Expats, Localization and the Need for Balance

The marcomms industry can and should benefit from both local talent as well as foreign expertise (image source: The Daily Telegraph)

There are some places that are so inspiring, they fill me with passion and energy. I just love working with colleagues and friends in London and New York. Their creativity and insights are exceptional. What strikes me most about these places is their ability to absorb talent from abroad, to the extent that you can’t even tell who is the native and who is the immigrant.

Whilst there’s much to admire about how the region’s marcomms industry has developed, there’s still much work to do when it comes to marrying local insights and talent with foreign know-how. For years there’s been a divide between the Gulf’s public and private sectors: the public was staffed by nationals, and the private by expats. Whilst there were exceptions, this was the norm.

There have been changes, both good and bad. The economic changes in countries such as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi, combined with the increasing number of local marketing and communications graduates, have helped to increase the number of nationals working in the private sector. An insistence on hiring nationals in both government and semi government organizations have led to there being fewer expats in comms and marketing roles in both Abu Dhabi and Doha. For many multinationals, there’s still an over reliance on expat communicators, many of whom don’t know or try to learn about either the local language or culture.

I’ve always believed that there should be more locals in marcomms in the Gulf (one such person who is an inspiration to me and who I will always be proud of is my wife, who is both a local and who heads up marcomms for a multinational across the Middle East region). However, we need to place people based on merit, and we need to have structured succession planning in place. Both are missing today, across the public and private sectors.

Let me highlight my point. I live in a city which wants to be a global hub, attracting investment and tourism from abroad. That city’s government has been prioritizing national hiring to such an extent that it’s rare to find a foreigner in a mid or senior level comms post today in either a government or semi government role. What has happened is young nationals who don’t have the necessary experience or knowledge have been brought in (or roles have been left open), and as a result the work done and respect given to the function has dropped. There’s less diversity and inclusion in these government organizations, leading to a lack of understanding of foreign audiences and stakeholders.

I’ve also come across countless multinational executives who don’t understand the importance of hiring local knowledge. To them, global strategy only needs to be translated. There’s no understanding of local insights, and an inability to communicate with local audiences because of the lack of any marketing or communications people who are from or connected to the local population. I’ve known regional comms people in the private sector who’ve never even gone to Saudi, despite it being the biggest market in the Gulf. It’s all too easy to manage issues remotely, and let the agency deal with an issue.

We’ve got to change these two approaches in the region. There needs to be a balance, an understanding that foreign expertise is often needed whilst initiatives are created to support knowledge transfer to capable locals. Rather than replacing foreign expertise overnight (which has happened in some places), let’s get these professionals to pass on their expertise through job shadow programs, teaching and mentoring. In one of my previous roles I was asked to do this, and I considered it part of my role in developing the local profession. Others should do the same.

Our region can be as diverse and as exciting as London and New York, and I don’t see why the marcomms industry should be any different. Let’s start making use of both local insights and foreign experience, and combining them to create better work. We need balance in approaching this issue. As always, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this issue.

Lessons for the PR Industry from the Dubai Lynx

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The Dubai Lynx highlighted the issues that communicators (and their marketing colleagues) will need to face up to. But is anyone listening?

It was an early morning, but the 6.30am start from Abu Dhabi was certainly worth it. The Dubai Lynx is always worth a visit for anyone working in marketing and communications. The Festival, which is organized by the people behind the Cannes Lions, has been going for over a decade. And, as the two disciplines of marketing and communications coverge, the Dubai Lynx (which billed itself this year as the MENA region’s biggest celebration of creative communications) is becoming a must-attend for communications professionals.

For me, there were two basic takeaways from the Dubai Lynx:

