Step up, support the Comms industry. Volunteer for the IABC EMENA Board!

Volunteer

I’ll be the first to admit it. It’s a well-known secret in the communications industry that we’re awful at PRing what we do. The public relations sector doesn’t engage enough with the outside world in terms of what we do and why we’re of real value to any organization.

For me it was exciting to see the turnout at the annual regional Eurocomm event in London recently. The number of professionals who cared enough to travel to London for several days, and engage in learning and debate about the industry, was inspiring. There’s a lot of good will and positive sentiment around the communications sector at the moment, which I hope will long continue.

But, I’m never satisfied. I’d like for us to build on that engagement, and ask you, the communications professionals who I engage with here online, or through social media, to put themselves forward to volunteer to support the industry’s growth and act as leaders and mentors to those who want to learn about and join the sector.

As a not-for-profit organization that aims to promote public relations both globally and throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, IABC works through volunteers. The Europe, Middle East and North Africa board supports activities across the most diverse, and most exciting region for communicators. Under the board, IABC has a host of country chapters that help with everything from organizing our large events (think Eurocomm which was held in London in March), to smaller activities such as media evenings, webinars and training. Volunteers can also help in research work and soliciting ideas and thoughts from our wider family of members.

If you want to give back and help, why don’t you step up and volunteer on the EMENA board? Volunteering is one of the most rewarding activities that I’ve engaged in, and I’m sure you’d enjoy working with a group of people who could not be more passionate about what we do and why we do it.

Please do drop me a line in the comments or send me a message through social media and we can take the conversation from there. You can find more details here on the IABC website. Nominations are open until Wednesday the 17th May.

So, what do you say? Are you up for it?

Lessons for the PR Industry from the Dubai Lynx

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

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

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

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

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

Recycle Old News or Stick to Brand Values? How will firms deal with Trump?

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Trump’s Twitter attacks have targeted a number of firms. His behavior may not change when he takes up the Presidency today.

Trust me, it’s happening. Today, Donald Trump will be sworn in as President of the United States. And, judging by the past couple of months, Trump will personally run his agenda of making America great again across the entire business community. Shel Holtz has written a fantastic piece about the impact that Trump has when he Tweets about a company which he feels isn’t doing enough to support his American vision.

Companies will have two basic strategies to deal with this new type of political risk; they can either recycle old news, or they can resist Trump’s attacks, and fight back (yes, you read that right, brands will go up against Trump).

We’re already seeing firms come out with a raft of job announcements. This week General Motors said it would invest US$1 billion in its U.S. manufacturing operations, which will lead to the creation or retention of 1,500 jobs, adding that it would also add another 5,000 American jobs “over the next few years” in finance and advanced technology. Fulfilling another Trump pledge, GM announced that around 450 jobs will be returned to the US as GM transfers back parts production from Mexico.

Other firms have also put out jobs announcements. Amazon, whose founder Jeff Bezos publicly rowed with Trump during the election campaign, announced that it’d hire over 100,000 staff over the next 18 months. “It’s a very powerful headline, and the timing certainly makes Trump look good,” Ivan Feinseth, an analyst at Tigress Financial Partners LLC, told Bloomberg. “It’s going to happen in the first year and half of his administration. Bezos couldn’t have set him up any better to look good — timing is everything.”

China’s Alibaba has sought to allay Trump’s Chinese angst by promoting job creation in the US. Last week, Alibaba chairman Jack Ma met with the president-elect to tell him that the Chinese Internet giant would create 1 million jobs for Americans by helping small domestic businesses sell to Asian markets via Alibaba.

Job creation in the US is a tactic that many firms will seek to copy over the coming months as Trump takes charge. How many of these announcements will stack up, who knows. We’ll only know for sure after the space of months or years. However, many brands will be tempted to win favor with Trump’s administration and stay out of his crosshairs by pushing job news. The questions many will ask are, is the news real (for example, will Alibaba really be able to create a million jobs for Americans?), and is the news old? It’s been alleged that the GM announcement was planned as far back as 2014.

The other approach that companies will take is to stand up to Trump. Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, Richard Levick, president and CEO of the Levick public relations and communications firm explained why.

“Other companies will realize that the king doesn’t have a lot of clothing here,” he said. “At some point in the not too -distant future, a company will realize that there is greater value in being courageous and standing up to the president.”

To date, the best example of a brand fighting back against Trump is Vanity Fair. The publication, whose editor Graydon Carter has long been a critic, ran a piece in December last year titled, “Trump Grill Could Be The Worst Restaurant In America”. Needless to say, it didn’t go down well with the President-Elect.

The magazine responded  instantly, running a headline banner ad across its own and other sites entitled “The Magazine Donald Trump Doesn’t Want You to Read.” The result was 40,000 new subscribers.

