual observance of spirituality is regarded as one of the five pillars of Islam, and Muslims fast from dawn till dusk. This also means a shift in work schedules for many, with those fasting working shorter hours.

So, what does it mean for PR in Muslim countries or regions such as the Gulf? Here’s my guide to media relations in Ramadan below.

A season for greetings

It’s usual to receive two sets of greetings during Ramadan. The first is at the beginning of Ramadan, where people wish one another a happy or beautiful Ramadan (we usually say Ramadan Kareem). The second message is shared at the end of Ramadan, for Eid, the festival which marks the end of the month.

The Middle East is a society built on relationships, and it’s no surprise that many PR professionals send out such greetings to media to build their relationship with those in the media. A decade back, I used to receive greetings the old-fashioned way, in paper format. Today, I’m much more likely to receive an electronic version, either shared by email or via instant messenger.

Here’s two sample Ramadan message designs for you.

The start of Ramadan is marked by a crescent moon, and this image is commonly used for Ramadan greetings

Besides the crescent moon, there’s many different images associated with Ramadan. Another common image is the mosque, the place of worship for Muslims.

The Iftar or Suhoor Gathering

It’s also common to invite media to an Iftar, the meal which breaks the fast at sunset. The Iftar and Suhoor, which follows the Iftar later in the evening, are occasions to engage with others. PR agencies and clients will often invite a group of media to dine with them.

What’s great about a media Iftar is the opportunity to meet with and talk to journalists in a relaxed atmosphere, without the need to discuss work. The Iftar and suhoor gatherings are a great opportunity to build relations with key media contacts for an hour or two.

There’s other occasions during Ramadan, which are unique to certain parts of the region. In Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, many firms celebrate with their employees or media during a Ghabga, which is a gathering between Iftar and Suhoor. Whatever they’re called in their respective regions, make sure you know these events and how you can use them for media relations.

The Media Working Hours

Many companies reduce their working hours for those fasting (some reduce the hours for all employees). I asked three media people, one in a newspaper, the second from TV, and a third from a magazine, about how Ramadan changes their operations. Their responses are below:

  1. The Newspaper Editor: Working hours do change, and they don’t. My organization reduces hours like everyone else, but reporters must still find stories to fill our pages. The paper still has to come out. We try to reduce the workload but we still have to provide coverage. We’re less demanding on how many stories they file, but since there are fewer press conferences and events, reporters really have to go the extra mile to find people to talk to. Page counts come down slightly on slower news days, but that usually just means fewer international stories for the editors to source. But deadlines don’t change, reporters must still file stories, and the presses still need to be fed. And in the unlikely event that something big breaks… it doesn’t matter if Iftar is in 15 minutes. We want that story. Now, before competition gets it.
  2. The TV Editor: There aren’t many operational changes. Working hours are reduced for those in admin and management positions. For the editorial and operations teams, the hours are the same as outside of Ramadan. The biggest change is that we shift shows around, so the morning show is moved even earlier. Other program timings may change too.
  3. The Magazine Editor: There’s really no change to how we work in Ramadan.

Ramadan Themes

The other major change during Ramadan is a shift in coverage. Top of the list are issues related to Ramadan, such as charity, spirituality and other related issues. A simple example of a charity initiative is shown below.. The Dubai-based Virgin Megastore launched an initiative called Pay it Forward, in collaboration with delivery service Fetchr, to support the Dubai Foundation for Women & Children, which provides protection and support services to victims of domestic violence, child abuse and human trafficking.

Unsurprising, there’s less discussion about certain subjects (think alcohol, conspicuous consumption on luxury goods, and other issues which contradict the spirituality of the month). Many have come up a cropper on this issue, such as the below which was put out by a hotel in Dubai.

Atelier was criticized on social media for its gold-themed Iftar (and for the advert also mentioning alcohol)

Make the most of the holy month

Ramadan is a great time for engaging with media, and building relations. I hope that you’ll enjoy this time of year as much as I do, both for the spirituality of the occasion as well as the opportunity to see media friends.

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.