The past couple of weeks have been remarkable; we’ve seen many across the world voice their opinion on events in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. What’s been marked is how support for Palestinian rights is growing, especially in the United States. We’ve had voices in Congress stand up and argue that how Palestinian citizens are treated is akin to apartheid. That would have been unthinkable even a decade back.
What’s also been fascinating to see is how local populations in the Gulf, most especially in the UAE and Saudi, have spoken with anger and emotion about what Israel has done, both in Gaza and in Jerusalem. Only last year, the UAE and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords with Israel, formally establishing ties between the three countries (they were followed by Sudan and Morocco).
At the time there was an outpouring of support in the UAE among nationals for the agreement, and little in the way of pushback (there was noticeable pushback in Bahrain). It’s rare for nationals to actively voice their own views online, if those views go against governmental policy. To quote a recent piece by the Associated Press, “No matter what your national priorities are at the moment or regional priorities are at the moment, when stuff like this happens, the Palestinian issue comes back and hits you,” Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla told the AP’s Aya Batrawy.
So, what can these two points teach us? Firstly, global events have never been more interrelated, thanks to the raw filter of social media. And second, raw emotions can still overcome national considerations, especially when it’s a religious issue.
As communicators, we’ve got to be able to understand the implications of these issues for our audiences. We keep talking about reading the room, and being the link between the outside and the inside. Which is true. But how many brands are proactive on these social issues, rather than reactive?
On that note, I did wonder about the timing of an award by the local public relations association last week. They gave out two fellowships, recognising people for their service to the industry. One is the head of communications for the UAE’s foreign ministry, who’s greatest success to date has been communicating the Abraham Accords.
While this person is a fine communicator, couldn’t the association have delayed giving this award? Would it have been more sensitive to do this, in light of people’s feelings about the conflict?
As always, am happy to hear your views. Let me know via the comments or on social media.
This week, I’m doing something a little different. I had the pleasure of being joined by the Middle East’s leading legal light (try saying that ten times) on all things media related. Fiona Robertson speaks about influencers, media laws, what some hotel brands were doing during 2020, and why communicators should be vetting what goes online. Have a listen, and follow Fiona on her Linkedin page.
For anyone who has any sense of perspective and basic awareness about what we’ve lived through over the preceding 10 months, it was pretty clear what would happen to Covid cases over the holiday period. Increased social activity, inbound tourism and generally more latitude to enable both led to an increase in positive cases. It was entirely predictable.
And yet, I’m genuinely confused. There have been very few voices criticising social media “influencers” for their behaviour while on their “essential business” trips to the country. For me, there hasn’t been enough focus on the messaging that we are “all in it together” and should, as a result, take the necessary precautions to safeguard one another. And there’s been precious little commentary on lessons learned.
Instead, as the numbers continued to climb, we all looked towards the media and their “irresponsible wording”.
I’m just as critical as anyone of the media; that’s the legacy of my journalistic past – to criticise what others write far too freely. However, it’s folly to lay the blame at the feet of the witness.
I’ve read so many hot takes this week about what has been reported on Dubai and the UAE by the international media: the foreign journalists don’t know us (despite many of them having lived for years here and writing some of the best reporting on the country); we’re doing better than others (I’m sorry, but we’re not New Zealand or South Korea), and “we know best”, which is the new “if you don’t like it, you can leave” argument.
Can anyone say, with any sense of self-respect, that the foreign media is to blame for what’s going on? If they’re not, why do we then attack them for what they write about what has happened over the end-of-year period? Which is, in effect, what all of us saw, either face-to-face or on our social media timelines? And, for those accusing them of this, where were you a month ago when all of this was unfolding?
The value of hard truths
I believe that hard truths are often better for us than being told what we want to hear. The reporting about the case numbers and the reasons behind their rise has acted as a wake-up call for many. It’s focused us all on what we need to do to keep people safe and led the authorities to take steps that’ll stop the spread of the disease. And for that, I’m thankful.
Instead of attacking some media outlets for asking difficult questions – which is, in fact, their job – why aren’t we asking ourselves about the importance of both accountability and tolerance? Across the world over, the media have done some of their most important work in asking why we have responded the way we have. They’ve spoken to the medical experts and they’ve communicated in plain language what we all need to understand, often better than others.
I’d go even farther and say that the best media has helped to save lives. I for one am grateful for the media’s work in 2020, for the reporting and coverage that have helped people truly understand what we are up against. And I expect the same of them in 2021.
For all of our sakes, they should keep on asking hard questions.
If you’re in the UAE, you’ll probably have already seen the news about the UK banning direct flights from the country. If you’re in the UK, you’ll probably be asking yourself how all the influencers who are apparently over in Dubai are now going to get back.
