Sondos Al-Qattan: Lessons from a social media star and a self-made crisis

Will brands continue to work with Sondos Alqattan after this outburst?

It’s news that has gone global, from CNN and Buzzfeed in the US all the way to Manila. No, it’s not movement on the Middle East peace process, or an update on the fight against extremism. Instead, the headlines are being made by a social media star and her views on a specific nationality. I’ve lost count of the number of articles and videos I’ve seen that have featured Sondos Al-Qattan, a Kuwaiti national and make-up tutorial social media star who has 2.3 million followers on Instagram. Sondos is one of the original social media stars; she’s worked numerous beauty brands, and she’s made significant money doing so.

Given this, you’d think she’d have some savvy when it comes to what she says online. This doesn’t seem to be the case. On the 14th of this month Sondos spoke against the new laws put in place by the Kuwaiti government governing the treatment of Filipino workers in the country. To put it mildly, Sondos wasn’t pleased. A video of her was shared where she criticized the new laws. To paraphrase:

“For people who want to get a Filipino domestic worker, what are these ridiculous work contracts you’ve got to sign? The woman I met with was reading out the rules to me and I was shocked. Put aside that they need to be given a break every five hours, that’s normal. But, how can you have a ‘servant’ in your house who gets to keep their passport with them? Where are we living? If they ran away back to their country, who’ll refund me? Even worse, is that they get a day off every single week! What’s left? Honestly, with this new contract, I just wouldn’t get a Filipino maid. She’d only work six days a week and get four days off a month.”

The condemnation was swift, both in the media and on social platforms despite the original clip being deleted. The video below is just one example of many of how she’s been criticized.

What’s telling about the case isn’t just how to get yourself in trouble online. The Sondos incident is a wealth of lessons, for both communicators and social media influencers.

  1. There is no Local – Sondos may have thought that she was addressing a local, Kuwaiti audience (she was speaking in Arabic on a local Instagram account). However, there is no local online. Her comments were widely shared, and translated. Once they were translated, her views went global.
  2. Audience is Authority – If this was a Gulf national with a couple of hundred followers, it’d have been dismissed. With a following of over two million, this would have never been the case with Sondos. Social media influencers (and brands) must understand that people are hanging on your every word, both good and bad.
  3. Brands will make a Choice – With her words, Sondos offended a whole nationality, a population of over 100 million who spent over 1.28 billion dollars on imported makeup in 2015. Brands who work with Sondos, the likes of Phyto, Max Factor and others) will quickly decide if they want to put their sales in danger (they should have already put out statements by now, especially given the number of calls for boycotts on her YouTube pages). Brands who are looking to work with social media influencers are increasingly understanding the need to do safety checks; if an influencer has said something negative, brands will simply not work with them.
  4. Stop Digging – Sondos has done pretty much everything she can to nullify criticism. She’s turned off comments on her Instagram page, her Twitter account is private, and she’s not responded to any media queries. A new video has been posted tonight by Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas in Arabic, where she basically repeats her initial messages and adds that she sees the media coverage as a good thing as it’ll make the Kuwaiti government take action on behalf of those who hire Filipino maids. Some people just don’t learn.

This issue may go away in a couple of days – people have short attention spans. But in a world where there’s no concept of local, Sondos would have been best advised to listen to the criticism and apologize in English for her views. As it is, I don’t see how she can continue to work with global brands when she herself has become a toxic brand.

Clients, Non-Payments and Slow Growth – Is it time for the Middle East’s PR Industry to work together?

A couple of stories broke over the past couple of weeks in the Middle East’s PR industry. This wouldn’t be unusual if it weren’t summer, when little happens. The first piece was the news of additional job losses at Edelman Middle East. The second was the restructuring of FleishmanHillard in Saudi Arabia due to final losses. And the third, which didn’t register in the media, was the closure of a one-person PR agency in Dubai.

