Getting PR Creative: Technology, Stunts and Film-Making Inspirations

Wendy’s consistently uses technology to engage followers (and a wider audience), often at little to no cost, proving that creativity is possible even on a budget

Are you still stuck sending out press releases on that new executive hire? Or prepping for a new product launch with a stock photo and a couple of lines of text? Communications can often feel that it’s a function which is devoid of creativity. With this post, I wanted to inspire you to think that creativity is possible, even on the tightest of budgets. All you need is insights into your audience, imagination, and the bravery to try something new!

Creativity and Technology

I want to share a couple of technology-related ideas and concepts from big brands. One is as cheap as you can imagine (thank you Wendy’s), and another is more expensive, but also shows how new tech can bring life to a very old product.

First up is Wendy’s Fortnite. Watch the video below to see how a simple creative idea can result in a major impact.

The second concept I wanted to share is from Lego. Lego is a brand which is 87 years old. The product is known by kids and adults worldwide. And yet the brand is trying a host of new technologies to change hold children (and adults) play with the products.

One new concept they’ve launched is Hidden Side. This theme is all about ghosts! What have the good people at Lego done? They’re using augmented reality through an app on our phones to transform how we both look at our lego sets, and play with them. Creating a gaming app certainly isn’t a cheap option, but it does make me think about how new tech can give any brand and its engagement a new lease of life. Have a look at the below video to get an idea of how these new Lego sets change the concept of gameplay.

Creativity for PR Stunts

I do love a good PR stunt. They’re a simple way to garner lots of headlines, and also make a wider point about the brand/product and why it is so special. And PR stunts can be both creative and low-cost. Here’s one from Huawei, which has become a master of both PR stunts and trolling its rivals on their areas of relative weakness. Watch what they did to Apple recently. As an iPhone owner, I wish I was in that line.

Creativity in Film-Making

If you have the budget, and are looking to win over hearts and minds in the long-term or tackle a big issue, then film-making is the way to go. I’m talking here YouTube series, television or streaming services here. Two recent examples reminded me how powerful film-making can be. The first was for the new Dora movie. Whilst I’m not a Dora fan (my daughter is), the sight of a group of four teenage girls dancing to the music and following all the twists and turns brought to life how a well-crafted idea can create millions of fans and also open their minds to new concepts (I don’t think anything/anyone has done as much to promote Spanish to the English-speaking world as Dora).

The second piece of content I saw which brought home to me how powerful film-making can be to tackle big issues was Sacred Games, a fictional story about Mumbai’s gangsters and a plot to transform India. There’s a lynching scene which addresses the issue of religion and hatred in India. The scene is brilliantly shot, and has driven debate on race relations in India today in a way that no brand could do. Have a look at the scene below (it is graphic).

I hope these creative ideas have inspired you as to what you can do to liven up your approach to comms and public relations. Whether you have no budget, or an ATM in your office, there’s lots you can do to get people excited and engaged. So, what are you waiting for?

Digital Manipulation: How To Fight Back And Protect Your Firm

Not all digital manipulation is as easy to spot as this fake image from Benetton. The ability to fake high quality content is widespread, and you’ve got to be prepared.

You may not know it yet, but you’ve probably come across content that’s been faked today. It has never been easier to fake content, both visual and multimedia (have a read of this article from The Guardian to learn all you need about deepfakes, or take a look at https://www.thispersondoesnotexist.com/ to see how realistic fake imagery is today, thanks to Artificial Intelligence). Combine the tech with the desire to fool the public, as seen during the 2016 elections in the United States, or in the 2019 European elections, and we should be worried.

What’s more concerning is the inability of governments (or even their complicity) to counter fake news. Combine this with the willingness of many to offer digital manipulation as a service, not just to governments but also to businesses, and we’re in for trouble. Especially if you work in communications.

So, what can we do to protect our organizations from digital manipulation? Here’s a simple playbook as to what you can do to both prepare and fight back against the fakery.

Give Your Brand a Social Voice

It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said. Communicators need to ensure their organizations are online, they’re on social platforms, and that they’re not just active, but actively engaging with the public. Build up an audience of followers who know your brand, what your brand stands for, and who believe in your brand. When there’s a crisis, it’s these people who will support your brand and defend it against any claim.

