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?

What challenges will communicators face in 2017?

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It’s no understatement to say that 2016 was a shock to the system. We’ve faced political upheavals, the rise of populists and the proliferation of fake news, and that’s just for starters. The Middle East region has been impacted by continuing conflict as well as financial belt-tightening caused by low oil and gas prices. Needless to say, 2016 hasn’t been the easiest 12 months for many communicators.

So what do we have to expect in 2017? Looking into my crystal ball, I see  a number of issues that will grow in prominence. Here’s my take on them:

  • Political Interference and its Impact on Brand Values

The rise of populist politicians isn’t anything new, but their use of social media to communicate directly with their publics, eschewing traditional media, is something brands will have to deal with. We’ve already seen how Donald Trump is impacting brands in the US (examples include his tweets on Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which have wiped billions off company share values).

Communicators will need to work out how to deal with this new type of political interference. They’ll need to improve their online engagement, using the same social media tools as these politicians (Twitter, I hope you realize how much of a god-send Trump is for your platform), as well as espouse brand values that stakeholders believe in and want to defend.

There’s a danger here that brands will retreat into communicating in the same populist language as the politicians, or simply keep quiet and hope that the storm will pass them by. I hope that brand owners and communicators will instead engage on issues with a purpose and positive values.

  • Expect More Fake News

Whether we like it or not, fake news is here to stay. The year that was 2016 saw fake news become a cottage industry, with ‘content producers’ in places like Macedonia spewing out false stories which went viral through social media and which generated thousands of dollars of ad revenues. Much of this fake news was focused on politics; this is likely to change in 2017, with fewer key political votes. Instead, we’re going to see more fake celebrity news, as well as fake news in languages other than English. This may play into regional conflicts. Brands need to be aware of what is being said about them, especially in Arabic, Farsi and other regional languages.

  • The Continued Rise of Social Influencers

 

Whether you like it or not, 2016 was the year of Social Influencers. This trend is set to continue into 2017, particularly with Snapchat having opened up an office in Dubai, and with brands/organizations realizing that they have to do more to engage with stakeholders online. Expect there to be more questions around online metrics such as reach, engagement and, most important of all, return-on-investment. Also expect that the cost of working with social influencers will rise, particularly in locations such as Dubai, Kuwait and Riyadh.

I hope that brands will start to think differently about the type of social influencers they’d like to work with, and begin nurturing relationships with real fans with smaller followings rather than purchase engagement through influencers who have large followings but who don’t necessarily understand or love the brand. In other words, we need to rethink what social influencers are and what they mean to us.

  • The Urgent Need to Prove Our Worth 

This is a perennial favorite, but we’re going to struggle to underline the value that we bring to our organizations in 2017. Why? Because of an inability to link our outcomes to organizational objectives for many of us, partly due to a lack of awareness/understanding about the need to leverage measurement values. We’re also lacking a universal definition of what we do and globally-accepted certifications that prove we can walk the talk. The Global Alliance is working hard on the first issue, and others such as the CIPR and IABC are pushing ahead on the second. However, we’re still going to struggle with proving our worth to those that we work with and others that we need to work with.

There are a number of others who have shared their own views. Wadds has a longer list which is a fascinating read (you can see it here), and Omnicom’s David Gallagher has written down his own thoughts on the issues we will face in the year ahead.

What are your thoughts. What challenges will we see, and what are you looking forward to in 2017? I’d love to hear from you.

A Lack of Quality: Why the Comms Industry needs a professional qualification

Why don't we have a standard certification for the PR industry? Isn't it time we change this?

Why don’t we have a standard certification for the PR industry? Isn’t it time we change this?

I don’t want to offend, but enough is enough. I want to tackle the elephant in the room, the issue that many of us face but few of us have the bravery to talk openly about. We have far too many people in the communications profession who haven’t gotten to where they are on merit or who are unsuited for the role.

You know what I’m talking about, the person who got into the job because his or her father is the best friend of the GM. Or the comms manager who has been appointed because global wants to increase their diversity count (despite all of their customers being male). Or the person who is overseeing comms for a specific industry (let’s say, social media), and yet doesn’t even use the product. Or the employee who has been shunted into communications because the company can’t get rid of them. Or the person who has been employed because of their nationality and there’s a quota, despite their lack of experience (or ability).

