What challenges will communicators face in 2017?

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It’s no understatement to say that 2016 was a shock to the system. We’ve faced political upheavals, the rise of populists and the proliferation of fake news, and that’s just for starters. The Middle East region has been impacted by continuing conflict as well as financial belt-tightening caused by low oil and gas prices. Needless to say, 2016 hasn’t been the easiest 12 months for many communicators.

So what do we have to expect in 2017? Looking into my crystal ball, I see  a number of issues that will grow in prominence. Here’s my take on them:

  • Political Interference and its Impact on Brand Values

The rise of populist politicians isn’t anything new, but their use of social media to communicate directly with their publics, eschewing traditional media, is something brands will have to deal with. We’ve already seen how Donald Trump is impacting brands in the US (examples include his tweets on Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which have wiped billions off company share values).

Communicators will need to work out how to deal with this new type of political interference. They’ll need to improve their online engagement, using the same social media tools as these politicians (Twitter, I hope you realize how much of a god-send Trump is for your platform), as well as espouse brand values that stakeholders believe in and want to defend.

There’s a danger here that brands will retreat into communicating in the same populist language as the politicians, or simply keep quiet and hope that the storm will pass them by. I hope that brand owners and communicators will instead engage on issues with a purpose and positive values.

  • Expect More Fake News

Whether we like it or not, fake news is here to stay. The year that was 2016 saw fake news become a cottage industry, with ‘content producers’ in places like Macedonia spewing out false stories which went viral through social media and which generated thousands of dollars of ad revenues. Much of this fake news was focused on politics; this is likely to change in 2017, with fewer key political votes. Instead, we’re going to see more fake celebrity news, as well as fake news in languages other than English. This may play into regional conflicts. Brands need to be aware of what is being said about them, especially in Arabic, Farsi and other regional languages.

  • The Continued Rise of Social Influencers

 

Whether you like it or not, 2016 was the year of Social Influencers. This trend is set to continue into 2017, particularly with Snapchat having opened up an office in Dubai, and with brands/organizations realizing that they have to do more to engage with stakeholders online. Expect there to be more questions around online metrics such as reach, engagement and, most important of all, return-on-investment. Also expect that the cost of working with social influencers will rise, particularly in locations such as Dubai, Kuwait and Riyadh.

I hope that brands will start to think differently about the type of social influencers they’d like to work with, and begin nurturing relationships with real fans with smaller followings rather than purchase engagement through influencers who have large followings but who don’t necessarily understand or love the brand. In other words, we need to rethink what social influencers are and what they mean to us.

  • The Urgent Need to Prove Our Worth 

This is a perennial favorite, but we’re going to struggle to underline the value that we bring to our organizations in 2017. Why? Because of an inability to link our outcomes to organizational objectives for many of us, partly due to a lack of awareness/understanding about the need to leverage measurement values. We’re also lacking a universal definition of what we do and globally-accepted certifications that prove we can walk the talk. The Global Alliance is working hard on the first issue, and others such as the CIPR and IABC are pushing ahead on the second. However, we’re still going to struggle with proving our worth to those that we work with and others that we need to work with.

There are a number of others who have shared their own views. Wadds has a longer list which is a fascinating read (you can see it here), and Omnicom’s David Gallagher has written down his own thoughts on the issues we will face in the year ahead.

What are your thoughts. What challenges will we see, and what are you looking forward to in 2017? I’d love to hear from you.

Will Saudi’s telcos, government charge Saudi consumers to use social media?

Saudi is a country that isn’t well understood by many, especially by communicators. However, for all of the stereotypes the Kingdom has the capacity to surprise. Take for example a piece published by Saudi Arabic-language newspaper Al-Watan on the 15th of December. If true, the short story was a good piece of investigative journalism. To summarize for non-Arabic speakers out there, a number of telecommunications companies have met with the Communications and Information Technology Commission, the national regulator which oversees the telecommunications industry, to discuss levying on consumers a charge for social media services (the full story in Arabic is below).