Look to Owned Media

Too many organizations have bypassed owned media for social sites, where we lose control. We’ve got to roll this back, and create a portfolio of owned assets online, be they websites, blogs or podcasts, which we control and where the conversation is easier to curate. In other words, switch our focus away from just the big social media sites and to owned mediums where we have the ability to build a narrative that isn’t drowned out by fake accounts, trolls, bots or others who want to drown out our voice.

Take the Crisis Offline

The third element to fighting the fakes is taking the issue offline. If there’s a potential crisis, we have to develop ways to validate what’s going on. That means responding as quickly as possible to an issue online, and getting someone to physically respond, to check if the issue is true or false. This could be for a product defect, a reputational issue, or any other problem that we may face online. Ensure that your traditional complaint channels are integrated with your social media, so you know what’s going on at every touchpoint, and you know what’s real from what could be digital manipulation.

Monitor and Be Informed

The final step is to monitor as well as we can what is being said about the brand. If something is incorrect, step in and address the facts. Listen to what is being said about the brand, learn to spot trends, and look into issues/content which seems out of place. Understand your communities, both your advocates and your detractors, both online and offline. Digital manipulation is easier to spot if you know your online community’s routines and behavior. In addition, ensure you and your team are keeping pace with technology, and experiment where you can with rolling out new tech (one simple way to do this is to work with academia; they’ll be able to help you understand technological developments, and what tools you can use to protect yourself).

If you have any experience of fighting digital manipulation, please do share it. I’d love to hear, and share, your experiences.

“Spoiled Journalists” – Why Communicators Should Support MENA’s Declining Media Sector

The Gulf’s media has had a shocking year so far, with a series of journalist layoffs in the UAE. Is there anything that communicators can do to support the journalists they work with?

I’ve been around the block, and I’ve read, seen and done so many bizarre things in my profession that I’m rarely phased. But there’s a moment once in a blue moon when I have one of these moments where I’m reliving Arsenio Hall.

What set me off was a piece published by PR Week Middle East. The journalist had interviewed a Dubai-based public relations practitioner. The title was “Journalists and Social Media Influencers are too spoiled.” I’ll share just one quote from the piece, which you can read after subscribing to PR Week.

Social media influencers and journalists are being so spoilt and most brands raise the bar very high because they send expensive gifts and also, they have been bombarded by hundreds of pitches a day. This will make it near enough impossible for our brand stories to get noticed in the sea of emails flooding to their inbox – as well as the number of gifts they receive.”

Firstly, I don’t understand how any PR person can lay the blame on the media when the gifts are being sent by the PR people (Santa, why did you bring me so many presents this year?). And secondly, at least for much of the media, this just isn’t happening.

The Media is Collapsing

Over the past month I’ve heard first hand about three dozen journalists being fired from two of the largest publishers in Dubai, the Gulf’s media hub. They’re either being offered salaries which are up to a third lower than what they’re currently making, or they’re being laid off because the ad money is being put into digital (read Facebook and Google).

Why does this matter to communicators? Firstly, the expertise of these journalists is invaluable; they know their beat given their local experience (most journalists are expats, and new journalists often come from outside of the Gulf) and they’re able to put stories into context (one journalist who was laid off from Gulf News is probably the best investigative journalist in the Gulf today). Secondly, like in other parts of the world, the number of public relations people is increasing, and the number of journalists is decreasing. Publishers are increasingly turning to freelancers, not just to provide copy to but actually run publications (they’re cheaper, as their direct and indirect costs are lower – think no medical insurance, no end-of-service benefits etc).

What is different in the Gulf is that without employment, expats must leave. There’s no gig economy to speak of, as individuals aren’t free to take on multiple roles/jobs (unless they’re nationals), and few ex-journos are willing to set up content shops given the costs of visas and setting up business licences. In addition, those journalists who remain are frequently finding themselves overextended, and they’re being asked to take up non-editorial activities, be it supporting on sales pitches, or arranging events.

How Can Communicators Help?

While I’d like to think that the global decline in print media is reversible, I’m not that naive. However, as communicators we have to play a part in supporting the journalists we work with (I’ll always have a soft spot for the media, partly because I respect what they do and partly because I don’t want my job simply to be about working with influencers).

