I’ve been closely following what’s been happening in Hong Kong. What interests me is how all sides are communicating, how they’re using social media, and also where the industry stands on a big issue such as democracy and transparency.
I reached out to Arun Sudhaman, the CEO of the Holmes Report. Arun is both based in Hong Kong and is one of the leading journalists for the public relations industry worldwide. Here’s our talk on what’s happening in Hong Kong, the impact of social media today, how communicators are struggling with their values and what’s being asked of them, and why purpose is such a hard issue to get right.
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.
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.
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.
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?
I’ve just finished judging hundreds of entries for the Cannes Lions. The experience has been overwhelming, not just due to the amount of work submitted but also due to the work’s quality. I’ve judged for years, and there are few competitions that come close to the overall level of excellence (I’d say the Effies, the IABC Gold Quills, and the Holmes Report’s Sabres).
Throughout all of my judging experiences, there’s a couple of simple lessons that communication professionals need to bear in mind. These four steps will help create powerful campaigns that should be worthy of putting into any top-tier awards competition.
1. The Why – Is What you Want to Say Powerful Enough?
First of all, why do you want to communicate. Are you launching a new product, or do you want to improve your company’s reputation. The clearer you are on why you want to engage, the simpler it will be to come up with a narrative that your audience will understand. There’s got to be a strong purpose to your communications, which then links into the second step.
2. The Insight – Listen to your Audience
You know why you want to communicate, but how does your narrative tie into the interests of your audience? Far too often communicators don’t take the time to listen and observe their publics, and simply go out, all guns blazing, with messages that don’t resonate. Powerful insights connect your audience with your narrative in a way that engages them and makes them want to listen to you. If you don’t do this well, your campaign won’t cut through the thousands of messages that we process on a daily basis, and you’ll have made no impact whatsoever. Take your time, do your research, and get out of the office (and off the Powerpoint presentations) to understand what your audience cares about and how you can tap into those emotions. In other words, bring the outside in.
Bold communicators are also ready to tie in their narrative with social issues. This isn’t always easy, and can alienate certain groups if your target audience is the public. However, as business becomes more politicized, I expect communicators (and organizational leaders) to realize that companies can’t shy away from taking a stand on issues that matter both to them and their stakeholders.
3. The Strategy & Execution – Go Personal or Go Mass, Blend Online with Offline
Now we get to the fun part, which can make or break a campaign. No matter how good your planning and research is, all your audience will see is the execution of your strategy. Effectively, what do you want your communications to achieve and how are you bringing it to life?
There’s a couple of themes I’ve noticed of late. Either campaigns go as big as possible during their execution, and include as many people from the target audience during the execution itself (this is different from sharing the campaign’s content). Or, they execute an execution with a handful of people, and use that content to tell a person narrative. Both can work very well if tied in well enough with the brand/product narrative and with the audience insight.
What’s also not surprising is how the best campaigns are using both online and offline mediums to amplify the narrative. Print, radio and television plays a role in engaging an audience, whilst digital keeps the engagement alive and allows for dialogue. Some of the most recent campaigns I’ve seen also use dark social; one smart team were creating content solely to be shared on WhatsApp. I expect this trend to gather pace as communicators realize the power of one-to-one or one-to-a-few messaging platforms.
Another noticeable trend is the use of paid media to boost the reach of content. The social media platforms have become masterful at ensuring we have to spend money to reach our audience, no matter how good the content. Influencers help to mitigate the anti-viral nature of social media platforms. Either way, it’s going to cost more to reach your target audience today online than it would have done a couple of years ago. At the very least, creating content has never been easier (or cheaper).
4. The Measurement – Use Indicators that Align with the Business (not AVEs)
Finally, how do you prove your success? The most common measurement was AVEs or advertising value equivalency. Communicators are dropping this measure, but at a rate which is slower than I’d like. Most of the work I’ve judged this year uses AVEs. Another common measure is impressions, basically the number of people exposed to the message.
Smart communicators are shifting to more meaningful indicators. A simple one which does crop up more frequently is sentiment, either in traditional media or online. Communicators are also borrowing from their marketing colleagues, and are using some digital metrics (engagement, CTRs etc), as well as brand measurements focusing on reach and response. Brand measurement helps us understand if the campaign has won viewers’ selective attention and leave a brand-associated impression and if the campaign has triggered a change in behavior or attitudes favorable to the brand.
The ultimate measures are those which are tangible. Has the campaign helped sales, has it raised more money? Has the campaign resulted in a behavioral shift, has it resulted in new regulations? Some communicators are capturing and sharing this, but it’s still only a small percentage (I’d say single digits). This needs to change, especially if communications is to be seen as a strategic function within organizations.
Here’s my four pointers to what makes for an award-winning campaign. As always, I look forward to hearing your inputs. Please do share your thoughts with me.
And best wishes for all those who have entered this year’s Cannes Lions! There’s some outstanding work.
I’m writing this in the spirit of the very best forecasters, the people who put thoughts onto paper at the beginning of the year which turn out to be so wide of the mark a couple of months down the line that I will be forced into hiding.
So, here we go. I’ve sorted the post into two parts. The first is what I think will happen (hence predictions) over the course of the next twelve months. My hopes will follow tomorrow.