This decision isn’t good for the UAE. But could it have been avoided through better communications? Let’s first look at how both are faring? The UAE’s cases are increasing, but haven’t crossed 4,000 a day. In contrast, the UK is registering over 28,000 a day as I write this. And the UAE is second worldwide for vaccinations of its population, behind Israel. The UAE is targeting half of its population being vaccinated by the end of March.
So what’s prompted this decision by the UK? The UK government says the decision to add the UAE to its red list, alongside Rwanda and Burundi, is in response to new evidence showing the likely spread of a coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa. But does this hold weight? Denmark took a similar step a couple of weeks back, after discovering one passenger on a Dubai-Copenhagen flight who had the new strain.
It seems that the UK’s policy has been headline driven. There’s no doubting that. But should the communications teams working for the government have spotted these sentiments earlier and understood what the headlines would mean for policy regarding travel between the two countries?
Simply put, yes. And this is why a lack of diversity works against good communications. Any person familiar with the UK press and the British sentiment/mentality would understand how the overall negative sentiment towards those Brits in Dubai would shape government policy. And they should have flagged this as early as possible to the UAE’s own policymakers, with suggestions on how to counter this perception of the UAE being a place where people could escape to and avoid Covid-19 restrictions.
Over the past decade, there’s been a standing policy in much of the Gulf to localize government communications. The crisis we’ve all faced over the past year underlines why a best practice approach to communications must include employment practices that help the communications function’s diversity mirror the diversity of the overall population.
I hope that one lesson we learn from the past year and the past month is the need to embrace diversity in communications, in all its forms. We should help develop and include more local communicators in the industry, but there’s got to be an understanding that this must be done alongside promoting diversity. Otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves in more avoidable crises as the one we’re facing today.
I’ve always advocated for communications to be diverse and inclusive, to represent the publics the organizations deal with. But we’re getting to a point (and time) where localization needs to be rethought. We need the best people in the job, who have the experience and ability to communicate effectively. Now more than ever, good comms keeps people safe and can save lives. There isn’t the time to learn on the job, which localization has encouraged.
I know this appeal will fall on deaf ears, but semi-government and government must revisit localization policies, at least temporarily. A pandemic is not the time when people are prioritized for hiring simply based on their passport and not on their ability to do the job. We must hire on merit, not on nationality.
Now, what does this mean for PR practitioners in the UAE? You’re going to be opportunities to win new business, and that isn’t a bad thing given how bad 2020 has been for business. But it’s not going to be a walk in the park. I’m going to give a few pointers as to what to expect based on my own experiences living in Israel and the Palestinian Territories and dealing with media and PRs in Tel Aviv.
Let’s start with Israel’s society, which is incredibly diverse. The country’s mix is ostensibly majority Jewish, with a fifth to quarter of the country identifying as Arab (the Arab population is mainly Muslim, but there are large Christian and Druze groups). The Jewish population hails from all over the world, from Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East (think Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Morocco and Yemen), Africa (mainly Ethiopia) and the United States. There are also smaller minorities, such as Armenians, Bahais and non-Arab Christian groups.
This cultural cocktail shapes the country’s language. Hebrew is the official language, but Arabic is also widely spoken (most Jewish Israelis don’t speak Arabic, but they should be able to understand the language due to their common roots). Russian is common on the coast too. English is widely understood.
When it comes to Israelis themselves, they’re often called “Sabras” after the prickly pear. Essentially, the stereotype is that Israelis are rude and direct to strangers, but kind to friends and family. This is how that stereotype looks like in the media (see below). I’ve always found the Israelis courteous and hospitable, even when talking about food (hummus and felafel are Arab), and politics (I can’t help it).
Israel is confusing when it comes to religion and secularism. The country is very western (Tel Aviv is has the largest open LGBTQ+ community in the Middle East), but it has become increasingly religious over the past two decades as the Orthodox communities have grown in population and political influence. Most of the country observes Shabbat, the Jewish holy day from Friday night to Saturday evening. It may be too simple an analogy to make, but generally Tel Aviv is the open, business-oriented city, whereas Jerusalem is the religious, political heartland.
The Israeli Media
This is where it gets fun. Israelis are news-obsessed, and this is reflected in their media. The Israeli media is the most open of any in the Middle East. Unlike the rest of the region, there is little censorship and no self-censorship (the exception is when writing on something that is considered harmful to public security, and there are even ways for the media to circumvent these rules). There’s a media outlet for whatever your beliefs may be, from the left wing/center Haaretz (my favorite by reporting) and Maariv to the centrist Yedioth Ahronoth and the right wing Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom. These labels can be unfair, as editors/journalists may give favorable coverage to a given subject one day and write a scathing article the next. The Hebrew language dominates, but there’s Arabic and English-language publications too. All of these publications have significant digital operations, where they compete with digital-only news sites such as +972 and the Times of Israel.
