Sondos AlQattan and how brands need to learn lessons from this self-made influencer crisis (part 2)

Sadly, the controversy around the Kuwaiti social media influencer Sondos AlQattan continues. As with her initial post, which she recorded two weeks back, her additional comments over the past week initially defending her views on Kuwait’s new laws protecting domestic workers from the Philippines have not helped in calming the situation. In her latest video, recorded and shared yesterday, she accuses Western media of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab/Gulf bias, adding that she’ll lead boycotts of brands she has worked with who have terminated their relationship over this incident.

I’ve been asked a number of times for my views on what is happening. I talked with the good people from the Gulf News business desk this week on the issue of when influencers go rogue (go on, have a listen). I’m including here a summary below, as well as additional inputs from what has happened this week.

  1. Influencers will cause more crises – Consumer brands are working with an increasing number of influencers. These people aren’t celebrities, who are often media-trained. All of us have the ability to go online in a matter of seconds. Add that to a significant following and brand endorsements, and you can except more situations will happen which will burn brands.
  2. Brands need to act quickly – The lack of response from some of the brands who have a relationship with Sondos AlQattan was striking. Despite both social media mentions and media inquiries, some brands just didn’t respond. I’d understand if the delay were a day or two, as this is the Middle East and regional offices often feel the need to go back to corporate HQ for advice and guidance. However, two weeks is inexcusable. It harms the brand, and in the eyes of consumers it makes companies look negligent at best, complicit at worst. There’s two words all communicators need to know – brand safety.
  3. Consumers want brand clarity – Some of the initial brand responses were wishy-washy. To quote one brand, a spokesperson said, “[the brand] does not support or align with the recent statements made by Sondos AlQattan.” What does this even mean? Will you stop working with the person, or not? That’s the question. I’ll repeat a simple mantra here – communications is 90% what you do, and 10% what you say. This was a fail, and it was reflected in the headline above. Is that really how the brand’s communications team wanted their stance to be perceived? I’m assuming not.
  4. Consumers care about brands working with Sondos AlQattan today – I was also asked about a brand that I work with, which had once worked with Sondos AlQattan. I can’t think of a beauty brand which hasn’t worked with her, given her 2.3 million followers and her focus on makeup. However, consumers online only care about those brands who are associated with Sondos AlQattan today.
  5. Brands can come out of this positively – I initially felt for those brands who were associated with Sondos AlQattan at this time. Even though I’ve talked about background checks, there was no way that any of them could have foreseen this crisis. However, what is memorable is that the brands who came out first with a clear position have been viewed positively by those who have been angered by the statements made by Sondos AlQattan. Consumers have felt as if these brands have listened to their concerns and acted upon them.
  6. Always remember your employees – One aspect of this which has been rarely mentioned is the internal communications aspect. May companies operating in the Gulf are diverse in their employee hiring, and I doubt any of the brands who are working with her don’t have Filipino nationals on their books. How do these employees feel about the stance their companies are taking? There’ll be a good deal of both anger and sadness among the employees of brands and distributors who are caught up in this sorry situation. I only hope that the internal communications is clearer than the external piece (the narrative should be the same here in any case, given that many employees will be following this story externally).

That’s it from me for now. I hope I’ll be able to resume blogging on another subject during the weekend. For now, good night!

 

Clients, Non-Payments and Slow Growth – Is it time for the Middle East’s PR Industry to work together?

A couple of stories broke over the past couple of weeks in the Middle East’s PR industry. This wouldn’t be unusual if it weren’t summer, when little happens. The first piece was the news of additional job losses at Edelman Middle East. The second was the restructuring of FleishmanHillard in Saudi Arabia due to final losses. And the third, which didn’t register in the media, was the closure of a one-person PR agency in Dubai.

There are two issues at play here. The first is management. Edelman’s layoffs aren’t a one-off; the company has made repeated redundancies over the past couple of years, and I feel for all those who joined what is the world’s largest independent PR agency, only for this to happen. Edelman has struggled in the UAE and the wider region, even after the purchase of one of the country’s largest privately-owned agencies, Dabo & Co, in 2015.

