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.


What does Authenticity mean in the Gulf?

Are you being authentic? And what does authenticity mean to us in the Gulf?

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.

A hijab, bacon and McDonalds’ breakfasts – the wonderful world of Ramadan advertising

Ramadan is a wonderful month, a time of spirituality for the world’s Muslims. It’s also the time of year when the advertising rules change as Muslims fast during the daylight hours and look to spend their nights either with family or in prayer.

In keeping with reaching out to Muslims, advertisers need to be ever-aware of religious sensitivities. Brands often feel the need to make a change to their ads. One such change, which was spotted by Dubai-based communications professional Mohammed Kharroubi (Twitter handle @mkdubai), involved the retailer Carrefour. Spot the change below.

Brands sometimes get things horrendously wrong. Another retailer, the UK retailer Tesco, made a huge faux-pas, when they promoted smokey bacon-flavor Pringles as part of a Ramadan promotion. For those who don’t know, any pork-related products are considered haraam in Islam and are not consumed by Muslims. The below image went viral and has resulted in masses of media coverage in the UK.

Tesco has been pilloried on social media for selling smokey bacon-flavoured Pringles as part of a Ramadan promotion

Tesco has been pilloried on social media for selling smokey bacon-flavoured Pringles as part of a Ramadan promotion

And then, there’s the bizarre. According to Dubai-based marketing consultant Hussein Dajani, McDonalds has been running advertising for its breakfasts this month on the radio on Dubai. Unfortunately, Muslims fast during the day, and most of the McDonalds restaurants serving breakfast will be closed.

With Ramadan, it really does seem that while some brands are able to adapt and thrive, others need to do their homework. What are your thoughts? And do you have your own examples of successful and unsuccessful Ramadan advertising?

Learning about a local community – Humans of Bahrain

We’re bombarded by adverts on a daily basis, and unfortunately it seems that social media may be going the same way. What with all of the selfies, the food pictures and the holiday snaps it could be argued that there’s little in the way of meaningful insights into wider social communities. However, every now and then you come across a gem that’s worth shouting about.

My wife was the person who first told me about this one Instagram account. Humans of Bahrain aims to tell the story of people living in Bahrain, both local and expatriate. It’s an account that is frank and candid, and shares a personal view of each and every one of the people being profiled by the account (it’s similar to sites found in the US and Asia which profile local communities).

Each picture on the account includes a story told in text below the image, both in English and Arabic. Subjects covered include education, marriage, careers and employment, and good old-fashioned feelings and emotions.

So far, the account has posted 169 images and it has just over three and a half thousand followers. If you’re looking to learn more about culture and the people that make up Bahrain, this is an amazing site to follow. I wish more people would focus on what is around them to tell the story of their community and their home rather than simply themselves.

View this post on Instagram

"مضحك لما يدش عندي زبون فيلقاني قاعد ويقول لي 'بيّا چم ذي؟' ولما أرد عليه بنعم يا إن يضحك ويتبلعم أو يستحي ويشرد، وأنا أضحك معاهم، بالعكس ماشوف فيها شي.. كلها كلمة بلغة ناس ثانية حالهم حالي أنا ماني أحسن منهم في شي. ليش مو كلنا مثل بعض؟" – "Funny how when a customer approaches me and asks me 'Bhaiyya, how much is this?' and when they hear me talk they either laugh, stop talking, or turn red and storm out, and I only laugh in return because I honestly see nothing wrong with it.. A word from another language, I am better than the people who speak it in nothing and in no way. Aren't we all the same?"

A post shared by Humans of Bahrain (@humansofbhr) on

View this post on Instagram

"Can you tell us about a culture shock you got here in Bahrain?" . "A culture shock in Bahrain? Well, I've been here for twenty two years so the first thing that happened when I got out of the airport was that I fainted. I was only thirteen at the time so that was the heat shock. But the cultural aspect was primarily the difference in the sense that there were mosques, singing prayers and people wearing the traditional dress. I grew up here so this is home for me. Nothing really shocking. I love Bahrain." – "هل تستطيع إخبارنا عن صدمة ثقافية أصابتك في البحرين؟" . "صدمة ثقافية في البحرين؟ أنا هنا منذ اثنتين وعشرين سنة. سقطت مغشياً عليّ فور خروجي من المطار عندما وصلت البحرين بسبب حرارة الجو. كنت حينها في سن الثالثة عشر. رؤية المساجد واللباس التقليدي شكلت الاختلاف من الناحية الثقافية، لكنّي كبرت هنا فالبحرين هي وطني، لا شيء يصدمني حقاً فأنا أحب البحرين."

