Why Communicators must stop Virtue Signalling

We’ve got to be honest about the challenges we face and how we deal with them

I just love conferences, especially about communications. There’s always the chance there’ll be a fascinating panel with a group of communicators who share their experiences and insights. I enjoy listening to professionals who tell it like it is, with no embellishments. However, when working in the communications function there’s always a danger that we stick to the narrative and come out with viewpoints that sound wonderful, but which are the opposite of reality.

Last week was one of those occasions. The excellent team at the Holmes Report were in Dubai for their second IN2Summit MENA. The opening, headline session asked if CEOs in the Middle East should take a stand on public debates and policy-making.

Given everything that’s happening, from the introduction of taxation to regional politics, you’d think that CEO activism would be at an all-time high. However, it’s hard for me to remember the last time a CEO in the Gulf spoke up on a hot topic (there are exceptions, and interestingly enough, the CEOs who do speak out often tend to be nationals who are close to government leaders).

I hoped I’d be wrong, and kept any questions to myself. However, when following the debate online, there seemed to be little alignment between what the panelists were saying and what’s actually happening on CEO engagement in the Middle East region. The moderator referenced Nike and Unilever, both great examples from regions where there’s significantly more freedom to engage in political debate.

One speaker commented that: “I believe CEOs should be involved. They should preserve the interests of the country as well as holding core values that are aligned with the government. Change doesn’t always come easy but it’s always necessary.”

Part of our roles as communicators is to agitate for change that will benefit our stakeholders. However, we are being disingenuous by sharing insights that are contrary to what is happening? Do we have activist CEOs who can openly engage on public issues in MENA? If there are more than ten, then please do share their names. I can come up with similar examples – one from two years back focused on whether we are speaking truth to power, which is a rarity in our region.

We need to ask these questions of ourselves, but we also need to be honest with our answers. Virtue signalling doesn’t do us, or those we work with, any good, especially when we need to work to change not just our roles but our environments as well. We must have the courage to speak up honestly, and point out when there are contradictions in what we want to do and what we actually do. This will not only benefit current practitioners, but also future generations (at the event there were several dozen students in attendance).That’s how reputations are built, on aligning our words with our actions.

Jamal’s Legacy – What PR Must Learn & Do Differently

Jamal was not only a remarkable journalist, but he was a wonderful person. I miss him.

It’s been over a month and I’m still in shock at what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who died last month while at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

I knew Jamal. I first met him four years back at a SAGIA event in Riyadh. He was working with HRH Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal at the time, as a media adviser and the head of the soon-to-launch Al-Arab television channel.I knew of Jamal; he was the Arab World’s best-known journalist. Jamal was known for his bravery in tackling taboo subjects, and for being able to read the public mood better than anyone else. Jamal wrote for his readers, not his bosses. He’d twice been fired as editor-in-chief of Saudi’s Al-Watan newspaper. He was a journalist that I admired, both for his courage and also for his character (I’ve never met any editor-in-chief in the Arab world who was more open, more accessible and happier to talk than him – Jamal didn’t have an ego, but rather an appetite for debate and good conversation).

The coverage of what happened to Jamal has been extraordinary. One of the outcomes has been the beginning of a debate about the issue of freedom of speech, with one particularly brave piece by Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg in Arab News (please do read the piece).

I want to focus this blog post instead on the role and responsibility of the PR industry, given the increasing amount of work done by agencies with governments around the world.

The “Everyone Should be Represented” Argument

There’s an argument that is often shared in the PR industry that everyone deserves reputation. This is the line used by individuals such as Lord Tim Bell. This defense, which is akin to the legal requirement for everyone to be offered legal counsel, misses two vital points. The first is the need for equal standards to be applied to all. To quote the previous Chair and Chief Executive of the Public Relations Society of America, Rosanna M. Fiske, who wrote in the Financial Times in 2012:

“We believe every person or organisation has the right to have its voice heard in the global marketplace of ideas. But for PR firms to represent dictatorships that do not afford that same freedom to their own people is disingenuous towards the liberties of a democracy and to democratic societies’ reputations as marketplaces for dissenting ideas.”

Even if we accept this argument, what do we do for those with no money? This is why the legal analogy is false. A lawyer will always be appointed to a defendant, no matter his or her financial status. This is not true in the PR industry. Many agencies do pro-bono work, but I doubt few are representing vulnerable groups in war zones. And that means by default that these people are voiceless. No one knows their stories.

What We Say Isn’t What We Do

What I’m often struck by is the dissonance between people’s views and their actions, especially in developing markets. I’ve seen time and time again senior practitioners tweet a piece of news about democracy in their own country, and yet they’ll be working for an organization that is being criticized by NGOs or single-issue groups. Are they aware of how they look? We live in a digital world, where people try to cultivate a different online persona. And many in the communications industry should know better when it comes to the difference between our online views, which are shared publicly, and our actions.

