Communicators (and everyone else) need to embrace uncertainty

Our lives and work are becoming more confusing. We need to be ok with that. (image source: marketing91)

Who likes to be confused? Who loves to act when so much is uncertain, or unknown? And to quote the infamous Donald Rumsfeld, what do you do when there are so many known unknowns? Not me. But I’m ok with uncertainty. Maybe it’s because of the region I’m in (try getting details on how to travel in the Middle East during Covid, seriously), or maybe it’s because I understand that things evolve, and it’s not always easy to find every single piece of information from the get-go. Things evolve, and we must understand that.

Sometimes, I feel as if I’m in a minority when it comes to being comfortable with uncertainty. I used to work with a firm where everything had to be understood, every fact and detail presented to management. I’d chase and chase and chase, and spend both time and energy to do this. And I’d do this knowing that I wouldn’t be able to get everything asked of me, especially if it was related to government. Either the people I would be asking didn’t have the full picture, they didn’t care (yes, it happens), or they’d be too busy to respond.

In this situation, I’d have to make an educated guess, based on my thoughts and experiences. It’s not perfect, but how many times in our life are we certain of everything? It’s understandable that we crave the safety of certainty. As Author David Rock writes in his book Your Brain at Work, “The brain craves certainty. A sense of uncertainty about the future and feeling out of control both generate strong limbic system responses.”

And that for me is the rub. To paraphrase Eckhart Tolle, “When you become comfortable with uncertainty, Infinite Possibilities open up for communications.”

Those that are uncomfortable with uncertainty are missing out on opportunities to communicate better. And we also become open to trying new things, to experimenting and taking risks. Even though I’ve worked in the industry for two decades, I can never be sure of any outcome. But it doesn’t mean that I won’t try. And that’s because I’m ok with uncertainty, and not knowing all possible factors and outcomes. I’ll collect enough information and look to make a judgement on what I have in front of me.

It’ll do us all good to be ok with uncertainty, and this must be one of the lessons of the past two years (who hasn’t been faced with uncertainty in 2020 and 2021?). Let’s collect and analyze data, and make a judgement. But let’s do it quickly, without excess resources being spent on chasing data or information which we often can’t get or doesn’t exist. The most exciting opportunities often lie beyond the initial uncertainty. Go on, take a risk. It’ll make you a better communicator.

Comms Conversations – A Twitter Space to Talk About Big Issues in MENA

I’m excited about being able to take the discussion online through audio

It’s about time we talked openly about big issues for communicators in the Middle East, and what better way to do this than having a conversation in a chat room?

That’s the idea for Comms Conversations, which I’m going to start hosting on Twitter Spaces (I’d have loved to have done on Clubhouse but it’s not usable in the UAE or Oman).

Every couple of weeks, we’ll host a new discussion on Twitter Spaces. For up to an hour, we’ll share views and experiences on big issues we all face.

The first Comms Conversation will happen on Wednesday the 26th May at 11.30am Dubai time. We will be joined by the editor-in-chief of PRovoke Media, Arun Sudhaman.

Join us then, and follow @alex_malouf on Twitter as we speak openly about comms in the region – the good, the bad and everything in between!

We have much to learn from Asia’s Communicators

Asia-Pacific Association of Communication Directors | LinkedIn

I’m excited. And I’ll tell you why. We’re launching the Asia-Pacific Association of Communication Directors in the Gulf. This matters to me, and should matter to us all. And here’s why. Many of us have looked to the West for instruction on communications. But I believe we need to look towards Asia. And here’s the simple reasons why.

Cultural Foundations

In many respects, our cultures are very similar. The Middle East is a blend of high context cultures, with many things left unsaid. That’s the same for much of Asia, where cultural awareness is key to communicating. We share religious similarities, and common linguistic traits. Our governance structures could also be described as similar, with a certain opaqueness when it comes to public lobbying. And then there’s the growth of regional hubs such as Singapore, which resemble Dubai in many ways.

