We must hire on merit, not on nationality

How can any health authority hire a comms head based on nationality, especially during a pandemic?

A couple of days ago, I was triggered. Someone shared a role with me, and asked me to have a look. The position was responsible for managing all communications and outreach at a health authority in the Gulf. The write-up was fine. What got me riled up was the requirement that the person be a national.

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.

How to deal with Israeli Clients, PR Agencies and Media

The two countries are now open for business with each other. But what does that mean for the PR sector? (image: Al Arabiya)

I’ve seen this year described in many ways (whenever I talk about 2020, I just end up swearing), but one phrase which we’d all agree on is that it’s the year of change. And one of those changes is the agreement between Israel and the UAE. I’m not going to go into the politics of this. What I will say is that there’s going to be much more open interaction between the two countries, especially when it comes to business.

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.

Israeli Society

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.

Will the Paywall save Gulf Media?

Arabian Business will set up a paywall from the end of June, with a US$5.99 unlimited subscription model. Should others follow suit? (image source: http://www.whatsnewsinpublishing.com)

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.

Kind regards,

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.

The Government Comms Playbook to Fight the Coronavirus

A lack of trust in what the government is saying leads to panic, fear, and citizens taking action into their own hands

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.

Multiple Languages

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).

Some countries have done things differently. Look at what Finland is doing. Read this from the Guardian.

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.

What the WHO has done with Whatsapp is smart. This channel is used globally, and it’s a simple and effective way of getting out information effectively via a chatbot. It’s also the place where most misinformation spreads (and we have no way of monitoring what is being shared here due to end-to-end encryption). Have a look at the launch of the service, and please do load it into your Whatsapp.

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.

Another must-read article was written by Ullrich Ecker and Douglas MacFarlane for the Guardian. They spell out what leaders need to do to ensure that people listen, remain calm, and follow advice. If you’re in comms, read the piece. But needless to say, openness matters.

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).

Avoid Conjecture

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.

The End of an Era – Scott Shuey and his impact on the UAE’s media

Scott with his fellow journalists and podcasters Sarah Diaa and Ed Clowes. Scott taught many of the best journalists in the region how to get to the heart of a story

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.

How Bad is Instagram Fraud in the UAE? Take a Guess…

How bad is fraud on the UAE’s Instagram scene? What’s your guess?

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).

A Work-In-Progress – What the first capabilities study says about PR in the UAE (and your role too)

Anne Gregory co-lead the Global Capability Framework, and she was in Dubai last week to talk about the first ever study in communication capabilities in the UAE

We had a VVIP in Dubai this week (I was going to say VIP, but everyone is a VIP in this town). Someone who, for me at least, is a public relations rockstar. And a person who has done a great deal to promote the function and its development, globally. Anne Gregory is a name you’ve got to remember. She’s been the chair of the CIPR and the Global Alliance. And, along with Johanna Fawkes, she created the Global Capability Framework (GCF).

I’ve reference the GCF before, and why it should matter to anyone who works in or wants to work in communications. Anne was in Dubai to talk about the UAE GCF research; this piece of work, which is being led by Ganga Dhanesh and Gaelle Duthler from Zayed University, is the first ever study to identify the most (and least) important capabilities of public relations and communication management in the country.

Well, the initial results are in. Anne, Gaelle, and Ganga spoke at an open event this Thursday about the initial findings from the study, to uncover which capabilities matter most to UAE practitioners. The results may surprise you.

These are the top ten capabilities required of communicators in the UAE as defined by the industry here

At the top by a mile is reputation, which makes a good deal of sense given we’re reputation builders. However, what I’m not showing here is what’s at the bottom. Among that group is ethics. Given what’s happening globally (think fake news, distrust of the media and PR), as well as regionally (social media manipulation, political disagreements, a lack of media/communications transparency), I’m partly surprised, partly understanding of the irony of communicators not linking these two capabilities more closely.

To ask a simple question, which I’ve asked before of others, would you trust someone who you don’t think is ethical? Clearly, we’ve got to do more on raising the need for the industry to view ethics as something which is important, and bodies such as the PRCA and MEPRA have got to play their part.

At number two, strategy was another standout. Conversely, measurement didn’t make it into the top ten, and was also near to the bottom of capabilities listed. While there’s a realization among many senior communicators on the need to align the function with their organization’s goals, measurement of outcomes matters, especially to our organizational leaders. It’s how we prove our worth.