  1. It’s all about data, data, data: Every other word seemed to be data. The push to incorporate data – big, small or something in-between – is understandable; the marcomms industry has always struggled with the question of ROI, and data measurement, when used wisely, should help answer the question of what are organizations getting for their money’s worth. When analyzed well, data will also help marcomms professionals better understand both their audience and their impact. However, what wasn’t mentioned was ‘creativity’. Have we swung too far over to talking about data, rather than marrying data with creativity? While I’m sure there are computers and algorithms that are far smarter than me, I doubt there’s any machine which understands the human mind better than we can. Could a computer have understood why the ice bucket challenge would have gone viral? Or the success of the Chewbacca mom? I doubt it.
  2. Agency Convergence gathers steam: There’s no marketing or communications in our industry anymore, as the list of agencies offering everything under the sun grows longer. Those marketing agencies who were already one-stop shops are going further, and breaking down the internal silos to promote better integration between the various disciplines. Some PR firms are creating new roles, such as creative leads and digital heads. And then there’s the big consultancy firms, the data goliaths such as Accenture, IBM and McKinsey, using their IT know-how and their understanding of strategy to break into the marcomms industry (we’ve already seen this with Accenture and IBM, and expect to see it with McKinsey in this region following their acquisition of marketing firm Elixir). For an industry which used to be mainly focused on media relations about a decade or so ago, this is a seismic shift. Expect to see the gap between those offer an ever-expanding range of services (think creative, digital, public affairs, technology) and those who stick to old-school offerings such as media relations to grow significantly over the coming year.
  3. Marketeers are doing PR (and some of their work is exceptional): One of the best PR executions I’ve seen in a long time was from last week. It was the ‘Fearless Girl’, a statue commissioned by State Street Global Advisors and executed by McCann New York. The concept, which was timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, saw the ‘Fearless Girl’ face off against the famous Wall Street Charging Bull. The stunt symbolized the power of women in leadership and emphasized that companies with women in top positions perform better financially. Ask anyone in the business and they’ll tell you that McCann isn’t a PR agency, but rather a creative. However, much of the work which has been winning plaudits at Cannes recently has essentially been PR work executed by creative agencies.

The PR industry has gone through some remarkable change over the past decade. However, we’re going to see much more disruption over the short and medium term as creatives and consultancies move into new disciplines. Are PR firms ready to both embrace data and expand their own offerings? Or are we about to see another wave of industry consolidation over the coming five years? Time will tell.

What challenges will communicators face in 2017?

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It’s no understatement to say that 2016 was a shock to the system. We’ve faced political upheavals, the rise of populists and the proliferation of fake news, and that’s just for starters. The Middle East region has been impacted by continuing conflict as well as financial belt-tightening caused by low oil and gas prices. Needless to say, 2016 hasn’t been the easiest 12 months for many communicators.

So what do we have to expect in 2017? Looking into my crystal ball, I see  a number of issues that will grow in prominence. Here’s my take on them:

  • Political Interference and its Impact on Brand Values

The rise of populist politicians isn’t anything new, but their use of social media to communicate directly with their publics, eschewing traditional media, is something brands will have to deal with. We’ve already seen how Donald Trump is impacting brands in the US (examples include his tweets on Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which have wiped billions off company share values).

Communicators will need to work out how to deal with this new type of political interference. They’ll need to improve their online engagement, using the same social media tools as these politicians (Twitter, I hope you realize how much of a god-send Trump is for your platform), as well as espouse brand values that stakeholders believe in and want to defend.

There’s a danger here that brands will retreat into communicating in the same populist language as the politicians, or simply keep quiet and hope that the storm will pass them by. I hope that brand owners and communicators will instead engage on issues with a purpose and positive values.

  • Expect More Fake News

Whether we like it or not, fake news is here to stay. The year that was 2016 saw fake news become a cottage industry, with ‘content producers’ in places like Macedonia spewing out false stories which went viral through social media and which generated thousands of dollars of ad revenues. Much of this fake news was focused on politics; this is likely to change in 2017, with fewer key political votes. Instead, we’re going to see more fake celebrity news, as well as fake news in languages other than English. This may play into regional conflicts. Brands need to be aware of what is being said about them, especially in Arabic, Farsi and other regional languages.

  • The Continued Rise of Social Influencers

 

Whether you like it or not, 2016 was the year of Social Influencers. This trend is set to continue into 2017, particularly with Snapchat having opened up an office in Dubai, and with brands/organizations realizing that they have to do more to engage with stakeholders online. Expect there to be more questions around online metrics such as reach, engagement and, most important of all, return-on-investment. Also expect that the cost of working with social influencers will rise, particularly in locations such as Dubai, Kuwait and Riyadh.

I hope that brands will start to think differently about the type of social influencers they’d like to work with, and begin nurturing relationships with real fans with smaller followings rather than purchase engagement through influencers who have large followings but who don’t necessarily understand or love the brand. In other words, we need to rethink what social influencers are and what they mean to us.

