I feel like I’m writing something Kafka-esque. In in the Middle East, a geography of 200 million souls who read and write essentially the same language (I’m going to side-step the awkward question of how Arabic is spoken), and I’m working in communications. And yet, the industry is dominated by non-Arabic language speakers, at least in cities such as Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai.
This isn’t just anecdotal. Overall, just 32% of respondents to PRCA MENA’s inaugural Middle East PR and Communications Census 2019 were nationals of countries in the region. Overall, a fifth of the region’s PR professionals are British, 18% come from India, and the range of other nationalities represented are indicative of the Middle East PR corps having a richly-varied culture mix.
Diversity matters, of course. But I don’t think we even have that when it comes to engagement, given that so much of the content being produced is in English (the most widely spoken language in the UAE isn’t even English, it’s Hindi).
The communications industry has to play its part too. There’s obvious benefits to improving our ability to communicate in and create Arabic language content. We’ll be reaching a much wider audience in their language. In addition, understanding a language is one step to understanding a culture and its traditions. And by strengthening our Arabic language capabilities, we’ll be able to put Arabic first and create content that’s not translated (any Arabic language native speaker can spot translated content a mile off).
This isn’t going to be a short-term fix. Many of the Arabic-language experts working on the agency side are from countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Given politics in their own countries, it’s much harder to come across visas for them. We’ve got to do more with the Arab nationals who are already in the Gulf region.
So, what role can we play to change?
Develop Arabic Talent
First of all, we’ve got to foster stronger connections with universities across the region, and better educate Arab youth on the opportunities that a career in public relations and communications will provide. And we have to do this as an industry. It’s something I hope that the PRCA will continue to work on.
Support Arabic Leadership
Part of the lack of appreciation for the Arabic language is that there aren’t enough Arab nationals in leadership roles, both on the agency side and with clients. Global agencies especially must prioritize fast-tracking Arab talent into leadership roles.
Most of the Arabic content put out by communicators is actually translated from English. We’ve got to turn this around, and start prioritizing Arabic content production, both in the written word, with audio and video. Arabic is such a rich, descriptive language, and so much is lost when content is merely translated.
There’s no better place to start than with myself, and I’m going to commit to writing more myself in Arabic. If you have any suggestions on this subject, please do share them.
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
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”.
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.
Are you being authentic? And what does authenticity mean to us in the Gulf?
The notion of authenticity, that feeling of genuineness, has long been an issue to us communicators. The theory goes that the more authentic we (or our clients) are, the more people will believe us and like us. Even the use of the word authentic has grown; in the US, the word’s use has grown 74.5% since 2012 according to the Holmes Report, to 8,069 press releases and 20,471 media stories.
Well, you’d think that being in a world where everything is online it’d be harder than ever to fake it. Well, an Australian teen with over half a million followers on Instagram has put the sword to that theory. Here’s an excerpt from The Guardian on Essena O’Neill and how she strived to be perfect online:
An Australian teenager with more than half a million followers on Instagram has quit the platform, describing it as “contrived perfection made to get attention”, and called for others to quit social media – perhaps with help from her new website.
Essena O’Neill, 18, said she was able to make an income from marketing products to her 612,000 followers on Instagram – “$2000AUD a post EASY”. But her dramatic rejection of social media celebrity has won her praise.
On 27 October she deleted more than 2,000 pictures “that served no real purpose other than self-promotion”, and dramatically edited the captions to the remaining 96 posts in a bid to to reveal the manipulation, mundanity, and even insecurity behind them.
At a recent event I was chairing, one of the speakers told an anecdote about a Saudi youngster who claimed to be an entrepreneur, partly because it is the popular thing to do and also because he was unemployed. The experience also reminded me of comments left on a popular website about two local entrepreneurs who have set up their own business. Three of the comments were negative, and called into question the ‘authenticity’ of the two young gentlemen. One person wrote, “I have also noticed many so called ‘Entrepreneurs’ are only ‘Instagram-perneurs'”.
The question then comes to mind – who is being genuine and how can we tell if they’re genuine? Will the media challenge people on their achievements? Will the public call out these people? We live in a region where social media is all pervasive and yet, due to various barriers such as culture, language and traditions, it can be truly difficult to know if someone is being genuine or not. For me, the best way to understand the true meaning of authenticity is to grasp its meaning – one who does things himself/herself.
What are your thoughts on authenticity and the Gulf? Do people live to a certain image, or are they true to themselves? And what does this mean for how we communicate? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue.
By its very nature, a taboo can be difficult to talk about. Breaking a taboo is traditionally objected to by elements of a society. What we’re seeing in Saudi is an effort to tackle taboos through social media. One of the leading digital and social media agencies is Jeddah-based UTURN, and its founders and presenter Omar Hussein have taken it on themselves to tackle sensitive subjects. Their idea is simple – create scenarios whereby they provoke Saudis to respond to the situation through actors and staged behaviours, record their reactions, and package this for distribution over the internet.
Named #truthbetold or #الحق_ينقال in Arabic, Omar Hussein and UTURN have tackled several issues to date since they began their series at the end of November. The first, in partnership with Ikea Saudi Arabia, was the issue of Saudi women working as cashiers. An actor in the queue would begin cursing the female cashier to prompt a reaction from the audience around him. The video is below and is only in Arabic. However, it is worth watching just to understand the issue and the responses of those featured.
The second, launched a month after at the end of December, is on the issue of alleged racism towards foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, and was staged in the roast chicken chain Tazaj. Again, the video is in Arabic but the body language of those in the set and who are not aware of acting can be read by any person watching.
Released at the end of January, the third episode tackles the issue of child workers in Jeddah. Done in partnership with the Fatoor Faris restaurant, people are seen responding to a Saudi actor abusing a child actor who is pretending to sell him gum.
Each video has been watched over half a million times, and, even more importantly, UTURN is using Facebook as a means for Saudis to discuss these issues. The idea is so simple and yet so powerful. Thank you UTURN and Omar Hussein for doing this. I wish others were as creative and as brave as you.
And I wish that communicators would look at Saudi, a country which is viewed as the most traditional and conservative in the region, to understand how we can better use social media to change perceptions, attitudes and behaviours. You and others in the Kingdom are leading the rest of the Gulf in terms of how we use social media for change.