Westernizing the Middle East? Another success for the PR industry…

Remember the last time someone talked about Westernizing the Middle East?

I’m a PR person and former journalist with a long memory. Recent days and talk of tensions in the Gulf have reminded me of a time prior to 2003, when those wise and experienced neo-cons in the West (who know the region much better than those who are from the region) asserted that the invasion of Iraq would transform the Middle East for the better.

The PR industry is responsible for many things. We’ve helped promote transparency, and occasionally gotten our senior leadership to open up to the media and general public. We’ve also been responsible for negating some of the worst crises you’ve never ever heard of. Well, now we’re also responsible for bringing enlightenment to the nether regions of this planet called Earth.

I’m not sure if the BCW CEO Donna Imperato meant to follow in the footsteps of such luminaries as Dick Cheney or John Bolton when she spoke the following words which were quoted by PR Week. But that’s what I pictured when I read the below.


“It’s important to help Westernize the Middle East. It’s good if Western companies are investing there. It will help modernize the governments and culture if you bring Western ideas, thinking and products into that part of the world. Scolding them is not going to help them modernize and make their people freer. I would take on education, destination, and tourism assignments in the Middle East. We’re particularly proud of the Ford ‘Women in the Driving Seat’ work in Saudi Arabia where women got to drive for the first time.”

It’s usually us clients who are putting our foot in our mouths, and our agency partners who rush in to help us. But making such a statement isn’t only reminiscent of colonialism, but also of what happened a decade and a half back (as well as more recently with tensions over Iran).

As communicators our job is to promote understanding. We’re best doing this by seeking to understand our diverse audiences. Donna, I’m always up for a chat as to why the Middle East needs many things, such as more respect for human rights and transparency. However, the last thing we need is more ideas like this which demean the region. And if you’re too busy for a chat, then how about grabbing a copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism. We can then talk about how we can encourage more American school children to learn Arabic numerals in school.

Join me and pledge to work with and hire comms people on merit

On merit

Merit. I just love that word and what it means. To quote the Oxford Dictionary, the noun merit is understood to mean, “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.” Hence the phrase, to be deemed worthy of something on merit.

I was reminded of the notion this week, by a journalist who was Tweeting about being treated poorly by a brand. Her frustration was in part to her feeling that she was being mistreated by the brand’s agency due to her cultural heritage. I completely understood her frustration and her sense of injustice, hence why I’m writing this post.

In one sense, we’re lucky to work in the Gulf. It’s an up-and-coming region which has attracted some remarkable communications and media talent and experience from around the world. There’s a dynamic feel to working in such a multi-racial industry.

At the same time, I often get the feel of tribalism, of people in companies and institutions wanting to work with one of their own, not for any other reason than culture or nationality. It probably doesn’t surprise many of us that people stereotype (and if you don’t believe me, look at this research from Berkeley-Haas Asst. Prof. Ming Leung who analyzed 3.9 million applications), but there’s also official discrimination – the hiring of certain nationalities to fill quotas – as well as unconscious bias . Finding people on merit, who can do the best job, seems to be a challenge we employers often get wrong.

The question I then have to ask is what does bringing the wrong people do to our industry, or even people who are too junior or who don’t have the right understanding of the role or the audience? In my own view, it devalues the work of us all, pushes us farther away from the board room, and loses us respect from those we work with, be they colleagues internally, media professionals or other stakeholder groups.

We have to look beyond traits such as race, nationality, gender, and ask if the person you’re looking to hire and work with has the right attitude, understanding, skills and experience for the role. We need more diversity and inclusion in our industry which mirrors that of our audiences and communities, and that will happen by understanding our biases and looking beyond them to finding the best talent out there, who deserve and will succeed in a role based on their own merit. That includes working with representative bodies such as the CIPR, IABC, Global Alliance and MEPRA who promote skills-based learning and certification programs.

I’m willing to take a pledge now to work with and hire comms people on merit. I want you to join me in taking this pledge. Either share this article or leave a comment below. Together, we can and will change the comms industry for the better, to be a function that respects and promotes the notion of merit.

The UAE, Egypt and the dangers of an open bias among media

How can a journalist consider him or herself a professional after openly declaring a media bias? (image source: http://www.thepoliticalcarnival.net)

There’s few proverbs which would sum up today’s Middle East more than “may you live in interesting times”. Unfortunately as we are discovering over and over again, that Chinese proverb is not a blessing but rather a curse. When I look at Egypt over the past couple of weeks I would have thought I was watching a Ramadan-season tragi-comedy rather than real life events. The situation is desperate; the sense of hurt and anger is palpable on all sides of what is now a conflict between two opposing forces.

Generally speaking, the media in Egypt is also becoming more polarized. Most media outlets in the region are owned either directly or indirectly by the government or by groups and individuals with a specific agenda. Even those media who don’t have a particular bias still have to self-censor for fear of crossing a red line. However, it’s rare for a (supposed) journalist or media group to come out and openly show a bias.

Two incidents made the headlines this week in the UAE. The first, and the most brazen, was an announcement of a one million Egyptian pound (US$143,000) bounty for information leading to the capture of three Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt. The pledge was made by an Emirati columnist named Hamad Al Mazroui through Twitter (Hamad has been called a journalist but he write columns rather than factual reporting).

This bizarre event was followed by a statement published by the UAE Writers Association in which it stated that “it is against the attempts of the Brotherhood to manipulate the tolerant image of Egypt and moderation.” The statement, which was first published on the country’s national newswire, reiterated the UAE Writers Association’s support for the Egyptian Writers Union, which has listed the Brotherhood in the terrorism list. The Association also commended the UAE’s unwavering support to Egypt.

I have few illusions about national media being influenced by their respective governments’ policies. However, the aim of journalists should be to report the facts and then provide analysis. Research by Gallup has shown that public trust in the media is highest when the media shows no bias; the opposite is true when there is an open bias.

Do such actions help to resolve the situation in another country? Do they help us to understand what is happening on the ground? And do they promote a sense of trust in media outlets here when reporting or commenting on the situation in Egypt? Journalism comes with responsibilities to report and analyse in a manner that is balanced and removed from prejudice. Let’s have more of this please, and less of an no open bias.