There are two issues at play here. The first is management. Edelman’s layoffs aren’t a one-off; the company has made repeated redundancies over the past couple of years, and I feel for all those who joined what is the world’s largest independent PR agency, only for this to happen. Edelman has struggled in the UAE and the wider region, even after the purchase of one of the country’s largest privately-owned agencies, Dabo & Co, in 2015.

The second issue is payment, or a lack of. To quote from the Gulf News piece on FleishmanHillard:

The non-payment of fees, apparently due to a lack of invoicing clients, has impacted their operations forcing the company to reduce their headcount in Riyadh.

The issue also caught the eye of the head of one of the largest agencies in the region. Writing on his LinkedIn feed, Sunil John shared his view on the need for cross-industry action to address non-payment, particularly by governments.

SunilJohn

Slow to No Growth

Let’s give a little context to the PR industry across the Middle East. Over the past two years economies in the Gulf have struggled. Saudi has been in recession for a number of quarters. The UAE’s economy is growing slowly. The fastest growing economy over 2017 was Qatar, with a GDP growth of just over 2 percent. While this may not look particularly bad for those in Europe, many of us in the region can remember a time a decade back when economies were growing double-digit. Slow to no growth is the new norm in the region, and we (and management outside of the region) have got to get used to this, and budget accordingly.

Government Spending Grows

Ironically given lower government spending over the past two years on the back of falling oil prices, the driver of PR spending has been government. Saudi in particular has been spending heavily to transform its reputation globally. I’ve seen a host of medium and large agencies flock to Riyadh to work on Saudi’s Vision 2030, as well as other projects. Political circumstances have resulted in significant sums being spent in both London and Washington. For agencies starved of growth from business, government spending has been a boon.

Payment Terms and Governments

The challenge with government accounts is payment – both payment terms and collection. Government accounts are rarely small, and I’ve heard of terms that can be as long as six months. That’s a long time to wait for payment. And then, there’s the issue of payments being made on time. In my knowledge, it’s rare for a government to pay a bill on time. And if they don’t, what’s the recourse? There’s no higher authority to appeal to, no court you can go to. You chase and chase and chase. And hope you get paid, sooner rather than later.

Is Industry Action Going to Happen?

Sunil John’s call to action is interesting, but it’s not new. I and others have discussed the idea of having non-payment lists with industry bodies such as the Middle East Public Relations Association several years back. My heart desperately wants the large agency heads to come together to agree on what action to take when it comes to black-listing accounts (the WPP agencies could easily take the lead, given the size of their business here). But, despite the hurt the industry is going through, my head say this won’t happen. For every agency that drops a non-paying account, there are ten lining up to pitch. Everyone thinks they can do better on payment.

Sadly, I think there’s a bigger issue at play which doesn’t just affect the PR industry (to give you an example, Saudi’s construction industry has faced payment delays of up to 18 months). The answer is collective action. And it’ll require true leadership from everyone on the agency side, as well as leaders on the client side calling out this behavior. Is anyone ready to make the first move?

Lessons we can learn from Marriott’s Anti-Islam Tweet and Nike’s Iran Boycott Crises

It’s rare for brands to deal with a reputational crisis so openly in the Middle East. Last week, we had two issues happening at once. First up was Dubai’s JW Marriott Hotel, which took the decision to part ways with celebrity chef Atul Kochhar after he wrote a tweet that offended many Muslims (the offending tweet is below, and you can read the back story here at the Khaleej Times). The hotel terminated Kocchar’s deal with its well regarded Rang Mahal restaurant.

“Following the recent comments made by Chef Atul Kochhar, we have taken the decision to end our agreement with him for Rang Mahal. With the termination of our agreement, Chef Atul will no longer be associated with the restaurant,” Bill Keffer, general manager of the hotel, told Gulf News.

Atul tweet

Atul’s tweet was highly criticized, both by individuals as well as the Marriott itself.

The second reputational issue was faced by Nike. Days before the beginning of the World Cup, Nike announced that it would not be providing equipment (think boots) to the Iranian football team.