We also have a bigger issue to face, which is that of denial. When asked about a controversial client action, the most common response from a PR agency was, “we didn’t know.” We’re supposed to be consultants and analysts, the people who know what’s happening both externally and internally. This argument doesn’t wash with me. And it erodes the credibility in our own competency.

When we engage with anything that whiffs of controversy, we should be aware of what we’re getting ourselves into, and we should also be clear with clients as to our red lines. Once those red lines are crossed, we should walk away.

What has happened to Jamal is a tragedy. In the light of his death, I hope that we can all learn to become a more responsible industry. That’s the legacy we owe to him.

When Alex Met Arun: Thoughts on the future of the industry, good corporate governance and values-based engagement

I had the pleasure of speaking with the Holmes Report’s Arun recently, on a host of topics. I interviewed him for a podcast, looking at the future of the communications industry. He asked me about recent corporate governance issues in the Middle East. We also spoke about the rise of values-based communications. Have a listen and enjoy. And get involved by sharing your opinion.

Corporate governance should matter to all of us when it comes to reputation building

I’m sharing this article, which first ran in Communicate Middle East a couple of days back. I care deeply about the industry and about MEPRA, to which I gave five years of board service. My message is simple – we can and must do better when it comes to corporate governance. And MEPRA must lead by example.

“It’s no secret that I care about the communications industry in the region. I’ve done more than my fair share when it comes to supporting people and organizations in becoming more aware of what good communications is all about, and why it’s central to building strong reputations. I’ve also spent years advocating for the adoption of best practices, including good corporate governance, through both my day job and my board positions for several communications associations including the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA), Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and Advertisers Business Group (ABG).

Good corporate governance builds reputation; weak corporate governance undermines trust. I’m not simply talking about following regulations and laws, but also the need to be transparent as well as feel that an organization’s leadership is doing the right thing, listening to concerns and acting with integrity. As a member of the communications industry who is interested in how my profession is perceived, I care about reputations and the need to do the right thing.

One of the organizations I’ve supported, both as a member and through a board position, is the MEPRA. As a member, I’ve always maintained that we must adhere to the strongest standards of corporate governance. It’s integral to our mission of empowering communicators in becoming strategic advisors, particularly to organizational leadership.

Given that, I’m confused as to how at least three members have been added to the organization’s Strategy Board in the months following the Annual General Meeting on February 5. There was no member’s vote on their nomination and no communication sent to members besides the update on the website. And I’m struggling to reconcile this with what’s stated in the MEPRA Charter. I’ll quote from the Charter:

  • The Boards shall be elected from MEPRA’s members.
  • The election will take place at the Annual General Meeting to be held each year or at an Extraordinary General Meeting if required and agreed by a majority of the Executive Board.
  • The Executive Board shall be responsible for establishing the nomination and election process each year, provided always that: nominations for each office of the Boards will be invited from the members of the association when giving notice of the Annual General Meeting. The Executive Board must receive all nominations in writing in reasonable time before the date of the Annual General Meeting. Every nomination shall be supported by at least two voting members of the Association. The Executive Board will circulate the list of nominations to members not less than two weeks prior to the Annual General Meeting.
  • Election will be by a simple majority of the members eligible to vote.
  • Voting will be by secret ballot.
  • All MEPRA members are eligible to vote in the election of the Strategy Board. Only members of the Strategy Board are eligible to vote in the election of the Executive Board. Only members of the Executive Board are eligible to vote in the election of Chair and Vice Chair. No member may vote for him or herself.
  • If for any reason a member of the Boards is unable to serve for a full two years the vacancy will be advised to the members and the Executive Board may fill the vacancy from any candidates that express an interest in filling the vacancy and which have the competencies required in order to fill the relevant role. The decision of the Executive Board in relation to filling vacancies shall be final.

This article won’t win me many plaudits, and I expect that I’ll be criticized for openly airing this. However, we must be able to have the courage to speak honestly, even to those in power. Speaking truth to power means that we believe deeply in what we say, that we care, and that we understand the risks of not doing so. Doing what’s right, rather than what is politically convenient, is incumbent on all of us.

It would be easier for me – or any of us – not to say anything. I was asked by a board member, “Why do you care?” I care because I am part of this region and this industry. Reputations matter, especially for a body that represents what we do. I believe in the region’s talent, and our ability to break down misperceptions about the Middle East when it comes to corporate governance.

I also realize that if we are not transparent, if we don’t engage proactively, and if we don’t follow our own rules, we will not have the trust that we need to raise the profession from one that simply executes to one that advises and guides a company and its board to do the right thing.

If you don’t believe me, that’s fine. I may be taking all of this too seriously. However, go and ask any Abraaj shareholder about the implications of weak corporate governance. If you still don’t understand the need to build strong corporate governance and its role in reputation building, then maybe communications isn’t the right role for you.