For a country with a population of about nine million people, Israel has a significant number of television stations (both public and privately-owned). Many of them have public affairs shows, which are widely watched. And they’re often scathing of the government. There’s less business-related coverage on television. Likewise, radio is very much current affairs-focused.
Dealing with Israeli PR/Clients
Business-wise, Israel is well known for its technology industry (it’s second only to Silicon Valley when it comes to start-ups) and its defense sector. Both will be of interest to the Gulf. What Israel isn’t well known for is public relations. The sector has come on in leaps and bounds over the past two decades (you can read about this here behind Haaretz’s paywall). Most of the agencies in Israel are small (have a look here); in contrast, there’s fewer big name, global agencies. What this does mean is that there’s an opportunity for Dubai-based agencies to partner up with firms in Israel. It’ll be fascinating to see if agencies here openly promote/announce any such partnerships.
You may need an Israeli agency when it comes to dealing with Israeli clients. From all the media reports flying around about the Israeli-Emirati agreement, much has focused on the potential for business. Expectations are already high, and Israeli clients will need to tread carefully when dealing with reputational issues in the Gulf. They may not listen to advice, and have over-inflated hopes of coverage. Having said that, isn’t that most clients?
I’m going to call it a day for now. I’m sure others will have lots to say on this issue. But one thing is clear – both sides will have to learn quickly how the other works. I’ve already seen a slew of articles in the open Israeli press which have taken apart carefully crafted public messaging. PRs in the UAE are going to have to learn quickly about what makes Israeli media tick if they hope to ensure that their messages are both understood and used by Israeli media. And Israeli clients will need to understand that while there’ll be fewer questions asked of them by the UAE’s media, a paid approach to publications here will be vital to secure coverage. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how this plays out.
Paywalls – the notion of having to pay a monthly subscription to access news online – has long been a contentious issue, for publishers, journalists, and the public. However, paywalls and the online paid subscription model have worked; just look at the New York Times, which has arguably been saved by the paywall it introduced just under a decade back.
The old model of print media has been declining for years. And the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the process. What we hadn’t seen was any attempt to bring the paywall model to the Gulf in any substantial way, to offset the losses that many publications are seeing, both from fewer people buying copies in-store, and from advertisers pulling marketing spend.
There’d long been talk of The National going digital only. And Gulf News journalists I know spoke of how the paper had also discussed putting up a paywall. However, it may be unsurprising that it’s a publication run by a private publisher which has taken the step of introducing a subscription fee for unlimited use of the website.
Announced yesterday via email to its subscribers, Arabian Business will be the first publication in the Gulf to put up a paywall. Here’s the text of their email message below.
Thank you for your support
Thank you for signing up on arabianbusiness.com and I trust you are benefiting from the news, insight and opinion that are available on the website, 24 hours a day.
The Covid-19 situation has certainly provided some challenges – but it has not stopped us. The editorial team continue to source, research and publish high quality, trustworthy content from the UAE and worldwide, keeping arabianbusiness.com as the number 1 site in the region.
The best content, local and international
Website users enjoy content on topics ranging from commerce to culture, construction to cars, property to politics, and sports to style.
You can read stories from the UAE and worldwide, brought to you in articles, interviews, videos and photography.
Learn more about the world’s most successful business leaders, the newest start-ups, multinational conglomerates and enterprises local to you. It’s all on the website, 24/7.
Improvements to the website from June 26th 2020
To further improve the quality and quantity of news we publish, the website is moving to a paywall model from June 26th 2020.
What does this mean? Everyone can read 5 articles a month, every month, for free. To enjoy unlimited access across the entire website will cost just $5.99/month.
Why? Making quality content available around the clock, to anyone wherever they are in the world, comes with a cost. To ensure Arabian Business can continue to provide the high quality, accurate, insightful, entertaining and useful features and news that you are used to, we are introducing this nominal charge.
What is included in the cost?
• Two months free trial – try it without risk. After that, it’s just $5.99 a month
• Unlimited access to the website, 24 hours a day
• Arabian Business digital magazine, every 2 weeks – delivered via app to your mobile or tablet
• Priority access to networking events, award ceremonies and conferences
And if you decide to cancel for any reason, you can.
How to sign up and enjoy unlimited access
Click the link below and follow the very simple two step procedure.
If you have any questions about the new paywall, or any other questions regarding Arabian Business, feel free to contact us on the above email and one of our team will get in touch.