Firstly, we’ve got to clearly state why earned media makes sense to our clients. In an age where trust in other media types is falling, much of the public still believes what they read in their newspapers and magazines. We’ve got to go further than this, and start looking at how we can work with media outlets on concepts such as native publishing. If media engagement matters to us, we have to think how we can support these outlets financially whilst ensuring that editorial and sales lines don’t blur (much of what we do with influencers is paid).

Secondly, I think many of us would benefit from spending a day on the media side. The person quoted in the PR Week article is right in one respect – there’s far too many pitches being made, pitches which aren’t relevant and which add little value to the audiences we’re trying to engage with and influence. We’ve got to move away from the mass-blast press release, and start thinking more critically about how we can create content that is both right for a publication in terms of its audience, and is of a high enough quality for the editor to say, “I’d like to run this piece.”

What I feel will eventually happen is that regional brands will start to move in the direction of organizations in Europe and the US by hiring former journalists as in-house content heads. A part of me would welcome this (the quality of content put out in this region needs to be drastically improved), but a part feels that we’ve got to think long and hard as to how we can work with the media industry to explain why they matter and how they should be considered a critical piece of both communications and advertising strategies for organizations in the region.

Given that last thought, I do hope that the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA) will also step up and support the media sector; MEPRA shared the PR Week story without any comments on its own stated view for or against the “spoiled journalist” opinion. We need leadership in this space, and it’s got to come from industry bodies.

As always, I’d welcome your views.

A Capability Framework for the UAE’s Communicators – Why does this project matter?

This time last year, the Global Alliance released the Global Capabilities Framework for Public Relations and Communication Management, the fruit of a two-year research project led by the University of Huddersfield (UK).

This research asked practitioners, educators and employers in eight countries across six continents what they thought public relations is capable of, and how it can best fulfill its potential.  The combined outcome, the Global Capability Framework (GCF), can be used by communicators to both assess their own capability and potential, and set their own goals for their own development. The GCF should be also used by employers to understand how to improve their team’s strengths through training. Third, educators should look to the GCF as a basis for their curriculum’s development.

What matters most to me is the country frameworks, specifically tailored to large markets where there’s a substantial communications function. There are country frameworks for Australia, Argentina, Canada, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the USA.

To date, there’s not been a country framework for anywhere in the Middle East, but this will change. Zayed University’s College of Communication and Media Sciences is undertaking an initiative, in partnership with the University of Huddersfield (UK), to build a capability framework for communicators and students in the UAE.

For the first time, we will have a practical aid that will help individuals, teams, employers and educators understand what are the key skills that we must focus on to both grow as a profession, and become more influential with our stakeholders. A UAE framework will reflect the cultural and regional variations in public relations as it is practiced in the UAE, and it’ll act as a guide for our future development. It will help us understand where we must improve as a nation if we’re going to become a global leader in communications.

I’m excited about a UAE framework, in terms of what is means for communicators, employers and educators in the country. I’m also excited about how this country framework can become the first of many national frameworks across the wider Middle East. We’re still in our infancy as a function, and we have much more to achieve. National capability frameworks will help us become better communicators in a shorter space of time. Thank you in advance for everyone who will take part in this ambitious project, especially Zayed University’s CCMS.

The Truth Why Print is Struggling in the Gulf – It’s Ownership

As newspapers in both the US and Europe have shown, there’s still money to be made in good journalism. Good quality reporting is key, and that’s where we need investment.

It’s pretty rare these days that I’m moved emotionally by an article, but this one yesterday in the UAE’s The National managed to do the job. It was a commentary piece on how print can not just survive but thrive in today’s digital world.

While the article meant well, there were so many flaws that I had to write a counter-piece. One of the arguments used was media will have to specialize and focus on audience segmentation – they’ve been doing this for years through B2B publishing. Another was the need for publications to embrace social media – most journalists and publications are online, but it’s rare for digital advertising to replace print revenues.

As a former journalist, I’m passionate about the media. As a communicator, I value the ability of a professional journalist to cut through the crap and get through to the heart of the story, to report the news in a way that the publication’s readers will both understand and appreciate. Granted, we now have a plethora of ways to reach our target audiences, including social media and influencers, but nothing beats a great news piece or feature item. At their best, the media are impartial, influential and engaging.