“U.S. sanctions mean that, as a U.S. company, Nike cannot supply shoes to players in the Iranian national team at this time,” a company statement said.  “Sanctions applicable to Nike have been in place for many years and are enforceable by law.”

Unsurprisingly, the decision hasn’t gone down well with fans of the Iranian football team, as well as the team’s coach, Carlos Queiroz, who criticized the timing of the announcement.

There are two basic lessons that we can take from the situations Nike and Marriott found themselves in.

1. Do/Continue your Due Diligence – While the Marriott moved quickly to tackle the crisis, the question must be asked of the due diligence undertaken on Atul Kochhar’s views. Every time an agreement is undertaken, the in-house team/agency must check the influencer’s/celebrity’s background, including their social media. And they must ensure that they’re on top of anything which may be perceived as being controversial. Many have pointed to Atul Kochhar’s social media posts prior to last week’s outburst, posts which could be seen as being Islamophobic (the below is just one example of this). While hindsight is a wonderful thing, the Marriott team could have developed an insight into Atul Kochhar’s views through monitoring his social media posts before he wrote something that would have caused the brand reputational damage. This month’s crisis may have been averted.

2. Foresee issues and tackle them proactively – Our role as communicators is to understand what is happening in the outside world, and bring those insights to senior management. We have to be social and political analysts, and we have to be able to monitor issues and foresee the outcomes that will impact our organizations, and work proactively to ensure that an issue doesn’t become a crisis. How Nike’s communications team didn’t foresee what could have happened re Iran and US sanctions is beyond me, as is the possibility for Nike to apply for a permission to be able to supply the team with equipment (boots). It was a major miss, and handed rival Adidas an open goal.

Do you have any additional insights from these two issues? What are your thoughts? As always, I’m happy to hear them. Till then, take care!

Lessons from Cannes (and other awards) on what makes for great PR campaigns

There’s an art to creating great communications campaigns (image source: Cannes Lions)

I’ve just finished judging hundreds of entries for the Cannes Lions. The experience has been overwhelming, not just due to the amount of work submitted but also due to the work’s quality. I’ve judged for years, and there are few competitions that come close to the overall level of excellence (I’d say the Effies, the IABC Gold Quills, and the Holmes Report’s Sabres).

Throughout all of my judging experiences, there’s a couple of simple lessons that communication professionals need to bear in mind. These four steps will help create powerful campaigns that should be worthy of putting into any top-tier awards competition.

1. The Why – Is What you Want to Say Powerful Enough?

First of all, why do you want to communicate. Are you launching a new product, or do you want to improve your company’s reputation. The clearer you are on why you want to engage, the simpler it will be to come up with a narrative that your audience will understand. There’s got to be a strong purpose to your communications, which then links into the second step.

2. The Insight – Listen to your Audience

You know why you want to communicate, but how does your narrative tie into the interests of your audience? Far too often communicators don’t take the time to listen and observe their publics, and simply go out, all guns blazing, with messages that don’t resonate. Powerful insights connect your audience with your narrative in a way that engages them and makes them want to listen to you. If you don’t do this well, your campaign won’t cut through the thousands of messages that we process on a daily basis, and you’ll have made no impact whatsoever. Take your time, do your research, and get out of the office (and off the Powerpoint presentations) to understand what your audience cares about and how you can tap into those emotions. In other words, bring the outside in.

Bold communicators are also ready to tie in their narrative with social issues. This isn’t always easy, and can alienate certain groups if your target audience is the public. However, as business becomes more politicized, I expect communicators (and organizational leaders) to realize that companies can’t shy away from taking a stand on issues that matter both to them and their stakeholders.

3. The Strategy & Execution – Go Personal or Go Mass, Blend Online with Offline

Now we get to the fun part, which can make or break a campaign. No matter how good your planning and research is, all your audience will see is the execution of your strategy. Effectively, what do you want your communications to achieve and how are you bringing it to life?

There’s a couple of themes I’ve noticed of late. Either campaigns go as big as possible during their execution, and include as many people from the target audience during the execution itself (this is different from sharing the campaign’s content). Or, they execute an execution with a handful of people, and use that content to tell a person narrative. Both can work very well if tied in well enough with the brand/product narrative and with the audience insight.

