Who delivers the message is just as important as the message itself – a lesson from Abu Dhabi

Now, if you were to present to these people what would you think of wearing? (image source: The New York Times)

Many of us in the communications industry spend so long on developing the message itself that we often forget about the impact of who is going to deliver the message. A striking example of this and one of the most striking examples of mismatching the what with the who dates back to 2006, when Dubai’s DP World lost control of six ports in the US in part due to a lack of understanding how to present to a specific audience. For those who remember the episode the highlight was UAE nationals dressed in kandouras presenting to US officials, which didn’t help to assuage American lawmakers that the ports would not be a security threat in the hands of an Arab-owned company.

A news item this week caught my eye. It was an interesting article about a subject that needs more airtime, that of energy conservation and electricity subsidies. I’m going to quote from the article, which was published in the English-daily Gulf News, below.

When you switch off a lamp or an electric gadget when not needed, it is not merely minimising your own expense, but helps the nation implement more welfare measures for its people, including building more schools and hospitals.

Abu Dhabi Government spent Dh4 billion on subsidies on oil that used for energy generation last year, a senior official said here yesterday.

If energy consumption is minimised, the oil used for power generation can be exported and its revenue can be used for constructing schools etc, said Robert Bradley, Senior Policy Advisor — Climate Change, Directorate of Energy and Climate Change at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He was speaking at a discussion meeting in the capital… It was Abu Dhabi Sustainability Group’s sixth Hiwar Session (the Arabic word for dialogue), a public event, which aimed to shed light on current economic, social and environmental issues and its implications for sustainability in Abu Dhabi.

Let’s have a look at the message, which in itself is fascinating. Abu Dhabi is spending unnecessary money on power generation, money that could be spent on infrastructure, on public services, education or healthcare. All good so far. However, who is speaking and to which audience?

We have a Westerner, an expat talking about nation-building. Okay, but which group(s) would have have the most interest in looking long term? Who uses public services such as national schools and hospitals? It’d be a safe assumption to say UAE nationals. And which consumer demographic uses the most electricity per head (take a guess… yes, it’s locals).

The question would be, why isn’t a UAE national delivering the message, in Arabic? And why is an English-language paper reporting on this rather than the Arabic press? Surely a UAE national would have more gravitas and clout in spreading this message to his or her fellow citizens, in a language and dialect that they understand. There’d be less opportunity for misunderstandings and misgivings.

We’ve often got to think beyond the message to the messenger him or herself. If we don’t then we’re going to miss the chance to make the impact that we’re hoping for. And trust me, we’re not going to be able to rely on oil and gas in this part of the world forever.

Seizing the moment – the GCC’s energy subsidies and communicating a solution

Is energy a problem for the Gulf? At first thought one wouldn’t think so. However, the Gulf region is facing a ticking bomb. To put it as simply as possible, the cost of producing electricity is becoming unsustainable. Demand for electricity has reached a point where countries are burning up to a fifth of their daily oil production. Unfortunately electricity prices have barely risen over the past couple of decades.

I didn’t realize the scale of the problem of electricity subsidies and the growing demand for electricity in the Gulf region until I worked in the energy sector. The issue is slowly gaining the attention that it deserves. One of the most impressive public sector leaders I know, Dr Saleh Al Awaji, has been constantly working to highlight ways to reduce energy consumption in Saudi Arabia. Only last week the BBC’s Middle East analyst Bill Law wrote a compelling article on the subject, which should be read by everyone who is concerned about energy consumption in the Gulf.

Bill Law's article on electricity subsidies makes for a a compelling read.

Bill Law’s article on electricity subsidies makes for a a compelling read.

And this brings me to my argument. In marketing and communications we all hope to plan and work to a long-term plan. For me, what distinguishes the good from the great are those professionals who know when and how to seize the moment, take the initiative and weave these waves of interest in related subjects into the communications plan.

So, what would make sense within the context of the above issue of energy subsidies? Possibly a company’s vision and thoughts on how its technology can reduce residential energy consumption, or improve the efficiency of electricity distribution, or ways in which alternative energy can complement traditional fossil fuel energy production.

The idea is simple. But it’s all about timing and approach in order to gain the maximum coverage for a company and its thought leadership. I’d love to see how energy leaders such as GE and Siemens are aiming to help the Gulf’s utilities and governments in averting the electricity subsidy cliff.

Of course there are times when it may appear in bad taste to seize the moment and partake in tactical, opportunistic communications activities. For example, promoting armored backpacks days after the devastating school shooting in Newtown.

If you were a company producing armored backpacks for school children would you promote your product after a deadly shooting?

If you were a company producing armored backpacks for school children would you promote your product after a deadly shooting?