Northwestern University Qatar: A case study of civil protest through social media

I’m in awe right now. Of one professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. And also the students. They’ve shown that it is possible to hold people to account for their actions and words through civil protest, both online and offline, in the Gulf.

Let’s start from the beginning. Journalism professor Justin Martin recounted how the University’s Dean had responded to student concerns that graduation would be held on the first day of Ramadan during fasting hours by saying to 40 faculty, “They can go to hell.”

This revelation, as well as insights from others, spurred the student campus to take action and voice their views collectively. What’s surprised me is how united the response has been to this incident, and how it’s brought together all nationalities to act together, through voicing their views on social media, through protesting on campus, and through setting up social media channels dedicated to the student campus. A sample of the responses is below.

The response from the University hasn’t been any different from what I’d have expected, with a statement put out that is a sorry/not sorry and which places the blame on Professor Martin himself as the whistleblower (without naming him).

“Over the weekend a series of tweets targeting the dean and members of the staff and faculty at Northwestern University in Qatar was posted. The statements were based on comments and blogs that were made some time ago – from the last academic year to one that was posted 10 years ago.

Supporting the well-being of our community – faculty, staff, and students – is our highest priority, and we take actions like this very seriously. We will continue to monitor this situation and offer our support when needed.

As a community, we all have a responsibility to be respectful of each other and our differences. Over the past decade, there have been instances where we failed to reach that standard and for that, we apologize.

There are no claims of perfection at NU-Q; we are all human; however, we are also one community. It grieves us that someone within NU-Q would try to hurt this community that we all have worked so hard to create.”

In a region where so many grievances aren’t aired out of fear of reprisal (such as termination or deportation), it’s brilliant to see young people in a university standing up so bravely to state their views with respect and civility. The Gulf needs more of us to speak up for what is right, and Dr Martin and Northwestern University in Qatar’s students have shown that it is possible for a group to stand up and advocate for both respect and understanding from those in power. All the power to them, and I hope that NUQatar’s administration both takes the time to actually listen and act.

The Importance of Execution: Lessons from the Night of McDonald’s Giveaways

Any idea is only as good as the execution. Which McDonalds found out on Thursday

Now, I love my creativity when it comes to marketing and communications. Especially when it involves bridging the online and offline worlds. McDonalds should have come up with a cracker of an idea.

For one night only, the fast food chain was giving out freebies including “Night In” apparel and accessories, including McDonalds-branded loungewear, socks, slippers, games, and more. All consumer had to do was order their food on the 19th of this month between 7:00PM until 3:00AM, online, via the call center or an app. All the surprise items were to be distributed randomly on a first come, first serve basis while supplies last.

Sounds good so far. They’d also gone out and promoted the campaign through influencer marketing, as well as via their own social channels.

So, what’s the problem I hear you say? Let’s go back to what I first spoke about, namely execution. If you don’t fulfill your promise, then consumers will get annoyed. And they’ll vent on social media. And there was ALOT of venting at McDonalds.

It gets worse for McDonalds. You know a stunt has failed when the UK’s biggest tabloid covers the story with the headline “Burgers and Lies”. And, on a side note, the response given to the Sun left me scratching my head; surely they could have promised to deliver items to all those customers who missed out (the response is below), rather than focusing on those who did get free swag.

“Thousands of customers received a surprise in their McDelivery orders last night, however we know how popular the limited edition merchandise has been and are sorry that some customers were disappointed not to receive any. This was the most amount of merchandise we’ve ever distributed in the UK and Ireland so we are delighted to see so many customers sharing their McDelivery socks and more on social media.”

How to Prep for Executions

Getting campaigns right takes a great deal of planning and experience. But there are a couple of basic pointers to bear in mind.

  1. Ensure that you have enough materials/gifts to go round. Look at previous campaigns, tally up the anticipated numbers of people who will take part, and order extra so you have a buffer. It’s better to have items left over at the end and your customers happy, than leave customers feeling as if they’ve been cheated (and the same applies to people – if you need more people for a campaign, then bring them in and train them up pronto).
  2. Clearly communicate with your consumers and partners. With this campaign, there were multiple partners involved, including call centers and delivery drivers from different companies. It’s clear that some of these drivers didn’t know about the campaign.
  3. Update these people too with new information. If there’s an issue with delivery and execution, let your call center staff and social media people know so they can proactively share information/share the correct information, rather than sharing incorrect information and making a situation worse.
  4. Treat every consumer as a person. Consumers aren’t stupid – they’ll see how social media accounts are basically copying and pasting responses to every single complaint. Don’t do that – respond like a person, not a bot. Consumers will appreciate it.
  5. If something goes wrong, do your best to fix it. There’s many consumers out there who didn’t get any free gift on Thursday night, and they’re still writing to McDonalds. Get them a gift, and do it asap. A brand can fix any issue, as long as they act quickly, sincerely, and proactively engage the consumer. If they don’t, that consumer will be lost.