What’s also not surprising is how the best campaigns are using both online and offline mediums to amplify the narrative. Print, radio and television plays a role in engaging an audience, whilst digital keeps the engagement alive and allows for dialogue. Some of the most recent campaigns I’ve seen also use dark social; one smart team were creating content solely to be shared on WhatsApp. I expect this trend to gather pace as communicators realize the power of one-to-one or one-to-a-few messaging platforms.

Another noticeable trend is the use of paid media to boost the reach of content. The social media platforms have become masterful at ensuring we have to spend money to reach our audience, no matter how good the content. Influencers help to mitigate the anti-viral nature of social media platforms. Either way, it’s going to cost more to reach your target audience today online than it would have done a couple of years ago. At the very least, creating content has never been easier (or cheaper).

4. The Measurement – Use Indicators that Align with the Business (not AVEs)

Finally, how do you prove your success? The most common measurement was AVEs or advertising value equivalency. Communicators are dropping this measure, but at a rate which is slower than I’d like. Most of the work I’ve judged this year uses AVEs. Another common measure is impressions, basically the number of people exposed to the message.

Smart communicators are shifting to more meaningful indicators. A simple one which does crop up more frequently is sentiment, either in traditional media or online. Communicators are also borrowing from their marketing colleagues, and are using some digital metrics (engagement, CTRs etc), as well as brand measurements focusing on reach and response. Brand measurement helps us understand if the campaign has won viewers’ selective attention and leave a brand-associated impression and if the campaign has triggered a change in behavior or attitudes favorable to the brand.

The ultimate measures are those which are tangible. Has the campaign helped sales, has it raised more money? Has the campaign resulted in a behavioral shift, has it resulted in new regulations? Some communicators are capturing and sharing this, but it’s still only a small percentage (I’d say single digits). This needs to change, especially if communications is to be seen as a strategic function within organizations.

Here’s my four pointers to what makes for an award-winning campaign. As always, I look forward to hearing your inputs. Please do share your thoughts with me.

And best wishes for all those who have entered this year’s Cannes Lions! There’s some outstanding work.

Have the Gulf’s Media had enough of Facebook & Google? Or are they too late?

journalism-john-oliver-man-repeller-feature

Can print survive in an era of digital dominance? And is the Gulf’s print media ready to adapt to stay afloat? (image source: http://www.manrepeller.com)

If you thought being a publisher was tough in the US or Europe, then try life in the Gulf. Over the past couple of weeks the Editor-in-Chief of the largest English newspaper in the Gulf, the Gulf News, has written two op-eds lambasting the likes of Facebook and Google for essentially taking advertising revenues away from the local papers whilst offering little news in return. Entitled “Stop the local media from bleeding”, Abdul Hamid Ahmad’s first piece spoke of the need to help newspapers from going under due to a decline in ad revenues. In his own words:

In these tough times and the rough waters that all media are treading through — be it the print, online, television and radio — something has to be done to save and secure the future of these media houses.

Here I mean the local media — the one that have grown with the country for the past four decades and established publication houses. They are a part of the UAE’s legacy; they are a part of the fabric of society.

Here in the UAE, we have several titles in Arabic and English – some are owned by the government and others by the private sector.

Most of these are newspapers that have online editions – the online editions being extensions of the print publications.

But looking at them over the past three years makes me feel very sorry and sad.

I am talking about the fact that they are being dried up financially and forced to near closure.

I have been in the business of journalism for more than 35 years now. I have grown from a reporter to copy editor to section head, managing editor to Editor-in-Chief and Publishing Director. I have never seen our media in such a miserable situation as today.

Gulf News’ Abdul Hamid followed up this piece with a second a week later, calling for a levy on online ad platforms which could be used to support local media.

I wonder how much Google, Facebook, Amazon and other global titans pay for licence fees in the UAE?