The second issue is payment, or a lack of. To quote from the Gulf News piece on FleishmanHillard:

The non-payment of fees, apparently due to a lack of invoicing clients, has impacted their operations forcing the company to reduce their headcount in Riyadh.

The issue also caught the eye of the head of one of the largest agencies in the region. Writing on his LinkedIn feed, Sunil John shared his view on the need for cross-industry action to address non-payment, particularly by governments.

SunilJohn

Slow to No Growth

Let’s give a little context to the PR industry across the Middle East. Over the past two years economies in the Gulf have struggled. Saudi has been in recession for a number of quarters. The UAE’s economy is growing slowly. The fastest growing economy over 2017 was Qatar, with a GDP growth of just over 2 percent. While this may not look particularly bad for those in Europe, many of us in the region can remember a time a decade back when economies were growing double-digit. Slow to no growth is the new norm in the region, and we (and management outside of the region) have got to get used to this, and budget accordingly.

Government Spending Grows

Ironically given lower government spending over the past two years on the back of falling oil prices, the driver of PR spending has been government. Saudi in particular has been spending heavily to transform its reputation globally. I’ve seen a host of medium and large agencies flock to Riyadh to work on Saudi’s Vision 2030, as well as other projects. Political circumstances have resulted in significant sums being spent in both London and Washington. For agencies starved of growth from business, government spending has been a boon.

Payment Terms and Governments

The challenge with government accounts is payment – both payment terms and collection. Government accounts are rarely small, and I’ve heard of terms that can be as long as six months. That’s a long time to wait for payment. And then, there’s the issue of payments being made on time. In my knowledge, it’s rare for a government to pay a bill on time. And if they don’t, what’s the recourse? There’s no higher authority to appeal to, no court you can go to. You chase and chase and chase. And hope you get paid, sooner rather than later.

Is Industry Action Going to Happen?

Sunil John’s call to action is interesting, but it’s not new. I and others have discussed the idea of having non-payment lists with industry bodies such as the Middle East Public Relations Association several years back. My heart desperately wants the large agency heads to come together to agree on what action to take when it comes to black-listing accounts (the WPP agencies could easily take the lead, given the size of their business here). But, despite the hurt the industry is going through, my head say this won’t happen. For every agency that drops a non-paying account, there are ten lining up to pitch. Everyone thinks they can do better on payment.

Sadly, I think there’s a bigger issue at play which doesn’t just affect the PR industry (to give you an example, Saudi’s construction industry has faced payment delays of up to 18 months). The answer is collective action. And it’ll require true leadership from everyone on the agency side, as well as leaders on the client side calling out this behavior. Is anyone ready to make the first move?

Lessons we can learn from Marriott’s Anti-Islam Tweet and Nike’s Iran Boycott Crises

It’s rare for brands to deal with a reputational crisis so openly in the Middle East. Last week, we had two issues happening at once. First up was Dubai’s JW Marriott Hotel, which took the decision to part ways with celebrity chef Atul Kochhar after he wrote a tweet that offended many Muslims (the offending tweet is below, and you can read the back story here at the Khaleej Times). The hotel terminated Kocchar’s deal with its well regarded Rang Mahal restaurant.

“Following the recent comments made by Chef Atul Kochhar, we have taken the decision to end our agreement with him for Rang Mahal. With the termination of our agreement, Chef Atul will no longer be associated with the restaurant,” Bill Keffer, general manager of the hotel, told Gulf News.

Atul tweet

Atul’s tweet was highly criticized, both by individuals as well as the Marriott itself.

The second reputational issue was faced by Nike. Days before the beginning of the World Cup, Nike announced that it would not be providing equipment (think boots) to the Iranian football team.

“U.S. sanctions mean that, as a U.S. company, Nike cannot supply shoes to players in the Iranian national team at this time,” a company statement said.  “Sanctions applicable to Nike have been in place for many years and are enforceable by law.”