  • The Urgent Need to Prove Our Worth 

This is a perennial favorite, but we’re going to struggle to underline the value that we bring to our organizations in 2017. Why? Because of an inability to link our outcomes to organizational objectives for many of us, partly due to a lack of awareness/understanding about the need to leverage measurement values. We’re also lacking a universal definition of what we do and globally-accepted certifications that prove we can walk the talk. The Global Alliance is working hard on the first issue, and others such as the CIPR and IABC are pushing ahead on the second. However, we’re still going to struggle with proving our worth to those that we work with and others that we need to work with.

There are a number of others who have shared their own views. Wadds has a longer list which is a fascinating read (you can see it here), and Omnicom’s David Gallagher has written down his own thoughts on the issues we will face in the year ahead.

What are your thoughts. What challenges will we see, and what are you looking forward to in 2017? I’d love to hear from you.

The Role Communicators Have in Promoting Sustainability

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I’ve been fortunate in my career to have worked with some amazing brands and organizations. In particular, the most forward-thinking have focused on the issue of sustainability. It’s become a passion for me, as I want my daughter to inherit a world that is better than ours.

I’m often asked to support events on sustainability. One such initiative which I’m very proud of being able to help is that of the UAE’s Ajman Center for Social Responsibility. Launched by the Ajman Chamber this year, the Ajman Center for Social Responsibility aims to promote the concept of sustainability for both the public and private sectors as well as create a resource for sustainability across this emirate. Assisted by the consultancy firm Sustainable Square, the team at the Center have set for themselves a vision of becoming the regional and global reference for social responsibility and sustainability practices. And, judging by the energy they have, I feel they’ll reach this goal.

For many of us communicators in the Middle East region, we’ve taken on the mantle of championing sustainability. Sometimes it’s due to reputational reasons; the need to be seen to be doing good. For others, it’s been about the willingness to tackle an issue that isn’t going away. There’s some confusion around sustainability and the role of communications in the Middle East; I remember well one senior comms professional erroneously commenting  during a public meeting that the function has always been with communications, despite all of the literature from the 1950s and 1960s by Bowen, Freeman and others which argues that organizations have a social obligation to “to pursue those policies, to make those decisions, or to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of the objectives and values of our society.” In short, when it comes to sustainability in the Middle East, we can come across as a confused bunch.

For me, sustainability should be at the heart of any organization – it should be a part of every person’s job function. So, what is the role that communicators should play? We are the change agents, the people whose job it is to tell stories around purpose, and who can best use engagement to win over various stakeholder groups, be they internal (employees, management or shareholders), or external (government, NGOs or the public) as to why there is a need to become more sustainable and how we should get there.

Examples of good sustainability communications work are both global and local in nature. Take for example  the work done by Mars for its M&Ms brand. Mars reached out to the M&Ms consumer base in a smart way, by using the M&Ms characters everyone knows, to talk about initiatives around sustainable cocoa production and other CSR causes by telling the stories through the same M&M characters used to promote the brand.

On a local level, a good communications campaign can be something as simple as promoting safe driving, which environmental and engineering consulting services firm CH2M launched both globally as well as locally.

As communicators, our role is to understand our audience(s), know how to engage with them, and shape messaging that will impact both attitudes and behaviours. It’s never easy to change habits that have been ingrained for years, especially when it comes to sustainability (anyone who has worked on a recycling initiative will know how hard it can be to get people to recycle rather than throw materials into the trash).

However, that’s the beauty of our job as communicators. We’re the front line, the people who take a concept and make it happen with those groups whom we need to come on board. To quote from the United Nations Environmental Program:

Public communication has a key role to play to build on these emerging trends and to make sustainable development approachable and understandable. Informed, motivated and committed people can help us to achieve our sustainability goals. However, communicating effectively about sustainable lifestyles is a challenge. One needs to consider not only what to communicate, but how to communicate it.

Important factors of success include content, messenger, choice of media and tone. Experts are coming to realise that traditional messages from governments and green groups urging the public to adopt the environment into their day-to-day decisions need to be overhauled. Many of these messages are simply too patronising, guilt-laden or disapproving. Instead of turning people on to the environment, they risk switching
them off. The lesson to be learned is that communication styles have to be positive and tailored to different circumstances and cultural contexts.

If you want to know more about communicating sustainable issues, there are people who specialize in this issue. Sustainable Square’s Monaem Ben Lellahom is a great person to approach as he both understands the issue of sustainability as well as how to communicate around it; another person who focuses on sustainability is Stephen King, who focuses on the sustainable development goals. I’d urge you to reach out to either or myself to ask questions about how we can communicate sustainability better in this region.

