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?

The National, City 7 TV and the Quest to Make Media Profitable via Digital

Both The National and City 7 TV will be letting go of many editorial staff as they look to restructure (image source: Arabian Business)

The past couple of weeks has been tough for many colleagues in the UAE media industry. First, information was leaked about job losses at the Abu Dhabi-based, English language daily The National. The reported job cuts follows five months after the paper’s purchase by International Media Investments (IMI), a subsidiary of private investment firm Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation (ADMIC) from state-owned Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADM). At least a quarter of the editorial staff will be leaving The National by the end of June 2017, as the paper’s owners support a “digital transformation” at the paper.

“As part of this transition, over the past few months, IMI has finalised its new vision for The National, supported by a robust editorial strategy to ensure that The National fulfils its potential as a premier English language source of news about and for the Middle East,” a spokesperson told the AFP.

Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation also owns a majority stake in Sky News Arabia, and a project team has been set up to aid the “digital transformation” at The National.

The second news story over the past week were job cuts at Dubai-based English language television channel, City 7 TV. The channel has been sold by BinHendi Enterprises to WeTel-TV, a TV platform for global educational news and current affairs. A number of the editorial team have left as the channel focuses on education.

For many media outlets, the focus is increasingly on profit. In a region which is going through austerity, and where media ownership is primarily in the hands of government (for newspapers and television at the very least), there seems to be a rethink among many outlets as to how to reduce costs. As with every other region, digital is waved as the answer. However, even global titles such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Daily Mail have struggled to turn a profit online. Digital revenue streams simply aren’t going to replace lost print advertising any time soon.

The other question that The National’s media owners need to ask is how will the loss of so many journalists impact editorial quality? When it comes to media consumption, online is no different from offline; readers want good content. How that content is delivered is obviously different, but the demand for good media will remain. And will there be a logical approach to a “digital transformation”, that combines both The National’s quality copy with the multimedia abilities of Sky News Arabia? An Abu-Dhabi based rival to AJ+ would be an exciting proposition, and I hope that The National has a strong digital enabler at the helm.

Whatever happens with both publications, my thoughts are very much with those people who are leaving. I hope that you’ll find new employment soon.

The importance of reputation – the examples of Mubadala and IPIC


The concept of reputation, which can be defined as how much stakeholders trust organizations, is often difficult to measure. It’s an intangible, an idea which is often best understood at the most inappropriate time (in other words, during a crisis).

In Abu Dhabi last week news broke about a merger between two government-owned investment vehicles. The deal between Mubadala and IPIC would create a combined fund worth US$135 billion according to Reuters. At a time of budget tightening due to low oil prices, the merger promises to bring about significant cost savings according to media reports.

Reuters had another interesting take on the merger, which I’ll copy from the article.

IPIC is also in the midst of a row with 1MDB. The Abu Dhabi fund has asked a London court to arbitrate in a dispute with the Malaysian state fund over a debt restructuring in which IPIC is claiming about $6.5 billion.

While unlikely to impact these proceedings, the sovereign wealth fund analyst said the scandal had undermined IPIC’s reputation and so a tie-up with Mubadala, which is considered one of the better-run state investment funds in the region, would be beneficial.

The analyst that Reuters spoke to argued that IPIC’s reputation was hit by the issue in Malaysia. In addition, the departure of its previous CEO and dealings in its investments such as Arabtec have also contributed to reputation all issues. In contrast, Mubadala has a strong brand, helped in part to the leadership of its management and financial transparency.

It’s not only communicators who need to understand that every action will impact organizational reputation (leaders of listed companies know all too well what public sentiment can do to the stock price, and their jobs). The Mubadala-IPIC merger is an example of how much both good and not so good reputations can impact the business.

Does the Bloomberg deal with ADGM impact its impartiality or not?

Does this deal with ADGM (pictured) mean something for Bloomberg's journalistic impartiality in the region?

Does this deal with ADGM (pictured) mean something for Bloomberg’s journalistic impartiality in the region?

The issue of impartiality is one which is seldom discussed in the Middle East – this probably isn’t a surprise when considering that much of the region’s press is owned by some form of government authority. However, when it comes to international media the issue of impartiality is a different story. Journalists from abroad, news wires in particular, often have to navigate the challenging waters of what to report on and how to report. They know that the consequences of their work can be dire, and I have known several brave journalists who have been asked to leave the country they were based in. For me, they’re often the most trusted source of information.