It’s no secret that newspapers in the Gulf have struggled of late. Advertisers have moved marketing budgets online, mainly to the detriment of print. This isn’t a local phenomenon, and the issue has been discussed at length in the West for years. One answer is charging for content – the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post have used paywalls to drive revenues. They’ve found that people will pay for good content.

The idea has been suggested here too, to charge for content to develop a new revenue stream. The question is, would you pay for locally-produced media? Is it of a high-enough quality for readers to subscribe and pay? My feeling is no. Compared to the US and Europe, there’s little original news or investigative journalism. This is understandable, given who owns many of the newspapers in the region. Publications here are often used to relay a government viewpoint, which explains why there’s so little variation in what you’ll see from paper to paper.

The countries where print thrives promote a plurality of viewpoints. Look at India, where print is thriving. If the print industry wants to succeed, it’s going to have to invest heavily in reporting news that readers want, rather than what owners want to publish. Print has a future, including in the Gulf. But we’ve got to think about what readers want, and will pay for if the media is to become a service people will want to pay for. Otherwise, we’re looking at a slow decline for what once was a thriving industry. I for one hope that day will never come.

Five Insights from Bahrain

In case you missed it (and why I’ve been so quiet for three months), IABC help their first-ever major event in the Gulf. Over 180 attendees, 50 speakers and 40 presentations over two days make EMENAComm arguably the biggest, and, more importantly, the most impactful communications conference in the region. It also gave me the chance to look at the challenges and opportunities that the profession faces.

Here’s my five insights from Bahrain.

1. Why Not Dubai?

Even before we began, there was one issue people were talking about. Whenever I spoke about EMENAComm, there would be two lines of conversation. The first, mainly from friends and colleagues in the UAE, was “Why not do the event in Dubai?” The second was, “We’re so happy you’re doing this in Bahrain!”

Dubai has become the hub for the PR industry across not just MENA, but for much of the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East and Africa. It’s easy to see why: the incredible transport infrastructure and ease of access, including visas on arrival; English being the country’s de-facto language, and relatively simple business ownership rules (for IMEA, that is) mean that Dubai is where many clients and agencies have their regional bases.

Dubai’s position as the PR hub is reflected in the number of events in Dubai – we have a marcomms event every other week in Dubai. This is great for anyone based in Dubai, but what about communicators based outside of Dubai? In one of the conversations I had with an attendee, she thanked IABC for choosing Bahrain, adding that “I can’t remember the last time we had a communications event in Bahrain.”

For agencies in particular, my view is that they’ve got to start looking outside of the UAE and invest locally. In one conversation this week, one agency head noted that Dubai has been saturated for some time with rival firms. In contrast, he added a market like Saudi is still full of PR opportunities, provided that agencies invest locally. It’s time we all – clients, agencies and PR associations – invest in talent and operations where our clients are across the region, including with events that help support talent development.

2. We’re Busy!

The event in Bahrain would have been bigger, had all of those who said they wanted to come actually turn up. Unsurprisingly, we had lots of drop-outs. The response was the standard, “we have too much work.” There’s a couple of points I want to raise here, some of which worry me, and others which may be a silver lining.

First up, whilst its good that we’re being trusted with more strategic work, this comes with a caveat. It seems we’re not willing to push back to our management (one of our speakers dropped out on the Thursday before the event, due to last-minute work commitments – this person had several months notice on the event).

Second, our workload is increasing as we’re being asked to do more by our management (the trust element is good), and yet we’re not being given additional resources to deal with our growing to-do list. What is also concerning is that many communicators, particularly those at a senior level, are not able to take time out to continue learning. We work in a fast-changing profession, and we’ve got to keep up with the latest research, trends and tech if we want to become better communicators.

3. We want to listen, but do we respect people who listen?

Listening was a constant topic of discussion at EMENAComm, and was referenced by speaker after speaker as a skill that we should both use and promote more. I heard rave reviews about the listening workshop conducted by Howard Krais, Kevin Ruck and Mike Pounsford. Attendees all agreed that listening is under-utilized, especially in a region such as the Gulf where management (and communication) is often top-down.