Unsurprisingly, the decision hasn’t gone down well with fans of the Iranian football team, as well as the team’s coach, Carlos Queiroz, who criticized the timing of the announcement.

There are two basic lessons that we can take from the situations Nike and Marriott found themselves in.

1. Do/Continue your Due Diligence – While the Marriott moved quickly to tackle the crisis, the question must be asked of the due diligence undertaken on Atul Kochhar’s views. Every time an agreement is undertaken, the in-house team/agency must check the influencer’s/celebrity’s background, including their social media. And they must ensure that they’re on top of anything which may be perceived as being controversial. Many have pointed to Atul Kochhar’s social media posts prior to last week’s outburst, posts which could be seen as being Islamophobic (the below is just one example of this). While hindsight is a wonderful thing, the Marriott team could have developed an insight into Atul Kochhar’s views through monitoring his social media posts before he wrote something that would have caused the brand reputational damage. This month’s crisis may have been averted.

2. Foresee issues and tackle them proactively – Our role as communicators is to understand what is happening in the outside world, and bring those insights to senior management. We have to be social and political analysts, and we have to be able to monitor issues and foresee the outcomes that will impact our organizations, and work proactively to ensure that an issue doesn’t become a crisis. How Nike’s communications team didn’t foresee what could have happened re Iran and US sanctions is beyond me, as is the possibility for Nike to apply for a permission to be able to supply the team with equipment (boots). It was a major miss, and handed rival Adidas an open goal.

Do you have any additional insights from these two issues? What are your thoughts? As always, I’m happy to hear them. Till then, take care!

Dubai’s new volunteering law – the basics and what it means for you

Volunteering in the UAE has become more common, but it’s not clear what impact the law will have on volunteer numbers (image: Time Out Abu Dhabi)

Last month Dubai introduced for the first time legislation covering volunteering in the Emirate. The new law, which was passed a week ago, will impact both the public and organizations who want to donate their time and skills for free to local charities.

I’ll share information on the new law below from Gulf News, as well as analysis on the law at the bottom. As the law is now in effect, if you want the most up to date advice you will need to reach out to Dubai’s Community Development Authority (CDA) which is charged with its implementation.

Competencies 

The law grants the CDA a number of specialisations and jurisdictions regarding voluntary work, which include drawing up plans and public policies for voluntary work in Dubai and supervising their implementation, as well as encouraging public and private bodies and enterprises to launch voluntary work initiatives in Dubai.

The authority will also be responsible for approving the template for voluntary work agreements in coordination with bodies accepting volunteers, in addition to setting up a database to register volunteers in the emirate. (my emphasis here)

Analysis – All volunteering must be part of a wider agreement, and all volunteers must be logged into a database by the CDA.

Specialised volunteer work 

The law specifies that certain qualifications, expertise and conditions are required when it comes to specialised volunteer work, and specialised volunteers will need to have a license and the necessary permits from relevant bodies.

The CDA will issue licenses for specialised volunteer work when it ascertains that all conditions listed in this law have been met.

Analysis: If you’re a specialist (say a lawyer, or an accountant) then you’ll need to get permissions from the CDA (and other bodies) before volunteering. It’s not clear what other bodies the law is referring to here.

Volunteering teams 

Volunteers can set up teams, according to the law, on the condition that the team is registered in the official CDA database, and the nature of these teams, as well as terms and conditions that they should meet, will be set through a resolution issued by CDA’s Director-General.

Volunteers or volunteer teams are not allowed to collect donations or announce that donation will be collected until they have notified the CDA and have received the approval of concerned bodies.

As per the law, specific hours can be allocated during the official working hours of public and private employees in Dubai to participate in various volunteering activities, as long as it does not infringe on their vocational rights. The employers of the volunteering employees will have to coordinate with the bodies who are accepting the voluntary work prior to nominating any of its employees for carrying out institutional voluntary work. The public and private bodies will bear the responsibility for any consequences resulting from the voluntary work of the volunteers.