More Political Uncertainty –If you think 2017 was tough when it came to political leadership (or lack thereof), you haven’t seen anything yet. We’ve had a taste of 2018 and what to expect in the region with the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This will be the year when US foreign policy shifts 180 degrees, on all sorts of issues. And others will behave accordingly. Other groups will need to step into the breach, and that means either the business community or the public. Expect more proactive lobbying and public affairs, and more reactive shifts in corporate social responsibility strategies.
Expect more Online Crises – This may not be that surprising (yes, I can see you scratching your head and wondering why I’ve put this in). But I don’t mean an irritated consumer posting a piece of content about their poor customer service experience. Rather, I’m talking cyber-espionage, hacking, and whistleblowing. Last year we witnessed political disputes which were initiated by website hacks, a sustained series of leaks from email accounts which had been broken into, the hijacking of social media accounts, and more whistleblowing leaks. 2018 won’t be any different; in fact, this year will only see even more illegal activity online. 2018 could be the year when online hackers shift from politics to brand-jacking, targeting corporates for money (think bots artificially spreading content that impacts brand and corporate reputations). As an industry, we’re going to have to do a much better job of understanding the technical aspects of the online world.
The Agency Model Breaks/Evolves – This isn’t an issue which has gotten nearly enough attention over the past couple of years (with the possible exception of the good work done by the team at the Holmes Report). Agencies aren’t making much, if any, money these days. Costs are high, talent is scarce, and clients are cutting budgets or shifting money into other areas. Publicly-listed PR agencies are looking at single-digit growth globally, and geographies which offered more, the likes of China and the Middle East, have also slowed down. With more competition both within the industry and without the industry, especially from the advertising and management consultancy sector, will 2018 be the year when agencies look to change how they approach client servicing, or is it the year when clients look to alternatives. There’s already a growing trend in the Middle East to embed agency people into the organization, essentially turning them into contracted roles, especially in government and semi-government organizations. Time will tell, but it’s clear to me that we need a healthy agency model for us to sustain the industry.
So there you have my four basic predictions. What are your thoughts? As always, I look forward to hearing from you.
Entitled “The Battleground Is Trust,” Edelman detailed a number of steps. The first, “collaborative journalism”, would involve companies opening up to civil society and other stakeholders on issues they have detailed knowledge of (Edelman gave examples of Walmart on China supply chain or GE on wind power, according to the Holmes Report), as well as cutting down on corporate speak. He also spoke about the need for companies to “create a platform for employees and customers to talk openly about your company or brand. Provide the ability to rate and review the business. Allow users to voice the good and the bad, permit self-criticism, and encourage open dialogue. Listen to what they say so you can improve your products.”
While it’s good to hear an industry leader talk about the need for transparency to rebuild trust, corporates have been slow to respond to customer engagement on social media platforms and review websites such as Glassdoor. There’s already enough appraisal data out there for organizations to filter. The question is whether they’re listening or not.
The bigger issue for me is the disparity in cultures and in organizational ownership. Take for example the Middle East region, or China. In contrast to the United States or Europe and the separation between government and business ownership, many of the largest companies in the Middle East and China are government-owned. Would they willing to engage in “collaborative journalism”, and opening up their internal workings to the public? Would governments in emerging markets be willing to listen to views on how their businesses are run, views which may be contrary to their own. And who would the collaborators be? Government-controlled media? Would this engender public trust?
The first step to building trust is to understand that context matters. While I appreciate that Edelman was addressing a US audience, the PR industry must do more to better grasp cultural nuances, and adapt its thinking appropriately to serve different geographies, governance models and civil societies.
The other big headline which came out of Edelman’s speech was the idea for a “PR Compact” and mandatory ethics training. These include four tenets:
1. Insist on accuracy. Check the facts. Don’t just accept what a client tells you as the truth. Get third-party validation and cite sources. Correct errors quickly. 2. Demand transparency. Press clients to disclose their financial interests in advocacy programs and to reveal their role in coalitions. Advocate for laws that require more transparency in communications. Report on non-financial metrics in supply chains and hiring practices. 3. Engage in the free and open exchange of ideas. Create platforms that encourage and empower informed public discourse. Tell both sides of the story, and allow for dissenting views. This benefits business, shareholders, and society. 4. Require everyone to take universal online ethics training. Everyone must learn the same best practices—what is right and what is not. Tie advancement and promotion to successful completion of the course. This training should be free and accessible to all.
As a member of a number of different industry associations, I adhere to the ethical codes which these associations espouse. However, context is also key. It’s no surprise that Bell Pottinger was undone by work undertaken not in London, but in South Africa, for an entity which has close ties to the South African government. Bell Pottinger was undone by the excellent work of the South African press. In other emerging markets there is no freedom of speech (and definitely no dissenting views). And there’s no way to advocate for laws that promote transparency.
For me, there’s an urgent need to promote ethics not just in London or Washington DC, but in the up-and-coming PR hubs in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It needs a coalition of associations who have members from every level of the industry, who are international in their nature, and who can oversee ethical guidelines that are both universal and contextually-appropriate. It’s no surprise to me why this hasn’t yet happened. But I do hope someone will have the courage to push for a global ethical conversation soon.