“Vanity Fair played that perfectly,” Scott Farrell, an expert in crisis management and the president of Golin Corporate Communications, told the New York Times. “‘This was the magazine that Trump doesn’t want you to read.’ I think their response was consistent with the brand’s DNA.”

Firms will either have to proactively plan to put out information that will appeal to the new administration. Or they’ll have to plan on how to respond to a potential attach. Whatever they do, brands will have to move with speed, to counter Trump’s use of Twitter. Whichever route brands take, crisis comms experts (and the rest of us) are going to have an interesting four years. Unless someone turns off the WiFi in Trump Towers, that is.

Guest Post – Failing at the basics

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The anonymous editor really isn’t impressed by the lack of communication skills on show on the region’s agency side

Here’s a guest post for you, from our anonymous editor who has some advice for us public relations professionals in the region. Enjoy the read!

Here’s a question for you PR practitioners – what would your client think if a journalist told them ‘I emailed your agency with a request two weeks ago but I didn’t get any reply from them’?

The client wouldn’t be impressed, right?

So why, as a journalist, am I faced over and over again, with deafening silence when I contact so many different agencies? In the past six months, I’ve had numerous occasions where I have sent a request to an agency, and gotten absolutely no reply whatsoever. The same agencies are quite capable of making constant phone calls to my mobile when they want something, but apparently seem to think it’s OK to not even acknowledge an email sent ‘proactively’ by a journalist.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a reply, even if its just saying – ‘we got your email and our team will be in touch’. I don’t know whether you are waiting for the client to respond, but at least telling me you are working on it, or that the client is away, lets me know, so I can find another source or another interview subject if you aren’t able to reply by my deadline.

Sometimes an email may go to the wrong practice team or to someone who is on holiday. But everyone should know that if they are the wrong person, they need to pass the email along to the right person. An ‘out of office’ message is a simple courtesy. Even if you are not working with that client any more, not replying is bad for any future relationship with that reporter.

At the end of the day, your client is paying you to field media enquiries – I don’t expect 24-7 service (even if many clients might seem to believe they own every hour of your day!) – but your client has a right to expect communications from media during office hours are answered asap. Not ‘I was in meetings all week’ or some other excuse…

Failing to respond to an email from a ‘customer’ is a basic failing in business practice, for any business. When the business is PR and you are selling the strength of your ‘relationships’ with the media, it’s just plain stupid.

What does the blocking of the Doha News website mean for media?

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Many Qatar-based visitors to the Doha News website will have seen this block message yesterday. No reason has been given for why the news site is blocked.

It’s not been a good week for the region’s media. First of all 7Days announced that it’d close by the end of the year. And now, the Doha News website has been blocked by Qatar’s two telecommunications firms, Vodafone and Ooredoo. The news site, which is the only independent media outlet in Qatar (i.e. not government owned, was inaccessible to many inside Qatar. To quote from the site’s own announcement:

As many are aware, Doha News became inaccessible to most online users in Qatar as of yesterday, Nov. 30.

Our URL – dohanews.co – was apparently blocked by both of Qatar’s internet service providers, Ooredoo and Vodafone, simultaneously.

Since then, the majority of people in the country have been unable to access our website on their desktop computers and mobile devices.

Exceptions included access to a VPN (virtual private network) or unfiltered corporate internet.

Yesterday, Doha News put in requests for information from the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA), Ooredoo, Vodafone, the Government Communications Office (GCO) and Qatar’s National Information Security Center (Q-Cert.)

While we waited for their response, we temporarily diverted readers from dohanews.co to another domain name, doha.news.

However, that URL also stopped working in short order.

Deliberately blocked

Given this development and the silence from the government and ISP providers, we can only conclude that our website has been deliberately targeted and blocked by Qatar authorities.

We are incredibly disappointed with this decision, which appears to be an act of censorship.

We believe strongly in the importance of a free press, and are saddened that Qatar, home of the Doha Center for Media Freedom and Al Jazeera, has decided to take this step.

There’s been no announcement from Qatar’s authorities as to why Doha News has been blocked, and there’s been much speculation on Twitter about why the site has been blocked (follow the hashtag  which translates to Doha News website ban to see more).

I’ve written about Doha News before. I respect their team for writing about subjects no other media outlet will cover. I value a free media because I understand the good it does for society. Journalism encourages debate and discourse, it promotes an exchange of ideas and it supports transparency. Doha News is a credit to Qatar. I hope that whoever was behind the decision to block Doha News realizes this, and flicks the proverbial switch. However, given the prevailing sentiment, this hope may be ill-founded.

In the meantime, I wish the very best for the Doha News team. As they’ve shown, there’s a futility to blocking websites in today’s age. They’re already publishing on Facebook and Medium. We are in an age where it’s easier than ever to share information, and attempts to block this only result in more coverage of an issue.