Analysis: If you’re a corporate or public sector body and you have a team donating their time, the full details will need to be logged by the CDA. No donation-collecting will be allowed (that’s already in practice at the moment). Plus, it looks as if the CDA is requesting corporates for employee volunteering to only happen during office hours. Any work done will be the responsibility of the organization which the volunteer employees work for.

Obligations of bodies accepting volunteers 

The law obliges government and private entities, including civil establishments licensed to work in Dubai, to set their voluntary standards and regulations and provide the Community Development Authority with these standards and controls, as well as to identify categories of volunteers and the nature of the work that each category can perform provided that the volunteer work shall be compatible with the volunteer’s qualifications and intellectual and physical abilities. 

The entities shall be obliged with training volunteers to carry out the tasks entrusted to them and helping them to highlight and foster their talents and ensure that their abilities are used properly.

The entities obligations include recording the volunteers’ data, the nature of voluntary work entrusted to them and the number of hours they volunteered in the database approved by the Community Development Authority, providing volunteers with necessary equipment, tools and information, and with insurance against injuries, infections and civil liability for harming others. 

Entities accepting volunteers shall be thereby responsible for all voluntary work expenses, including that of for the treatment of volunteers of any damage sustained while performing volunteer work, provided that such damage is caused due to the fault of the bodies in which they are volunteering with.

The entities obligations also include ensuring the safety of volunteers and beneficiaries of voluntary work against any damage that they may suffer from in the course of doing voluntary work, developing a preventive and safety system in coordination with the competent authorities, not to assign volunteer with more than (420) voluntary hours within one year, overseeing volunteers to verify that they are doing voluntary work as required, awarding the volunteers appreciation certificates once they complete the voluntary work perfectly.

Analysis: This seems to set out the need for all those entities involved in volunteering to have minimum written standards on the type of volunteering they’re offering/engaged in, who volunteers and whether the two are suited to each other. All volunteering needs to be logged and that information provided to the CDA. Charities will be liable for ensuring that volunteers are treated well (would this require insurance, I wonder?).

Voluntary work agreement

According to the law, the bodies accepting volunteers may seek help from volunteers as per the voluntary work agreement prepared by the CDA. The agreement shall contain all details regulating the relationship between the volunteer and the body they are volunteering in.

The law stipulates that the volunteers must not be less than 18 years old, otherwise, they need to get the approval of their guardians. Volunteers must be of good conduct and physically capable of undertaking voluntary work.

Analysis: The CDA will begin issuing voluntary work agreements to codify and professionalize volunteering. Volunteers will need to have clean records in order to be able to volunteer.

Rights and duties of volunteers 

The law stipulates that volunteers must abide by the voluntary work agreement and complete the voluntary work perfectly within the pre-determined time. Volunteers must respect the principles, goals and regulations of voluntary work set by bodies accepting volunteers. They also must respect the confidential information that they come across while carrying out voluntary work.

Volunteers must commit to the limits of the voluntary work, its goal and not to delve into the affairs of the bodies they are volunteering in. They must maintain the equipment and devices that they are given for voluntary work and to give it back to the bodies once the voluntary work is done.

Analysis: I’m not sure if any is needed here!

In conclusion, the law seeks to codify, measure and professionalize volunteering. However, there’s lots of questions still to be asked. How complex will volunteering become, and what other legislation or activities will the Government of Dubai undertake to promote volunteering. As the law has now been published, it’s already in effect. Charities, individuals and organizations involved in volunteering will have six months to ensure their full compliance.

You can download the full law here (in Arabic) – Dubai volunteering law

The 3 issues today’s crisis comms professional needs to tackle

prepared

Make sure that you’re prepared for these three big issues which are shifting the crisis comms goalposts (image source: http://www.bairdscmc.com)

It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that the world is changing, and with it the way that crises develop. I was listening to a very engaging podcast by the Gulf News business team, with communications professional Omar Qirem (check out the post here).

While the conversation touched on a host of crisis issues and triggers, there were three big issues that are relatively new, and which are shifting the crisis communications landscape.

