How the Media Industry can regain its influence in today’s Social Media world

Is Print Dead

Print may not be dead in the region, but are there way that the media industry can regain influence lost to social media celebrities? (image source http://abcodigital.com)

I recently had an email exchange with a colleague in the PR industry here in Dubai on the issue of the communications industry and how to develop. I asked, what do we need to do better to make the communications function in the region better. His response was fascinating. To quote:

The truth remains that more and more media outlets are closing down, journalists being made redundant, consumers not reading much – but “following” social trends!

All what most of us have done is jump into the “influencer” band-wagon and discuss $ rates on the number of posts along with potentially a storyline. This should change. We need to find something more creative than being short-sighted to tap into the money.

But what keeps me awake at night (beyond other things, of course!) is what if media outlets close down, journalism as a profession becomes history – who the hell do we pitch our stories to?

While it’s true that the PR industry in the region has had a hand in the rapid and prominent rise of social media influencers, what about the case for the PR industry’s role in the declining influence of media, particularly print.

Here’s my two cents on how the media in the Gulf should work to regain its influence in today’s digital age. Let’s start with a look at one issue which the media has struggled with, namely transparency:

  • Audited Media – The number of audited print publications in the region is relatively low (we’re probably talking percentage-wise in the single digits). Whilst publishers such as ITP, and, most especially, Motivate have pushed for audited print titles, few others have followed suit. Audited numbers make our job of targeting the right media easy; we’re able to easily compare media titles, understand the reader breakdown and make a judgement as to whether a certain title is worth working with editorially (and then, later down the line, through advertising). It helps PRs clearly align media outreach with the business strategy, and it gives us trusted, independently audited numbers to back up our approach.
  • Unaudited Media – The vast majority of media in the region isn’t audited. Their numbers cannot be verified, and my assumption (which I assume is commonly shared in the industry), is that distribution numbers and readership is over-inflated. There’s no way that we can trust the circulation numbers given by publishers, and there’s no way that we can trust that the audience that we need to reach is seeing our messaging.
  • Advertising Media – Forgive the name for this third category. This is media which is created solely for the purposes of capturing advertising revenues, with limited to no circulation. With little to no circulation to talk of – in contrast to the publicized circulation numbers – such media and their publishers have done little to no favor to the reputation of media in the region. And it doesn’t help our cause in promoting media as the most effective means to reach out to our target audience, especially when the publication has effectively no audience.

The second issue is digital. Whilst some publishers, titles and journalists have embraced digital platforms including websites, podcasts, vlogs and social media, others have yet to leverage the power of online distribution and amplification. Digital remains a challenge for much of the media industry globally; no newspaper has been able to make a profit and run its business from its online sales revenues. However, with consumers in the Gulf region essentially living their lives online, does it make sense for traditional media publications to not be online?

The other aspect of digital which media needs to leverage is its ability to engage in real time with its audience, and build audience profiles. I’m yet to see or meet an influencer who will be able to give me an up-to-date breakdown of their followers’ interests, age ranges, geographies and other demographics. The media can and should be helping to build up reader profiles which in turn will help us work with them to target the right audiences. This requires trust and transparency, which is still hard to come by with many titles (see the above).

I feel its especially important that journalists build their online profiles. While many are being laid off as publications shrink, brands need reputable voices to work with. For me, there’s little comparison between a professional journalist and a social media influencer in the Gulf (there are exceptions). When reviewing a product, it’s much more likely that a journalist will give a less biased viewpoint, and will include both positives as well as negatives. That builds integrity and trust with readers, which advertisers should seek out as the holy grail of brand building. Journalists need to think about transitioning into content creators and distributors for brands, much like their social media influencer counterparts. The difference will be in their ability to tell a balanced story that is trusted by their readers.

Whilst the region’s media scene is slowly feeling the impact of ad spending shifting online (just look at the recent closures, including 7Days), I cannot and don’t want to image a day where we have no media to work with. The media industry has to play its part in changing to meet the needs of consumers, through embracing both transparency and digital platforms. I have a great deal of respect for the professionalism and expertise of many publications and journalists in the region, and I know how influential they can be. We need to ensure that their influence is recognized in a fashion that is understood outside of the media industry, by businesses who want to engage publicly.