That’s it from me for today. If you have any of your own tips to share on executions, please do send them across!

Purpose Marketing: Nada Dairy’s Ad for Saudi National Day Backfires

Nada’s attempt to mix politics with branding have backfired

I’ve spoken previously about the issue of purpose marketing in the Middle East (mainly the lack of any local brand engagement on big issues such as gender equality and sustainability). One popped into my timelines this week. Sadly, it’s an example that will be long remembered for what went wrong, rather than right.

Nada Dairy is one of the largest manufacturers of dairy products in the Gulf. The company decided to create a video in the run up to Saudi National Day this week. The video attempts to draw a line between the Kingdom’s new cultural policies, and those which were promoted several years ago (this is putting it crudely). The video depicts traditional views as backwards.

The issue with this political stance is that you’re clearly alienating a significant number of consumers. The Kingdom isn’t a democracy, but consumers are free to choose whichever brands they want. And this video has demonstrably hurt Nada’s reputation. Boycotts of its products have been trending on Twitter all this week, and the news has even led to boycott calls in Kuwait.

Nada’s response was to “apologize” for the video (which has been pulled from its feeds). The company also states that it recognizes and respects all views. The statement (which is the first image in this post) may not be the end of the issue, given the strength of the online responses. What is clear is marketers must think long and hard as to what positions they take on societal issues and causes, if they want to both be a supporter of societal change as well as a company that builds a loyal consumer following. If Nada’s management believed in these principles, then the brand has to stick with them. No one will believe in a brand that flip-flops on a societal stance.

Hong Kong, Social Media and PR’s Values – A Chat with Arun

I’ve been closely following what’s been happening in Hong Kong. What interests me is how all sides are communicating, how they’re using social media, and also where the industry stands on a big issue such as democracy and transparency.

I reached out to Arun Sudhaman, the CEO of the Holmes Report. Arun is both based in Hong Kong and is one of the leading journalists for the public relations industry worldwide. Here’s our talk on what’s happening in Hong Kong, the impact of social media today, how communicators are struggling with their values and what’s being asked of them, and why purpose is such a hard issue to get right.

Enjoy the conversation, follow Arun’s work on the Holmes Report, and share your thoughts!

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.

Netflix, the Jinn controversy, cultural mistakes and how to win over a tough audience

Jinn was the first Netflix production in Jordan. The backlash against Jinn could have been foreseen and proactively tackled, if Netflix executives had better understood the Jordanian public and not made basic errors with filming ad the script

You may not know about Jinn, the supernatural creatures of early Islamic mythology. They’re the inspiration for what would later become Genies. Jinn are full of mischief, and are frequently represented as those behind troubles. They may have been behind what happened in Jordan this month.

This month Netflix released its first original series in the Arabic language. Named Jinn, the story is based between Amman and Petra, where a group of teenagers battle a Jinn they’ve unwittingly released. The production was initially touted as a badge of pride for the country as it seeks to build a local media production industry. However, those feelings soon turned after the first episode was aired on the 13 June. Many Jordanians were incensed about kissing scenes and swearing.

While such behaviors may not be unusual for a Western audience, the reaction of many in Jordan hasn’t surprised me. “This will encourage teenagers to use indecent language in the streets, with their families,” Laith al-Tantawi, a 31-year-old Amman resident, told Fortune.

The public response snowballed. Five days after its release, dozens of Jordanian women signed a statement online that called the series “an offense against Jordan’s moral fiber. We strongly refuse the superficiality of this series, as well as [its scenes] that are offensive to public decency and that exploit minors. It reflects an inappropriate image of Jordan, as it was shot in Petra. The historical city was depicted as a hub for the jinn and a place of deviance.”

Jordanians may be used to seeing American fare on their TV sets in and in their cinemas, but watching actors who look and sound like their own children kissing and swearing is a taboo for many.

Are Cultural Missteps To Blame?