Out of the top ten, what I also found interesting was the focus on crisis communications (is this driven by social media, I wonder), as well as environment (this means a contextual understand of all the factors we’re dealing with regarding our functions and organizations), and digital (I’d assume this reflects how quickly we’ve become a connected society).

How can you use the Global Capabilities Framework?

Now, what Anne and the University of Huddersfield/the Global Alliance have also done is make available a brilliant tool that lets communicators assess themselves and their teams against the framework. It’ll allow you to look at your skills, see your strengths and weaknesses, and understand where you need to develop and then re-assess yourself to see how you’re progressing.

There’s two assessment levels: the Core capability assessment is comprised of 11 questions, and the Full assessment has a total of 37 questions.

Once you’ve done your assessment, you’ll be shown a simple spider chart like the below.

This tool is free for any organization that is part of the Global Alliance (for example, CIPR). It also feeds into various professional development programs. You can check out the GCF tool here.

That’s all from me today. Do you agree with this list? Or do you disagree? As always, drop me a note, share your views and get engaged!

Rebranding for ‘soft power’ – examples from the Gulf

Aramco is looking to spend millions on promoting itself (image source: Twosmokingbarrels)

Now is a good time to be in the branding business, at least here in the Gulf. A slew of governments and government-owned assets are launching brand campaigns. At the beginning of the month, the UAE government announced that it’d be launching a national competition to create the first brand entity for the UAE – seven Emirati artists from each of the country’s seven emirates would work to design a logo and slogan to market the country in campaigns abroad. According to The National newspaper, “Once unveiled [the new brand] will be used widely by government departments and in marketing and adverts.”

The aim of the UAE brand is to reflect a truly Emirati character abroad, which will be based on four values. These valies are ‘giving’, ‘tolerance and openness’, ‘credibility’ and the ‘leadership values’ of the country’s founding fathers.

The second brand launch of note was by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, better known as ADNOC. The UAE’s largest oil firm launched its first ever national branding campaign last week, under the tagline ‘energy for life’. The 95-second video commercial which fronts the campaign was shot by Emirati director Ali Mostafa and shows the young Emiratis in areas such as aviation, science, exploration, space, the arts and sports. The new video is below (it’s subtitled in English), and will be shown across the UAE soon in cinemas and on social media.

The third example is from Saudi, Saudi Aramco in particular. The world’s largest oil and gas company, which launched its IPO this month, will, according to the Daily Telegraph, “splash out nearly £200m on a global marketing blitz next year, as the richest company in the world steps out from the shadows and tries to elevate its public profile. The oil behemoth’s huge advertising push will follow its long-awaited flotation next month when it starts trading publicly on the Saudi stock exchange.”

What’s fascinating about these three examples, and others, is how these brand campaigns are being used to build and project soft power. Look for example at the ADNOC video, which features art, humanitarian aid and sports; this isn’t your regular branding campaign for an oil and gas company. Likewise, with the UAE’s national rebranding campaign the focus is on Emirati values – it’ll be fascinating to see how this unusual approach to nation branding resonates with people outside of the region, especially as emirates such as Dubai and most recently Ras Al-Khaimah have built themselves up as tourism destinations in their own right.

Saudi Aramco’s marketing blitz is the most interesting of all. The company is listing in Saudi Arabia, and it hasn’t announced plans to list outside of the Kingdom. According to Reuters, “the Saudi government will face a one-year restriction on selling more Aramco shares following the domestic listing, according to the sources, meaning any overseas IPO is unlikely to be held in 2020.”

The concept of soft power was the American academic Joseph Nye, who served as a senior official in both the state and defence departments. He believed that various concepts such as culture and communications could direct the decisions/behaviour of others without the need for military force. Soft power influences others using intangible concepts like culture, ideology and institutional norms. And it’s a concept that’s usually talked about, and wielded by, governments. Companies don’t talk about soft power (though they do care about reputations).

And that’s not all. Given that both ADNOC and Saudi Aramco are primarily B2B, it seems these exercises are means to create brands that are based on and aligned with a governmental approach to building soft power. But given they are brands whose businesses are based on oil and gas, will this approach to reputation building work with a Western public who are openly agitating for a greener, more sustainable future?

As always, thanks for reading. And let me know your thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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