Influencers & the Importance of Credibility – an Example from SeaWorld Abu Dhabi

life-lessons-article-by-khalid-alameri-in-the-national

When choosing influencers, brands and publishers need to ask themselves if the person has the credibility and expertise to influence others.

As anyone working in comms will have noticed, 2016 was the year of the influencer. That trend will not only continue into 2017, but it’ll pick up pace. Everywhere you will look, you’ll see brands and organizations working with influencers to address public issues with their stakeholders.

There’s many issues around working with influencers. One, which I’m going to highlight here, is the importance of credibility. Often brands (or publishers) will seek out an influencer  who has a wide following and is popular. That’s unfortunately not the best approach to follow. Instead, brands need to think about credibility, by asking themselves if the influencer they’d like to work with is 1) an expert in this field, and 2) has talked about the issue before, and 3) are considered to have integrity.

I’ve talked about this topic before, most notably when Etisalat brought on-board a load of social media influencers from rival Du. It’s a topic I’ll probably have to keep coming back to again and again, as brands (and publishers) keep on making the same basic mistake.

A fellow communications professional shared with me an opinion piece from the Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper yesterday. It was on why Abu Dhabi and SeaWorld will be a good fit, and why both will benefit the wider environment. The piece was written by Khalid AlAmeri, a well-known and well-respected influencer.

The piece is well-written in terms of the argument, and while I could argue to the contrary I’m going to focus on the choice of the influencer. Firstly, Khalid writes prolifically on entrepreneurship and issues around Emiratisation. He’s well-known and admired for this work. However, he’s not an expert on the environment or wildlife (if he is, his expertise should be highlighted here). He’s highlighted some criticisms of SeaWorld, which is the sign of an experienced writer who knows how to engage in a debate. But again, why should I believe someone who firstly isn’t an expert in the field, and who hasn’t written previously on the subject.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not an easy task to find influencers on issues that aren’t mainstream (fashion, food and travel). However, there are organizations in the UAE which do oversee the environment, such as the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (which I assume Khalid references in the piece), or the Emirates Diving Association. There are also associations and people who take part in marine life conservation, such as the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project. These bodies would have made for a much more powerful and compelling argument, primarily due to their expertise. Knowing this, I’d be much less willing to question their lines of argument. As it stands, Khalid’s opinion piece is weakened due to his lack of credibility in this area (as opposed to his expertise on entrepreneurship). To me, that lack of expertise weakens an argument rather than promotes it.

What does the closure of 7Days mean for the UAE’s print industry?

7days

7Days was a refreshing change to the region’s media landscape. The paper, which is closing for good at the end of December, will be missed by its readers and by the industry.

Many of us in the media industry were saddened to hear of the impending closure of the English-language daily 7Days. The paper was founded 13 years back in Dubai, and ran on a free distribution model similar to the concept pioneered by the Metro newspaper back in London.

7Days was unique in many ways. First was its business model, which was to make money through advertising rather than newspaper sales. Secondly, 7Days positioned itself as a community newspaper. It had a strong roster of journalists who focused on local interest pieces. And the community responded in kind; 7Days became known for its letters page, where readers would often vent their frustrations (I’ll admit, I was a huge fan).

The paper had struggled with its finances; a month ago, the management team announced that they’d be cutting the daily print run to once a week and focusing online. And now, the paper will be shutting down completely. To quote the statement made by 7Days CEO Mark Rix:

“The current trading environment and future global outlook for print advertising remains severely challenged. Whilst it was our stated intention to re-focus and restructure the business for 2017 and beyond, it has since proved not possible to create an acceptable cost base that could deliver a viable and sustainable business. It is therefore with great sadness that we announce the unique 7DAYS news brand will close and thus, cease to inform and entertain the UAE in its refreshing and inimitable way.”

While there’s been much talk about the decline of print, both globally and regionally, I have a different take on 7Days. Most of the papers in the region are government-owned, and as such their operations are bankrolled by the state. In addition, due to their ownership they’re seen as a means to communicate with government and hence attract a level of advertising that may seem incongruous with their distribution/readership numbers. For those who have worked in media here, they will be aware that a number of dailies have been unprofitable for many years.

7Days was different – it was an attempt to redefine how a paper could operate and make money. 7Days didn’t hold the same editorial line as other papers in the UAE due to its ownership (the paper is part-owned by the UK’s Daily Mail General Trust). And its distribution setup was different as well; the paper made money from advertising and classifieds rather than paper sales. The paper was also audited; at its height the paper distributed over 62,000 copies daily (except Fridays).