For a company which has become a global producer of content, Netflix made a number of basic mistakes before Jinn was even screened. Firstly, the director is Lebanese, not Jordanian. As was the filming crew. Beirut may only be 300 kilometers from Amman, but the two cultures are very different. What may be acceptable to a Lebanese audience (or parts of it), may not be to a Jordanian audience. And Netflix didn’t have an Arabic-speaking executive who is knowledgeable of the region to supervise the production. Both were simple mistakes to mistake, and simple to rectify.

Did Netflix Overreach With Jordanian Culture

Tackling cultural taboos is never easy. The creators of Jinn didn’t just focus on the supernatural (which many are still superstitious of in the region, just ask any Saudi about Madain Saleh), but they also wanted to portray Jordanian youth differently. Brave as this may have been initially, did the creators/Netflix overreach by seeking to do things so differently? Would taking out the scenes which would have caused so much offense have had such a major impact on the story?

Changing cultures is never easy, and there’ll always be push-back. But what did Netflix achieve with Jinn? Has it promoted debate about the challenges of youth, of their growing pains? Is Jinn equivalent to a Juno, or an Akeelah and the Bee? Will Jinn help to explain how Jordan’s young are struggling to come to terms with an ever-changing society? I don’t think it has. In fact, it may prove harder to faithfully depict Jordanian teenagers again on the big/small screen in the short term.

Would Getting Influencers On Board Helped Deflect Criticism?

For its first Arabic-language original production, Netflix did work to promote Jinn prior to its launch. The series was hailed by Bassel Ghandour of Jordan’s first Oscar-nominated film Theeb, as a “real turning point” for Jordanian representation. Jinn was officially premiered at an upscale Amman golf course flocked by media.

Were these influencers enough? I’m not talking about people with a social media presence, but individuals with standing in society, whose opinion is listened to, respected, and will change minds.

Following the initial outcry, a number of Jordanian governmental bodies put out statements that sought to deflect criticism. Jordan’s Royal Film Commission, which had granted Jinn producers approval to shoot, sidestepped responsibility. “[We neither] condone or approve or encourage the content of a film or series,” the Commission wrote in a statement. “[Jinn is the result of] divergent opinions that reflect the diversity of Jordanian society.”

Jordan’s Tourism Ministry had initially welcomed the show as a means to promote Petra and Jordan to a wider Middle East audience, also sought to sidestep the issue, taking aim at the show’s “lewd scenes” as “a contradiction of national principles… and Islamic values.”

Arguably the most influential people in Jordan are the country’s Royal Family. Prince Ali Bin Hussein, chairman of Jordan’s Royal Film Commission, did seek to draw a line on the controversy in a series of tweets on June 16. He called for respecting people and their differences, writing that, “This is a series, not a documentary. Let us respect people and their differences. Jordan embraces people of all categories, beliefs and lifestyles as long as they are peaceful. Enough is enough. Let’s put an end to this.”

How Should Have Netflix Responded?

Unsurprisingly, Netflix has defended Jinn. The firm put out a media statement that, “Jinn seeks to portray the issues young Arabs face as they come of age, including love, bullying, and more. We understand that some viewers may find it provocative but we believe it will resonate with teens across the Middle East and around the world.”

Netflix also responded to those on social media who were attacking the cast and crew, by saying that it would not tolerate bullying and personal attacks and that it’d continue to provide a safe space for those who love good content.

There’s little that Netflix can do here to assuage the public outrage. It could pull the series, as it did with an episode of Hassan Minhaj’s Patriot Act which criticized Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince last year. However, given the money sunk into Jinn, as well as the precedent this would set (if every broadcaster only aired what the majority of the public approved, television would be a very boring place indeed), this really wasn’t an option.

In this case, I’ll borrow from the medical lexicon and say that prevention is better than cure. if Netflix had better understood local cultural issues, it may have been able to amend the script to avoid any fallout. A first impression matters, and everyone must have been hoping that Jinn would have been both a resounding success, as well as a stepping stone to a local film industry. Given what the response was, from both the public and the government, neither goal has been achieved

Huawei, Boeing and McKinsey – When Internal Cultures Cause Reputational Crises

How much are reputational crises related to internal cultures, and an ability (or inability) to take into account a variety of diverse viewpoints?

I’ve watched over the past couple of weeks as the crisis around the Boeing 737 MAX has grown. Before that, it was Huawei and the suspicion in many Western capitals that the Chinese telecommunications firm was in a position to either spy on or act in favor of the Chinese government through sharing data collected through its network equipment. Before that, there was the McKinsey sagas in South Africa and Saudi Arabia respectively.