The deal between Bloomberg and Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM), the aspiring, brand new international financial centre located in the heart of the UAE’s capital city, was announced last week. The deal, which had been in the works for some time, will include the following details as reported by The National:

The partnership will involve major media initiatives from a new office on ADGM’s Al Maryah Island base, including a dedicated digital platform, new programming and an annual conference of global business leaders in the capital.

Tracy Alloway, Bloomberg’s executive editor of markets, based in New York, and a former Financial Times US correspondent, will lead the ADGM editorial operation.

The TV centrepiece of the new initiative will be a daily global markets programme, from new studios in the Dubai International Financial Centre, which will include editorial content from Ms Alloway broadcast live from ADGM.

A new “anchor” broadcaster will soon be named to present the show, which will seek to bridge the gap between Asian and European markets in Bloomberg’s global network.

There will also be a dedicated Middle East edition of the Bloomberg website, with original input from its 80-strong editorial team, headquartered in Dubai.

I heard about the deal some time back, and what was said to me was that ADGM would be financially supporting Bloomberg’s news organization in Abu Dhabi. It’s a great deal for ADGM, which was recently set up and which has aspirations to become a global hub for financial trading. Alongside the likes of Reuters and Dow Jones, Bloomberg is a global name when it comes to business reporting.

However, is impartiality impacted when money is involved? How will Bloomberg report bad news from ADGM? And how would ADGM respond? All of us who have worked in the media industry in the region know stories of how publishers will behave differently for advertisers, often not reporting negative pieces and instead pushing out good news.

Bloomberg is a different proposition to a local publication; its reporters do write everything, warts and all. Similarly, there’s been a major push to make ADGM a global player on the financial stage, with experienced executives brought in from Singapore and London.

For the sake of argument, let’s address the elephant in the room. As a matter of principle, should Bloomberg have said yes to the deal? Even if no reporting lines are broken, does the deal imply that there could be a measure of bias? Time will tell and each and every organization has its ups and downs. I’m looking forward to seeing Bloomberg’s new setup in ADGM and what it means for journalism and impartiality in the Middle East.

The Real #EtisalatChallenge – Where are the eGlobe Cards?

Do you know about the eGlobe card and where to find it? Is this the real #EtisalatChallenge?

Do you know about the eGlobe card and where to find it? Is this the real #EtisalatChallenge?

It’s Gitex week, and its technology time. For those of you who don’t know Gitex, imagine tens of thousands of people talking about hardware, software and all things geeky. But I digress.

We’ve had our little bundle of joy and we’ve been lucky enough to have another addition to the family this month. To help her feel at home, we wanted to buy phone cards so that she could use the landline and she’d know how much she’d spend each time she’d call home (why not a mobile you ask? Well, landlines offer better voice quality, more stable connections and are usually cheaper).

After a little bit of research and a lot of shop visits, we realized that the VoIP calling cards which were being advertised at the start of the year by the two phone companies Etisalat and Du, Five and Hello! respectively, were no longer on sale (though you’d be hard pressed to find an announcement in the media).

Instead, Etisalat, the UAE’s largest phone company, was offering on its website a solution called eGlobe. To quote:

Use your prepaid, disposable Calling Cards for services such as recharging and renewing your Landline Prepaid (Maysour) account, Home Country Direct calls, Prepaid Internet, eVision pay-per-view, Hotspots, and more, in addition to national and international calls from any phone.

All well and good. But where can one buy them?

Buy Prepaid Calling Cards at
• Your nearest Etisalat Business / Service Centres
• Supermarkets, grocery and convenience stores, other outlets

So off I went. To the first store, where the response was, “What?” Ok, it’s a small store. Maybe they’ll have the cards at the local Co-op here in Abu Dhabi. “No, sir. We only have mobile recharge cards.” And then, after calling up the help line and getting no where, I marched off to the Etisalat shop, where, after ten minutes, I finally spoke to someone who knew about the eGlobe cards. “We have them with a chain called Fatima Stores…” So, off I went to the Fatima Store behind Dana hotel in downtown Abu Dhabi.

After walking around for a while, I finally found the shop. And what happened? “No, I’ve never heard of eGlobe cards.”

As the Thursday afternoon and evening passed me by and having driven, walked and talked in circles all of the afternoon and the evening, it dawned on me. What I had written about a couple of months back was a hoax. You launch a product on your website, and yet you tell none of your staff about it or sell it through your traditional distribution channels. It’s almost like one of those impossible game shows where the odds are rigged forever against you. The eGlobe card is the original, the true Etisalat Challenge.