A post shared by Humans of Bahrain (@humansofbhr) on

View this post on Instagram

"صار لي ثنين وثلاثين سنة في شقة ومقدمة على بيت، مطلقة، عاطلة عن العمل وعندي ولد معاق. راحة المواطن والعيشة الكريمة الي نسمع عنها مب محصلتها.. مثل الياهل يقولون لچ بنعطيچ حلاوة.. عقب يقصون عليچ. ونصيحة للبنات، تحملوا تتزوجون من أهلكم، روح بعيد وتعال سالم .. كتبي تحت بعد مطلوب زوج حقي." . "أكتب مطلوب زوج؟ عادي؟" . "إييي عادي من الي بيي عاد.. كتبي بعد أبي عمره خمسة وعشرين سنة." *تغمز* – "I am divorced and unemployed with a disabled son. I have been living in an apartment for thirty two years, and I applied for a house but I have never experienced the decent and comfortable life we often hear about on the news. It's like you're a child, they promise to give you candy but you get nothing. Oh, and some advice for young women, don't marry a relative, like they say: go far and return safely. Also, write down: Wanted: a husband for me." . "Can I really write that?" . "Oh yes! It's not like anyone's going to actually propose.. also add that it's better if he's twenty five years old." *winks*

A post shared by Humans of Bahrain (@humansofbhr) on

Educating the Gulf on our humanity through social video – examples from Bahrain, Saudi and the UAE

Here in the Gulf region we’re increasingly seeing the use of online video content, particularly to tackle issues that are both social and controversial. This week there have been media stories on three examples from three different countries.

The first video has been produced by the Saudi Human Rights Commission to Saudi nationals to be kinder to their domestic workers, most of whom have to leave behind a family of their own to earn a living and support them. The video is well shot, and aims to give humanity back to domestic workers, especially those from South East Asia, through concepts such as motherhood.

The second is from Bahrain, but shot by one social media influencer called Yousef Al Madani. The clip focuses on the treatment of white-collar workers in Bahrain, most of whom come from the Asian subcontinent. Yousef looks to take the place of one of these workers at a local grocery store, where they often have to rush out to take orders from customers who sit in their cars and wait for the items to be brought to them. The clip, which has been talked about in the media, has been viewed over half a million times. This video is dubbed into English as well.

The third and final clip is from a corporate, Cola Cola to be exact. To quote the National:

An online advertising campaign by Coca-Cola showing the company handing out excess baggage tags at the airport to travellers has been viewed almost one million times on YouTube.

The clip “Coca-Cola –Taking Home Happiness” begins by showing passengers checking in at Dubai International Airport to head off to various destinations to see family. By Thursday, the video had generated more than 987,000 hits since it was uploaded a month ago. According to the website for Campaign Middle East magazine, Coco-Cola shot the video on December 22 with the cooperation of the airport.

The campaign – which is available only in the UAE and Oman – is expected to expand with additional prizes like flight vouchers, TVs and mobile phones, the company said. The video follows a similar online campaign last year which showed labour camps with Coca-Cola phone booths, into which bottle tops rather than coins could be fed to pay for international calls.

The video, which is probably the best shot out of the three (this is Coca Cola after all), is also dubbed.

What are your thoughts on the above? Are these videos effective? Would they have been more effective on television as well, or less effective? And is one more effective than the other, possibly due to its topic, its producer, its intent as well as its authenticity? Do let me know your thoughts.

Lessons in cultural misunderstandings from the Gulf

Are we more a melting pot or a basket-case of cultural groups? (picture source: http://kidspartyheaven.wordpress.com)


The Arabian Gulf is often called a melting pot of cultures, where diverse groups and nationalities meet, work and live together and understand one another. Every now and then, there are moments when a different reality comes to light, when it’s blindingly obvious that we still have a long way to go.

