Saudi Telecom, Boycotts, Social Media (راح_نفلسكم#) and Stock Price Impact

Forgive my wordy headline, but there’s a lot to get into this story. Before anything else, let me spell out the context. Saudi and Saudis love social media, but they haven’t been enthused by the efforts of the telecommunication providers in the country to block free call apps or services offered by the likes of FaceTime, SnapChat and WhatsApp. To add insult to injury, consumers have claimed that the Kingdom’s three telcos (Mobily, Saudi Telecom and Zain) have rolled back unlimited data services.

So what have the country’s social media-crazy consumers done? Yes, you guessed right. They’ve taken to social media to call for a boycott. Under the hashtags (which basically means we’ll bankrupt you) and  (boycott telco companies), the idea is simple.

Starting from last weekend, Saudi users have begun to switch off their phones. The hashtag and others have gone viral, and users have taken to Twitter to demand action against the telcos, including physical boycotts of stores.

The ultimate mark of consumer sentiment is cartoons, and Saudi’s most prominent cartoonist Abdullah Jaber stepped in to pen his own thoughts on the issue (the below translates as the Telco company on the right, saying to the consumer, “why are you angry?”

Saudi Telecom in particular has been hit, both in terms of its social media following (the carrier has lost almost 150,000 followers on its Twitter account), as well as its share price which dropped by several percent on Sunday morning after trading opened on the Saudi bourse.


Saudi Telecom’s Twitter account @STC_KSA lost over 140,000 followers in the space of two days as boycott calls spread (source: Twitter Count).


Saudi Telecom’s stock price was also hit on Sunday, with an initial fall of 8% (source: Google Finance)

There’s a further dimension to this story, with some online accounts in the UAE calling for similar action to be taken against the two telco incumbents (see the hashtag  and ).

Is this type of online activism on a single economic issue going to become more common, particularly with the state of finances across the region? And what can communicators do about an issue that is about a product and a strategy that consumers don’t like?

As always, it’d be good to hear your thoughts.

How Saudi’s consumers took on Saudi Telecom and influenced the Government – مطلب شعب stc الثورة ضد

The hardest part of the digital world is knowing where the tipping points are – it’s relatively easy to work out when things are going against your brand either in the traditional press or on television. The coverage builds gradually (unless there’s a crisis) and you have time to think and respond.

The digital world has completely changed the rules however. There doesn’t need to be a trigger anymore. And so was the case at the end of Ramadan in Saudi, where unhappy customers of Saudi Telecom Company vented their frustration at the slow connection speeds as well as the cost of the service.

Using the hashtag مطلب شعب stc الثورة ضد, which essentially translates as ‘the people demand a revolution against STC’, Twitter users shared thousands of Tweets on their thoughts and demands. Many of the visuals were created by consumers who effectively used home-designed visuals to tell their story.

The hashtag, which included over 100 thousand tweets and was one of the top five trends worldwide on the 17th and 18th of July, also resulted in a direct action, a call to boycott STC and turn off phones for several hours on a pre-agreed day, with expected losses of 10 million Riyals.

While STC didn’t respond during the campaign, Saudi’s Minister of Telecommunications Dr Al Suwayyel had previously tweeted that he’d follow up on the issue of poor services in the Kingdom’s telecommunications sector. With the hashtag and the campaign gaining global attention, it’s clear that Saudi consumers will continue pushing for reforms.

Saudi's Minister for Telecommunication, Dr AlSuwaiel, has previously tweeted about the need to improve services in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi’s Minister for Telecommunication, Dr AlSuwaiel, has previously tweeted about the need to improve services in Saudi Arabia.

The question is, will this consumer activism spread to other areas of the economy or other parts of the Gulf? Despite the poorly received Etisalat Challenge campaign and the backlash against Qtel in 2010, there’s been no consumer demand to reduce prices in other Gulf markets. Will other groups follow in the wake of Saudi consumers and demand better service through mediums such as Twitter?

One other question for you. Is there a harder job than that of a social media manager for a telco in the Gulf. You tell me.