I assume they pay a similar amount like other companies despite the revenue they make from the market…

Amazon pays a similar amount to the grocery next door. And Facebook pays a similar amount to a barber shop in Satwa…

First, we must implement some of the steps that countries such as France have taken — reduce taxes on local media outlets and raise fees payable by these giants that is equal to their stature.

Their giant status and businesses must attract taxes that are commensurate with their size and volume of trade.

Second, governments can step in and support national media in difficult times such as now and help them survive.

This can be done either through direct financing by the government or by instructing big local companies — governmental or semi-governmental — to advertise in local media, instead of changing their structure of payments and giving these giants big money and leaving only a few pennies for local media.

Priority on ad spending should be on the national media and not on international media.

Other steps could also include exempting local media from some taxes.

In fact, in doing this, it will not just benefit newspapers and news organisations, but it will be in favour of national interest and sovereignty.

Because if we do not have our own media, we will not have our own voice when we need it. National media is needed as a matter of national security.

It preserves our identity and social and cultural values — hallmarks of a vibrant society.

Others have joined in, calling for more support for local publishers (have a read of this piece by Aby Sam Thomas, Editor-In-Chief at Entrepreneur Middle East, as well as this piece in the Saudi-based English-language daily Arab News).

On a recent trip to Saudi, the pressures on the local print media were openly talked about. Some journalists spoke of fewer print staff, others that the government would have to step in and subsidize the newspaper industry.

Supporting Local Media

The Gulf’s media isn’t unique in this challenge. Newspapers have been going out of print for years, particularly in places such as the United States; almost 500 newspapers were shut down in the US between 1970 and 2016. Advertising, the main source of revenue, is drying up, and newspaper circulations are dropping. Digital news sites aren’t making up for the shortfall in revenues either.

So, what’s the answer? More and more publications are charging their readers for accessing content. This is a brave decision, especially in a time when the media has become commoditized and services such as Google News offer up the same story.

Charging for content requires publishers to invest in their media staff and produce unique journalism that readers are interested in. This is another challenge that the Gulf’s newspapers will need to face up to. Most of the newspapers are government owned, and they cascade news down from officials to the public. Newspaper management across the Gulf are going to have to start producing content that readers are interested in, as it’s going to be the readers who will pay for that content.

Then, there’s the question of advertisers. Advertisers have shifted online for logical reasons. Online gives them reach at rates that make sense. Online advertising is real-time, the return-on-investment can be more easily measured, and it allows for a simpler path to purchase.

Newspapers such as the Guardian have been quick to adapt themselves to the needs of advertisers, blending trust in their reporting with the requirements of advertisers, to come up with new mediums such as native advertising. If newspapers are to win back advertisers, they’ve got to look to new advertising solutions that readers will also be interested in (if anyone wants ideas, they could have a look at what the New York Times is up to).

An Online Ad Tax?

I doubt that the governments in the region are going to step up and start levying fees on the likes of Facebook and Google, especially when they’re lobbying for these firms to invest more locally to help develop the local tech sector (the operations of these firms are primarily sales).

To date, the only major publication to close down in the UAE was 7Days, which was a privately-owned paper that pushed the boundaries of reporting on more than one occasion. Other privately-held news formats have also struggled, with the owners of the Doha News having to sell their site due to reporting restrictions.

What I have no doubt of is that there’s nowhere near enough investment in journalism, particularly reporting that readers want to see. Consolidation in the industry is inevitable, and it’ll only happen sooner if the media industry isn’t willing to adapt and change. And that will be a loss for us all, particularly for those working in public relations and communications. For me and for anyone who understands communications, print media still matters.

Zain Ramadan’s ad, the MBC ban and how politics & business mix in the Middle East

This week Zain put out its Ramadan ad. The Kuwait-based telecommunications company has a reputation for mixing politics into its messaging during the holiest month of the year for Muslims. The company’s advertisement last year, which took on the issue of extremism through a portrayal of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, became a viral hit in the Arab World.