Do you have any inputs or thoughts on the media industry and how they should change to remain relevant? If yes, then please do share them with me in the comments below.

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

qatar-block-618x415

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.

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

7days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jailed for switching identities for access to an event – What PR practitioners need to be aware of

Seven people working in or for PR agencies were jailed for three years for switching security cards during WFES.

Seven people working in or for PR agencies were jailed for three years for switching security cards during WFES.

Having been in the region for a fair period of time (my family’s history in the Gulf goes back over half a century), I’ve seen and experienced many a situation. These recollections have helped me to grow, metaphorically speaking, a fairly thick skin. But every now and then, a story emerges that still has the power to shock.

A friend shared the below story with me which is from the local rag 7Days. As a PR professional and a former journalist, I know that the below is common practice. But I’ve never heard of such a punishment.

Seven people have been sentenced to three years in jail for swapping security access to attend an energy summit in Abu Dhabi.

The criminal court handed down the sentences to the men and women from Philippines, India, China and Canada after they were found guilty of misusing official documents and access badges and allowing unauthorised people into the World Future Energy Summit on January 18 of this year.

Official documents stated that the defendants, who included expat employees and visitors, exchanged security access badges to allow others who had not registered to enter the conference.

The court heard this not acceptable as the summit was attended by top local government officials and international dignitaries.

Prosecutors said that in one of the cases, a Public Relations official from a local firm gave her access badge to a male photographer who had been sent by their client to take some pictures of the event.

Security officials spotted the Filipina with a woman’s access badge and he was arrested along with the PR official who offered him the access badge. In court the PR woman admitted to giving him the access badge issued in her name.

“I gave it to him so he could access the area and take photos for one of our clients participating in the exhibition at the summit,” said the PR official.

“I just wanted to facilitate the work of our client.”

She told the judge that she had no idea giving her access badge to another person was illegal or that it could jeopardise security at the summit.

The key speakers at the conference included United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

The defendants can appeal their sentences within 14 days after the ruling was issued

.

With the number of events that are held in the UAE and the cost of entry, it’s not uncommon for photographers and even junior PR professionals from the agency side to resort to borrowing someone else’s badge. While it’s not the best or most ethical route to take, when you’re on a deadline and when you don’t have an hour or two to wait to get a new entry badge, it’s understandable that someone may take another’s badge to get access to do their job as quickly as possible. I’ve seen this countless times with big events. And I’ve seen people getting caught, which usually involves a ticking off from security for having (and using) someone else’s badge.

However, being jailed for three years in prison (which will presumably be followed by deportation for those expats who are involved) is something else entirely; I’ve never seen the like before. In future, just be careful when faced with a similar situation. Seven people from our industry being bars is hard to countenance. I’d hate to see anyone I know going to prison for the same reason.

The Fire, the Selfie and Prison – why you should care about what your friends say online

Was this inappropriate? Most certainly. But what could get you jailed is not just a picture that is in poor taste, but rather the comments your friends make on that post.

Was this inappropriate? Most certainly. But what could get you jailed is not just a picture that is in poor taste, but rather the comments your friends make on that post.

We all do stupid things, and we unfortunately then post these acts of idiocy online. Combine that with a situation like we had during New Year’s Eve, and you’ve got a situation that could at best be described as combustible.

As the flames ravaged Dubai’s The Address Hotel on New Year’s Eve, some people decided to take selfies. A few posted these selfies online, to Instagram and Facebook. At least two people, two young men, were arrested for their selfie (pictured above) while the Emirate’s Public Prosecution investigated their case.

There’s been much speculation online as to why the men were arrested, with many commentators arguing that the action defamed the country and its image – let’s remember that defamation is a criminal offense in the Gulf, with a minimum fine of 500,000 Dirhams and jail time in the UAE (as well as deportation for expatriates). Many have posted selfies at the same location, with smiles, grins and laughs, and such expressions of emotion may have been considered a case of schadenfreude by the authorities.

However, according to the English-language newspaper 7Days which spoke to the lawyer of the two accused, they were investigated not for the image per se, but rather for the comments made about the image. The argument goes that the person who posts content is also responsible for the comments on that post, even if those comments are not written by the same person but his or her friends, family (or anyone who wants to get you jailed).