Similar Challenges

And then there’s the issues that we face. There’s a fascinating research article by Jim Macnamara, Ana Adi, May Lwin, and Ansgar Zerfass about PR management across Asia Pacific. For anyone in the Middle East, it’s like déjà vu, with a focus on digital, issues around trust, linking business needs to communications, and dealing with increasing amounts of information. If anything, we’re closer to Asia-Pacific in our challenges than any other region.

Shared Experiences

What’s fascinating is our shared experiences. Asia’s communicators have dealt with a myriad of challenging issues, such as the Asian Financial Crisis, the SARS and H1N1 pandemics, and a host of political crises. What’s also fascinating to look at is how many communicators in the Middle East hail from Asia. There’s more Asian expats in the Gulf working in communications than from any other region. And we have much to learn from them and from communicators across Asia-Pacific.

The APACD

I believe that the APACD can be a bridge to gap the Gulf and Asia-Pacific. And as the co-chair, alongside my good friend Saba Al-Busaidi, we’re going to work with the APACD to bring their activities to the Gulf, so that we can learn from our colleagues in Asia-Pacific, as well as share our own experiences and abilities with them. That’s why I’m excited. If you want to know more, go and visit their website (click on the below) or reach out to me to know more.

Why Acknowledging Other’s Views Makes for Powerful Engagement

More leaders need to listen to and understand the views of others before speaking

I’ve been reading a fair amount of media of late. In one interview, the executive spoke about how she’d simply walked into an organisation’s reception and asked for a job. In another, the author spoke about how her country is leading the way in gender equality. And in the third piece, an opinion editorial, the author spoke about how much more hope there is now than twelve months back.

All of these views reflect their authors’ experiences and beliefs. What struck me as a reader was how their perspectives were different from my own. For example, I’d never be in a position to walk into any office and say I want to work here, at least not in the region I’m in (it very much felt like a statement made from a perspective of privilege). And for billions of people living in countries which have yet to receive any vaccines, the future is far from hopeful.

The point I’m very much trying to make here is that we all see and understand communications from our own experiences and beliefs. And executives who want to make a specific point need to think about what they’re trying to say through the lens of others.

By acknowledging differences in your argument and talking points, you strengthen your ability to persuade and convince others. Empathy is a powerful means to build partnerships and advocates, and the best way to do this is to listen to and understand what others are saying, especially those who are different than you (that’s why diversity and inclusion are fundamental to effective communications, and why all communication teams should be diverse).

Dr Kevin Ruck, Howard Krais and Mike Pounsford have done extensive research into listening and communications. Have a listen yourself into what they’re saying here. And let’s do more to acknowledge the other(s) in proper dialogues.

Ethics during a Pandemic – An example from the airline sector

Ethics has never mattered more. And communicators need to think carefully about whether their messaging is both accurate and ethical

The past twelve months has been the hardest I can remember as a communicator. And one of the big issues we’re all facing is on ethics. Given it’s ethics month for our profession (thank you for this initiative Global Alliance), I wanted to highlight the issues around ethics. We’re being pushed to get out news that’ll raise confidence in our organizations and industries, but the big downside is obviously sharing information that isn’t fully accurate. The consequence of this is a trust deficit, both in our brands as well as the response to the pandemic.

One example that I saw this past week was from Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-based airline. The company’s CEO spoke to Bloomberg and made the claim, as reported by Bloomberg, that the airline is the first to fully vaccinate its crew (you can see the interview here).

Etihad followed this up with a press release and social media posts, an example of which is below.

I understand the airline’s challenge. The aviation sector has been hit harder than any other industry. And they want to give people the confidence to fly again. They also want to assure governments they’re doing everything they can to keep people safe and not spread the virus.

The danger is that this information isn’t fully accurate. How do you define vaccinated? Well, it turns out our definitions may not be the same as the airline. Reuters did good work and asked that question. It turns out that Etihad hadn’t given all of its staff two doses, which is required by pretty much every available vaccine here in the country (you can read the report here).

In a rush to get out a positive headline, was the decision that the Etihad team took the right one? Will their messaging now engender trust? If Reuters hadn’t have asked the right questions, we wouldn’t have even gotten to the accurate, factual picture behind the headline.

