Not the headline one hopes for – Migrant workers, ‘trespassing’, and Qatar’s BBC own goal

A communicator’s job (or part of at the very least) is to generate headlines. Preferably favorable headlines. But even the best of intentions can often come undone.

It’s an understatement to say that Qatar has been under the microscope recently. The country, with a population of just over a million (both nationals and expats) and hundreds of billions of dollars of gas reserves, has often strived to make its mark on the global stage. One such project is the news station Al-Jazeera, which has revolutionized media in the Middle East and beyond.

Qatar’s World Cup bid and subsequent win hasn’t been the success the country may have hoped for however. Ever since Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup by FIFA, it has been subject to criticism by international NGOs about a host of issues ranging from the rights of homosexuals to labor rights.

The biggest concern has been the living conditions of low-income workers, specifically those people who are building the infrastructure for the World Cup.

To their credit (or maybe because there’s little other choice afforded to them), the Qatari government has tried to tackle allegations of poor treatment of migrant workers head on. They have announced new legislation to penalize companies who do not pay workers on time and an amendment to the national labor law to facilitate the payment of workers through direct bank deposits.

Qatar has also been keen to promote the new migrant labor villages that the government has built. As part of its media efforts, the country’s Labor Ministry invited global media last week to view this new accomodation and meet the country’s Labor Minister to talk about Qatar’s push to promote labor rights.

However, things didn’t go quite as expected. I’ll quote from the Guardian below.

A four-strong BBC crew had been invited by the prime minister’s office on an official tour designed to show off new accommodation for migrant labourers, but were arrested by the security services while trying to gather additional material. They were interrogated and jailed for two days, before being released without charge.

The visit was part of a public relations drive, partly overseen by London-based agency Portland, in the wake of an international outcry over the slave-like conditions for workers exposed by a Guardian investigation in September 2013.

Rather than the story being the improvements in living conditions for Qatar’s migrant workers, the headline on the BBC (which was carried across the globe) was BBC team arrested, and held for several days.

It went from bad to worse for Qatar when Qatar’s communications chief explained that the BBC team had been arrested for ‘trespassing’. Again, to quote from The Guardian.

The Qatari government’s head of communications, Saif al-Thani, said the BBC crew were arrested after departing from an official tour. He said: “We gave the reporters free rein to interview whomever they chose and to roam unaccompanied in the labour villages.

“Perhaps anticipating that the government would not provide this sort of access, the BBC crew decided to do their own site visits and interviews in the days leading up to the planned tour. In doing so, they trespassed on private property, which is against the law in Qatar just as it is in most countries. Security forces were called and the BBC crew was detained.”

The challenge organizations often face is how to ensure that the same message is conveyed across the entirety of the organization. It’s obvious that in Qatar there were differences of opinion which led to the BBC crew being tailed by the security forces once they’d entered the country and to their arrest while doing their job.

The question now for Qatar is how do they go on from here and get the message right, across all of the country’s government and leadership? The media scrutiny is only going to get even more intense, the closer we get to the 2022 World Cup. I’ll continue to watch this story and how it unfolds in the media.

The Sheikh Mohammed School of Communication

I’m no posterboy for Dubai I’ll admit. But I do admire how the Emirate’s ruler communicates with the media. The BBC aired an interview with Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum this week and the piece made headlines the world over. Sheikh Mo as he’s known here shared his thoughts on everything from Iran, Syria and Egypt to horse doping and human rights in the UAE. Sheikh Mohammed talks plainly, he gets to the point, and he admits when things go wrong; asked about the jailing of a number of young men for a spoof video Sheikh Mohammed says:

“We try to change it. We are not perfect and we try to change it. Any mistakes, we go in and try to change it. We’re not perfect, but we are doing our best.”

What’s fascinated me the most has been how the media industry has taken its pick of quotes to build headlines around. For the UAE’s media the key talking points were Sheikh Mohammed’s call to lift sanctions on Iran and his views on Syria and the need for Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad to step down. His views on Egypt’s General El-Sisi dominated the Egyptian papers.

If you want to watch and learn from Sheikh Mohammed School of Communication and see a leader who is unique in terms of how he interacts with the media then watch the interview on the BBC on the 17 January at 04:30 GMT & 09:30 GMT and read the article by the BBC’s Jon Sopel here. You can watch a teaser below from the original airing of the interview yesterday.

I wish there were more leaders in the Gulf who’d talk to and with the media.

A view into Saudi Arabia with the BBC’s Frank Gardner

Saudi Arabia is a fascinating country but unfortunately it’s not the most accessible of places. The BBC’s Frank Gardner returned to the Kingdom after a number of years away from Saudi Arabia. I’m not going to write further about the news piece as my words will not do justice to the programme. Enjoy, turn up the volume, and glimpse into a country and a society that is experiencing a radical change (my only caveat is that I’m more optimistic on how Saudi Arabia is doing).

Seizing the moment – the GCC’s energy subsidies and communicating a solution

Is energy a problem for the Gulf? At first thought one wouldn’t think so. However, the Gulf region is facing a ticking bomb. To put it as simply as possible, the cost of producing electricity is becoming unsustainable. Demand for electricity has reached a point where countries are burning up to a fifth of their daily oil production. Unfortunately electricity prices have barely risen over the past couple of decades.

I didn’t realize the scale of the problem of electricity subsidies and the growing demand for electricity in the Gulf region until I worked in the energy sector. The issue is slowly gaining the attention that it deserves. One of the most impressive public sector leaders I know, Dr Saleh Al Awaji, has been constantly working to highlight ways to reduce energy consumption in Saudi Arabia. Only last week the BBC’s Middle East analyst Bill Law wrote a compelling article on the subject, which should be read by everyone who is concerned about energy consumption in the Gulf.