The challenge of control in the age of social media – Garnier, the Israel-Gaza conflict and the threat of boycott

How much damage has Garnier Israel done to the Garnier global brand through its local actions? (image source:

Listen long enough to any communicator working for a multinational in an emerging market and they’ll touch on the issue of what is called ‘corporate’. The concept of centralized communications, of control being exerted from head office over global communications is understandable – corporations want to ensure that the message being disseminated is consistent with the aims of the company as a whole. Rather this than each country office doing as they wish, which may result in local messages which are not in alignment with the global communications.

Combine this with the reach and immediacy of social media, and the implications for going off-message can be explosive. Many brands have been implicated in the recent Israel-Gaza conflict, and issues such as this have the ability to polarize opinion, particularly online where millions have been expressing their support for and anger with one side or the other.

While many of the brands who have been targeted by Pro-Palestinian groups advocating for boycotts have in effect kept their own counsel and said nothing (with the exception of Starbucks which took the step of reiterating that it neither operates in Israel nor supports the Israeli army), Garnier was caught out by its local operations.

Halfway through the conflict Garnier Israel had donated 500 gift packs to StandWithUs, an Israeli advocacy group which promotes the country to the world through social media. During July and August StandWithUs also undertook a number of domestic initiatives such as providing gift packs to soldiers on the front line and in support functions.

First, StandWithUS donated the 500 gift packs from Garnier to a group of female Israeli soldiers. The organization then promoted the handout on its social media channels (most prominently on Facebook), with the following comments:

“We are honoured [sic] to be delivering these “girly” care packages for our lovely female IDF fighters!

Today’s delivery of care packages was stocked with thousands of products for our girls protecting Israel. They even received facial soaps and minerals, so they can still take care of themselves, eve while defending the country.

Shout out to the Garnier Israel|גרנייה for the amazing donation of facial soaps, minerals and deodorants!”

Unfortunately for Garnier, the post was quickly picked up by Pro-Palestinian social media goers. As the UK’s Independent newspaper noted on Saturday the 9th of August, the Facebook post alone had been shared over 22,000 times and had garnered 3,000 comments, most of which were calling for a boycott of Garnier products. The post has also inspired a hashtag, #BoycottGarnier, calling for consumers to shop buying the brand. Even Garnier’s own brand ambassador to the Arab World, Hind Sabry, took to the media to voice her displeasure at what had happened. The Independent curated some of the reactions to the post which I’m including below.

A week after the now-infamous post Garnier USA released a comment distancing itself from the donations by Garnier Israel (have a look below). But, is this too little, too late? In a globalized world of brands which are commonplace in every country on the planet and which need to appeal to as many consumers as possible, what can companies do to ensure that the action of local entities doesn’t harm their global image when it seems that nothing can be communicated to an external audience in private?

“Garnier values peace and harmony and has a strict policy of not getting involved in any conflict or political matter. The hand-out of about 500 products was part of a local retailer initiative. This was managed strictly at local market level and we are very sorry if anyone was offended,” Garnier’s Corporate Communications Director Ms Kerr said.

In the age of social media, the assumption has to be that if the message is going to alienate a specific stakeholder group, then just don’t put it out there, period. For corporations the size of Garnier, that’s easier said than done.

PS To make matters even worse, Garnier’s apology has reportedly upset Israelis who have now vowed to stop buying the company’s products according to the Times of Israel.

The customer is always right – AlShaya and a social media backlash

My favorite retail marketing phrase is the customer is always right. While this may be the case in Europe and America where the phrase was coined, here in the Gulf retailers can and often do put in place policies that would not seem to be consumer-friendly.

One of the largest retailers in the Gulf is Kuwait-based M.H. AlShaya. According to media reports AlShaya manages over 55 brands across the Middle East and operates 2,000 outlets in 15 countries. AlShaya is a monster retailer, and its brands including Debenhams, H&M, The Body Shop, Starbucks, Boots and Mothercare.

At the end of September Alshaya announced a new policy whereby it was scrapping its previous returns policy. No longer would shoppers at AlShaya stores be able to return faulty and unwanted goods for a cash or credit card refund. Instead, they would be given store credit.