We have to tackle the issue of quality in the profession. Why, one may ask? Simply because they represent all of us. Their actions shape the views of others. As communicators, we often talk about a place at the table. We won’t claim that board or management seat, unless we’re qualified and able to add value to the organizations that employ us. And, there’s the issue of agencies, which I’ve talked about before.

Who would hire an accountant who isn’t chartered? Or a lawyer that hasn’t passed their bar exam? And yet, there are many who work in our industry without a single qualification. We need to change this approach to professional qualifications. There are many to choose from, such as the accredited or the chartered status from the CIPR. And there’s the CMP examination from the IABC. There’s a host of qualifications out there.

As an industry, we need to change the debate from years of experience to competency and skills. To me, it’s no longer good enough for organizations to seek out communications professionals with little to no understanding of our profession. There needs to be a concerted effort by our industry, by communications professionals who care about how we are perceived by others, for us to adopt a minimum certification.

Only by making a case for a professional certification, which will act as a symbol of our dedication to continuous study and development and our adherence to ethics and best practices, will we receive the respect and trust that we crave and need to be taken as serious as the profession needs to become a boardroom position.

Are you with me?

What makes an award-winning communications campaign?

There's nothing better than being recognized for your communications work. Just make sure you're focusing on these three key points.

There’s nothing better than being recognized for your communications work. Just make sure you’re focusing on these three key points.

I’m fortunate to have been asked to judge many communications campaigns, for the likes of the Middle East Public Relations Association Awards, the Holmes Report’s SABRES, the International Association of Business Communicators’ Quills, and the Global Alliance Comm Prix Awards. That’s many hours spent pouring over communications campaigns.

As a judge, what do I look for? What is, to me, an award-winning campaign? There are three basic points:

  • The reason why: Firstly, what is the logic behind the campaign? What is the organization trying to achieve? And is the why supported by research or insights derived from the stakeholders the organization is looking to engage with and influence. This could be as simple as focus groups, one-to-one interviews, or information derived from surveys. Too many campaigns aren’t supported by research, and as such there’s no logic or a clear, evidence-based objective underpinning the campaign.
  • What was done: We now come to the activation piece, both the strategy and the tactics. How innovative was the overall strategy in terms of its budgeting and composition. How effective were the tactics re stakeholder targeting and engagement. Were the tactics used suitable for the audience, and is there a strong enough idea at the heart of the strategy? How well has the strategy blended together different channels?
  • Where are the results: A well-executed strategy will show not only strong outputs but also clear outcomes and, ideally, business impact. An award-winning campaign will clearly demonstrate the impact their work has had on the organization and stakeholders. And here I’m not referring to AVEs (Advertising Value Equivalencies), but rather other measures such as sentiment analysis, awareness, recognition and credibility. If you want more information on what measurement means, have a look at this white paper by Ketchum’s David Rockland.

If you can get each of these elements right, you’ll stand a good chance at winning an award, no matter the competition. So go and do your good work, and be recognized for it. Good luck, bon chance and bil-tawfiq, especially to all those entering into the MEPRA Awards today and over the past couple of days.

Caroline Sapriel and a masterclass in crisis communications

While I’ve been in the communications industry for a while (read the lines on my face!), every now and then I have the opportunity to meet someone who wows me. I had that feeling two weeks back when I met with Caroline Sapriel. Caroline, who is an expert in crisis management and communications, was invited along by the International Association of Business Communicators to talk about her insights on crises. What with all that is happening globally, it seemed apt to talk about how we can communicate better on issues that have an adverse impact, both on reputations and operations.

First of all, Caroline defined a crisis by three points:

1) Surprise

2) Brevity or shortness of time

3) Threat

What is fascinating is Caroline’s assertion that two-third of crises are smoldering, in other words they’re issues which aren’t tackled properly or which are ignored. However, as Caroline also adds, “most organizations don’t properly understand what a crisis is.”

Now, to the good news. Organizations rarely face true crises, issues which can substantially damage or stop operations and ultimately destroy reputations. However, most crises are still handled incorrectly. Many leaders look to manage a crisis in the same way as they manage through normal times, by forming a consensus and aligning others. However, Caroline states that a crisis needs a different type of behaviour, one that follows a command and control model where one person takes charge and acts decisively, with or without the approval of others. She spelled out five key competencies that leaders need to navigate a crisis.