The fact that 7Days was able to operate for 13 years with an operating model that was both new and unique to the region is a testament to how well the paper was run by the editorial and sales teams. 7Days survived many challenges, including one imposed closure and one recession. However, with money flowing from traditional to new advertising models such as digital and social, the model has not proven to be sustainable without the backing of government largess. Even in the Gulf, the future seems to be focused on digital media.

I was asked by one young public relations professional, Rehmatullah Sheikh, what would happen to 7Days digital assets, particularly its social media following. The paper has developed a large online presence, with 161,000 followers on its @7DAYSUAE Twitter account, and 644,730 likes on its Facebook site. Some have suggested that the paper, particularly its letters section, could live on through these sites. There certainly seems a will among the readership to see 7Days continue in some form or another. Could 7Days become a pioneer for the second time, and promote a public-led media forum through its online assets? I for one hope that 7Days will continue in some shape or form.

Blurring the lines? Publishers who become Content Creators and what it means for the PR sector

As publishers shift their business model to content creation for clients, how should the PR industry react? (image source: writemysite.co.uk)

As publishers shift their business model to content creation for clients, how should the PR industry react? (image source: writemysite.co.uk)

Who’d be a publisher right now? Revenues are dropping, print is going out of fashion (for most of the world), and people are no longer reading long form. So, what does one do? The answer may be to produce content for others.

Earlier this month Dubai-based publisher ITP announced the launch of ITP Live, a new division that would focus on five areas – creating a social media influencers’ agency, video content creation, digital sales representation, e-commerce, live events and training.

Another Dubai-based publisher, Motivate, works with companies to offer products such as video creation. To quote from Motivate’s own website, the firm is able to “conceptualise, storyboard, film, produce, host and share with our audience a beautifully crafted engaging video.”

Creating good content is only half of the battle. For firms seeking out content creation, the appeal of pre-existing media channels to distribute that content may be too good to resist. But, there’s the ethical question of boundaries. For a publisher which is offering a content creation service, should they also offer clients the opportunity to use their media vehicles to distribute that content? Would the usual editorial rules apply?

The Middle East’s publishing sector has been more fortunate than most when it comes to growth; with the exception of the downturn in 2008, relatively few publications have gone belly-up. However, the strain on budgets is telling. Many publications which had a roster of staff now only have one or two editors. With marketing budgets either shrinking due to the economy or being shifted to digital, will more publishers go down the content creation route? How will this affect their editorial policies and how will this affect the public relations industry?

For years, communications and marketing agencies have been the preferred option for companies needing either written or multimedia content. This content would have then been shared, either online or through traditional media channels. Will publishers now begin to compete with PR agencies? There’s lots of lines which are now being blurred. Where do you think we’re heading? I’d love to hear your views.

 

 

Goodbye but not farewell to Lisa Welsh

Lisa is a model professional, and she'll be missed in the region's public relations industry (image source: Hill + Knowlton Strategies)

Lisa is a model professional, and she’ll be missed in the region’s public relations industry (image source: Hill + Knowlton Strategies)

I don’t often write about people in our industry, but there’s always an exception. It’s with a heavy heart that I wish farewell to a public relations professional who has set the bar for our profession.

I first engaged with Lisa almost a decade back in 2006/2007, when I was working as a journalist and she was part of the technology team at Impact Porter Novelli (alongside Chuma Goodwin, Omnia Samra and Mohammad Zaher). She had a tough remit, which was to handle IPN’s tech clients which included HP and Google. Lisa was able to handle both client demands and the media effortlessly, going above and beyond to explain what her clients were doing to a media pack, many of whom had no IT background.

We both moved on (me back to the dark side and client-based marketing communications, her to a bigger agency role), but I kept looking in on her work. She joined H+K Strategies (to all of us old-timers, Gulf Hill and Knowlton), as a director. She rose up the ranks to the managing director for the UAE. She’s left her own legacy through a team and work that is among the best in the region’s industry. I’ve judged a good deal of H+K’s work recently, and it’s been of an exceptional standard. I can see Lisa’s attention to detail and her belief in measurement and outcomes shining through all that H+K is currently doing in the UAE.