This was music to my ears. And yet there was one moment where I had to pinch myself. I received feedback from one meeting about a person who stated that their aim was to listen and learn during the meeting itself. Another attendee felt that this wasn’t a sign of leadership. To this second person, leadership is about talking. Despite all the buzz around concepts such as engagement and experience, in societies such as the Gulf the idea of a leader can often revolve around the person who is dominating the conversation. How can we promote listening to engage employees and others if we still cling to notions of leadership that prescribe the person at the front must talk (or, at the very least, dominate the conversation).

4. There’s a fascination with psychology

Those talks which got people talking were all about psychology, be it Monkeys and Psychopaths by Ogilvy’s Joe Lipscombe and Nick Driver or Dawn Metcalfe’s talk about creating a stand-up culture. It was great to see communicators delve into why we think the way we do, and look at how they can use those insights to develop better, more impactful campaigns that draw their stakeholders in. There’s much more communicators can do when it comes to understanding human psychology, and factoring in those learnings when we create and execute campaigns. But just seeing the interest in this area gave me so much hope that we are moving in the right direction.

5. Technology matters, but we’re still experimenting

One of the most popular tracks was on technology. Speakers such as Adrian Cropley, Jasna Suhadolc, and Fady Ramzy shared insights into automation, digital marketing and artificial intelligence. For a region that is obsessed with tech and digital (I dare you to find a coffee shop where there’s no one on their smartphone in the Gulf), we’ve yet to use technology as effectively in communications. This may partly be down to the need for comms heads to hire more people with analytical/science backgrounds, but it may also be due to organizational leaders wanting to control the mediums we use. In a question to Meltwater’s Laila Mousa, one attendee admitted he struggled to get his leadership to embrace social media. As digital natives take over organizational leadership roles, I hope our adoption of technology will pick up.

That’s my insights done for now. If you attended EMENAComm and want to share your views, please do drop me a note and write a guest blog for me (you can see all the images here).

That’s all for now. And I promise, I’ll be writing more frequently from now on.

A Women-Only speaker list for marketing and comms in the Gulf

Jehan BoldTalks

A recent LinkedIn comment on an event happening in a couple of months time has led me to write this post, which I initially featured on LinkedIn and which I’m now posting here so people can find it more easily (LinkedIn, your SEO is lousy). The person asked, rightly, why the event only had two women speakers out of a total of nineteen. She could have also asked why there were no Gulf women on the speaker list. In an effort to help event organizers find these speakers and promote diversity on stage. I’m also tired of manels and mansplaining!

All the women below are exceptional in their own right, and these are all people I’ve worked with or heard speak. If you’re organising a marketing, media, communications or public relations conference in 2018 or beyond, you need to include these women in your event.

For added measure, I’m including a number of women who are based outside of the Gulf. If there’s any additional suggestions, then please do share them and I’ll add to the list. And apologies for leaving anyone out.

Jehan Abdulkarim – A Bahraini national, Jehan has worked in the private sector for over 15 years, at blue chips such as Cisco, Oracle and Accenture. She’s also worked as a journalist. She’s the most senior Gulf woman I know working in non-government, and she regularly talks on issues relating to marketing and comms in emerging markets.

Maha Abouelenein – Egyptian-American Maha has worked for a host of tech firms such as Google and Orascom, as well as agencies such as Weber Shandwick. She’s based between Cairo and Dubai, and often talks about marcomms in the tech sector, as well as issues relating to government and public affairs.

Saba AlBusaidy – Oman’s Saba Al Busaidi is one of the most prominent advocates of digital and social media in the Gulf. She frequently talks about digital marketing in both languages, in Arabic and English. Saba was the first Omani women to to be certified as a Social Media Strategist. She has also played a big role in supporting local talent and small-to-medium enterprises.

Dr Hessa AlJaber – One of the highest profile government figures in the Gulf, Qatar’s Dr Hessa AlJaber has led her country’s ICT strategy for over a decade. Dr Hessa has keynoted many an event, with a particular focus on the impact of technology, and the need to promote STEM education among the region’s youth.

Hind Al-Nahedh – A pioneer in the social media space, not only in Kuwait but in the wider Gulf, Hind Al-Nahedh’s experience spans Corporate Communications, social media, integrated marketing, collaboration and blogging. Hind is often sought out to talk about social media and content/influencer marketing in the Gulf.

Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud – Princess Reema’s work across philanthropy, social purpose and business has consistently challenged gender conventions in conservative Saudi Arabia. In 2010, the marketing and PR worlds took notice when Princess Reema’s ‘Woman’s Stand’ campaign won Best in Show at the EMEA SABRE Awards. Her work in CSR and in marketing means she’s often approached to talk at events and conferences.

Fida Chaaban – Lebanese Canadian Fida straddles both the media and communications worlds. Prior to her current role, she was the editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur Middle East magazine. Today, she serves as the chief communications officer of KBW Investments. With an eye for both, Fida talks about how the two can learn from and improve one another.

Elda Choucair – As the CEO MENA at agency PHD, Lebanese national Elda is probably the most senior woman working on the agency side today in the Gulf region. Elda’s specializes in media planning and strategy. She’s also often asked to talk about how the industry can better promote/support women who want to work in the advertising & creative industries.

Ganga Dhanesh – As Assistant Dean for research and graduate studies at Zayed University’s College of Communication & Media Sciences, Singaporean Ganga is playing a key role in developing the next generation of Emirati female communicators. Ganga’s research areas are strategic communication management, corporate social responsibility and internal relations.

Mariam Farag – Marian leads CSR for MBC, the largest broadcaster in the Middle East region. She’s also worked with the United Nations. Mariam often talks about a number of her passions, including corporate social impact, storytelling, humanizing the brand and youth development.

Maria Gedeon – A destination marketing executive with over 14 years of experience, Maria heads up marketing for Majid Al Futtaim Cinemas. She’s also a board member for the Marketing Society and talks about the challenges and opportunities facing the industry.

Noha Hefny – An Egyptian national with 16 years of experience in comms roles with the United Nations, PepsiCo and McKinsey & Company, Noha talks about issues such as mentorship, social entrepreneurship, brand and corporate reputation.

Louise Karim – Living in Dubai since 2009, UK national Louise has led marketing teams at leading regional and international companies including DABO & Co, The Dubai World Trade Centre and Emirates Airlines. Today she manages mums@work, a female-focused recruitment agency. Louise often talks about the issues women face in the industry.

Eleni Kitra – As a global sales lead for Facebook across the Middle East and Pakistan, Eleni is an expert in contemporary digital marketing trends. A Greek national, Eleni has also worked as the MD for OMD Greece. She’s also passionate about mentoring.

Zaira Lakhpatwala – Zaira is the best-known female journalist in the Gulf reporting on the marcomms industry. Zaira heads up Communicate magazine, part of the Mediaquest Group, and she often moderates panels on the marketing and communications industry, on a host of subjects. If you’re looking for an expert/journalist, Zaira is your woman.

Summer Nasief – A Saudi national with a distinguished career in the private sector, Summer has led technology teams for the likes of IBM, Honeywell and Microsoft. Summer talks about innovation and how technology is changing a host of industries, including marketing and communications.

Maysoun Ramadan – Hailing from Jordan and Turkey, Maysoun is the head of Communication and Public Affairs for Roche Diagnostics Middle East. Maysoun’s passion includes talking on the issues of gender parity and female representation. Maysoun is also an EMENA board member for the International Association of Business Communicators.

Fiona Robertson – Fiona is a Senior Associate in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications practice in Dubai’s Al Tamimi & Co. law firm. In plain English, that means she knows the region’s media laws better than anyone else, and is able to knock the eyeballs of any audience out of their sockets with her understanding of legal issues.

Kindah Sais – A Saudi national with Lebanese roots, Kindah is the Global Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Leader, for the Middle East and Africa at Boeing International. Her career includes roles at Procter & Gamble, and Ogilvy. Kindah talks about the importance of creating diverse and inclusive work places and teams for firms based in the region.

Heba Sayed – As an IBMer who works across both marketing and technology, Egyptian national Heba is often asked to talk about how technology can be better leveraged by both marketeers and communicators in the areas of customer engagement, augmented intelligence (IBM’s definition for artificial intelligence) and digital solutions.

Valerie Tan – As the VP for communications at Emirates, Valerie is one of the best speakers out there on contemporary communications practices. A Singapore national, Valerie is able to give a unique perspective on communications across the Middle East and Asian Pacific region.