1) Situational awareness and analysis

2) Sense-making

3) Stakeholder mapping

4) Scenario planning

5) Decision-making in a crisis

Now, let’s come to our role as communicators. Caroline was very kind to share her company’s integrated business contingency framework as well as spell out her 10 commandments of crisis management, which are based on decades of hands-on experience as well as research.

CS&A's integrated business contingency framework seeks to explain how communications and stakeholder management can support organizations in a crisis, through every stage of a crisis.

CS&A’s integrated business contingency framework seeks to explain how communications and stakeholder management can support organizations in a crisis, through every stage of a crisis.

The 10 commandments is also a fantastic read:

#1 Own up to and communicate the problem early on

#2 Recognize that you cannot make what is bad look good

#3 Be prepared for the worst. In a crisis, things get worse before they get better

#4 Prioritize and remember people’s safety is always first

#5 Focus on protecting your credibility and not winning brownie points

#6 Set the course, have a Mission Statement and stick to it

#7 Map and remap issues and stakeholders as the situation develops

#8 Use every available channel to communicate with your stakeholders

#9 If the crisis drags, don’t retreat into a siege. Stay out there!

#10 Manage the aftermath of the crisis. Remember, it’s not over until it’s really over

Caroline adds that in a crisis we can’t control the events, but we can control our credibility.

If you’re wondering how your organization is doing, have a look at the below image which has been developed by Caroline and her organization. The crisis management culture ladder will help you to understand where you are in terms of preparing your organization for a crisis.

CS&A's crisis management culture ladder maps out where organizations are in terms of their ability to manage and learn from a crisis. At the bottom are organizations who essentially don't care as long as they're not caught; at the top are organizations who thrive on and grow with every crisis they encounter. Where are you at?

CS&A’s crisis management culture ladder maps out where organizations are in terms of their ability to manage and learn from a crisis. At the bottom are organizations who essentially don’t care as long as they’re not caught; at the top are organizations who thrive on and grow with every crisis they encounter. Where are you at?

As an additional plus, Caroline has shared a reading list that will help guide you on improving your understanding of crises and what you should do to prepare as a communicator and leader.

On a final note, I’d like to thank Caroline for her time. And if you’re interested in knowing more about Caroline Sapriel, she’s the managing partner and founder of CS&A International, a pioneer and a recognised leader in the field of risk, crisis and business continuity management. For additional information please visit her company’s website.

The need to move comms past window-dressing: Adopting a standard certification for comms

For many companies, it feels as if communications is simply window-dressing. We have to change perceptions about our profession (image source: http://www.hansboodtmannequins.com)

There are times when I have no other reaction but to laugh. I was sat with an acquaintance and we were talking about a company which was hiring for a senior comms role. Me being me, I wanted to help out and recommend someone, and I asked the obvious question.

“What are they looking for?” I said.

“A pretty Lebanese girl,” was the response.

My friend was part joking, but also part serious. And here’s why. For far too long, communications has been seen as a nice-to-have, a function that isn’t really strategic. Unfortunately, what has often happened is that communications has become the department where either someone senior is left to ‘retire’, or it’s the place where an inexperienced but attractive character is brought in.

This Has To Change

We need to stop treating communications as a window dressing. Reputation matters, in both good and bad times (ask anyone who works at Volkswagen about the importance of reputation and its cost to the business). Today, thanks to social media, any one consumer or stakeholder can call out your company, for both good reasons and bad. And yet, few companies in the MENA region have people who can effectively steward and build reputations.

So, how do we do it?

Firstly, the industry needs to talk more about what communications truly is and what it can do for organizations and their publics. Many of us will work tirelessly for our brands, but we’re awful at doing public relations for ourselves. There’s not enough people out there, particularly among the C-level crowd and within human resources who actually know what communications is about. As an industry we have to spend more time educating our peers, so that they know what we do and the value of our work.

Secondly, we need a universally accepted certification. Would you go to a lawyer who doesn’t have a degree. Or how about a doctor who didn’t attend medical school? And yet, most of us in the communications industry have never studied public relations and understood the theory underpinning our work. If we’re to evolve, and become better at what we do, then we need to go forward as an industry and adopt a standard certification, be it that advocated by the CIPR or IABC. We need people who are accredited, who have invested time in their development, and who can say, “I know my communications theory and this is how I can prove it.”