I am sure you will continue to enjoy the content created by our team of correspondents in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the USA – and from 2021 we hope to extend our coverage into both Africa and South America.
The Arabian Business Team
The hope is that the subscription revenue stream will offset reduced ad spending in the short term. And longer-term, possibly make the publication less reliant on marketing budgets. This could be a very good outcome for two reasons. Firstly, publishers in the region often publish content their advertisers share with them (and sales people also push this message). The editorial teams will be less reliant on having to please advertisers with what is essentially advertorial copy. And second, it’ll enable the journalists to focus on news that readers want to see, namely more investigative journalism (which can also upset advertisers).
These are big ifs, and it’s going to take time to change established relationships between advertisers and publishers. But if a paywall leads to better journalism, I’m ready to put my money on the table and pay up. Given the number of journalists who are currently being let go of in the region (including, worryingly, at Arabic-language newspapers), it’s worth a shot. And I hope others follow the lead of Arabian Business, generate new revenues, and put that back into creating quality journalism that we all want to see.
This is the biggest crisis all of us have ever dealt with. The pandemic has impacted every major country, both directly and indirectly. It’s brought whole industries down. And, worst of all, tens of thousands of people have lost their lives. And it’s going to get worse.
The hope is that we can all take action to flatten the curve and reduce the number of infections to a level that our healthcare systems can deal with. And this isn’t just a possibility. Countries such as Singapore and South Korea have shown that the right approach can be found to get us through this in the best shape possible, with fewer infections.
Government communications is key here. I’ve seen some brilliant work, and I’ve seen work which isn’t going to achieve anything other than the opposite of what was intended. Here’s what I hope governments will look at doing right now.
A Single Source of Information
This isn’t just a viral pandemic. We’re seeing fake news spread at an unprecedented rate. Given how many government departments are involved in a crisis response (think health, education, business, finance, legal, customs, transportation, basically everyone), the potential for the message not to be seen is high. Each government department has its own website, its own comms channels, and team.
What a crisis like this requires is a single source of information, especially online. This location needs to take the lead in pushing out any and all information on the virus and its impact, including for individuals and organizations on everything. What others must then do is aggregate information from that website. By doing this, you get people to understand where they should go, not only to source information but to also corroborate what they’ve been told.
One example of a single source is Weqaya.ae, a website set up by the UAE government to educate people on health-related issues. This website is a start (and I haven’t checked out how it looks on mobile, and if the website is responsive in terms of design), but there’s another issue that governments need to tackle, and that’s language.
It’s pretty obvious, but I’m yet to see governments in my region push out information in multiple languages. And I’m assuming it’s the same in many other places. Now more than ever, communicators need to understand their audiences, and push out content in as many languages as possible (this is why diversity and inclusion matters when it comes to comms, which many of us seem to have forgotten). Write a piece in multiple languages, translate infographics, and if you can’t dub over a video, use subtitles. In the Gulf, the languages to look at include Tagalog, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Bahasa… If the linguistic group is large enough, bring in people who know the language to translate, and then push out the content through that single source website and via…
The Use of Influencers
This crisis has been a missed opportunity when it comes to using third parties to get the message out. And I’m not just referring to people with blue ticks or big followings. An influencer right now could include a foreign embassy, an ambassador, or any person or account that’s trusted by a specific group of people. These individuals have mass appeal, they’re trusted, and they post consistently. My feeling is that governments are behind brands when it comes to using influencers (and I’ll say that many social media influencers haven’t helped themselves by being tone deaf to the situation).
Finland has enlisted social influencers in the government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that they are just as useful as mainstream media in a crisis when it needs to inform the population fast, clearly and accurately.
“We can reach a large part of the public in Finland through official communications and traditional media, but it’s clear the authorities’ messaging doesn’t always reach all population groups,” the government communications director, Päivi Anttikoski, said.
“The aim of this cooperation is to provide better access to information for those who are difficult to reach through traditional channels. As far as we know, Finland is the only country in the world to have defined social media as ‘critical operators’,” – along with doctors, bus drivers and supermarket workers.
Adapt Social Media
Governments have to innovate when it comes to crisis communications. They’ve got to create new channels based on usage and popularity. Oman set up a new Twitter account sharing all official news on what’s happening in the country. The account was set up this month, but it already has 65k followers, and is tweeting in multiple languages.
Transparency and Expertise Matters(Especially for Leaders)
My friend Julio Romo wrote a brilliant read on what Singapore is doing to combat the Coronavirus. Given that the state has come through this better than anyone else, their government communications should be studied widely. One aspect of what they’re doing is promoting clear information as to what is happening on the ground, and tell residents what actions they need to take. Their leaders have been using social media and traditional media effectively, to push out a clear message on what is happening, the actions the government is taking to make things better, and what the public can do to help.