Trust matters more than ever. And we have to be as accurate as we possibly can so that our stakeholders understand what is happening and why. Let me know your stories this ethics month. And let’s remember that ethics will always matter. Our interpretations may differ, but the facts don’t change.

Communicators are essential to ending the pandemic

We all want to take off our masks; the sooner we end this pandemic, the better. And communications will be vital to ensuring the public does what it must to support health and safety/vaccination campaigns

It’s the new year, and a time for renewed hope. Just like me, many of you will be happy to see the back of 2020. The pandemic has caused so much harm and devastation. And we have a host of vaccines to choose from to protect us from the worst of the coronavirus. And yet, we’re not over the pandemic yet. The numbers are going up globally, and we can expect the worst spikes in the days to come following socializing over the holidays.

What’s the most frustrating is that the end is in sight. In a matter of months, hundreds of millions of people can and should be vaccinated, providing a level of herd immunity in many countries that’ll slow down the spread of the virus.

While we can end the pandemic, there’s a number of complications. The first is people disregarding health and safety guidance, including the wearing of masks and social distancing – this speeds up the spread of the virus and diverts medical attention to treating the sick and away from inoculation campaigns. The second is those who don’t want to get vaccinated.

Over the past year, those working in the communications industry have been dedicated to supporting their organizations raise awareness of health and safety best practices. They’ve created millions of hours’ worth of content and pushed it out to workforces. They’ve developed an understanding of what types of messaging work, and how to best push this messaging out to make people understand how their behaviors and actions can keep them and their loved ones safe.

Given the fatigue after what we’ve gone through and the reluctance, even skepticism, about vaccinations among the public, it’s time for the communications industry to support and even lead awareness campaigns. Two issues are key – the first is to get home the message that the coronavirus is still rife and we must all behave responsibly. The second is to correct misconceptions and even fake news about new medicines and vaccines (I’m not putting any stock in the social media platforms and their pledges to remove fake news on their sites).

What we need is an industry-led effort, guided and directed by those national and international associations through whom we can combine learnings, ideas and activities. I’m convinced that hundreds or thousands of communicator volunteers would join and help win the trust of the public. For every person who follows mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines, and is convinced to be vaccinated, we’re one step closer to getting case numbers down.

I’ve seen how communicators responded to when the coronavirus first hit; they gave their time and energy for free, and supported colleagues who were struggling with how to respond. And I know that they’ll want to play their part now, to come up with ideas that’ll capture the public’s attention to change both attitudes and behaviors. The idea could be simple as social media visuals for people to use when they’ve been vaccinated or using storytelling for hard-to-reach communities.

There are so many ways for communications around these issues to be done better. If any communicator wants to make a resolution for 2021, let it be for them to have an opportunity to contribute to a global campaign to make the public understand what they need to do and then get them to do it. The art of communication has never been more important, and that’s why for me 2021 should be the year of the communicator. Communications is key to us ending the pandemic as soon as possible.

This piece first ran in Arabian Business.

A Long, Hard Slog: Looking Forward to 2021

You don’t need a crystal ball to see that 2021 will be a tough year for communicators

I hope I haven’t put you off reading this blog, but I wanted to spell out in simple terms what we communicators can expect in 2021. Whilst we do have vaccines and many countries are rolling out inoculation programmes, many of the fundamentals are the same as last year – we’re facing a global pandemic, many people are falling sick, and even more are ignoring health and safety advice. There’ll be more economic ups and downs, lockdowns, and stimulus plans. And communicators will have to do crisis comms on top of their daily work.

Let’s look at the basics, as to where the big focus areas will be in 2021.

Internal Comms is still a top priority

Last year was momentous for internal communications, especially in markets/regions where the function came a distant second to external communications. During the pandemic’s first couple of months, the focus shifted inwards. Communicators were tasked with ensuring employees were educated on health and safety, and in pushing executive messaging. Internal communications came into its own, and the value of good internal communicators was obvious.