Saudi telco operators have apparently met with the national regulator to discuss levying a social media charge on consumers, according to this piece in Al-Watan

Saudi telco operators have apparently met with the national regulator to discuss levying a social media charge on consumers, according to this piece in Al-Watan

The Kingdom has the most active social media base in the region; Saudis are avid users of services such as Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube. Saudis have taken to social media to call for boycotts against the telcos for what they describe as poor service and high costs. Quite understandably, this report didn’t go down too well with Saudi consumers. A new hashtag was conceived, named fees/charges on social media (#رسوم_علي_مواقع_التواصل).

The regulator has moved to deny the initial story – Al-Watan carried a denial piece the day after. However, partly due to a lack of trust in both the telcos and the regular, many Saudis online have expressed their belief that the news is true. The report prompted many Saudi influencers to share their own views online on the quality of service offered by Saudi telecommunications firm; below is a vblog by Saudi Gamer.

Globally telcos have been seeking solutions to redress the challenge of revenues lost to social media channels or applications which offer lower or free services such as messaging and calling. The issue is going to get worse, according to London-based research and analytics firm Ovum. The telecommunications industry will lose a combined $386 billion between 2012 and 2018, the firm predicts, from customers using over-the-top (OTT) voice applications such as Skype, or Whatsapp.

Some operators such as Verizon are looking to become content producers as well as deliver the content through the pipes. However, charging consumers for accessing social media would be a short-term but unpopular option for telcos to use as they seek to fill the revenue gap. How much it may impact online consumer behavior and advertising is anyone’s guess. We may find out next year.

Guest post – Communication, Engagement and Excellent Customer Service

For my third guest post this week, I’ve asked internal comms specialist Kevin Ruck to weigh in on the link between good internal communications, employee engagement and customer service. Kevin Ruck, who is a founding director of PR Academy, initiated and designed the internal comms qualifications accredited by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Kevin is a regular speaker and author on all aspects of internal comms. He can and should be followed on Twitter at @AcademyKev. Over to you Kevin!

Guest post – Communication, Engagement and Excellent Customer Service 

As exceptional levels of customer service become more commonplace and enable organisations to thrive in challenging times, poor and mediocre service are increasingly noticeable. And in this ‘age of outrage’ customers are likely be more inclined to call out poor service in a very public way.

So how can organisations find ways to ensure that customers love what they do? In this post, I reflect on my own experience as a customer service manager and consider how internal communication might be one way to underpin a customer service oriented culture.

I spent many years early in my career dealing with complaints about poor telephone service in the UK. This was back in the 1980s when most telephone exchanges were mechanical (not digital like today) and the state of the line plant was fairly poor, resulting in lengthy delays to repairs and ongoing problems. Anyone remember crossed lines?

Dealing with people who complain is a very demanding job. No organisation will always get everything right, but it’s how customers are treated when things go wrong that matters. Even back then we realised that turning round a dissatisfied customer could be very beneficial for business. This often entailed doing something unexpected or behaving in a way that showed that you really cared.

I ran a great customer service team and we had to resolve some pretty tough problems. However, Shep Hyken, a US speaker and author says that ‘Customer service is not a department, it’s a philosophy’. And he’s right. But if this is true, it begs the question ‘what is a philosophy of great customer service like?’ In an article for the Huffington Post, Doug Sandler provides five tips. These include:

  • Respond quickly on social media
  • Anticipate what customers want
  • Be honest and have a perspective
  • Take responsibility and own up to any errors you or your company has made
  • Be positive and listen

All good points. I also like the example of British company, Brilliant Bikes, who state that ‘We look for ways to help cyclists get more from their bike. If a customer turns up at the shop early, we open early. When someone phones, they get a human’. This exemplifies a sense of purpose within the business that is translated into customer service.

So, how can all organisations get these approaches embedded into what they do?