To put it mildly this policy hasn’t gone down well online. Today twitterers used the hashtag #noshaya to blast the retailer for its returns policy. Prominent Saudi twitter activist @maialshareef and Dhahran-based @hindkz came up with the hashtag to vent their frustration at the change in policy returns. Those in the GCC in particular have been criticizing the policy, especially in Saudi Arabia where most retail shops do not have changing rooms. If the clothes you purchase do not fit when you try them on at home, you will not get a cash or credit card refund.

Twitterers have called for boycotts of M.H. AlShaya’s stores until the policy is changed. Some have also been contacting M.H. AlShaya’s retail partners such as H&M asking for them to force a change on M.H. AlShaya. One twitterer with the handle of @b_e_s_t wrote to @HM

Could you please review H&M store policy in Saudi Arabia. Your agent in the region refuse to pay refunds even with the receipt #noshaya

Some people online have defended M.H. AlShaya. One with the username neenoism noted that people should be angry at the Saudi authorities for refusing to install changing rooms.

Ill be buyin smthin from some ALSHAYA store eventually. Put the money on the damn card. Boycott Saudi for banning changing rooms. #noshaya

While it’s been a few months since the initial announcement re the returns policy, the only assumption for the timing of the backlash is that M.H. AlShaya has only implemented the policy recently. One of the region’s most prolific bloggers @khaled has summed up why people are upset. When compared to the brands they represent (most of whom seem to give consumers a refund even if the product or purchase is not faulty) M.H. AlShaya’s returns policy is anything but consumer friendly.

Recent social media campaigns against the likes of Qtel and AlMarai have resulted in major concessions either being promised to or made for the public’s benefit. This seems to be the start of what either may be a very short but focused campaign against M.H. AlShaya’s consumer policies or a long-term hashtag which sums up the dissatisfaction of its customers.

How to defuse a crisis at a Gulf-based telco? Tell the journalist there’s no story.

I love talking to journalists. They’re often witty, sometimes charming. One thing that journalists have an abundance of are stories and anecdotes. I’ve dealt with one Gulf-based telecommunications firm for a couple of reasons of late, and it’s a fascinating company due to internal issues and ambitions. However, this firm has faced accusations of poor customer service in its home market. Consumer anger recently came to a head with calls for a symbolic, hour-long boycott of the company’s products and services.

I’m not going to name the firm, but if you do a search on Google you won’t have to search long and hard for the story or its context.

While this in itself is an interesting development, the mark of a good communications team will be able to step in, work with journalists and bring out the positive of any negative story. This didn’t happen to one journalist colleague who inquired about the boycott. An experienced reporter on a global title, she emailed a PR executive at a public relations firm representing the telco asking about the boycott.

The response was abysmal. Rather than talking through the issue, explain the company’s attempts to improve its customer service and put right the company’s standing amongst its customers the PR executive pulled his face and told the journalist there was no story.

Telling a journalist those three words – there’s no story – is akin to holding up a red rag to a bull. Following on from this faux pas the executive then started to vent his belief (off the record) that the competition was behind the boycott.
Needless to say, despite his best efforts he failed to put over to the journalist anything remotely useful that would have conveyed how much his client were investing in time and money into their customer service.

What happened? An article in a global business title which prominently featured comments from those spearheading the boycott and a single quote from the company in question. That story was syndicated both regionally and globally. This company has operations in 17 countries and ambitions to operate telecommunications networks in many more locations.

The damage done to the firm’s reputation can’t be measured. However, there’s always time to put right what has been done. Get in touch with the journalist, show them that the company cares, that it aims to redouble its efforts. Even if the journalist doesn’t write a follow-up story you’ve left a positive impression.

To date has there been any follow-up? Unfortunately not. But then again, who needs good communications and media outreach when you’re a government-owned firm with a sizable marketing budget and only one competitor in your home market? Do you really want to have a frank and open dialogue with the media and your customers? Or are you happy with being subjected to boycott campaigns simply because you don’t want to listen and you think there’s no story? How you defuse the situation is your choice.