The Media’s Demise and the Need for Self-Created Content

The crisis is killing media outlets. And whilst it’s heartbreaking to watch, communicators must start thinking about what is next when it comes to engaging external audiences (image source: Medium)

The last month has been devastating for media globally. Despite the fact that most of us are glued to the news, scouring for bright spots amid all of the darkness about those who are suffering, ad revenues have tanked as print media has struggled to get out editions and advertisers have cut budgets to the bone. Digital isn’t faring that much better – too few have been able to pivot quickly enough to be able to offer firms what they’re looking for right now, namely lead generation services such as webinars and targeted database marketing.

The Middle East’s press is feeling this too. I’ve spoken with journalists who have been laid off, and I’ve seen LinkedIn posts from sales people who have been let go. For those who still have a job, publishers have cut back on working hours. As someone who spent years as a journalist, I have such respect for those in the trade; they work long hours, they’re dedicated to getting out the news, and they’re underpaid.

What also pains me is that there’s little many of us can do right now. Most companies are focused on the basics right now, and that includes cutting back costs to save money for operations, and investing money to help sales (and this basically means digital services).

We’ve got to be prepared for many media closures.

How do we adapt, given that so many of the publications we work with, god forbid, won’t be around once we start to re-open and re-adjust?

The answer will effectively be about owned media. Smart communicators will have already started to move towards focusing more on both creating and hosting content. For example, we’re going to see more company-branded blogs, podcasts, and videos (not all webinars, I hope). Communicators will move beyond social media to embrace longer-form content, and they’ll need to do it quickly too.

We’ll need to adapt to the changes with reskilling – we’ll need to be able to set up a WordPress site, understand how to edit audio and video, and record content remotely. We will also have to better understand the world of analytics, to better sense when content is working, how it is working, and what we need to do to tweak our work to improve our engagement with audiences that matter to us.

This will require us to rethink how we operate with fewer media outlets, and retraining will need to be primarily top-down (younger communicators are often more digitally-savvy than their superiors, which we all must acknowledge and address).

The one hope I have for many of my media friends is that they’ll find new roles as content creators in-house. It’s going to be an adjustment, but we need your writing, your videography, your editing and analytical skills.

I want to add one last note – if you are a journalist who is looking for something new, please do reach out to me and I’ll help review your CV and give you advice. In the meantime, stay well and stay safe.

Digital Media Relations this Ramadan – Ideas to Engage

This Ramadan’s media events will look a lot like this. What are you doing to adapt?

It’s the first couple of days of Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for Muslims. It’s a key time too for media relations, with a host of traditions that PR people and journalists follow when it comes to relationship building (to see what I’m talking about, have a look here).

This year is sadly different, given the lockdowns in place across much of the region. But work will continue, and we’ll have to adapt. Here’s a couple of ways you can turn the physical divide into an opportunity to do more online with journalists.

The Ramadan Gift

It’s traditional to share Ramadan gifts with journalists. This would traditionally be something food-related such as dates or chocolate, given that we are fasting all day. The good news is that e-commerce is still functioning, albeit with delivery delays. There is still a challenge however, in that many journalists are working from home rather than work. If you’re thinking of sending over a gift, drop the journalist an email asking for their address details for the purpose of sending a Ramadan gift. They’ll appreciate the gesture.

The Charity Donation

Given the situation facing many across the world right now, it may be a good idea to donate to charity on behalf of the journalists you work with. Ramadan is a time for supporting those in need, and many charities in the Middle East region (or anywhere right now) will allow you to give to charity on behalf of someone else. I’ve done this many times, and it’s always appreciated by the journalists I work with. Do let them know you’re doing this, and ask them if they have a specific charity or cause they’d like to be supported. Given that it’s easier than every to give online, this is a simple but effective way to build relations with journalists whilst also doing good.

The Media Iftar

It’s standard practice to invite a number of media to an Iftar, the meal which breaks the daily fast. This won’t be possible this year due to restaurant closures. Even if restaurants are open, many people may not feel comfortable gathering outside of their homes with non-family members. This is probably the hardest concept to replicate – connecting via teleconference just won’t cut it (I can only imagine the aggravation of having to shout at a screen “turn on the mic” five minutes before the breaking of the fast).