This is a tough question. One that many academics and CEOs have grappled with for many years. I’m not going to provide a personal five point listicle in this post. That would imply that there’s a simple solution which patently there isn’t, otherwise excellent customer service would be ubiquitous.  Instead, I will set out how two broad principles for internal communication are important for a strong customer service culture.

In my PhD research, I found that internal communication that is focused on keeping employees informed and employee voice is likely to lead to higher levels of organisational engagement, including what employees do to help the organisation succeed. Good internal communication is a strong enabler of an organisational culture that leads to engagement. And there’s little doubt that engagement and customer service are connected – as reviewed in an Engage for Success report in the UK. Organisations that adopt what I’ve called an AVID model of good internal communication practice (see below) are likely to develop a culture whereby employees trust senior managers and feel a strong sense of belonging. Feeling informed, feeling that it’s safe to voice opinions that are treated seriously and feeling that senior managers care about everyone makes employees feel valued. And this can, in turn, enable employees to bring their whole self to the work that they do – including the service provided to customers.

One employee said to me that she could tell when a senior manager was listening to her when she noticed that he ‘was smiling but not with his eyes’. In the same way customers can tell when an employee genuinely cares for you as a customer.

An AVID model of good internal communication

The AVID internal communication engagement model

The AVID internal communication engagement model

Some CEOs, such as Vineet Nayar at HCL Technologies, go as far as to say that the best way to provide great customer service is to put employees first. As Nayar explains, ‘The first thing that you need to do is create an environment of trust where the employees believe what you are saying and are willing to follow you wherever you are going’.

This focus on employees is also highlighted in a new approach to leadership, known as ‘responsible leadership’ which incorporates four dimensions; sustainability and the environment, risk analysis, care for employees and monitoring of subcontractors (italics added).

So, great customer service can be generated through responsible leadership, communication and engagement. It requires systemic approaches to communication where senior managers take their communication role seriously. That’s why it is hard to achieve. But get it right and organisations will thrive in a 21st century service centred economy.

Guest Blog – How To Meet Your Customers Changing Expectations

We've gone from digital natives to mobile natives. As consumer expectations change, how can we communicators remain relevant? (image source: www.mirror.co.uk)

We’ve gone from digital natives to mobile natives. As consumer expectations change, how can we communicators remain relevant? (image source: http://www.mirror.co.uk)

I’ve asked a number of prominent communicators to talk about the importance of communications and design when it comes to customers. Julio Romo (on Twitter as @twofourseven and on LinkedIn here), an International Communication Consultant and Digital and Innovation Strategist, shares his insights on how communications is changing and how customer experiences are impacting our jobs as communicators. Julio, over to you.

How To Meet Your Customers Changing Expectations

People around the world are today more connected than ever before. Let it be through social media, smartphones or both. The way we are now connected has influenced and changed the way in which our beliefs and expectations are shaped.

Let me give you some facts. There are over 2.3 billion social media accounts worldwide – Facebook has 1.79 billion monthly active users (92% access via mobile), Twitter has 313 million active monthly users and Instagram has 400 million monthly active users. These are very top line numbers. They are Impressive, but missing some context.

Now the context, one in every six minutes that is spent online is spent on Facebook, 2.5 billion comments are made on Facebook Pages, 6,000 Tweets are sent every second. The more content that is out there the quicker that we must be to filter out what we think is not relevant to what we want to learn.

Research by Microsoft also tells us that our attention span is now down to 8 seconds, that is shorter than that of a goldfish. The speed at which we make decisions has also shortened to what Adobe calls, the last millisecond. We live in extraordinary and highly competitive times.

People have changed how they make decisions. Today it is the experience that they get from their engagement that shapes their perceptions and decisions-making. Get the experience right and in a fraction of a second you keep and possibly convert an individual. Get it wrong and you risk loosing your customer, possibly for good.

Think about it this way:

And the benefits? Well, insight from Bain & Co tells us that increasing customer retention rates by 5% increases profits by 25% to 95%. Not bad at all.

Experience that your audiences receive matters. Design and the way in which they interact with you certainly matters. And today, the customer matters more, and they know this.

