Step up, support the Comms industry. Volunteer for the IABC EMENA Board!

Volunteer

I’ll be the first to admit it. It’s a well-known secret in the communications industry that we’re awful at PRing what we do. The public relations sector doesn’t engage enough with the outside world in terms of what we do and why we’re of real value to any organization.

For me it was exciting to see the turnout at the annual regional Eurocomm event in London recently. The number of professionals who cared enough to travel to London for several days, and engage in learning and debate about the industry, was inspiring. There’s a lot of good will and positive sentiment around the communications sector at the moment, which I hope will long continue.

But, I’m never satisfied. I’d like for us to build on that engagement, and ask you, the communications professionals who I engage with here online, or through social media, to put themselves forward to volunteer to support the industry’s growth and act as leaders and mentors to those who want to learn about and join the sector.

As a not-for-profit organization that aims to promote public relations both globally and throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, IABC works through volunteers. The Europe, Middle East and North Africa board supports activities across the most diverse, and most exciting region for communicators. Under the board, IABC has a host of country chapters that help with everything from organizing our large events (think Eurocomm which was held in London in March), to smaller activities such as media evenings, webinars and training. Volunteers can also help in research work and soliciting ideas and thoughts from our wider family of members.

If you want to give back and help, why don’t you step up and volunteer on the EMENA board? Volunteering is one of the most rewarding activities that I’ve engaged in, and I’m sure you’d enjoy working with a group of people who could not be more passionate about what we do and why we do it.

Please do drop me a line in the comments or send me a message through social media and we can take the conversation from there. You can find more details here on the IABC website. Nominations are open until Wednesday the 17th May.

So, what do you say? Are you up for it?

The Role Communicators Have in Promoting Sustainability

ajman-sustainability-day

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have worked with some amazing brands and organizations. In particular, the most forward-thinking have focused on the issue of sustainability. It’s become a passion for me, as I want my daughter to inherit a world that is better than ours.

I’m often asked to support events on sustainability. One such initiative which I’m very proud of being able to help is that of the UAE’s Ajman Center for Social Responsibility. Launched by the Ajman Chamber this year, the Ajman Center for Social Responsibility aims to promote the concept of sustainability for both the public and private sectors as well as create a resource for sustainability across this emirate. Assisted by the consultancy firm Sustainable Square, the team at the Center have set for themselves a vision of becoming the regional and global reference for social responsibility and sustainability practices. And, judging by the energy they have, I feel they’ll reach this goal.

For many of us communicators in the Middle East region, we’ve taken on the mantle of championing sustainability. Sometimes it’s due to reputational reasons; the need to be seen to be doing good. For others, it’s been about the willingness to tackle an issue that isn’t going away. There’s some confusion around sustainability and the role of communications in the Middle East; I remember well one senior comms professional erroneously commenting  during a public meeting that the function has always been with communications, despite all of the literature from the 1950s and 1960s by Bowen, Freeman and others which argues that organizations have a social obligation to “to pursue those policies, to make those decisions, or to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of the objectives and values of our society.” In short, when it comes to sustainability in the Middle East, we can come across as a confused bunch.

For me, sustainability should be at the heart of any organization – it should be a part of every person’s job function. So, what is the role that communicators should play? We are the change agents, the people whose job it is to tell stories around purpose, and who can best use engagement to win over various stakeholder groups, be they internal (employees, management or shareholders), or external (government, NGOs or the public) as to why there is a need to become more sustainable and how we should get there.

Examples of good sustainability communications work are both global and local in nature. Take for example  the work done by Mars for its M&Ms brand. Mars reached out to the M&Ms consumer base in a smart way, by using the M&Ms characters everyone knows, to talk about initiatives around sustainable cocoa production and other CSR causes by telling the stories through the same M&M characters used to promote the brand.

On a local level, a good communications campaign can be something as simple as promoting safe driving, which environmental and engineering consulting services firm CH2M launched both globally as well as locally.

As communicators, our role is to understand our audience(s), know how to engage with them, and shape messaging that will impact both attitudes and behaviours. It’s never easy to change habits that have been ingrained for years, especially when it comes to sustainability (anyone who has worked on a recycling initiative will know how hard it can be to get people to recycle rather than throw materials into the trash).