Ethics and why it should matter more than ever to today’s communicators

If there’s ever a word to kill a conversation, it’s ethics. Despite our job being all about reputations, we’ve not given ethics the importance and time that it deserves. This is changing, thanks in part to the efforts of a number of associations, including the Global Alliance, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ), the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO), and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), there’s a renewed focus on putting ethics at the heart of what we do and why we do it.

But why does ethics matter, really? Let me first state the obvious; communications has undergone a drastic change over the past decade, owing to the rise of digital channels and social media platforms. Today, it’s easier than ever to reach a global audience through the likes of Facebook or Google. And it’s also easier than ever to manipulate these platforms, to share messages that are false through personas which are fake.

I’m not talking theory here. We all saw the work that was undertaken by Bell Pottinger in South Africa, which led to its collapse. I live in a region which is being consumed by online trolls, botnets and other unethical activity, much of which is reported to be undertaken not by individuals but by organizations.

It is in this context that we need to renew our commitment to undertaking the best ethical practice, which will apply to every single one of us, no matter where we work and how long we’ve spent in the industry.

The sixteen principles which were announced this week by the Global Alliance are a guide that we should all use in terms of how we ourselves practice and represent our profession. We have a responsibility to society, to our stakeholders and to fellow professionals to uphold these principles in everything that we say and we do.

Looking back, what I’m most proud of when I read over the ethics announcement made by the Global Alliance today is that the taskforce that has worked on this represents the majority of associations and communicators worldwide. There’s a growing realization that we need to step up and not just demonstrate that we are against unethical practices as one, but that we’re adopting best practices. We want to be an industry that promotes positive messages, rather than a profession which is known by monikers such as ‘spin doctors’.

Jean and the other task force members have put significant thought and energy into this project, and this is only the beginning. You’ll find resources such as case studies, podcasts, newsletters and advisories that will bring ethics to life through storytelling. This archive will grow, thanks to you and your submissions from around the world. We have to ensure that ethics remains at the core of our industry, and that we feel able to stand up when we see or are asked to do something which is unethical.

I’d like to thank Jean, Jose Manuel and everyone who has given time to bring this project to life. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for their efforts to promote a stronger, more ethical communications and public relations industry. My last request is to all of you. Please use these resources, learn from them and let them guide you when it comes to ethical communications. Let’s be known as an industry that is one of, if not the most, ethical in terms of what we say and what we do.

This post first appeared on the Global Alliance website.

Why I decided to #deletefacebook and why you need to think twice too

I’ve had enough of being the product for an unethical company. Hence I have decided to #deletefacebook (image source: http://www.beebom.com)

Like many of you, I’ve been reading the unraveling story of how Cambridge Analytica harvested and manipulated the data of 50 million Facebook users to build a system to predict and influence choices during the US Election in 2016. If you haven’t read about this yet, please watch the video below from the Guardian and The Observer media teams led by the remarkable Carole Cadwalladr.

This story is so remarkable that it seems more at home in Hollywood than in reality. But it is important to us all. Over 2.2 billion people use Facebook; that’s just under a third of the world’s population.

We are the Product

I’m not naive, I understand the trade-off when using any social site. To quote media theorist and writer Douglas Rushkoff, companies like Facebook sell us and our data to advertisers: “Ask yourself who is paying for Facebook. Usually the people who are paying are the customers. Advertisers are the ones who are paying. If you don’t know who the customer of the product you are using is, you don’t know what the product is for. We are not the customers of Facebook, we are the product. Facebook is selling us to advertisers.”

I’ve always been ok with that, and it was a trade-off that I’ve been willing to make. But the reporting around Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s inaction concern me. As far as I’m concerned, Cambridge Analytica basically stole, with Facebook’s consent, 50 million user profiles. Facebook’s system gave Cambridge Analytica the ability to take from the 320,000 people or so who used it all of their friend contacts on the site. The 49 million people whose data was taken and then misused had no idea about what was happening and how their information was used to manipulate American voters in 2016. And I assume most of them still have no idea, because Facebook didn’t tell them.

Does Facebook care about us?

I have no intention of being manipulated online by firms like Cambridge Analytica, and I don’t want them to access data without my permission to reach my friends and family. Unfortunately, the best way for me to ensure this doesn’t happen is to not be on Facebook. I know many people who work at the firm, and they’re good individuals. But there’s something wrong at the top of the organization. Facebook knew about the Cambridge Analytica issue as far back as 2015. It took them three years to go public on this. Why?

 

Mark Zuckerberg may talk about connecting the world, but let’s be honest here. Facebook is a business, not an altruistic charity. It cares about revenues. And, sadly, that is leading Facebook’s leadership down a dark path with no care about me or my rights as a user. To quote the firm’s privacy policy on its collection of data, “We receive data whenever you visit a game, application, or website that uses Facebook Platform or visit a site with a Facebook feature … sometimes through cookies.”