As a communications professional, it’s been fascinating (and painful) to watch events unfold. But one thought is stuck in my mind – is there a common thread to all of these events? And is that common thread an internal culture which is neither diverse or inclusive enough to understand and tackle issues before they become crises?

Let’s take Huawei, whose story has been covered in depth by a number of exceptional writers and features (check out Arun Sudhaman’s 4,000 word piece on the Holmes Report website). Huawei is a typical Chinese-headquartered multinational, with senior management being predominantly Chinese nationals. This has proved problematic for Huawei’s understanding of markets such as the US.

“There was always a fundamental lack of trust in non-Chinese. You offer guidance, and are regularly second-guessed,” Huawei’s former US public and government relations department, William Plummer, told the Financial Times. Plummer published a book last September in which he explained how senior local staff in foreign markets were regularly excluded from key decisions whilst Chinese executives second-guessed senior management in local markets out of fear of the company’s founder, throwing into turmoil into the company’s handling of PR and lobbying outside of China.

While McKinsey’s management is more diverse in nature, it could be argued that a an over-aggressive culture and a lack of local understanding resulted in the consultancy giant making one of its biggest ever mistakes. To quote from the New York Times:

McKinsey admits errors in judgment while denying any illegality. Two senior partners, the firm says, bear most of the blame for what went wrong. But an investigation by The New York Times, including interviews with 16 current and former partners, found that the roots of the problem go deeper — to a changing corporate culture that opened the way for an aggressive push into more government consulting, as well as new methods of compensation. While the changes helped McKinsey nearly double in size over the last decade, they introduced more reputational risk.


The firm also missed warning signs about the possible involvement of the Guptas, and only belatedly realized the insufficiency of its risk management for state-owned companies. Supervisors who might have vetoed or modified the contract were not South African and lacked the local knowledge to sense trouble ahead. And having poorly vetted its subcontractor, McKinsey was less than forthcoming when asked to explain its role in the emerging scandal.

McKinsey’s former managing partner told the New York Times that the firm had a “bit of a tin ear” when it came to the initial response. David Lewis, executive director of Corruption Watch, a South African advocacy group, told the NYT that: “For the scale of the fee, they were prepared to throw caution to the wind, and maybe because they thought they couldn’t be touched.” For me, there’s the feeling that the internal culture led McKinsey to make the wrong decision and down a path that would become the biggest crisis in the firm’s history.

Finally, there’s Boeing. The airline manufacturer is struggling with a crisis that has grounded worldwide its latest jet, the 737 MAX, after two crashes which share a number of similarities. The first crash happened in Indonesia last October, with the loss of 189 passengers. Following the second crash, this time in Ethiopia in March, Boeing was asked why more wasn’t done to fix the faults found to be responsible for the first crash?

In crisis communications, the most important action is post-crisis, and communicators are told to work with the organization to ensure that lessons are learned, solutions are found, and trust is re-built. This didn’t happen with Boeing – the software fix for the plane’s flight system has yet to be completed, and relatives of those who died in the first accident have questioned Boeing’s response.

Vini Wulandari, sister of one of the ill-fated Lion Air flight’s co-pilots, said that the Ethiopian crash confirmed the suspicions that she and many of the victims’ relatives had about the MAX 8 being a “defective product”.

“The [Ethiopian] crash shows that 737 MAX 8 is a manufacturing fail from the beginning,” Vini Wulandari, sister of one of the ill-fated Indonesian airline Lion Air flight’s co-pilots, told the South China Morning Post. “When I first heard about [the Ethiopian crash] I was sad because I am familiar with the sadness that the victims’ families must feel and I was also sad because the 737 MAX 8 should have been grounded after the Lion Air crash. Maybe because it was only one accident, so a lot of people thought there was no need for immediate [action].”

Was Boeing’s internal culture to blame, in particular Boeing’s urgent desire to come up with a new airplane that would compete head on with rival Airbus’ new models? It’s hard not to be convinced that Boeing rushed the 737 MAX’s design after reading a bombshell report in the New York Times.

It’s hard not to be swayed by the argument that uncompromising internal cultures are to blame for poor decision-making; too many similar voices, too few diverse views and an inability to listen have been a cause in each of these crises. That’s why proper inclusion matters, at all levels, as well as an ability to seek out differing viewpoints, especially from outside the organization. As communicators, we have to play a role in promoting both in our workplaces.

I’d love to hear your views on these crises. What’s your view? Message me, or leave a comment.