Luckily for them, the two were released from prison after a couple of days with no charge after investigators found that there was “no evidence of criminal intent”. However, remember that in future it’s not just your stupidity that could land you in jail, but that of your online contacts as well. Their comments could cross the legal line of what is defined as defamation, so don’t post images or any other type of post that could get you into trouble. Just don’t…

Flip-Flopping during a crisis – how Damac’s handling of the Trump backlash has proved costly

First you don't see it, then you do. Damac initially removed Trump's name after his comments on Muslims, only to restore it a couple of days after (top photo by Reuters/bottom photo by  Rahul Gajjar of Khaleej Times)

First you don’t see it, then you do. Damac initially removed Trump’s name after his comments on Muslims, only to restore it a couple of days after (top photo by Reuters/bottom photo by Rahul Gajjar of Khaleej Times)

Imagine for a moment, if you will, one of your key business partners/influencers saying something controversial. Imagine that they’ve just racially attacked your most important group of customers. And then imagine that, rather than dumping this partner, you instead flip-flop around the issue and end up not only looking rather foolish, but do yourself and your reputation a fair amount of harm in the process.

If you work at Damac, you don’t need to imagine any of the above. The Dubai-headquartered real estate developer, which counts Donald Trump as one of its business partners, has been flip-flopping since Trump came out with a comment on the 7th of December that there should be a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the United States. This statement, which was made following the deadly shootings in California’s San Bernardino, weren’t the first Trump had made about Muslims. He had previously that he was in favour of shutting down American mosques and establishing a database for all Muslims living in the US or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion.

Damac’s relationship with Trump International includes branding for two Trump-branded gold courses and a collection luxury villas at the developer’s Akoya project in Dubai. I don’t know the full extent of the relationship, but local newspaper 7DAYS claimed that, in addition to the licensing fees that Damac would have to pay to Trump for the use of his name and image, Trump himself had invested in the project.

Following the controversy around Trump’s latest Muslim statements, Damac put out a statement that could be called, at best, avoiding the issue.

Damac Properties senior vice president Niall McLoughlin told 7DAYS in a statement: “We would like to stress that our agreement is with the Trump Organisation as one of the premium golf course operators in the world and as such we would not comment further on Mr Trump’s personal or political agenda, nor comment on the internal American political debate scene.”

Instead of publicly taking Trump to task and distancing the company from his statements, Damac took a different approach. A couple of days after the outcry, on the 10th of December Damac took Donald Trump down – his image and name that is, from their developments. To quote from 7DAYS.

Hoardings that previously carried photos of the billionaire businessman advertising Damac’s Trump-branded golf course and luxury villas stood bare on Umm Suquiem Road on Thursday, right at the entrance to the development.

All well and good you may think – Damac quietly rebranded their development and distanced themselves from Trump. However, in a further twist, Trump’s name was back on billboards two days later, on the 12th of December. Here’s how the English-daily Khaleej Times put it:

On Friday, a prominent advertising billboard showing Trump golfing that had stood at the Akoya development, where the housing and one of the golf courses is being built, was gone. All that remained of it was the board’s brown wooden background. Another billboard declaring the development “The Beverly Hills of Dubai” still stood nearby.

Trump’s name also appeared to have been pulled off one sign greeting visitors to the complex. The sign, outside a sales office at the site, originally had Trump’s name in lettering on a stone wall. But on Friday the letters were littering the ground in front of it.

A second, similar sign facing a major road was intact with Trump’s name on it. Earlier in the week, that sign had been taken down but by Friday, it was back in place.

“The exterior signage at Trump International Golf Club, Dubai was temporarily removed on Tuesday for a short period of time, however as of last night, the signage is back up and fully intact,” the Trump Organization said in a statement to The Associated Press on Friday.

Also, the Damac webpage dedicated to the Trump PRVT gated community, which is part of the development, appeared to have been removed, leading only to a “not found” page.

Since the development is still under construction, the removal of the branding with Trump’s name and image seemed to be largely symbolic. It was not known if it signaled Damac will outright break the licensing contract.

Damac Properties has declined to comment on the removal of Trump’s name and billboard from the property. It earlier said it “would not comment further on Mr. Trump’s personal or political agenda, nor comment on the internal American political debate scene.”

To change the issue, Damac has switched tactic. Instead of talking politics, the developer announced that it would guarantee rental returns for those buying in its Akoya (Trump-branded) project. The National broke the story last week.