Are you up to the task of finding the eGlobe card?

The National and how it (finally) got the Saayidat Gas Blast story right

The money picture of the gas blast flat was captured on the second day by The National (image source: The National)

The money picture of the gas blast flat was captured on the second day by The National (image source: The National)

As an ex-journalist who nowadays spends more time in corporate communications than writing for the press, I still enjoy spending time reading what the media produce. One local story was particularly moving for me. On the 24th of March, in the evening, a gas explosion tore through the compound where me and my wife live in Abu Dhabi. My wife felt the blast, which she described as feeling like an earthquake.

As you’d expect, the incident made the news. Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper The National was quick out of the blocks to cover the incident with an online piece posted the same night. While the speed of the output was noteworthy, the paper got several essential facts wrong.

The first was the explosion’s timing – the incident happened at 7.30pm and emergency services were quickly on site afterwards. Secondly, and even more importantly, there were injuries despite the article’s assertion that no injuries were reported (two ambulances were on-site). And thirdly, a stock image of the building was used rather than a picture of the location following the blast (the compound is thirty minutes drive from The National’s offices).

The National's first story on the Saadiyat gas blast was quick to print but important details were wrong

The National’s first story on the Saadiyat gas blast was quick to print but important details were wrong

The piece didn’t feel as if it was put together in the right fashion, as if there wasn’t anyone on site from the paper to collect statements and talk to the authorities. It felt as if it was a desk-job. There was definitely no photographer on site to take the gold-ticket picture which would have set the stage for the piece.

However, the next day The National upped the ante in their second piece. First of all, they had the picture of the gas-blast flat which the first piece desperately needed. This money shot was supplemented by additional images. The piece confirmed the one injury. The piece was much stronger in terms of its facts as well as the emotional focus of the residents who were in the building when the blast occurred and their fears and concerns.

Was there still an issue? As far I am concerned, yes. The piece was almost a gushing testimonial to the compound’s developer TDIC. I felt as if TDIC had commissioned the piece, rather than having a piece written about them by an objective journalist (disclaimer – both TDIC and The National enjoy shared ownership, though that shouldn’t have any bearing on editorial independence). Have a look at the extract from the article and tell me what your opinion is.

Ionnais Xenakis, 27, a pilot with Etihad, lives on the fourth floor with his wife Erini, 27, a few apartments away from the flat where the explosion occurred.

“I was sitting on the sofa with my husband and baby. We heard a loud noise and a vibration,” Mrs Xenakis said.

“We weren’t sure what it was so we grabbed our baby and dog, and ran. We saw our neighbour Barry who was injured in the explosion. He told us that he turned on his light and then the apartment exploded.

“He has just moved into the building and told us that his gas wasn’t even connected yet. It was a little difficult to get out of the emergency exit because it was dark, and the emergency doors were damaged and blocked the path,” she said.

“We helped him out until the paramedics came. It was tough, but the one thing that we can all agree upon is TDIC’s swift reaction and assistance.

“They supported us like a family. They did more than we expected them to do. I was even given a stroller for my baby by one of the employees.

“They also gave me everything I needed for my baby. They were there, attending to all of our needs about 15 minutes after the explosion.”

TDIC made arrangements for the Xenakis family’s dog and cat to be taken to the Australian Veterinary Clinic in Abu Dhabi.

The third and fourth pieces by The National switched from reporting on the blast to the feelings of the residents and their concerns about the safety of their homes. The third piece was much shorter, but it was all the better for it. The fourth piece followed in a similar vein, and both included quotes from two residents (albeit the same residents). There was also the required comment from the local authorities on the steps they were taking to reassure the public – this gas blast was the second in the capital in the space of a week.

The paper saved the best for last, with a piece at the beginning of this week on the injured man himself and his own story as to what happened that night. The journalist rounded off the piece with a final comment from one of the residents.

Residents were displaced for several days. Some tenants from the blast floor are still being housed at the Anantara Eastern Mangroves by the Tourism Development and Investment Company. They are eager to find out what caused the explosion.

“It’s important to identify the error behind this because I believe it could’ve been prevented,” said L R, a neighbour of Mr Johnson. “A poor man was seriously injured because of this. We don’t need hard lessons and tragic stories to learn from our mistakes.”