Bill Law's article on electricity subsidies makes for a a compelling read.

Bill Law’s article on electricity subsidies makes for a a compelling read.

And this brings me to my argument. In marketing and communications we all hope to plan and work to a long-term plan. For me, what distinguishes the good from the great are those professionals who know when and how to seize the moment, take the initiative and weave these waves of interest in related subjects into the communications plan.

So, what would make sense within the context of the above issue of energy subsidies? Possibly a company’s vision and thoughts on how its technology can reduce residential energy consumption, or improve the efficiency of electricity distribution, or ways in which alternative energy can complement traditional fossil fuel energy production.

The idea is simple. But it’s all about timing and approach in order to gain the maximum coverage for a company and its thought leadership. I’d love to see how energy leaders such as GE and Siemens are aiming to help the Gulf’s utilities and governments in averting the electricity subsidy cliff.

Of course there are times when it may appear in bad taste to seize the moment and partake in tactical, opportunistic communications activities. For example, promoting armored backpacks days after the devastating school shooting in Newtown.

If you were a company producing armored backpacks for school children would you promote your product after a deadly shooting?

If you were a company producing armored backpacks for school children would you promote your product after a deadly shooting?

Justice for Natalie: Using social media to rally the public and gain media support. #Justicefornatalie

Every once in a while, you come across a story that is heartbreaking. What happened to Natalie Creane is tragic. Four years ago Natalie and her new fiance celebrated their engagement by staying at the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi. After arriving she opened the wardrobe door and bent to put her shoes in the wardrobe. She looked up as a wooden panel fell from the front of the AV unit and hit her on the head, right on the temporal lobe.

According to a number of sites set up on her behalf Natalie was diagnosed with intractable refractory epilepsy and brain trauma. Since then she has been in four comas, she suffers from seizures which cause her to collapse suddenly and she has frequently sustained serious injuries during these seizures, including broken bones. Natalie has been on ventilators, had blood clots in her lung and leg, extreme blood toxicity, paralysis, temporary loss of sight, massive hair loss, severe debilitating headaches, temporary loss of speech, confusion, permanent memory loss, insomnia, constant infections due to suppressed immunity and has been admitted over 20 times to intensive care. Natalie suffers from Post Traumatic Intractable Refractory Epilepsy and Traumatic Brain Injury.

Despite all that has happened to her Natalie’s case with the Emirates Palace Hotel is still outstanding. The Emirates Palace Hotel initially referred the family to its insurance company. After talks with the company broke down, the family was faced with the hotel’s lawyers. Forced to take their case to court, a full two years after the accident, the family is still fighting for justice now – four years on from Natalie’s accident.

After four years of what I can imagine to be a living nightmare, including two years of litigation, Natalie’s family have finally gone public. They set up a Facebook page on the 9th of July which you can see here, and the family also set up two twitter handles, @JusticeForNatal and @JusticeForNat.

As of today, the Facebook page has 6,114 likes. Even more importantly when it comes to measuring influence and importance on Facebook 4,078 users are currently talking about Natalie. Here’s a screenshot of her page below.

The Justice for Natalie Facebook Page has only been live a few weeks but has already gone viral in the UAE and beyond

Her family have made use of Twitter to get her story noticed by media through retweets and mentions, posting pictures both via Twitter and Pinterest, and using the hashtag #justicefornatalie (there was some initial confusion online around the 20th when the Twitter handle switched from @justicefornatal to @justicefornat).

Ten days after setting up the social media channels Natalie’s story broke in mainstream media with a news piece in the UAE’s largest English circulation newspaper Gulf News followed by news pieces online at Albawaba and in print with another English-language UAE newspaper, 7Days. Natalie’s story has since been covered by global news outlets such as the BBC and the Huffington Post.

(Natalie’s story was first covered here last year by the National, but owing to the UAE’s defamation and libel laws newspapers use initials rather than full names when covering an active case).

Natalie’s family have also set up an online petition via Care2 where they’re aiming to gather 2,000 signatures (the petition is here and they’ve set up Team Natalie Marathon in Abu Dhabi for November (you can sign up here).

There’s even videos on Youtube, including the below which was put together by a supporter of the campaign.

Natalie’s family have stressed that the campaign has one aim, namely to raise her case’s profile and find some settlement so that Natalie can receive the support that she so desperately needs.

Rather than being a negative, hate campaign against the hotel the family are using human interest messages and regular updates on Natalie’s condition to attract attention and build a community online. In the space of two and a half weeks Natalie’s case has gotten more attention than it has done over four years. Understandably, the family have tried to get this issue resolved in a way that will not prejudice a court settlement, but with Natalie’s condition not improving it’s understandable that they feel the best way to ensure that their daughter has the care she needs is now through public relations.

Natalie is currently in a public hospital in Dubai, Rashid Hospital, where she is receiving palliative care. As her family write on Natalie’s Facebook page, “she urgently needs to receive specialist neurological help but the family has spent all they have over the past four years as they fought to get the hotel to step up and admit its liability for an incident which has resulted in such appalling consequences for Natalie.”

I for one hope that the Emirates Palace Hotel and the Kempinski Hotels group which manages the property settle this as soon as possible. They’re harming their own reputation. And, most importantly, they are denying their own responsibility to provide care for an incident which could be said to be a result of their own negligence.

How online communities have rallied round Natalie’s family is remarkable. And it goes to show how effective social media today can be in highlighting a worthy cause. Let’s all hope that Natalie finally gets justice and receives the support she needs to recover from all that has happened to her.