What does Facebook care about more? Is it revenues or users? To me, the answer is obvious.

Facebook’s Lack of Ethical Leadership

Balancing what is profitable with what is right has never been easy, especially for publicly-listed companies. The expectation is that revenues will grow, quarter over quarter. While Facebook’s revenues may have grown, I’ve yet to see any ethical leadership from the company on pretty much anything. Facebook staggers from scandal to scandal. Take for example the story about how advertisers could target audiences by ethnicity, leading to the revelation that a brand could focus on users interested in antisemitic topics. Facebook’s leadership promised action, and little was taken.

And then there’s the story of how fake news producers have manipulated the site, most extensively during the US Presidential elections. What was Zuckerberg’s response (which has since come back to haunt Facebook)?

“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”

The behavioral pattern hasn’t changed with Cambridge Analytica. Facebook’s executives remained silent for a week. Zuckerberg pledged that 2018 would be the year that he “fixed Facebook.” Maybe a more pertinent suggestion would be for him to finally admit that he’s out of his depth and that he hands over to a leader who can balance both ethics and business.

 

I’m no longer the Product

There are other reasons why I don’t love Facebook like I used to. It’s impact on the media industry, a profession that I started out in at the beginning of my career, has been disastrous. For all the above, I’ve decided that enough is enough. I don’t want to be the product any more. What I do want to do is share a message with Facebook that the company has to change. And as I’m the product, it won’t be able to sell my data, including all my likes and my posts, to advertisers. I’m still thinking over what this means for my presence on other sites such as Twitter and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook). But my taking a stand with others who have stepped away from the site, I hope that we’ll force the company to change for the better. There needs to be respect  and protection for us as users, which the company’s leadership has never shown through its actions. I’ve taken the decision to #deletefacebook. Maybe you should too.

Journalists, Respect and why Communicators should deal Honestly with the Media

The region’s independent media are under pressure like never before, either financially or from online harassment. Comms people should treat the media with the respect they’ve earned (image from Sri Lanka’s Awantha Antigula)

I’m an old hack, literally. I used to work as a journalist, and I still have a soft spot for those who are part of this profession. I also know how hard it is to be a journalist, especially one who wants to go after the stories which aren’t press releases, and who will put up with the competing pressures of an editor who wants more breaking news versus the challenge of finding and then getting sources to talk on a particular issue.

Last week was a wake-up call for me as to how hard it is to be a journalist today in the Gulf, especially one who works for an organization that isn’t government-controlled and who wants to shed a light on a subject which doesn’t fit the official narrative. This post is for those journalists, and it’s a reminder to communications people in the region why respect and ethics should be central to how they behave.

Media Still Matters

First of all, let me make this clear to everyone who thinks that social is the be-all and end-all of what we should be doing today. The media still matters, especially for communicators (any head of comms who doesn’t read the papers during the day shouldn’t be in their respective position). There’s a couple of basic reasons why:

  1. The media gives us the simplest means to view different opinions, be they from government-owned publications or independents. And they get us out of our social media bubbles.
  2. Media also allows us to understand the priorities of those who own the media, such as governments.
  3. At their best, journalists can ask the hard questions that push us to think through how and why we are communicating. This is crucial especially in the Gulf, where there’s often not enough critical thinking or self-examination.

The Media owes us Nothing

We should never approach the media with the expectation that they’ll run anything verbatim. Likewise, we shouldn’t expect them to run with our narratives, and not ask questions. We shouldn’t expect them to publish our pictures. The media owes us nothing (this is a clear point in the IABC code of ethics). It’s up to us to be as good as we can be as communicators, and ensure that we communicate effectively, transparently, and in dialogue with the media.

Let’s be Respectful of the Media

We can and we should ask questions of media coverage which we believe to be inaccurate. However, what I have seen recently is a trend by Gulf-based or Gulf-focused social media accounts to start calling certain media and what they write as fake and fake news respectively. This mirrors what is happening in the United States. Just because we don’t like something does not mean that we should vilify it. Our job as communicators is to engage, persuade and advocate for our causes. If you can’t do that, then I suggest you go and join the advertising sector.

Ethics Matters, Personally and Professionally

Two other worrying trends are for media to be disrespected or even threatened online (especially female journalists). Another trend is for the narrative and facts to be changed after the fact, including through the use of documents or material which could easily be described as questionable. Again, ethically we must communicate honestly, clearly communicate the facts, and not do anything which we know to be dishonest.

Bell Pottinger underlined the need to act ethically. Communicators in the Middle East and especially the Gulf should stand up for ethics. The last thing I want to see is the industry making global headlines for all the wrong reasons.