Whenever we talked, I would often try to encourage Lisa to come and volunteer, either at MEPRA or with other public relations or communications bodies. Although I felt that she wanted to, she was as always honest and truthful; she said she didn’t have the time to commit. That’s one of the many reasons I respected Lisa; she cared about her reputation, and the reputation of the industry. I will miss her Northern wit, her integrity and her belief in always creating excellent work that would inspire others. I hope this is a goodbye and not farewell, Lisa!

Saudi Telecom, Boycotts, Social Media (راح_نفلسكم#) and Stock Price Impact

Forgive my wordy headline, but there’s a lot to get into this story. Before anything else, let me spell out the context. Saudi and Saudis love social media, but they haven’t been enthused by the efforts of the telecommunication providers in the country to block free call apps or services offered by the likes of FaceTime, SnapChat and WhatsApp. To add insult to injury, consumers have claimed that the Kingdom’s three telcos (Mobily, Saudi Telecom and Zain) have rolled back unlimited data services.

So what have the country’s social media-crazy consumers done? Yes, you guessed right. They’ve taken to social media to call for a boycott. Under the hashtags (which basically means we’ll bankrupt you) and  (boycott telco companies), the idea is simple.

Starting from last weekend, Saudi users have begun to switch off their phones. The hashtag and others have gone viral, and users have taken to Twitter to demand action against the telcos, including physical boycotts of stores.

The ultimate mark of consumer sentiment is cartoons, and Saudi’s most prominent cartoonist Abdullah Jaber stepped in to pen his own thoughts on the issue (the below translates as the Telco company on the right, saying to the consumer, “why are you angry?”

Saudi Telecom in particular has been hit, both in terms of its social media following (the carrier has lost almost 150,000 followers on its Twitter account), as well as its share price which dropped by several percent on Sunday morning after trading opened on the Saudi bourse.

stc-followers

Saudi Telecom’s Twitter account @STC_KSA lost over 140,000 followers in the space of two days as boycott calls spread (source: Twitter Count).

stc-stock-price

Saudi Telecom’s stock price was also hit on Sunday, with an initial fall of 8% (source: Google Finance)

There’s a further dimension to this story, with some online accounts in the UAE calling for similar action to be taken against the two telco incumbents (see the hashtag  and ).

Is this type of online activism on a single economic issue going to become more common, particularly with the state of finances across the region? And what can communicators do about an issue that is about a product and a strategy that consumers don’t like?

As always, it’d be good to hear your thoughts.

Two-Thirds of UAE Residents Will Take Advice from Social Media Influencers on a Purchase, Apparently…

Now, this may shock you. But, we’re all now listening to social media celebrities to decide what we want to buy and eat. At least, that’s the result of research carried out by PR agency BPG Cohn & Wolfe with YouGov. Out of over a thousand people surveyed, 71 percent of those aged between 18 and 40 said they’d be happy to take advice from their favorite social media influencer before buying. And if you don’t believe me, Results for BPG Survey (Fashion Food, & Beauty Influencer), see the press release or have a look at the infographic below.

The growing power of social media influencers and bloggers has been borne out by new research from Dubai-based PR agency BPG Cohn & Wolfe that shows that 71 per cent of UAE residents aged 18-40 are happy to take advice online before purchasing.

 

Beauty, fashion and food are the areas where residents are most likely to turn to leading social media influencers for recommendations say the results of the research undertaken for the agency by YouGov who interviewed 1000 men and women across the country.

 

Tech-savvy residents used their smartphones to follow their favourite influencers with 68 per cent of those polled admitting that where they eat out can be prompted by online recommendations or reviews and 63 per cent more likely to buy fashion or beauty products based on what these influencers might say.

 

BPG Cohn & Wolfe PR Director, Consumer Practice, Taghreed Oraibi managed the research process and said: “We are working closer than ever with bloggers and influencers and wanted to find out just how influential they have become in a country that is more switched on and digital than many all over the world.

 

“The results have clearly shown that companies now have to take these online influencers seriously and listen to what they have to say and find creative and engaging ways to work with them to tell their story and reach customers in that vital 18-40 demographic.

 

“BPG Cohn & Wolfe has identified the rise in influence of bloggers for some time and this led to commissioning the research to assess just how widespread their influence is and in what areas they have the most impact.”

 

BPG's research has found that over two thirds of UAE consumers will take advice from social media influencers before they buy. But what does this really mean?

