Are We Moving Forward? The State of Play for CSR in the Middle East (Part Two)

This is the second part of a blog I’m writing based on research undertaken by PR agency Cicero & Bernay and YouGov into the state of CSR in the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Yesterday I looked at the first half of the report. Today, I’m going to share the results on employer branding, on the impact of CSR on business, and also of the pandemic on CSR. To reiterate, this is a quantitative survey, and I do have reservations on the views shared. Let’s begin!

The Impact of CSR on Employer Branding

Let’s start with the simple view shared by the majority of executives surveyed – brands/organizations that are seen as more socially responsible find it easier to both attract and retain staff. The first statement, that of “A company’s CSR activities are an important consideration for job seekers,” was agreed with by at least 60% of executives from each region. The second statement, that of “A socially responsible company is deliberately sought out by job seekers,” was also agreed to by the majority of executives (the lowest score was for the Gulf excluding Saudi and the UAE, where only 49% of executives agreed to the statement. The most interesting statement put to those surveyed was, “Employees working in a socially responsible company are more motivated than those working for other companies.” Again, the majority of executives agreed or strongly agreed with this statement. It’s clear that being a socially responsible company is seen as an advantage when it comes to employees.

The statement put to the executives was “A company’s CSR activities are an important consideration for job seekers.”

CSR Impact on Business

There were two statements on how CSR relates to business. The first was, “How do you think adopting CSR affects a company’s business overall?” The overall sentiment was agree/strongly agree, with the lowest score being 80% in the Levant (Jordan and Lebanon). The highest scores were in Saudi (92% agreed or strongly agreed) and the UAE (95% agreed or strongly agreed). The second statement put to those surveyed was, “How important is it for a company to adopt CSR into its business practices?” The response was again overwhelmingly positive, with 92% agreeing or strongly agreeing that adopting CSR positively impacts a company’s business.

The question asked was “How do you think adopting CSR affects a company’s business overall?”

CSR in Practice Across MENA

We now get to the why and how. Those surveyed were asked, “Why do you think it’s important for a company to adopt CSR into its business practices?” The primary response, with the exception of the Levant, was to improve the reputation of a company/brand (the Levant response was to secure a company’s future over the long-term, which may be a nod towards Lebanon’s economic distress) . The second isn’t so clear-cut; in Egypt, the Levant and the GCC excluding KSA and the UAE the purpose is to give back to society. In Saudi it is to get free publicity via word-of-mouth advertising. And in the UAE there’s a host of reasons.

The question asked was, “Why do you think it’s important for a company to adopt CSR into its business practices?”

When asked if they have a CSR programme in place, the majority of executives either said no or that they didn’t know. The UAE had the highest response rate, at 46%, followed by Egypt at 43%. The Levant was lowest at 20%. What is confusing here is all of the positive messaging shared by those interviewed beforehand – CSR supposedly helps with brand perception, with fending off competition, and with attracting and retaining talent. And yet why are there so few companies with CSR programmes? And why do so few executives know of their programmes (this also calls into doubt what they say throughout the survey)? The survey did ask why CSR programmes weren’t in place, but as there are no solid numbers to this, only percentages, it’s hard to gauge the reasons why.

There’s questions on how companies benchmark, as well as the importance of CSR to the company and the impact of CSR on the business overall. There’s also questions asked about consumer trust and CSR, supply chains and whether they’d stop doing business with companies that aren’t socially responsible. I’m going to skip these, and head to the last part, which is about CSR and that other C-word, Covid-19.

The Pandemic and CSR

This is the big topic for me, namely what impact has the pandemic had on CSR. The first question was, “How has the pandemic affected your CSR efforts?” For me, this could have been phrased better, as it doesn’t explicitly say if activities have gone up, or if they’re seen as more important by the organization. The Levant fares worst, which isn’t surprising given the freefall being experienced by Lebanon’s economy. The UAE fares best, with 53% saying somewhat/very positively. I find this fascinating, as I know many friends who’ve left CSR roles over the past year in the UAE as well as many charities who are suffering from a lack of cash flow. I’m just not so sure how this relates to reality on the ground.

The question asked was, “How has the pandemic affected your CSR efforts?”

Executives were also asked if CSR has become important (no surprises here, it has), as well as if they intend to keep up their CSR activities in 2022 – Egyptian, Saudi and the UAE executives said they would do more, while Levant and GCC executives said they’d do the same.

When asked what they’d focus on moving forward, there was no one big issue which stood out (I’m not sure why building company reputation is here, seeing as it’s an outcome and not an output). The most common area of focus was employees, which makes sense given mental wellbeing issues faced in 2020 and 2021.

The question asked was, “If your company plans to engage more in CSR in the COVID-19 era and afterwards, what will your company focus on?”

Let’s lots more which could be said about CSR in the region, and I hope any subsequent reports will be both qualitative as well as quantitative (certain responses need much more validation given they don’t fully match up to my own experiences, and those of others I know working in CSR in the region). I’m going to end here for now. If you’d like to see the full report, you can download it from here – https://www.cbpr.me/mena-csr-survey-report-2020/

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.