 

The need to move comms past window-dressing: Adopting a standard certification for comms

For many companies, it feels as if communications is simply window-dressing. We have to change perceptions about our profession (image source: http://www.hansboodtmannequins.com)

There are times when I have no other reaction but to laugh. I was sat with an acquaintance and we were talking about a company which was hiring for a senior comms role. Me being me, I wanted to help out and recommend someone, and I asked the obvious question.

“What are they looking for?” I said.

“A pretty Lebanese girl,” was the response.

My friend was part joking, but also part serious. And here’s why. For far too long, communications has been seen as a nice-to-have, a function that isn’t really strategic. Unfortunately, what has often happened is that communications has become the department where either someone senior is left to ‘retire’, or it’s the place where an inexperienced but attractive character is brought in.

This Has To Change

We need to stop treating communications as a window dressing. Reputation matters, in both good and bad times (ask anyone who works at Volkswagen about the importance of reputation and its cost to the business). Today, thanks to social media, any one consumer or stakeholder can call out your company, for both good reasons and bad. And yet, few companies in the MENA region have people who can effectively steward and build reputations.

So, how do we do it?

Firstly, the industry needs to talk more about what communications truly is and what it can do for organizations and their publics. Many of us will work tirelessly for our brands, but we’re awful at doing public relations for ourselves. There’s not enough people out there, particularly among the C-level crowd and within human resources who actually know what communications is about. As an industry we have to spend more time educating our peers, so that they know what we do and the value of our work.

Secondly, we need a universally accepted certification. Would you go to a lawyer who doesn’t have a degree. Or how about a doctor who didn’t attend medical school? And yet, most of us in the communications industry have never studied public relations and understood the theory underpinning our work. If we’re to evolve, and become better at what we do, then we need to go forward as an industry and adopt a standard certification, be it that advocated by the CIPR or IABC. We need people who are accredited, who have invested time in their development, and who can say, “I know my communications theory and this is how I can prove it.”

I’m used to the status quo. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t want change. I want our profession to be respected, to have a seat at the table, and to be strategic. I hope you’ll join me, so that together we can push for change.

WhatsApp and why communicators should care about Dark Social (at least in a crisis)

When it comes to harmful materials, WhatsApp should be a key source of concern for communicators in the Gulf

When it comes to harmful materials, WhatsApp should be a key source of concern for communicators in the Gulf

Let me ask you a question. Name the most popular application on the phones of consumers in the Gulf. It’s not Instagram. It’s not Twitter, and it’s not Snapchat. As you clever ones may have guessed from the title of this post, it’s WhatsApp. At the last count, in a survey by TNS in 2015, the instant messenger app was used by 84% of smartphone users in the Gulf. And yet, it would seem that WhatsApp is hardly used, either by marketers or by communicators.

Part of the challenge is that WhatsApp is a closed network. It’s dark social, a term coined in 2012 that refers to online activity which cannot be monitored. WhatsApp and other applications such as WeChat and Facebook Messenger cannot be mined for data, and as they’re closed the only persons who know what is being written or shared are the sender and the recipient.

And that’s often the problem. For people who are responsible for looking after corporate reputations, ignorance definitely isn’t bliss. I wanted to understand more about WhatsApp and what it means to communicators during a crisis. And so I asked them. I asked communicators in the Gulf what WhatsApp means to them. And I want to share their responses with you.

First of all, let’s start with what communicators are using. The most popular social media channels for communicators are Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. These are followed by LinkedIn and YouTube. Snapchat and WhatsApp are the least used, which is surprising considering their popularity in the region. This may suggest communicators are still struggling on how to use such channels.

Open platforms are the most popular among communicators. Dark social platforms are less popular.

Open platforms are the most popular among communicators. Dark social platforms are less popular.

What’s interesting is the channels that are used during a crisis. While Twitter again comes out tops, followed by Facebook, other channels don’t figure as much.

Twitter and Facebook are the two most popular social media channels during a crisis

Twitter and Facebook are the two most popular social media channels during a crisis

The majority of communicators I spoke to do see WhatsApp as a factor in the spread of harmful materials. However, relatively few have experienced crises over the past year.

The majority of comms practitioners have not seen a crisis spread over WhatsApp in the past 12 months

The majority of comms practitioners have not seen a crisis spread over WhatsApp in the past 12 months

What’s also illuminating is confidence in dealing with a crisis online. When asked about a generic crisis on social media, communicators were fairly confident in dealing with the issue. When you throw WhatsApp into the mix, that confidence level drops.