Given the state of the pandemic in most countries, I expect that internal communications will remain key to every organization over the next twelve months. Not only will internal comms be top of mind for leadership, we’ll also see more innovation in this space. The number of employee podcasts launched last year in the UAE alone surprised me (though I do wish we’d learn to create content simply and timely, rather than overproduce). We’ll also see more use of martech in the internal comms space in 2021. This is an area to watch and, if you’re a young communicator, focus on for growth and specialization.

Budgets/Owned Content are King for External Comms

On the external side, there’s two issues that’ll determine how well you’ll be able to communicate. The first is money. Specifically, it’s how much money you’ll spend on advertising with your media partners. Last year was brutal for publishers, and the editorial mandate is simple – any editorial space will go to advertisers. I know many editors who aren’t happy with this, but they have little room to maneuver. Unless you have an absolutely brilliant media relations person who’s quite literally related to every journalist out there, you’ll need to up your ad spend if you want to get more coverage.

The other route is owned content. And expect to see more blogs, vlogs and podcasts being launched in 2021 (I’ll admit, I was expecting more in this space in 2020). External communicators are going to focus on their media creation and editing skills in 2021, or spend more money on agencies to help out. There’s still the obvious challenge of amplification – if you’re pushing out via social media, you’ll need to either put ad spend in or work with influencers (including your own employees). The other route to take is using emailers. It’ll be fascinating to watch what happens in the external comms space in 2021.

Fighting Fake News and Rebuilding Trust

The pandemic won’t be over until enough people are immune/following health and safety rules. And, as we’ve seen in 2020, there’s a large segment of society that don’t believe what is said, or just ignore the advice. The biggest challenge for every communicator out there is to work to combat fake news, especially online, as well as regain the trust of the vast majority of the population. I’m already seeing people I know who don’t want to get vaccinated because of what they’re seeing on social media, despite them having relatives who have had this terrible disease.

What’s also apparent is that healthcare communicators need help. Just as the industry came together last spring to help those Communicators who needed support, I feel we need a global effort to come up with ideas and campaigns that’ll promote vaccinations and burst fake need bubbles (I don’t expect any help from the social media platforms on this issue). I’ll write more on this in the coming days.

They’re my three big thoughts for 2021. Let me know yours. And, whatever happens, I wish you all the best of health and success for the coming 12 months.

Our inability to speak openly, and what this means for progress

More and more people are feeling the need to self-censor. And it’s not a good sign of where we are headed as a region (image source: Pinterest)

It’s been a funny couple of days (I know, it’s 2020). Over the past week, I’ve had two people reach out to me, basically telling me to be careful of what I post. The first was for a piece I wrote mentioning another place and its work on promoting education across the world (which I hope all of us would support). The second was a post mentioning a piece of bread and how much it cost (I’m serious). It goes without saying, more and more of us are self-censoring. And on every issue out there. And that worries me.

Why are they doing it? Partly due to politics, to laws, and to the overall cultural climate around us. We live in an increasingly divided world, where many believe that their viewpoint is the only one that matters. And increasingly, these people are in positions of power. Given the potential reach of social media, where one person can engage with millions, far too many believe that we should only write and share things that agree with them. Ironically, those that break the law whilst agreeing with those in power are not punished. And laws are used to hold others to account for the flimsiest of reasons.

Not knowing where the line is any more, people are remaining silent. Or they’re saying things they don’t believe it. That makes my job as a communicator much harder, as I don’t know if what I’m hearing is true or not. And even if my engagement online is making a difference, how would I know this if people aren’t saying or writing what they feel?

The issue is bigger than this. My belief is that, given enough time and reinforcement, self-censorship extends to our behavior in a number of settings, including our workplaces. We’re less likely to speak up with a new idea, to point out when something isn’t working, or when someone does something wrong. Freedom matters, for our personal lives and for our economies too. I will leave the last word to the American economist Milton Friedman, who was writing about the US, but could have been talking about any place on earth:

I know of no example in time or place of a society that has been marked by a
large measure of political freedom, and that has not also used something
comparable to a free market to organize the bulk of economic activity

We must hire on merit, not on nationality

How can any health authority hire a comms head based on nationality, especially during a pandemic?