Hacking and Emails

Long gone are the days when whistleblowers would walk out of offices with a suitcase full of papers. Today, information is conveyed electronically, and all it took for Chelsea Manning to leak hundreds of thousands of US military documents to Wikileaks was a single USB drive. Hacking is becoming a real problem for both governments the world over, as well as corporates (just ask Sony).

Hacking is developing from the well-understood concept of the ethically-troubled whistleblower to groups-for-hire who are ready and willing to hack email servers, or public domain accounts in the search of damaging information. Hackers can also attack websites and social media accounts to fake news, or even create fake sites which are mirrored on the real thing.

We’re going to have to become more aware of these threats, and develop mitigation strategies, including better security (at the very least, please use two-factor authentication as much as you can and don’t use the same password for every single account), and also educate executives on the need to communicate differently. What you write can be leaked; are you willing to see that email on the front page of a newspaper, or a website?

The Rise of Values-Based Communication

Consumers aren’t just interested in what brands make and sell. They want to know what we stand for. This public interest has partly been driven by the political climate in the US and Western Europe and by the behavior of millennials and their increasing skepticism of established institutions. For brands, value-based communications is a key point of differentiation, particularly for industries which have been impacted by technology-driven commoditization. Think of Paul Unilever’s Polman and his passionate belief in sustainability.

Conversely, executive behavior which is looked down upon by the public can have serious business implications. Whilst the official reasons for Uber being stripped of its London license were due to questions around passenger safety and drivers’ rights, the behavior and words of former CEO Travis Kalanick haven’t done Uber any good. The apology proffered by the new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, seems to have gone a long way to defusing some of the tension between Uber and Transport for London which oversees the company’s license to operate.

Data and Online Regulation

We’ve been living in the internet age for over two decades now, and business has benefited from a relative lack of legislation and regulation about what can and can’t be done online, particularly with data. That has slowly changed as governments have sought to understand how the internet has changed our lives. Upcoming legislation in Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is going to change how corporations monitor and store data (it’s been covered in some detail by Rachel Miller for the CIPR). There’s no doubt in my mind that the online and social media networks will also have to deal with more governmental oversight. There’s been a string of scandals around issues such as extremist content on YouTube,  Facebook and the Trump election, and Twitter’s lack of action on far-right hate speech.

Whilst I’m certain that more regulation is coming, and soon, it’s far too early to say how this will change how we as communicators operate online. There will be more data-related crises, either due to how data is collected and used, or due to an inability to adhere to these new rules.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts. What issues do we need to better understand when it comes to modern-day crises? Please do share with me your thoughts.

Podcasts, Podcasts and more Podcasts. Just remove the Comments!

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Podcasting is a popular move for publishers in the UAE (image source: theodysseyonline.com)

If, like me, you’re a news junkie who feels they spend far too much time in a car, you’re in luck. The UAE’s media outlets have gone on a Podcast frenzy.

The Gulf News business desk began their podcasting about five months back. Named Dirhams and Dollars, the series is an eclectic mix of anything and everything business related, from social media and e-commerce, to the impact that politics has on economics and economies. Headed up by the trio of business editor Scott Shuey, and staff reporter Ed Clowes and Sarah Diaa, the casts are hosted on Soundcloud and usually run for about 15 to 30 minutes. The series is distributed by Twitter  as well (disclaimer – I do love the team picture).

As part of their relaunch, The National has launched a new series of current affairs podcasts, named Beyond the Headlines, where they aim to deep dive into issues which the editorial team feel deserve more attention. The podcasts are hosted on Audioboom and are normally curated by the Assistant Editor-in-Chief Mustafa Alrawi for about 30 minutes.

Others are set to follow. Motivate’s Emirates Woman will soon be launching a podcast series focusing on women’s issues across the region.

While some publishers are putting out more content, in new formats (I’d love to see if the move to podcasting will have any impact on radio in the region), others are doing away with some sections of their website. Al Jazeera is removing its comments section, and here’s why:

The mission of Al Jazeera is to give a voice to the voiceless, and healthy discussion is an active part of this. When we first opened up comments on our website, we hoped that it would serve as a forum for thoughtful and intelligent debate that would allow our global audience to engage with each other.

