The Story of Abu Dhabi’s Toll Gate – Why Comms Shouldn’t Need to Clean Up After Others

When things go wrong, the first people to deal with the blow-back are communicators. Organizations need to involve comms early on, to better anticipate what may not work, and what the response will be

It’s been a month of chasing, of phone calls, visits and Tweets. And yet, there was no update, no new information. I’m talking here about my experience with Abu Dhabi’s new toll system. The idea is simple; Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital city, wanted to set up a road toll tax on drivers entering certain areas. To do this, drivers had to register on a website prior to the system going live (there’s already a road toll system operating in the UAE, in Dubai. The Abu Dhabi version is different to Dubai’s).

So far, so good. We had just over a month to get our affairs in order, before the toll gates went live on October 15. I wanted to be proactive, and so I went to the website to register my car. The questions were straightforward – I needed to provide the details of my national ID card, my car plate, an email and password. Simple, you’d think. I must have tried a couple of times, and I couldn’t register. All I kept getting was the below message (which really wasn’t helpful).

“Something went wrong” may be an accurate description of the whole IT system, but it’s not going to help users understand the issue

I call up the contact center. They ask for my national ID number before asking for my name (which I found strange), and then advise me to go in and log an issue. I do this, and register a complaint a whole month before the deadline. The adviser tells me I’ll get a call once the issue is solved. No call comes in for a couple of days. I call up, and there’s no update. What I do understand is that many other people are going through this same experience. I tweet, and get the same response over and over again. I’m not alone, sadly.

The inevitable happens, and the service’s introduction was delayed, from October 15 to January 1.

Given the need to register (if you don’t, you’ll be fined per day), I can imagine that there would have been thousands of people wanting help, and spending time reaching out to the government body in question. These channels would have been handled by the customer service/communication teams. I feel for the people manning the phone lines or the social media accounts, as there’s little they can do to control a situation, besides from repeating the line that “IT is working on it.”

This whole back-and-forth conversation reminds me of how uncommon it is in many regions for both communications to be brought into the design process, and how little user testing there actually is before a new system is rolled out.

It’s simple. A difficult experience erodes trust. A good experience builds trust. Transparency in challenges helps engender trust. Spin does the opposite (and lots of people will know when they’re being spun).

My hope is that this story will be a lesson learned, especially for governmental bodies who want to roll out new technologies, and who need to engage both their communications teams and potential users early on. Communications is there to help, so bring the right people in (preferably those with experience who ask the right questions, anticipate what may happen, and understand how to best engage with an intended audience), listen to their advice, and ensure that these people are part of the whole innovation process, from end to end. I’m sure I speak for many communicators in the region when I say that I don’t want to clean up for others; I simply want to help create a better product or experience which I can talk about. Are you with me?

Sheikh Mohammed’s ‘Move Ahead Agenda’ and MENA’s need for more CCOs

At the end of August Dubai’s Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum published an open letter to officials. The message, nicknamed his ‘Move Ahead’ agenda by the media, focused on a number of issues, including the need to engage face-to-face with people they are serving, the responsibility to act properly on social media, and the importance of resolving consumer issues head on (you can read a full translation here from The National newspaper; I hope future letters will be translated to English by the government, given the number of non-Arabic speakers in the country).

The underlying thread throughout the agenda was the need to clearly and proactively communicate, to promote dialogue, and to talk through challenging issues, particularly around poor service.

Sheikh Mohammed has long pushed for his country’s government to be one of the best in the world. This month he launched another initiative, to rate the best and worst performing government offices nationwide. The tweet below announced the results of the first round of evaluations, with a listing of the five best and five worst performers.

These efforts will go a long way to improve the quality of services offered to residents in the UAE. But it also got me thinking about the nature of communications in the region. Unlike in Europe or the US, communications in the MENA region is primarily tactical; its aim is to inform, top-down, or externally. There’s less in the way of strategic communications, which is used to promote stakeholder dialogues, develop reputations and set expectations, or plan and co-create with stakeholders to deliver a better product or service.