BPG’s research has found that over two thirds of UAE consumers will take advice from social media influencers before they buy. But what does this really mean?

The issue of social media influencers is controversial (have a read of this guest blog post from yesterday by Rijosh Joseph). I’m personally a fan of working with social media influencers when they’re used strategically (i.e. who they are and what they do is aligned to the brand they are working with), when there’s a long-term commitment rather than an agreement for a single post or three, and when the goals are clear and there’s a sensible set of measurement metrics in place.

And, I’ll be honest, I don’t see many organizations in the region thinking through what influencer engagement can do for their brands or customers. Instead, it’s a ‘me-too’ approach. I hope I’m wrong.on this (if I’m wrong, then tell me). In the meantime, I’ll be listening to my influencers when making my next purchase, namely my wife and daughter.

How to fundraise in Dubai (legally)

Dubai’s fundraising law is meant to regulate giving in the Emirate. While the process is long, it is simple enough and will mean that you can fundraise legally (image source: http://www.thirdforcenews.org)

After a number of incidents, I thought it was about time that someone with experience of fundraising in Dubai wrote on how it should be done (I’ve been fundraising here for about four years, and applying for approvals every couple of months with different charities). While there are legal papers on the issue, most notably from DLA Piper, I’ve been through the process and know its ups and downs, which can be different from what is written in the statute books.

So, here goes.

  • Fundraising is regulated. 

Firstly, let’s start with the obvious. Fundraising is regulated in Dubai, and to fundraise you must do two things. Find a charity that is allowed to collect donations. Then you must submit a request to the Department of Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities (IACAD). Once this is approved you can fundraise.

If you don’t follow the above, you can face either a year in prison or a fine of up to 500,000AED. And when I mean you, I mean YOU! Even when fundraising is undertaken by a company, an individual must bear responsibility for the application.

  • You have to donate to a Dubai-based charity that is permitted to fundraise.

The number of charities who are licensed to fundraise is short, it used to be seven in total. These include the Dubai Charity Association, Dar Al Ber Society, Dubai Autism Centre, Beit Al Kheir, the UAE Red Crescent Authority, Awqaf & Minors Affairs Foundation, and The Relief Committee.

Other charities have been added to the list since then, including the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, the Al Jalila Foundation, and Friends of Cancer Patients. For a comprehensive list, do contact the Dubai Chamber of Commerce’s Syed Atif on Syed.Atif@Dubaichamber.com. The Dubai Chamber is particularly active in terms of promoting engagement with charities in the country, and they’ll be able to give you on who and which charity aligns with your cause.

Once you’ve found your charity, you’ll have to talk to them about what you’re doing and why, in order to get their buy-in and support. This may take time, especially when dealing with one or two of the charities on the list of seven above.

Any application through the charities above to IACAD will take up to one month. On the form you’ll need to state what you are doing, why, how much is being raised and how you are raising it. The form is simple enough, and I’ve include it below. You cannot funraised until you have permission from IACAD, who will also follow up after the fundraising, to ensure that the charity has received the money.

There’s another option, which is to support a charity based in Dubai’s International Humanitarian City (IHC). These include Save the Children, SOS Children’s VIllages and UNICEF. In this case, IHC will act as the charity and then route all funds to the intended recipient. This process will take longer than the month mentioned above, so you’ll need to plan ahead.

  • Online fundraising is not exempt from the legislation (and penalties).

Many people I know in Dubai used to fundraise through online sites such as http://www.justgiving.com when undertaking a charity drive. This isn’t strictly legal, as has been shown by a recent criminal case. If you want to fundraise online, then either do it through a registered charity as per the above, or don’t do it in Dubai (ie do it when you’re out of the country and not breaking the law).

To make it as easy as possible, I’m attaching an IACAD form which you can fill in either in Arabic or English. The form is here, and includes contact details at IACAD – Islamic_Affairs_Request_Eng_Arb.

I’ll end on an important note – this only covers fundraising in Dubai. If you want to fundraise in any other Emirate, there are separate procedures you have to follow, or you’ll have to partner with the Emirates Red Crescent, or the Al Jalila Foundation. These are the only two organizations which have the pre-approval to fundraise across the United Arab Emirates.

If you need more advice on fundraising, please do drop me a comment and I’ll help further. While the above isn’t easy, I don’t want people to think that they should stop fundraising. The procedure does take time, but it doable, so keep on fundraising and supporting good causes.