There are other ideas which may work – one could be to arrange food deliveries to the journalists in question (ensuring food deliveries turn up on time during a normal Ramadan is hard enough, and I can’t imagine how difficult it will be with the additional demand this year). Another idea may be for those die-hard enough to value media relations above all else, and that is to hand-deliver food to your journalist contacts. It sounds strange, but it will be appreciated, and it may even be an opportunity for those journalists you’re treating to share a couple of pics of their Iftar.

Zooming for Islam (or using digital content)

The final idea is pretty simple – it’s using digital channels to connect with your journalist contacts. Teleconferencing is awkward in this region at the best of times, and I can’t imagine how this is going to work for a social event (and I doubt anyone around here is using Houseparty). One alternative may be to keep the social interactions simpler, and instead use more digital content to share with your media contacts. What I do mean? It could be as simple as Ramadan and Eid greeting cards shared over WhatsApp or email, to filming yourself and your team sharing personalized Ramadan greetings and sharing these over messaging apps. You can get creative when it comes to the content you’re making, but just be careful of the channels you’re using; email is more formal, and best for when you don’t know the journalist too well, whereas WhatsApp should be used if you already have a good relationship with the journalist (it’s a pet peeve of many journalists here for them to be WhatsApped by PR people they don’t know, or don’t want to know, well).

These are just a couple of simple ideas for you. If you have any, please do share. And before I end, Ramadan Kareem to you all. It’s a very difficult time for many people, so let’s be mindful of how we can help.

The Government Comms Playbook to Fight the Coronavirus

A lack of trust in what the government is saying leads to panic, fear, and citizens taking action into their own hands

This is the biggest crisis all of us have ever dealt with. The pandemic has impacted every major country, both directly and indirectly. It’s brought whole industries down. And, worst of all, tens of thousands of people have lost their lives. And it’s going to get worse.

The hope is that we can all take action to flatten the curve and reduce the number of infections to a level that our healthcare systems can deal with. And this isn’t just a possibility. Countries such as Singapore and South Korea have shown that the right approach can be found to get us through this in the best shape possible, with fewer infections.

Government communications is key here. I’ve seen some brilliant work, and I’ve seen work which isn’t going to achieve anything other than the opposite of what was intended. Here’s what I hope governments will look at doing right now.

A Single Source of Information

This isn’t just a viral pandemic. We’re seeing fake news spread at an unprecedented rate. Given how many government departments are involved in a crisis response (think health, education, business, finance, legal, customs, transportation, basically everyone), the potential for the message not to be seen is high. Each government department has its own website, its own comms channels, and team.

What a crisis like this requires is a single source of information, especially online. This location needs to take the lead in pushing out any and all information on the virus and its impact, including for individuals and organizations on everything. What others must then do is aggregate information from that website. By doing this, you get people to understand where they should go, not only to source information but to also corroborate what they’ve been told.

One example of a single source is Weqaya.ae, a website set up by the UAE government to educate people on health-related issues. This website is a start (and I haven’t checked out how it looks on mobile, and if the website is responsive in terms of design), but there’s another issue that governments need to tackle, and that’s language.

Multiple Languages

It’s pretty obvious, but I’m yet to see governments in my region push out information in multiple languages. And I’m assuming it’s the same in many other places. Now more than ever, communicators need to understand their audiences, and push out content in as many languages as possible (this is why diversity and inclusion matters when it comes to comms, which many of us seem to have forgotten). Write a piece in multiple languages, translate infographics, and if you can’t dub over a video, use subtitles. In the Gulf, the languages to look at include Tagalog, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Bahasa… If the linguistic group is large enough, bring in people who know the language to translate, and then push out the content through that single source website and via…

The Use of Influencers

This crisis has been a missed opportunity when it comes to using third parties to get the message out. And I’m not just referring to people with blue ticks or big followings. An influencer right now could include a foreign embassy, an ambassador, or any person or account that’s trusted by a specific group of people. These individuals have mass appeal, they’re trusted, and they post consistently. My feeling is that governments are behind brands when it comes to using influencers (and I’ll say that many social media influencers haven’t helped themselves by being tone deaf to the situation).

Some countries have done things differently. Look at what Finland is doing. Read this from the Guardian.

Finland has enlisted social influencers in the government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that they are just as useful as mainstream media in a crisis when it needs to inform the population fast, clearly and accurately.

“We can reach a large part of the public in Finland through official communications and traditional media, but it’s clear the authorities’ messaging doesn’t always reach all population groups,” the government communications director, Päivi Anttikoski, said.