However, that’s the beauty of our job as communicators. We’re the front line, the people who take a concept and make it happen with those groups whom we need to come on board. To quote from the United Nations Environmental Program:

Public communication has a key role to play to build on these emerging trends and to make sustainable development approachable and understandable. Informed, motivated and committed people can help us to achieve our sustainability goals. However, communicating effectively about sustainable lifestyles is a challenge. One needs to consider not only what to communicate, but how to communicate it.

Important factors of success include content, messenger, choice of media and tone. Experts are coming to realise that traditional messages from governments and green groups urging the public to adopt the environment into their day-to-day decisions need to be overhauled. Many of these messages are simply too patronising, guilt-laden or disapproving. Instead of turning people on to the environment, they risk switching
them off. The lesson to be learned is that communication styles have to be positive and tailored to different circumstances and cultural contexts.

If you want to know more about communicating sustainable issues, there are people who specialize in this issue. Sustainable Square’s Monaem Ben Lellahom is a great person to approach as he both understands the issue of sustainability as well as how to communicate around it; another person who focuses on sustainability is Stephen King, who focuses on the sustainable development goals. I’d urge you to reach out to either or myself to ask questions about how we can communicate sustainability better in this region.

 

Twitter and the need to tackle automated, political hate in the Middle East

Twitter has been a huge hit in the Middle East; it has become the one place where everyone can share their views (image source: http://www.sustg.com)

I’ll admit it, Twitter is my favorite social media channel. I love that little blue bird and how it captures the moment. However, we live in a harsh environment in the region and Twitter isn’t without its issues.

I had the privilege to sit down with and talk to Twitter’s local management team recently. Two topics of concern came up: the first was pornography, which is illegal in the Gulf and which Twitter wants to keep off its network in the region; the second was religious extremism and terror-related content, affiliated to the likes of Islamic State, AlQaeda and others.

While I did in part acknowledge that both were issues to tackle, I didn’t fully agree that they were the most pressing problems for the social network. Pornography is much easier to find online, through the use of a VPN, than it is on any social media channel. With religious extremism, much of the conversation has moved onto dark social which cannot be monitored by governments.

Instead, I threw out a different idea. For me, Twitter is the place to come to for discussion and debate, a platform for use by all. However, recent cases have shown that some are automating conversations to dominate discussion.

An example was uncovered by Marc Owen Jones on his research into Bahrain following recent events there. His blog post, which is well worth your time, highlights a key issue facing Twitter when it comes to automated bots hijacking conversations.

While the notion of bot accounts is probably not news to anyone, the evidence here hopefully highlights that much online sectarian discourse is perhaps inflated by those groups or individuals with specific ideological agendas, and the means to do so. Of course we know PR and reputation management companies offer such services, yet their work is often done secretively and behind close doors. Would be interesting to find out who is behind this. It would also suggest that Twitter needs to better regulate spam.

While this isn’t the first time that social media channels have been used unethically in this region (during 2011 bloggers in certain countries were singled out and targeted for retribution through social media), the danger is that automated bots will become more common, taking over conversations and driving real users off Twitter. 

While Twitter has taken action following the work done by Marc Owen Jones, suspending up to 1800 accounts according to his blog post, the team need to be as proactive as possible to take these bots down to ensure that the platform is still a place that welcomes differing points of view. 

More than ever, we in the region need a place for discussion that is independent and welcomes genuine debate. It’d be a shame to see such actions driving people off Twitter and onto closed apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram. 

Twitter can be a force to engage and promote debate in the region, and I hope that it remains so without such bots hijacking conversations for whatever political, sectarian purpose(s).

What does Instagram’s UAE communications remit say about how outsiders understand the region?

Instagram has been a huge hit in Saudi, especially among the Kingdom's youth. How will Instagram's comms team reach out to these groups? (image source: http://sustg.com/)

Instagram has been a huge hit in Saudi, especially among the Kingdom’s youth. How will Instagram’s comms team reach out to these groups? (image source: http://sustg.com/)

Client wins can often make interesting reading, especially when the brand is a household name. Last week was no exception, with the Dubai-based House of Comms winning a brief to represent Instagram in the UAE.