Damac Properties, the developer caught in a storm over its partnership with the controversial US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, is offering lucrative rental returns on some of its properties to lure investors.

Damac, which said it would stick with Trump International despite his anti-Muslim tirade, is providing a 24 per cent rental guarantee on selected units in Dubai, including the Akoya project associated with the billionaire, the developer said in a statement.

Owners of selected properties will be able to secure an eight per cent annual return in the first three years after handover.

The company was offering these returns because it believes the Dubai property market is “set for stable growth in the medium term”, Damac said. “We have seen quite a bit of scaremongering in the market in recent months, which can have a detrimental effect on sentiment in the market,” said Niall McLoughlin, the senior vice president at Damac. “By providing such a high, tax-free offering on our units, we are putting our head above the rest and underwriting any fluctuations that may occur down the line.”

Reputational issues become even more important for companies which are listed, as Damac is. Damac’s shares initially fell 15 percent following the muted response. Investors may also not have appreciated the rental guarantee initiative, as you can see from the share price chart below.

Damac's share price fell after the initial outcry. The share price has also fallen following Damac's attempts to repair the reputational damage through the rental incentive promise.

Damac’s share price fell after the initial outcry. The share price has also fallen following Damac’s attempts to repair the reputational damage through the rental incentive promise.

While I don’t know the relationship between the two, would Damac have been wiser to have taken an initial hit and exited the contract with Trump rather than flip-flopping on the issue, drawing it out and drawing more attention to the brand association? Add in the costs with guaranteeing rental returns in addition to the share drop, and this crisis will prove costly both in the short as well as the long-term. To me, the media and the company’s shareholders the answer about whether or not to dump Trump – and take a short term hit through contractual obligations but save the company’s reputation and keep shareholders and customers happy – seems fairly obvious.

When should brands step away from a toxic celebrity – the Trump effect

The Trump is known for his outspoken views, but what damage have his latest rants done to brands in the Gulf?

The Trump is known for his outspoken views, but what damage have his latest rants done to brands in the Gulf?

I know you’re tired of hearing about Donald Trump. Everywhere I look on the internet and social media, all I see is Trump, Trump, Trump… I am sorry to write about this man again, and give him yet more coverage that he doesn’t deserve, but this time I’m focusing on brands and what they do when their engagements with celebrities turn toxic.

As everyone with an internet connection knows, Donald Trump said something very stupid about stopping Muslims from entering the US. Here’s the Trump in action below.

The problem for Donald, or should I say the brands that are associated with him, is that he has business interests in the Muslim world, including here in the Gulf. Dubai-headquartered real estate brand Damac has been working with Trump for several years, and has a number of golf courses and other developments named after Trump and his family. Dubai’s Landmark Group sells Trump Home-branded products across the Gulf in its Lifestyle shops. While the Al Tayer Group opened two Trump Home by Dorya galleries in the UAE in June.

The response to Trump’s comments about banning Muslims from the US has drawn different reactions from these three entities. Damac was the first to comment, with the company’s Senior VP for Comms saying effectively the Trump brand is distinct from the man himself.

“We would like to stress that our agreement is with the Trump Organisation as one of the premium golf course operators in the world and as such we would not comment further on Mr. Trump’s personal or political agenda, nor comment on the internal American political debate scene,” said Niall McLoughlin.

Al-Tayer shared its own views with the Dubai media’s 7Days paper, with the following statement: “The statement Mr Trump made on the campaign trail is unfortunate. Given his diverse business interests in the region, we hope that he will reconsider this stand.”

Most interestingly, Landmark Group has decided to drop the Trump range of products from its stores. Landmark works with another celebrity who has a love/hate relationship with the public. Bollywood star Salman Khan was convicted of manslaughter earlier this year back in his home country of India, and yet he is still a brand ambassador for one of Landmark’s retail brands.

“In light of the recent statements made by the presidential candidate in the U.S. media, we have suspended sale of all products from the Trump Home decor range,” Lifestyle CEO Sachin Mundhwa said in an email to media outlets including the UK’s Independent.

Will Damac and Al-Tayer follow Landmark’s example? Or will they stick out the ensuing furor? When does a celebrity engagement do more harm than good? With Trump unlikely to apologize for his comments this can only get messier for those companies which are still associated with the Trump.