And third, look to who is delivering your message. Doctors and scientists have emerged as the best communicators right now, because they understand the subject better than anyone. Look to Dr Anthony Fauci, who has become a household name in the US thanks to his clear, no-nonsense advice. Their understanding of the issue is reassuring. I’d like to see more scientists being given the opportunity to speak and guide the public (have a look at this WEF article about scientists and communications).
My last piece of advice is avoid making comments in the heat of the moment, especially on social media. I’ve seen so many government communicators in the Middle East mouth off on Twitter, making statements about the impact of the virus on the economy only for these statements to become nonsense a couple of days later. I’ve seen others talk about how well residents have been treated, only to have the country close its borders a couple of hours later. To paraphrase, trust takes time to build, and disappear in an instant. Do what you can to engage, to educate, and to listen as well (we don’t talk about listening enough in communications).
That’s the short of it for me – let me know what you’d add, and let’s start communicating better. What we do matters now more than ever, to keep people safe and save lives. We have been given an opportunity to make a difference for the better, so let’s take it.
Nothing lasts forever. And that’s especially true in the region’s media, which has been on its own rollercoaster ride over the past decade and a half. Tomorrow will be a big downer for me, as Scott Shuey leaves the region.
For the few of you out there in the region’s PR scene who don’t know Scott, he was the business editor at Dubai’s English-language Gulf News. He’d been there for over a decade, joining in 2006. During that time, Scott did two remarkable things, given the media landscape in the region. He was able to break and report news stories that’d make any paper proud. And he also trained many of the best journalists around in the region today. Reporters including Alexander Cornwell (now at Reuters), Sarah Algethami (formerly of Bloomberg), and Ed Clowes (now at the Daily Telegraph) worked under Scott. His current team member Sarah Diaa described Scott to me as “an excellent boss”.
I’ll miss Scott, and what he was trying to do here. I worked closely with him, Ed, and Sarah (both of whom are brilliant journalists in their own right). They pushed new channels before they were popular locally, such as podcasts, and they also pushed the boundaries of what could be reported. For me, there’s nothing better than having to deal with a journalist I respect, and I respected every one who worked with Scott because he showed them how to get to the bottom of a story.
In a region where the media is struggling to deliver original news that isn’t click-bait, Scott and his influence will be sorely missed. For me, it’s the end of an era. Thank you Scott for all the memories, the tough interviews, and for taking to task so many communicators who needed to up their game when dealing with you and your team.
Fraud isn’t a word to throw about lightly. And not much has been said about what’s going on in a market like the UAE, where Instagram has become the go-to platform for social media influencers and brands. There are 3.78 million Instagram users in the UAE, which is just under 40% of the population.
Well, the numbers are in, thanks to a firm called HypeAuditor. The company has developed software that it says helps marketers root out fake followers on Instagram, with the aim of making the industry more transparent and providing marketers with the data they need to make the right choice about the influencers they work with. And given that spending on influencer marketing is now running into the billions of dollars globally, we’ve got to get better at detecting fraud.
For those of you who don’t already know, influencer marketing is the concept of brands working with people who have large followings on social media. Brands pay the influencers for posts, either in cash or in-kind. Given that those with the largest follower count (we’re talking a million plus) can charge 7-8k USD upwards a post, it’s a lucrative business. The more followers an account has, the more the account owner can charge. And there’s a temptation to artificially inflate follower counts.
According to HypeAuditor, more than half of influencers in the United Arabic Emirates use artificial methods of Instagram growth, including buying followers, likes and inauthentic comments.
“Budgets for Influencer campaigns will certainly increase but brands should remember that Influencer marketing without the proper checks and transparency will not work. Large numbers of followers can be fake,” says Alex Frolov, CEO of HypeAuditor.
Based on HypeAuditor’s research, the most common means used to artificially boost followers include: ● buying followers – 31% of influencers allegedly buy followers; ● use Follow/Unfollow – 16% allegedly use automatic Follow/Unfollow processes; ● use comment pods – 8% allegedly use comment pods (a group of Instagrammers will work together to enhance engagement on posts by liking and writing comments), and ● buying likes and comments – 20% allegedly inflate their comments and likes.
You can see a full run-down of the research here, including an analysis of the Instagram influencer landscape and what is happening where). The report makes for a fascinating read, and should be studied by any brand manager who spends money with influencers in the country. Play in smart, do your homework, and let’s all tackle the issue of fraud on social media (including you too Facebook).