I had the pleasure of having two of those ‘cultural moments’ last Wednesday. The first was with Emirates, the national airline of Dubai. Emirates is an interesting organization, in that it’s one of the most profitable airlines in the world, is owned by the Government of Dubai, and yet most of its senior management is not from the Gulf region.

I enjoy flying Emirates, and I often receive a great service from the airline. I had to rebook both my and my wife’s ticket and pay for the difference over the phone. All went smoothly, until it came to the issue of payment. You see, the habit in the most of the Arab world, and particularly in the Gulf, is for the wife not to take her husband’s name for religious reasons. And yet, I couldn’t pay for her ticket over the phone because my surname obviously is different. The lady on the other end of the phone wasn’t an Arab, but she wasn’t the person who drew up the rules at an airline owned by an Arab government.

Cultural misunderstanding one was resolved not through explaining why my and my wife’s names were different – I did try my best – but for other reasons (I’m a Skywards airline rewards member, which solves everything over the phone). The second cultural crossed-wires was much more fun and less painful but just as much an eye-opener.

I received a message from a friend asking for information about a company I know. Here I was naively thinking he was looking for a job. Instead, he’d been asked by a parent to check up on a person at the company whom a family member had received a proposal of marriage from.

While I’m never averse to providing a job reference or to help someone in their search for the right role, I explained that I may have to draw the line on background checking someone I didn’t know to help facilitate (or not) a marriage request.

We often talk about melting pots, about coming together and living alongside others in harmony et cetera. But how much do we really know about the other? And how often does our lack of cultural awareness catch us out? With Ramadan only a few days away maybe it’s time we did more to understand each other and our diverse backgrounds?

How much variety and discrimination is there in the Gulf?

The GCC is as diverse and complicated as any other part of the globe (credit: rasheedsworld.com)


Looking on in from the outside, most expatriates see the Arabian Peninsula as one monotonous geography. The women wear black (unless they’re Kuwaiti) and the mean wear white. The language is the same, and everyone is a Muslim. And that’s the Gulf.

Well, hardly. Each country is unique, and offers a wealth of diversity in terms of culture, history and opinions. The range of accents in Bahrain is so prominent that a local will be able to tell where a compatriot may be from how the greeting alone.

Saudi is the most diverse country in the region. Its twenty million nationals come from all four corners of the world, and don’t be surprised to meet a Saudi whose roots trace back to Indonesia, China, or Western Africa. The Kingdom’s Western Region is the richest melting pot you’ll come across, thanks to hundreds of years of pilgrimage to the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Often foreigners think that Dubai or Doha are the two cities that offer the greatest contrast of cultures and groups, but they don’t come close to what Jeddah has to offer.

And Christians in Kuwait and Bahrain? And a Jewish community in Manama? Yes, they’re locals (but there’s not many of them).

And of course, with variety comes discrimination. There’s a good deal of nepotism across the Gulf mainly due to the tribal, bedouin nature. It’s not uncommon to find a certain group dominating in one company – it’s not so much where a person is from as often as what their tribal name is. Many Saudis don’t use their tribal names any more. And there’s also discrimination based on region (Jeddah versus Riyadh, Dubai versus Abu Dhabi etc), on the history behind the family name (in other words how far back can the family’s genealogy be traced), and on religion (which mathab or religious affiliation a person adheres to).

While this isn’t unique to the Gulf (tell me a place where there isn’t any discrimination) what I do find interesting is the institutionalized discrimination in certain parts of the GCC. Some states, most notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman count GCC nationals as locals when it comes to hiring and nationalization quotas. The UAE and Qatar do not – when they say local they mean local. For a European the difference in policy between the two groups is hard to fathom (especially when considering the relatively small populations of both Qatar and the UAE when compared to Saudi Arabia).

So, the next time you’re sitting in the coffee ship and sipping on your coffee do remember to ask yourself where the gentleman in white is from. You may be surprised at how much you can learn about a region that is full of culture and contrast.