I’m used to the status quo. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t want change. I want our profession to be respected, to have a seat at the table, and to be strategic. I hope you’ll join me, so that together we can push for change.

The State of the PR Industry in South Africa – key trends shaping business communications

I had the pleasure of being in Toronto recently, a remarkable place in an even more impressive country. I also had the honor of being in the presence of a couple hundred communicators at the World Public Relations Forum. The topic of the forum, which I’ll write more about in due course, was culture and communications. Being from Dubai and covering the MENA region, there was one particular presentation which caught my eye. The topic was the state of the PR Industry in South Africa – key trends shaping business communications.

Undertaken by Daniel Munslow, Principal Consultant at recruiters VMA Group, with support from the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa and the International Association of Business Communicators, the research covered a range of issues, from employment trends, recruitment and outsourcing, to skills development and training, key business challenges, digital media and future proofing. Over 386 communicators from 251 organizations took part in the survey, the majority of them from South Africa, but with responses from Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.

So, what are the learnings?

Challenging Times for Budgets

The communications industry, particularly in South Africa is facing a number of headwinds, including both economic and political pressures. Here are the financial highlights from the executive summary.

• 29% of respondents confirmed their teams had shrunk in the last year;
• 35% of comms budgets have increased, and the exact same amount have decreased their budgets;
• 30% of communicators say their salaries were cut or remained the same year on year;
• Nearly 9% of respondents have started their own consultancies on the back of retrenchments (5% of those surveyed have been retrenched since March 2015);
• Downward pressure on budgets has overtaken skills shortages as the number one concern for communicators. In 2015, 22% said budget was a key challenge for business over the next 12 months, this number has increased to 58%.

What impact will this have on agencies, especially those who are regionally headquartered in Dubai and who have taken a bet on the African market outgrowing the Middle East this year?

There's a great deal of scope for agencies to further their consultancy role with African corporations

There’s a great deal of scope for agencies to further their consultancy role with African corporations

Over three-quarters of in-house communicators outsource 25 percent or less of their communications activities to agencies. While budgetary pressures may limit the demand for agency services in the short term, will Africa follow other regions and embrace outsourcing to communications agencies?

An Increasingly Complex Business Environment

It’s also apparent that African communicators are not only having to deal with financial pressures, but a host of business and organizational issues which are making their jobs much harder.

The top five challenges for African communicators say much about how the industry is changing

The top five challenges for African communicators say much about how the industry is changing

Partly due to the ubiquity of digital, audiences are becoming ever more fragmented. And communicators are also worried about the ability of their leadership to communicate, both internally and externally. There’s a lack of African talent and a need for communicators to skill-up (interestingly, career development is the number one reason people leave their jobs. Remuneration is rated the third reason only). And, as organizations are getting larger, they’re also becoming more complex which is impacting the ability of communicators to engage internally.

There are reasons to be optimistic, particularly when considering the seniority of communicators in South Africa. Forty-five percent of those surveyed responded that they reported into the CEO or MD of their organization.

Nearly half of South African communicators surveyed said they report into the most important executive in their organization

Nearly half of South African communicators surveyed said they report into the most important executive in their organization

A Digital Future

It’s unsurprising that digital is playing a major role in how communicators in South Africa engage with others. Facebook is the most popular channel, followed by Twitter and LinkedIn. Only 17 percent of social media communications is outsourced, with corporations instead preferring in-house resources (for now at least).

These are the most popular social networks among the communicators surveyed in Sub-Saharan Africa

These are the most popular social networks among the communicators surveyed in Sub-Saharan Africa

However, there are still major barriers including a lack of understanding regarding a return on investment, a lack of time and a fear that something inappropriate may be said online.

Barriers to social media in Southern AfricaDespite all the challenges that African communicators face in today’s troubled economic and political environment, there’s a strong belief among those surveyed that the industry will continue to go from strength to strength. Ninety-one percent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed that the influence exerted by the communications function will increase over the next two years.

Additionally, 64 percent of the communications functions surveyed are involved in projects from the get-go, rather than further down the development stage when reputation issues arise.

There’s no doubt that Africa represents an exciting market for the communications industry in the medium to long-term. However, short-term issues will need to be tackled, especially a lack of talent and a skills shortage.

You can download the full VMA Africa Communication Survey 2016 here. For more information on the survey, do reach out to Daniel Munslow at dmunslow@vmagroup.com