This year, Zain’s timing is impeccable. The topic of the video is Jerusalem. You can watch the video below (it’s subtitled and includes a couple of nifty cameos by global leaders such as Angela Merkel as well as Donald Trump). There’s also a good description of the video and its context provided by The National’s Naser Al Wasmi. Already there’s been two million views of the video in less than two days.

Zain’s stance on political advertising is unusual. While there’s been a movement in the West for companies to take a stand on political issues that were once deemed to be off-limits (for example, immigration in America), companies in the Middle East rarely speak about wider societal issues.

While Zain’s latest Ramadan video may prove popular with many (Zain has operations in eight countries in the region, including Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon), there’s been reports in the Kuwaiti press that the MBC Group, the largest satellite television station, has banned the airing of the ad on their stations during Ramadan. MBC, which is Saudi-owned, banned the airing of Turkish soap operas in March of this year, a decision which surprised many given the popularity of Turkish dramas across the Middle East but which must be viewed in light of recent Saudi-Turkish relations.

Zain’s Ramadan ad is a rare example of a Middle East business taking the brave decision to use its media voice to take a stance on a political issue. But as has been shown by MBC and other voices online, it’s neither easy nor simple to take on a political issue in a region which is already politically divided across multiple fault lines.

A how-to on the UAE’s “Social Influencer” Licensing & three outstanding questions

It’s almost Ramadan, the time of year when we post and pray. This year’s Ramadan may be a little different, possibly more stressful for some. Under regulations introduced in March by the UAE’s National Media Council (NMC), those making money to promote brands will need to be signed up with an e-media license by June or else face fines and other sanctions.

In the rest of this post, I’ll share the definition of what is an influencer as per the NMC, the process to get certification, as well as three questions I have on issues which maybe aren’t addressed or which have not been talked about. Thank you to Lexis Nexis and Fiona Robertson at AlTamimi for the below.

Who is an “influencer”?

The legislation is straightforward as to who is covered. To quote from the National Media Council:

“Any person who practices the above-mentioned media activities on Social Media, on a commercial basis, shall obtain a prior license from the Council, provided that:
1. It shall have an account on the generally recognized Social Media;
2. Ads that are presented on Social Media shall be subject to the advertising standards that are applicable at the Council;
3. Social Media accounts’ owners who offer paid advertising services shall obtain a license from the National Media Council in accordance with the applicable regulations in this regard and hereunder.
4. The account owner is responsible for the content of the account.”

 

The resolution covers all electronic media across the country. And the NMC defines electronic advertising as “any paid or unpaid form of presentation or promotion of ideas, goods or services by electronic means or network applications”.
For a person to get an e-media license, they’ll also need a trade license. The cost of both will be a minimum 30,000 Dirhams depending on where you buy your trade license (the e-media license is 15,000AED).

How do you get a License?

Below are the requirements and the process to follow to apply for an e-media license:

e-media license

The three questions

I’m sure there’s lots of questions from people who work in the marketing and communications industry on this new legislation. My three are:

  1. How does this cover children? There are some child stars in the US who have made millions from social media. Think of “Toys Review for kids by a kid!, for example (the six year-old child and his family have made in excess of 10 million dollars). Does the legislation cover this? There are young social media players here such as Rashed Belhasa who I assume are putting out paid content.
  2. What happens to those pushing out content on behalf of employers? The definition of electronic advertising is wide enough to ask me this question. Many employees share content from their employers. I’m assuming this won’t come under the purview of the NMC, but it’d be good for them to explicitly say so.
  3. Is this a blow to the concept of micro-influencers? The idea of people with smaller followings online, say 20,000 on Twitter and Instagram, working with brands has become popular over the past year. Often these people don’t take much money in return for sharing any content or working with a brand. Would they be able to afford the licensing? In addition, would an influencer agency want to take them on board, and bevvy up the cash with the prospect of getting a lower return than working with someone more established, with stronger brand appeal and a greater number of followers?

I guess we’ll find out how this all plays out soon. In the meantime, Ramadan Kareem!