The National did the right thing and got the piece right, with rolling coverage on the story and a focus on the facts as well as a human-interest element that rounded off the coverage. The journalist made amends for the initial piece which was lacking in both information and visuals to craft a number of pieces that hit the mark every time. The only thing left to say is to wish the person injured in the blast, Barry Johnson, a speedy recovery. It was a memorable night for all the wrong reasons, and I hope that he will be back on his feet and fully recovered sooner rather than later. I hope to read about Barry’s recovery in The National as soon as it happens.

I’d like to wish Barry Johnson a speedy recovery and I hope to read the news soon in The National (image source: The National)

The Abu Dhabi Reem Island Murder Video – the ethical and moral considerations

The past week was witness to a tragic incident in the UAE’s capital. On the first of December a women, a US national, was fatally stabbed by a suspect wearing an abaya and niqab, the traditional cloak worn by women and a full face covering. You can read the full background here at The National.

This incident is unique; the country is known for its safety for both nationals and expatriates. A major operation was launched by Abu Dhabi police to locate and capture the suspect(s). Two days following the killing, Abu Dhabi Police shared with the media and via their YouTube channel CCTV footage from the mall of the suspect entering and leaving the location. The video has been seen more than two million times in the space of 48 hours.

The next day, on the 4th of December and 48 hours after the murder, the Ministry of Interior made the announcement that everyone was waiting for. The suspect had been caught. The Ministry shared more details of events on that day, including how the suspect had placed an explosive device outside the flat of another American national.

But that wasn’t all. Abu Dhabi Police shared a video, which was an edit of the CCTV footage along with video from the raid on the house where the suspect was arrested. Do watch the video, which is posted below.

Personally, I’ve never seen such footage broadcast before a trial has begun. The video, which runs for over six minutes and has now been watched almost two million times, plays music for dramatic effect on top of the footage.

I have a number of questions and issues, which I’d like your opinion on. Firstly, was the timing right? The video sends out the message that we will catch the perpetrators of such crimes as soon as is possible, but how will this affect a family which is still grieving? Secondly, does this prejudice the defence’s case and the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty?

Most importantly, the video doesn’t answer why the crime was committed. If certain individuals hold views that are anti-foreigner, how are these views to be addressed?

For me, there’s more questions than answers about this case. I’d love to hear your feedback.

First there was #MyDubai, and now we have #InAbuDhabi – Promoting a city on social media

Will #InAbuDhabi do for the capital what #MyDubai has done for Dubai’s social media presence?

There’s a saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s the case, then #MyDubai, the social media campaign which was launched to give the city’s residents a way to tell their own story, now has another honor to its name in addition to the one million Instagram uploads.

Abu Dhabi has followed in the footsteps of #MyDubai and launched its own hashtag to share experiences. To quote from the Khaleej Times:

Residents and visitors to the Capital have a new platform to share their experiences and events: #inAbuDhabi.

Announced on Sunday by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), the new online service is meant to promote the emirate’s culture, entertainment, heritage and hospitality both at home and abroad.

“The #inAbuDhabi campaign will be wide-reaching and rolled out across all communication channels of our visitabudhabi online resource. It will be used across social media for maximum reach and impact and will be a tool to tell the destination story locally, regionally and internationally,” said Mouza Al Shamsi, acting executive director of Marketing and Communications at TCA.

So far, so good. However, despite launching the campaign on October 20th it’s probably fair to say that the #inAbuDhabi hashtag is yet to trend among social media users. Most of the usage has been by corporate accounts related to tourism such as @VisitAbuDhabi, @AbuDhabiEvents and @EtihadAirways.

The hashtag #InAbuDhabi had a strong start but has tailed off rapidly since its launch

The hashtag #InAbuDhabi had a strong start but has tailed off rapidly since its launch

Will #InAbuDhabi become another #MyDubai? Does it have the emotional resonance with residents of the capital? Or should Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority not imitated Dubai and done something completely different? What do you think?

Who delivers the message is just as important as the message itself – a lesson from Abu Dhabi

Now, if you were to present to these people what would you think of wearing? (image source: The New York Times)

Many of us in the communications industry spend so long on developing the message itself that we often forget about the impact of who is going to deliver the message. A striking example of this and one of the most striking examples of mismatching the what with the who dates back to 2006, when Dubai’s DP World lost control of six ports in the US in part due to a lack of understanding how to present to a specific audience. For those who remember the episode the highlight was UAE nationals dressed in kandouras presenting to US officials, which didn’t help to assuage American lawmakers that the ports would not be a security threat in the hands of an Arab-owned company.