“The aim of this cooperation is to provide better access to information for those who are difficult to reach through traditional channels. As far as we know, Finland is the only country in the world to have defined social media as ‘critical operators’,” – along with doctors, bus drivers and supermarket workers.

Adapt Social Media

Governments have to innovate when it comes to crisis communications. They’ve got to create new channels based on usage and popularity. Oman set up a new Twitter account sharing all official news on what’s happening in the country. The account was set up this month, but it already has 65k followers, and is tweeting in multiple languages.

What the WHO has done with Whatsapp is smart. This channel is used globally, and it’s a simple and effective way of getting out information effectively via a chatbot. It’s also the place where most misinformation spreads (and we have no way of monitoring what is being shared here due to end-to-end encryption). Have a look at the launch of the service, and please do load it into your Whatsapp.

Transparency and Expertise Matters (Especially for Leaders)

My friend Julio Romo wrote a brilliant read on what Singapore is doing to combat the Coronavirus. Given that the state has come through this better than anyone else, their government communications should be studied widely. One aspect of what they’re doing is promoting clear information as to what is happening on the ground, and tell residents what actions they need to take. Their leaders have been using social media and traditional media effectively, to push out a clear message on what is happening, the actions the government is taking to make things better, and what the public can do to help.

Another must-read article was written by Ullrich Ecker and Douglas MacFarlane for the Guardian. They spell out what leaders need to do to ensure that people listen, remain calm, and follow advice. If you’re in comms, read the piece. But needless to say, openness matters.

And third, look to who is delivering your message. Doctors and scientists have emerged as the best communicators right now, because they understand the subject better than anyone. Look to Dr Anthony Fauci, who has become a household name in the US thanks to his clear, no-nonsense advice. Their understanding of the issue is reassuring. I’d like to see more scientists being given the opportunity to speak and guide the public (have a look at this WEF article about scientists and communications).

Avoid Conjecture

My last piece of advice is avoid making comments in the heat of the moment, especially on social media. I’ve seen so many government communicators in the Middle East mouth off on Twitter, making statements about the impact of the virus on the economy only for these statements to become nonsense a couple of days later. I’ve seen others talk about how well residents have been treated, only to have the country close its borders a couple of hours later. To paraphrase, trust takes time to build, and disappear in an instant. Do what you can to engage, to educate, and to listen as well (we don’t talk about listening enough in communications).

That’s the short of it for me – let me know what you’d add, and let’s start communicating better. What we do matters now more than ever, to keep people safe and save lives. We have been given an opportunity to make a difference for the better, so let’s take it.

Public Relations and the Coronavirus – How will we be impacted?

Every industry will be affected by the impact of the coronavirus, including PR. There’ll be opportunity for some, and pain for others (image from BBC News)

Everywhere and everything is Coronavirus. Which is understandable, given how it’s changing every part and place of our world. But I wanted to talk about Public Relations/Communications and what this means for all of us.

The advent of the Coronavirus may be a business boost for some, but it be harder times for many in the industry. Here’s my basic run-down of what we should all expect.

Increased Demand for Crisis Comms and In-House People

If you’re working as a crisis communications consultant, you should have already had dozens of requests coming in for support (my general view of crisis comms is if you’re asking for help during a crisis, then it’s usually too late).

What’s fascinating is client-side demand for communicators. I’m seeing many government entities looking for senior people. My feeling is they’ve been blindsided by this, and they have little to no crisis planning. This is especially true for internal communications.

Prepare for Drastic Budget Cuts

Budgets are going to be cut, and agencies will feel this soon (I’m sure many already are). Contracts won’t be renewed, and clients will want to reduce the scope of work. I know the argument about PR being more cost effective than marketing, but this won’t have much of an impact on business leaders who need to save money for business continuity planning.

The Opportunity and the Challenge

It’s amazing to see how many companies have my details. I’ve received over 200 emails from companies, all listing what’s happening to the business. Everyone is asking questions, and this is a huge opportunity for communicators to support on messaging and positioning.

However, there’s a caveat here. Things are moving so fast that positions and messages can change overnight, especially for certain industries. I’ve seen senior communicators praise what their country is doing for the public one night, only for the government to announce a closure of its borders in the morning. Communicators have to be extra careful about positioning/messaging right now, and ensure that whatever is being conveyed is actually being put into practice.

We All Need Support

Whatever your role and your activity, you’ll need support. None of us have gone through anything like this before (SARS/MERS were the closest examples, but they were still regional). We will all need help in terms of what we are doing. And we will also need mental support.