A couple of days ago, I was triggered. Someone shared a role with me, and asked me to have a look. The position was responsible for managing all communications and outreach at a health authority in the Gulf. The write-up was fine. What got me riled up was the requirement that the person be a national.

I’ve always advocated for communications to be diverse and inclusive, to represent the publics the organizations deal with. But we’re getting to a point (and time) where localization needs to be rethought. We need the best people in the job, who have the experience and ability to communicate effectively. Now more than ever, good comms keeps people safe and can save lives. There isn’t the time to learn on the job, which localization has encouraged.

I know this appeal will fall on deaf ears, but semi-government and government must revisit localization policies, at least temporarily. A pandemic is not the time when people are prioritized for hiring simply based on their passport and not on their ability to do the job. We must hire on merit, not on nationality.

Communicators can be today’s heroes

Communicators are essential in a crisis. They’re responsible for the safety and well-being of others (image source: Flickr/Pily Clix)

I’m going to start with an admission. I was asked to write a post highlighting all of the good that communicators are doing right now. I’ve thought about the ask, and I’m going to look at the good we can be doing, as well underline the challenges we face (and the potential harm we can cause). But let’s start with the positive.

Times of Crisis

Communicators are crisis people. We don’t yearn for a crisis (I hope not), but our worth is even clearer during times of stress. Let’s take what’s happening right now. Much of what we are doing is focused on health-related areas, such as developing and sharing messaging on health and safety. We’re literally telling people how to keep themselves and others safe. Smart communicators (and organizations) also understand the need to help others with their mental well-being.

That’s the obvious part of what’s going on right now. But let’s look longer-term. At our best, communicators help engender trust between groups. We can and should promote transparency and engagement, which leads to more trust and conversation. So when the hard times do hit, people have faith in their leadership, and they have the courage to ask hard questions without fear of retribution.

A third simple point for me is that we’re able to see a situation differently. We listen, we empathize, and we share perspectives which others may miss. We’re able to help our leaders better see what is happening, and that should help in terms of their own situational understanding and decision-making.

It’s no surprise to me that the best leaders are brilliant communicators. They listen, they inspire, they are open to feedback (good and bad), and they engage. We can make our organizations better, safer, and more inclusive.

So, that’s where we come out good. It’s not all plain-sailing. First of all, it’s a hard job. Many people I know are working 12 hours plus daily right now, pretty much six days a week. And that’s going to take its toll without any emotional support.

And then there’s our role as the bearers of bad news, and there’s been lots of bad news recently. Far too often, we fall back on silly soundbites to relay information that impacts hundreds, thousands of people (here’s an interesting read in Gulf News by George Kotsolios on how we are not communicating layoffs well). And sometimes it is hard to challenge our leadership, and make them do the right thing or understand a situation differently. At our worst, we can become spin-doctors, pushing out a false message that we may know is wrong or virtue-signalling. And that’s why ethics matters now, more than ever.

I truly believe in the power of communications. And I believe that many of the people I’m proud to call colleagues chose to become communicators because they want to make where they work a better place. We have the ability to inform. And information is empowering (right now, it’s keeping people safe). But we mustn’t lose our morality in what we are doing. We’ve got to ask how we can best help in any given situation, and how we can make the difference.

Our work isn’t easy at all, far from it. Everyone thinks they’re a good communicator. But it’s both a science and an art. The best communicators will transform organizations, cultures and relationships for the better. We can and should be seen as heroes for the work we do and the change that we can bring about.

To do that, we need the best people entering the industry (I’ll admit, for a profession that’s all about reputation building, we do a lousy job of explaining what we do and why we do it). And we’ve got to push for higher standards through certification.

What do you think? Do you have any stories of communicator heroes? If yes, please do share them. We need to tell our own stories better.

And finally, bravo to all of you incredible comms people out there who are working tirelessly to keep people safe, informed and aware. I know how hard this is, and I understand the stresses you are under. You have my respect and my gratitude. You are my heroes.