Today the only effective way to stop a story breaking is to jail the reporter. However, this approach will do major harm to Qatar’s reputation, particularly as the home of the Arab world’s largest and most influential broadcaster (Al Jazeera’s acting director general was talking about professional journalism only six weeks back). Already the Doha News story has gone global thanks to reporting by the Associated Press, with coverage as far off as America.

For Shabina, Omar and Doha News team, I and others will keep on supporting you in your mission to report on everything that is happening in Qatar.

Birth of digital influencers = death of true journalism! Who’s to blame?

Have social media influencers negatively impacted our profession?

I’ll be hosting more guest bloggers on the site. This piece is from Rijosh Joseph, and focuses on the contentious issue of social media influencers and their impact on the media and the concept of public relations in general. Enjoy the read, and thank you Rijosh!

Call me old-fashioned, but I am quite annoyed with the evolution of modern day PR! I often wonder, if not all but at least, some of us PR folks, have lost the plot or whether we are passing the buck to the modern-day advertisers?

The topic had been “vocal” both in my mind and among a few of my peers within this industry. A recent YouGov report published by BPG stirred further debate and hence I find the need to put forth a lay opinion.

When this study was posted as a pitch for editorial opportunities in “UAE Journalists”, a private Facebook group that has members within the media and communications industry, it laid the platform for members to “engage” with their views. And honestly, it was a very interesting thread to follow.

Coming back to the point, it frustrates me to sit with PR teams (clients + agency) only to educate them on the incorrect notion of treating journalists inferior to digital “influencers”.

For instance, a certified journalist, are in most cases, served with a press release, which PR folks expect them to carry in their publication. Yet a blogger or digital influencer, plugged to the cage of technology, and who does not possess any insights on journalism, gets pampered at an all-inclusive media event. I agree, product reviews, giveaways and meals never pay their bills. However, we hardly realize that it is a lifestyle choice that they made.

In my honest opinion, digital influencers could strive for a path wherein the real essence of journalism and the need for materialism, can co-exist. Instead of just showing up at events for the freebies, one can get creative in myriad ways of generating revenue while preserving the quality of good writing.

For starters, one can turn a blog into a revenue generating business-model with meaningful campaigns, rather than a platform for paid editorials or tainted and biased op-eds. For example, if you love travelling, then creating a memorable travel experience alongside partnering with brands that are willing to collaborate and for the same cause will let you fill your pocket and keep the sanctity of good blogging.

If one is in to fashion and beauty, then developing a fashion line or partnering with make-up brands they believe in for workshops etc., will lead consumers to their webpage, at the same time maintain the dignity of unbiased content with a penchant for money.

The core essence of blogging is channeling one’s opinion based on their passion points. It does not become a blog if it turns out to be a tool to endorse commercial products.

In the last couple of years I have come across several bloggers and digital influencers who “review” products, but end up in situations wherein they stoop-down to cringe-worthy negotiations, like refusing to publish the review without payments or price-tags being involved. It had also got to the point where they create a drama when we politely decline the opportunity and request to collect the product to return to the client as they are all part of a rotating media review sample quota.

Similarly for media events, if influencers expect them to be invited, it is only fair for PR folks to expect them to cover it. Be it, positive, negative or neutral – give us the coverage if you have shown up to the event and taken a press kit. It is highly frustrating when they send an email with their rate card following the event to publish or cover it. Instead, stop asking to be paid to be part of a media experience and honestly write your thoughts about it. That isn’t the role of true bloggers.

The point here is, I’m not trying to fully kill or disapprove influencer marketing. As communications professionals, we must tie up with influencers only if they can provide clients with tangible analytics to back up exactly what ROI they can bring to a campaign. But with the current state-of-affairs, too many lines have been crossed and it is appalling that we are forced to please every new kid on the block who claims to be an influencer and, worse, bend and break to their whims and fancies.

From the debate on this topic in the “UAE Journalists” Facebook post, there was one comment, which caught my attention to also reflect from the other side of the spectrum. The post stated:

“What is the difference between a paid influencer and a journalist who has absolutely no freedom or inclination to write a story unless there’s significant advertising spend? What’s the difference when a journalist calls you up, asking if you can get them tickets for a concert or movie, etc. Not saying all journalists do this, but let’s be honest, most do. Whether we like it or not, celebrity influencers have always been a part of the marketing and comms-mix, now with social media, the rise of the “digital influencer” is inevitable. You and I, may not have let an influencer sway our opinion on a product or service, but I think most of us, have tried out that new restaurant just because we heard everyone talk about it.”

And it is sad that I have to fully agree to the above post. All UAE journalists are not saints. We all have had our countless experiences that make us wonder as to why chose to be in PR. It is also a fact that in this region, the ethics in journalism among journalists have gone down. This might also be a reason for incessant rise in influencer marketing.