A news item this week caught my eye. It was an interesting article about a subject that needs more airtime, that of energy conservation and electricity subsidies. I’m going to quote from the article, which was published in the English-daily Gulf News, below.

When you switch off a lamp or an electric gadget when not needed, it is not merely minimising your own expense, but helps the nation implement more welfare measures for its people, including building more schools and hospitals.

Abu Dhabi Government spent Dh4 billion on subsidies on oil that used for energy generation last year, a senior official said here yesterday.

If energy consumption is minimised, the oil used for power generation can be exported and its revenue can be used for constructing schools etc, said Robert Bradley, Senior Policy Advisor — Climate Change, Directorate of Energy and Climate Change at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He was speaking at a discussion meeting in the capital… It was Abu Dhabi Sustainability Group’s sixth Hiwar Session (the Arabic word for dialogue), a public event, which aimed to shed light on current economic, social and environmental issues and its implications for sustainability in Abu Dhabi.

Let’s have a look at the message, which in itself is fascinating. Abu Dhabi is spending unnecessary money on power generation, money that could be spent on infrastructure, on public services, education or healthcare. All good so far. However, who is speaking and to which audience?

We have a Westerner, an expat talking about nation-building. Okay, but which group(s) would have have the most interest in looking long term? Who uses public services such as national schools and hospitals? It’d be a safe assumption to say UAE nationals. And which consumer demographic uses the most electricity per head (take a guess… yes, it’s locals).

The question would be, why isn’t a UAE national delivering the message, in Arabic? And why is an English-language paper reporting on this rather than the Arabic press? Surely a UAE national would have more gravitas and clout in spreading this message to his or her fellow citizens, in a language and dialect that they understand. There’d be less opportunity for misunderstandings and misgivings.

We’ve often got to think beyond the message to the messenger him or herself. If we don’t then we’re going to miss the chance to make the impact that we’re hoping for. And trust me, we’re not going to be able to rely on oil and gas in this part of the world forever.

Trials and Tribulations at Abu Dhabi’s The National

The National, Abu Dhabi’s English-language newspaper, hasn’t had a quiet week. First comes a blog post which The National admitted was ‘one of the most controversial ever’ in the paper’s five year history. The blog, which was written by an intern journalist named Ayesha Al-Khoori, was pilloried for its description of her driving habits and speeding even though she herself was attempting to argue that lowering the UAE’s driving minimum driving age from 18 would be a mistake. This blog, which garnered hundreds of responses and mentions on the comments section as well as on social media sites, was followed by an attempt at an apology which for me seemed to miss the point (Ayesha claimed her message was lost, but I’d argue that there was no consistency in her initial message).

For a review of the blog and The National’s editorial guidelines including how it reviews and edits work (which didn’t seem to be the case with Ayesha’s blog) then read this piece by Mita56 which sums everything up nicely.

To top off a bad start to the week, someone made a serious error when writing The National’s daily electronic newsletter (have a shufty below).

Have a look and spot the boo-boo. It's a big one.

Have a look and spot the boo-boo. It’s a big one.

If you didn’t spot the mistake, I’ll give you a hint. The late person referred to in the photo-caption should be the founder of the country (Allah yurhamu) rather than HRH his son who is very much alive and is the President of the United Arab Emirates.

The National has been stung recently by a couple of tell-all pieces by ex-journalists. One of the most recent was Tom OHara, who wrote a warts-and-all account of his two years in Abu Dhabi in the American Journalism Review in December 2012/January 2013. You can read his revealing piece here.

I was at the launch party for The National in 2008 and remember the roster of journalists on display. There was a Pulitzer-prize winner reporting for the paper even. Hopes were high that we’d have a newspaper with the temerity to tell it like it was, which is still a rarity in the Middle East. Over the years I’ve looked forward to reading The National’s copy from a group of journalists whom I have dealt with and whom I think very highly of.

As a former journalist I respect and admire good journalism. In today’s Gulf we need more quality content to explain the why behind the what. My hope is that The National’s management steer the paper back to what it aimed to be five years back, to “establish an institution on par with some of the greatest newspapers in the world.” Trials and tribulations are all well and good (unless you’re the person behind the drama), but The National needs to raise its standards and focus our attention back on the quality of its content. The National, we need you more than ever.