Over the past couple of years, the UAE has created new governmental roles; today, each ministry has a chief innovation officer, and a chief happiness officer. There isn’t a mandated chief communications officer role, however, which would report directly to a minister, or into the Prime Minister’s Office. My own feeling and experience is that there are not enough government communicators who are aware of new communications models or who have the strategic mindset needed to fulfill Sheikh Mohammed’s ‘New Agenda’. Rather than leading from the front and communicators setting what needs to be done to improve communications, it seems that the communications approach is dictated by the leadership of specific ministries.

Is it time the UAE government mandated that ministries appoint CCOs, invest in their communications abilities and empower those capable enough of transforming government communications? What ideas do you have to improve government communications across the region? Could this be the start of a transformation as to how governments in MENA communicate with their own people, as well as with stakeholders abroad? As always, I’d love to hear your ideas on what role the industry can play in this.

My 2018 Predictions and Hopes for the PR & Communications Function (Part 2)

crystal-ball-ss-1920

Continuing from my predictions yesterday, here’s my top four list for how I hope the industry can improve in 2018 (image source: http://www.marketingland.com)

This is part two of my 2018 wish list (I’d rather not call it a resolution list, as we all know how resolutions end up). These points underline how I think we can move forward as a function and become better as an industry. Here we go.

My Hopes for 2018

  1. Gender Equality – 2017 was a defining year for gender equality, with campaigns such as #MeToo underlining how much still needs to be done for women to have parity with men in the workplace. Unsurprisingly, these campaigns passed over much of the Middle East, with little discussion of sexual discrimination. With others leading by example and not just words (Iceland is the first country in the world where companies with 25 or more employees now need to get government certification to prove that they offer equal pay for work of equal value), will 2018 be the year when the industry promotes gender equality? Some agencies have already begun; following her appointment as the new CEO for MEMAC Ogilvy in September, John Seifert, Ogilvy’s worldwide chief, said Patou Nuytemans would be “a real agent of change” for the company. “Patou is one of our boldest and bravest leaders,” Seifert said. “She will be a brilliant role model for a whole pipeline of young female talent who will become the leaders in our business.” I’m hoping for more positive change for all the women working in our industry.
  2. Merit-Based Hiring I’ve talked about merit-based hiring before, and the damage that is being done to the industry by unsustainable practices, especially hiring based on nationality. We’re already facing a hiring crisis in cities such as Abu Dhabi and Doha when it comes to government entities and communications roles; there’s not enough experienced nationals to fill these roles, and expats are often only offered one-year contracts, which just isn’t good enough to attract the right talent.  Both the private and the public sectors need to work together to understand how to create a long-term plan that encourages Arab nationals to join the industry/function. Governments also need to appreciate the importance of diversity in their communications function, especially when communicating with a diverse range of stakeholders (and communications leaders in the government sector, especially expats, need to start speaking truth to power). We’ve got to move away from quotas/filling roles with certain groups, and think differently to ensure that we have the right people in the right roles. Only then will communications be valued and used as much as it needs to be.
  3. Promotion of Arab talent – We’re facing a shortage of Arabic language natives in the industry. This has been exacerbated by challenges in bringing Syrians into the industry (Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians and Syrians make up the vast majority of talent in the industry who can read, speak and write Arabic fluently). With the Eastern Gulf facing its own issues due to a focus on English-language across education systems and at home, the PR industry has to address the Arab talent question. It needs to do more with universities across the region and prioritize promoting communications and public relations as a viable career option for Arab nationals. The industry also needs more Arab national role models who are willing to step up and act as role models for others (considering how many agencies and communications professionals there are in the region, there are simply not enough visible leaders and mentors, both from the wider Arab world and especially from the Gulf). Let’s hope 2018 is a good year for Arab talent.
  4. Better Government Engagement – The past couple of years have seen a transformation in terms of how governments in the region communicate with their stakeholders. Government leaders are online, on social media, and they’re actively pushing out communication. This year is transformational for two countries in the Gulf, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with the introduction of tax. As the American saying goes, taxation leads to representation. This may not be the case in the Gulf region with the expatriates, but now that we have a proper taxation system in place, there will be more questions from expats especially as to where the money is being used. More transparency and engagement from the region’s governments will go a long way to building trust with the public. If governments are going to continue improving how they communicate, they’ll need a more diverse set of communicators, both in-house and agency-side (see point 2).

There you have it, that’s my wish list for what I’d like to see the industry doing this year. Do you agree, and do you have any more you’d like to add? As always, I’d like to hear from you.