So, what can be done to clean up the mess?

To begin with, from a digital perspective, I feel it is time the scene becomes regulated by relevant authorities of the media council to make it mandatory that all paid editorial content on digital platforms get declared as “sponsored content” as opposed to how it is being offered to readers now. This should bring about a sense of equilibrium among all stakeholders playing within this sphere of media and communications.

And on that note, it is high-time, members within digital fraternity consider ways to stop asking for money merely to be part of a media experience. And as responsible PR professionals, we must not dig our own grave by fostering current practices with influencer marketing.

Discrimination, Verbal Assaults and the Internet – is the UAE doing more harm than good to its brand?

Is the UAE risking its well-earned reputation as a country that we all love by arresting and jailing those who fall foul of its legal code when alternatives are available to resolve conflict?

Is the UAE risking its well-earned reputation as a country that we all love by arresting and jailing those who fall foul of its legal code when alternatives are available to resolve conflict?

There’s never a dull moment when it comes to local dramas. For years we’ve had cases of messy divorces, affairs and other issues which have spilled into the local media here in the UAE. However, these soaps have been superseded thanks to a glut of new laws (or a stricter implementation of existing laws) relating to personal rights and freedom of speech.

Only this week, there have been two cases which have made regional headlines. The first has been the arrest of a man at Abu Dhabi Airport for what has been best described as a rant after he missed his connecting flight. I’ll quote from the article in the English-language newspaper Emirates 24/7:

Emirati Police recently arrested a British citizen of Indian origin for allegedly insulting security personnel, the airline’s employee and the UAE, using obscene words, after he missed a connecting flight from Abu Dhabi.

He missed a connecting flight from Abu Dhabi to India caused by delays of his earlier flight from Heathrow to Abu Dhabi.

Lieutenant Colonel Fares Al Bakiri from CID, Abu Dhabi Police, who is heading the investigations, explained that the incident took place a week ago when the traveler arrived at Abu Dhabi International Airport on a delayed flight from Heathrow Airport resulting in missing the connecting flight from Abu Dhabi to India. He started swearing at the airline’s employee, and blocked the passengers’ queue behind him, insisting to board his connecting flight although the gate was closed and the aircraft is about to take off.

The second story this week involves the first case brought under the UAE’s new anti-discrimination law. Aimed at making hate speech a legal offence, the law imposes a jail term up to 10 years and a fine of between 50,000 dirhams to two million dirhams on any person or group causing offense or aiming to create discord in the country. To get back to the case, here’s the story from the English-language daily The National:

A high-ranking Dubai security chief has launched a criminal complaint against a Saudi writer under the new law against hate crime.

Lt Gen Dhahi Khalfan, deputy chief of police and general security, accuses the writer, Dr Mohammed Al Hadif, of spreading hatred of the UAE on social media.

“We are organising a case now to pursue him, according to the new law,” Gen Khalfan said on Twitter. “Criticism is one thing and hatred is another thing. The case has been filed, Al Hadif is wanted, and it’s time to try him in court.”

Gen Khalfan, the former Chief of Dubai Police, has previously accused Dr Al Hadif of being a member of an organisation linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The writer has been a vocal critic of the UAE’s involvement in the Saudi-led coalition to defeat Houthi rebels in Yemen, and of the UAE’s relations with Iran. Last year, Saudi Arabia banned him from using Twitter because of his support for the Brotherhood and for the reinstatement of the former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi.

The law criminalising all forms of discrimination on the grounds of religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race, colour or ethnic origin was enacted on July 20.

Penalties for those convicted range from six months to more than 10 years in prison and fines from Dh50,000 to Dh2 million.​

To repeat, the defendant isn’t in the UAE, but rather Saudi Arabia. And my assumption is that he’s speaking or airing his views from Saudi Arabia which is outside of the UAE’s jurisdiction.

As a global hub, the UAE has done brilliantly at carving out a reputation as a business-friendly country which welcomes all who want to invest and live in the country. However, with other recent cases in mind, is the UAE at risk of damaging its own hard-earned reputation as the place to be by making examples of individuals in difficult circumstances or who are outside of their own jurisdiction?

I can imagine that we all would be peeved after missing our connecting flight, while I can’t help but think that it’s better to engage proactively with those who share different views rather than take them to court, especially if they’re not in my jurisdiction when they commit a crime which the other country made not consider to be a crime.

While the law is the law, I can’t help but feel a dollop of common sense wouldn’t go amiss here, especially if the UAE is to continue its brand building project to shape in our minds the image of a country where we all want to be in, live and support. Are these cases doing more harm than good to the UAE’s reputation, and should we all be more forgiving when it comes to such cases where a touch of empathy would help to resolve the situation.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them.