So many people are relying on us to help them understand what is happening and what they need to do. Let’s do more to support one another. I’ve been encouraged by what regional and global associations are doing. It’s incumbent that all of us reach out to friends and colleagues in the industry to check on one another, and be there to listen and to help. This also includes giving to financial assistance programs run by the likes of the CIPR.

I want to wish you all the best of health right now. Stay well, stay safe, and stay the course. We will prevail.

Balancing the information load – Saudi’s Ministry of Health and the Coronavirus

Do images such as this reassure or panic the public? (picture credit: Arab News)

When it comes to many issues, be it driving or otherwise, religion, and long beards, the Kingdom has always made the headlines. However, Saudi Arabia has been in the news recently for what could be an emerging health pandemic. The disease, named the Coronavirus, was first discovered and identified in the summer of 2012. Since then at least 30 people have died in Saudi Arabia from the Coronavirus according to the World Health Organization as reported by Reuters on the 31 May.

The country’s Ministry of Healthy has been criticized over a number of issues related to the Coronavirus. First up was the issue of firing the doctor who discovered the first case in the Kingdom and reported the virus (for the full story click on the link here for the piece on the UK’s The Guardian.

However, recent criticism has focused on a lack of transparency when releasing information about the Coronavirus. An article yesterday published in the English-daily Arab News was particularly scathing (by Saudi standards). I’m linking the article here and will quote in full below.

A specialist in infectious diseases said that withholding information by the Ministry of Health about the spread of the coronavirus following the deaths of the infected patients is significantly damaging and provides no benefit.

The specialist spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said citizens and residents in Saudi Arabia have the right to accessible information about the disease.

“I do not know why the Ministry of Health discreetly hid the information of the first case of Coronavirus in Saudi Arabia, and the infection got to Al-Ahsa region where the disease has appeared and is starting to spread. They bear the responsibility for this,” he said.

The specialist suggested that the reality seems to be withheld from the domestic public opinion, and the public does not know if the ministry has detailed information about the spread of the virus and refuses to disclose it, or whether they have not reached any conclusion. He said the Ministry of Health looks at research centers in Saudi universities as competitors when the relationship with research centers at universities should be a complementary relationship, not competitive.

He added that MoH indeed prefers to discover the scientific research on diseases via universities abroad rather than Saudi universities, although there are a number of Saudi universities that enjoy a huge potential and have reference laboratories recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO).

However, the Ministry of Health refuses to cooperate with them because they perceive them as competitors in spite of their supportive work with the MoH, he said.

He said preventive measures taken by the Ministry of Health lacks transparency, with no announcement about where the spread of infection started and whether it originated in Al-Ahsa or came from abroad. He also noted that ministry did not give any scientific information or details about the reasons for the spread of the virus.

“Unfortunately there are no details and nothing was published except the number of cases and deaths. This is not enough. It does not allow us to investigate the causes of the disease.”

Today, he said, there are more than 30 cases, but there is no clear information about the source of the disease and we do not know the results of the investigations.

What’s prominent here is that the article is a translation of a piece from Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper. Both papers are owned by the Saudi Royal family and the fact that these opinions are now running in the local press doesn’t bode well for the Ministry of Health. There’s no name associated with the ‘specialist’ and no invitation to respond by the Ministry.

There’s a significant lack of information about the Coronavirus, and when there’s a lack of awareness about a public issue such as a suspected epidemic people will seek information from other sources, most especially social media. However, if a public body reveals too much information they will be open to criticism that they are creating an unnecessary panic. There’s an interesting take on this issue by one public health blog, the Avian Flu Diary, that I’m going to quote below (do read the article in full if you have time).

We may simply be seeing a public relations backfire created as a direct, and 100% foreseeable, consequence of an overly secretive Saudi risk communications policy.

If there’s one thing you can count on in a crisis, it’s that rumors and speculation will rush in to fill any information void.

The other possibility is that this outbreak is somehow substantially worse than we are being told. But if that’s true, it seems unlikely that they could keep it hidden for very long.

Which puts us in a watchful waiting mode, looking for any indication – one way or the other – of how this outbreak is playing out.

It’s hard to see how this case has brought to light any positives for any of the parties involved. However, if there’s anything to be learned my hope is that the Ministry hires a public affairs agency that is specialized in such crisis communications, as this issue has the capacity to become much bigger and at a pace that few communications people would be able to handle. Remember SARS anyone?