However, the comments section was hijacked by users hiding behind pseudonyms spewing vitriol, bigotry, racism and sectarianism. The possibility of having any form of debate was virtually non-existent.

Also, over time, we found social media to be the preferred platform for our audience to debate the issues that matter the most to them. We encourage our audience to continue to interact with us this way.

This decision also comes at a time when we as a publisher need to evaluate what our priorities are. We feel that rather than approaching the problem with a collection of algorithms and an army of moderators, our engineering and editorial resources are better utilised building new storytelling formats that resonate with our audience.

Al Jazeera are looking at how to host comments, so this may only be temporary. However, it does highlight the issue of anonymity online, especially in a region which is beset by a number of political disputes between different countries.

Will Dubai’s social media business license regulate the influencer space?

social media influencers

There’s been little legislation specifically looking at social media selling or influencer marketing across the Gulf

As anyone who works in the social media space in the Gulf knows, there’s nothing in the way of regulation. We’re working in a space which is poorly understood when it comes to legality and regulation (though, as I’ve written about before, any sponsored content is legislated for by the UAE’s advertising law).

This may be about to change however. Last week, Dubai’s Department of Economic Development launched a new business license, designed for those wishing to conduct business online, via social media. Here’s more details from Arabian Business.

Dubai’s Department of Economic Development (DED) has launched a new e-Trader licence to allow Emiratis and GCC citizens in Dubai to conduct business activities on social networking sites.

The DED’s Business Registration and Licensing (BRL) sector said the initiative is part of enhancing transparency and regulating the practice of offering products and services for sale on social media.

The e-Trader licence can be registered under the name of a single owner only and the owner must be an Emirati or GCC citizen aged 18 or above and residing in Dubai.
Nearly 3,000 e-Traders are expected to be licensed in Dubai in 2017.

At the event, there were a number of social media influencers, including Emirati comedian and instagrammer Kanu AlKendi (you can see his post below).

View this post on Instagram

بشرى سارة لجميع تجار مواقع التواصل الاجتماعي @dubai_ded الْيَوْمَ أطلقت الدايرة الاقتصادية قطاع التسجيل و الترخيص التجاري مبادرة الاولى من نوعها في منطقة الشرق الأوسط ( ترخيص المشاريع التجارية التي تدار عبر مواقع التواصل الاجتماعي ) و هذه المبادرة تشمل مواطني دولة الامارات و دول مجلس التعاون الخليجي لتنظيم و تسهيل مزاولة الاعمال التجارية الالكترونية بإمارة #دبي @dubai_ded @dubai_ded @dubai_ded #التاجر_الالكتروني WWW.etrader.ae للتسجيل

A post shared by Kanu Alkendi (@kanu7alkendi) on

One of the reasons given for the launch of this license was to enhance consumer confidence in online businesses. “Licensing a business activity enhances consumer confidence on one hand and on the other, it removes the risk of infringement on a reserved trade name or other intellectual property, explained Omar Bushahab, CEO for the Business Registration & Licensing (BRL) sector of the Department of Economic Development. “A license guarantees the rights of everyone concerned and defines the legal accountability of the merchant.”

Transparency (or the lack of) has been a major talking point when it comes to influencer marketing in the region. While some businesses have to ensure that their influencers publicly state that their content is paid for (mainly those registered or publicly listed in jurisdictions with a legal framework around online marketing), the majority of advertisers and social media influencers don’t.

I understand that governmental bodies have been looking at ways to regulate the influencer industry – I don’t think I’ve seen a campaign over the last year which hasn’t featured an influencer. This may be a first step. However, more may be to come in relation to legislation covering influencers, particularly those who aren’t Gulf nationals (which is essentially the majority).

“One of the key challenges in the DED launch narrative is the condition that all license holders must be GCC citizen. This may prove difficult or restrictive to the large expatriate population across Dubai,” Lindsay Wakefield, a retail analyst, told Gulf News.

For agencies who are working in this area, it’s more than advisable to get legal advice as to how you and your clients should be engaging with influencers.