On the left, the question asked was, "I believe my organization is prepared for a social media crisis." On the right, the question asked was, "I prepared my organization is prepared for a crisis spread on WhatsApp."

On the left, the question asked was, “I believe my organization is prepared for a social media crisis.” On the right, the question asked was, “I prepared my organization is prepared for a crisis spread on WhatsApp.”

The issue that many of us face online is decreasing levels of trust in brands, particularly when it comes to social media pages. Whereas a couple of years back consumers believed that reaching out to branded Facebook pages or Twitter accounts would solve their issues, few hold such beliefs today. Add in issues such as defamation for online comments, and it’s no surprise that consumers are turning to WhatsApp to share their views with their friends and family and to ask them to take action against the brand.

Based on this research, there are a number of recommendations communicators (and marketing folks) need to take into account when it comes to dark social:

  • Communicators need to be familiar with dark social – it’s apparent that consumers are online and are using dark social tools to communicate. Communicators need to be conversant in these tools if they’re going to be effective in getting across organizational messaging, particularly during a crisis.
  • Dark social tools need to be part of crisis planning – one question which wasn’t asked was to do with which social media tools formed part of crisis planning. However, it’d seem that dark social doesn’t come into consideration when planning crisis scenarios or a response. This needs to change.
  • Communicators need to utilize dark social – certain industries, such as the media sector, have begun to make use of dark social in their public outreach. Communicators in this region may be advised to look at adding dark social to their social media planning, to increase the level of engagement and also to understand how much such channels are used vis-à-vis open channels when sharing from websites and other public sharing channels.

If you’re interested in the full research, drop me a note. Sharing is caring, especially when it comes to crisis communications and social media

What can Brexit tell us about the importance of listening to communications

Was the Brexit vote a result of politicians not listening to voters? And what does this mean for us communicators? (image source: Asda.com)

For many, the events of last week were a shock of the greatest magnitude. The vote for Britain to leave the European Union wasn’t foreseen, even by the pollsters, those professionals whose vocation it is to use real-time data to build a picture of how the mass population will vote. Even the Exit camp had foreseen a narrow defeat.

Much of the post-event analysis has asked why people voted for Brexit and how everyone misunderstood the public mood. Reporting has focused on those areas of England in the North which have suffered as a result of the closure of heavy industries in the 1980s. One theory as to why more Brits voted for Brexit than for Bremain would seem to be, “we’ve suffered for years, and you haven’t listened. This is our rejection of Westminster and the politics in London.”

It’s an interesting observation, especially when one considers that the areas which pushed to leave the EU received fewer immigrants and received the most aid from the European Union. The idea that the electorate punished the politicians for failing to listen is a compelling one, and it offers a reminder to all organizations that listening to their stakeholders is key to success.

By listening and understanding the views of these groups, be they the public, consumers, customers, or members, organizations can better represent those they wish to engage with and talk to. Organizations, particularly those which aim to speak on behalf of a certain constituency, should comprehend that they can only lead through having the needs of their members at heart, and building trust through asking their stakeholders what is important to them.

The example is no different in our region, where organizations are often led top-down and executives rarely interact with their members or stakeholder groups. If Brexit proves anything to us communicators, it is that we must be the link between those on the inside and others on the outside, to develop and provide the means for these groups to talk to each other and for differing opinions to be heard in an environment which is conducive to understanding. There was little of this in evidence among many Brexit voters, not just during the campaign but for years prior to the vote.

As a recap, active listening helps to improves mutual understanding and trust and enables the listener to receive and accurately interpret the speaker’s message. Active listening doesn’t just help with building trust and respect, but it also helps to reduce tension, encourage information sharing and creates an environment that promote collaboration and problem solving. It’s key to communications and is a skill that a good communicator should possess and practice.

Conversely, organizations who don’t listen end up becoming irrelevant, and serve no purpose than to fulfill the wishes of their management rather than those which they aim to represent.

There’s much more to talk about when it comes to communications and Brexit, including the use of positive and negative messaging to influence voter outcomes and why those areas with the most to lose in terms of EU funding voted for Brexit. There was obviously a disconnect between the politicians and voters on the Bremain side, which wasn’t the case with the Brexit politicians. However, as we’re only just at the beginning of this story, I’ll save that post for another occasion.