The news caught my attention for a couple of reasons. Firstly, House of Comms is enjoying remarkable success; the agency which was founded in 2012 has expanded rapidly, picked up a host of big name clients and won numerous awards for its work. The agency’s growth reminds me of the rapid rise enjoyed by Dabo & Co (which was eventually bought by Edelman). House of Comms does have an affiliate network across the region, including in the Gulf.

What struck me was Instagram’s choice of market to enter into. While the UAE is the regional public relations hub of the wider Middle East region, I would have thought that the company would have taken a more regional approach to public outreach (Editor’s Note: the agreement with House of Comms is for the UAE, but also includes advisory work for other markets). For instance, the first market to embrace paid influencer marketing, particularly on Instagram, was Kuwait. In terms of numbers on the platform, Saudi is the largest country in the region by far, with a greater number of users than the UAE. Egypt is another key market for the picture and video service. If you’re looking for details on Instagram usage, have a look at the stats below from the second quarter of 2015 from an earlier blog.

In terms of the Gulf, it’s no surprise that Saudi leads the way – there are 10.7 million monthly active users in the Kingdom (just over a third of the population). The UAE follows with 2.2 million monthly users. And, to the West, Egypt has 3.2 million monthly active users. What’s even more impressive is daily active users – a whopping 6.1 million for Saudi, 1.2 million for the UAE, and 1.1 million for Egypt.

In addition, there’s the parent brand to think of. Instagram is owned by Facebook, which has its own PR agency in the region (which is regional). Up until recently, that agency was supporting Instagram. So, why the change? Would having two agencies for the two brands help or hinder media outreach, especially when Instagram is known as a Facebook product?

While the agreement is only for the UAE, I hope that Instagram, one of the most popular social platforms in the Middle East, expands its regional approach to engagement. The Instagram team should have oodles of data to look at when it comes to usage in each and every different country, and they’d be smart to look at Twitter’s model of engaging with influencers to get them onto the platform. Let’s hope that as a digital business, Instagram takes a data-based approach to engagement in an emerging market and work in key markets, rather than follow the much traveled path of using a hub to work remotely instead of actually doing the hard work and going in-country.

A glimpse into Social Media in today’s Gulf

It’s not often I can say that Monday is my favourite day of the week (as Bob Geldof says, I don’t like Mondays) but this week was an exception thanks to the inaugural Social Media Forum. Arranged by the Middle East Public Relations Association, the event brought together some of the world’s largest social media names present in the Gulf including Facebook and Twitter’s local agency Connect Ads to talk shop about what’s happening in the social media world. And by the looks of it we’re addicted to social media.

The latest stats from Twitter are stunning; there’s now six and a half million active users of the social media channel in Saudi Arabia (active users are those who use their account on a daily basis), which represents a growth of 500 percent over last year’s numbers. In the UAE there’s 1.5 million users. But the highest percentage of Twitter users to a population is in Kuwait, where one in three people – one in three million – use the service on a daily basis.

While Facebook’s spokesperson didn’t reveal updated numbers about users in the Gulf region usage trends have changed thanks in part to widespread adoption of smartphones and broadband wireless networks such as 3G and 4G. The average user will check Facebook 11 times a day, up from 3 or 4 times, partly thanks to Facebook’s latest mobile applications. Sixty percent of Twitter users in the Middle East and North Africa are now using the service while watching television (the logical question would be, where are you advertisers and why are you not taking advantage of this?).

The good news would seem to be that (some) clients are now understanding social media is more than just followers, likes and retweets according to the head of analysis agency Social Eyez. One speaker at the event, the corporate communications manager for the Qatar Foundation, told the audience that a sixty hour social media activation with FC Barcelona using Twitter drove global brand awareness by upwards of 20 percent. This goal would have been unachievable with conventional media without an eight figure marketing budget. Social media has changed both marketing and communications completely, and long may our love of tweeting and posting continue in the Gulf.

If you’re interesting in seeing the best practice presentations from the event you can download the Facebook Middle East Public Relations Association Presentation here and the Twitter Social Media Forum Presentation here. MEPRA will be holding more events on social media soon, including with the Social Media Club in Bahrain and other areas of the region. For a glimpse of the event have a peek at some of the pictures below.