The customer journey has to be simple and rewarding. It has to deliver an experience that not just converts them, but gets them to return and amplify the positive engagement that they’ve had. And it is in this connected world that reputations are built and broken.

A McKinsey report states, ‘Consumers now have much more control over where they will focus their attention, so companies need to craft a compelling customer experience in which all interactions are expressly tailored to a customer’s stage in his or her decision journey.

So how do we secure better engagement from our target market and audiences? That is simple, yet not very straightforward. Organisation must become agile and nimble. They must become better at listening and learning. And their communications and marketing must be always-on and responsive – be ready to respond to customer service issues. Our digital touch points need to be built around the personas of our audiences, yet bearing in mind that like technology, peoples behaviour and expectations changes fast, especially when start-ups come into play disrupting business as usual.

Some companies have already embarked on a journey of change to ensure that they remain relevant. In 2005 the former FT US Technology Correspondent and Columnist Tom Foremski coined the term ‘Every Company is a Media Company.’ A term that still to this day is alien to many. Yet some organisations have changed their PR and communications teams into modern day brand newsrooms that monitor news, deliver content and engage through social channels.

Having and understanding of the audience and designing for them will give companies access to a global market that in 2014 McKinsey thought this year could have been worth $2 trillion in potential sales. Being nimble and agile is a must. Having your communications, marketing and customer service teams working together is what will help your businesses grow in a competitive market.

After all, bad news travels fast on social media. According to Zendesk, bad experiences are shared with more people than good experiences, and more customers share bad experiences than good through social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Today, people who complain are the ones that you know about. People expect and we must deliver, we must be what they expect, more customer centric. Because it matters to our reputation, our business and in competing markets it gives us competitive advantage.

The building of successful businesses today depends on the gaining of more insight about audiences. Understanding their behaviour and decision-making and roadmappiing their journey so that they find what they want on platforms relevant to them.

Now more than ever we have to move towards acting on insight and data in order to secure attention and engagement from people.

Guest Post – Failing at the basics

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

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

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

The client wouldn’t be impressed, right?

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

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

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

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

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

The Science of Reputation – What issues matter to stakeholders and why

As communicators, we’re often tasked with managing an organization’s reputation. While this may sound simple, the challenge is where do you start with an intangible concept? There are a number of frameworks around which one can begin measuring reputation. One is the RepTrak, a tool developed by the US-based Reputation Institute, which merges seven distinct organizational behaviours (called dimensions) with the behaviours that your stakeholders show towards your organization to create an emotional pulse. It’s an interesting look at how reputation is developed, which you can see below.

The RepTrak is a data-driven approach to understanding reputation based on a number of metrics

The RepTrak is a data-driven approach to understanding reputation based on a number of metrics

According to the Reputation Institute, organizational reputation is driven primarily by seven key rational dimensions of reputation: products and services, innovation, workplace, governance, citizenship, leadership, and performance. What this leads onto may be obvious; reputation matters in terms of business. And, the better the reputation, the more support an organization can count on.

Th Reputation Institute has also done a great deal of research here, including surveying hundred of thousands of different stakeholder groups in 40+ countries over a decade. Their studies underline why reputation matters when it comes to influencing stakeholder behaviour.

Reputation can both positively and negatively impact on stakeholder behaviour

Reputation can both positively and negatively impact on stakeholder behaviour

In the video below, Dr. Charles Fombrun, founder & chairman, Reputation Institute, explains the seven dimensions of reputation as defined in the RepTrak model for reputation measurement

While I have questions around these seven dimensions (do they remain constant for example, across geographies and stakeholder groups?), as well as the Reputation Institute’s global reach (it doesn’t monitor in the MENA region for example), it’s good to see one scientific model for measuring reputation and its impact. There are others in use, including those developed by Carma’s Tom Vesey. I’ll share more insights into reputation management and measurement as I have it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, that URL also stopped working in short order.

Deliberately blocked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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