How the Media Industry can regain its influence in today’s Social Media world

Is Print Dead

Print may not be dead in the region, but are there way that the media industry can regain influence lost to social media celebrities? (image source http://abcodigital.com)

I recently had an email exchange with a colleague in the PR industry here in Dubai on the issue of the communications industry and how to develop. I asked, what do we need to do better to make the communications function in the region better. His response was fascinating. To quote:

The truth remains that more and more media outlets are closing down, journalists being made redundant, consumers not reading much – but “following” social trends!

All what most of us have done is jump into the “influencer” band-wagon and discuss $ rates on the number of posts along with potentially a storyline. This should change. We need to find something more creative than being short-sighted to tap into the money.

But what keeps me awake at night (beyond other things, of course!) is what if media outlets close down, journalism as a profession becomes history – who the hell do we pitch our stories to?

While it’s true that the PR industry in the region has had a hand in the rapid and prominent rise of social media influencers, what about the case for the PR industry’s role in the declining influence of media, particularly print.

Here’s my two cents on how the media in the Gulf should work to regain its influence in today’s digital age. Let’s start with a look at one issue which the media has struggled with, namely transparency:

  • Audited Media – The number of audited print publications in the region is relatively low (we’re probably talking percentage-wise in the single digits). Whilst publishers such as ITP, and, most especially, Motivate have pushed for audited print titles, few others have followed suit. Audited numbers make our job of targeting the right media easy; we’re able to easily compare media titles, understand the reader breakdown and make a judgement as to whether a certain title is worth working with editorially (and then, later down the line, through advertising). It helps PRs clearly align media outreach with the business strategy, and it gives us trusted, independently audited numbers to back up our approach.
  • Unaudited Media – The vast majority of media in the region isn’t audited. Their numbers cannot be verified, and my assumption (which I assume is commonly shared in the industry), is that distribution numbers and readership is over-inflated. There’s no way that we can trust the circulation numbers given by publishers, and there’s no way that we can trust that the audience that we need to reach is seeing our messaging.
  • Advertising Media – Forgive the name for this third category. This is media which is created solely for the purposes of capturing advertising revenues, with limited to no circulation. With little to no circulation to talk of – in contrast to the publicized circulation numbers – such media and their publishers have done little to no favor to the reputation of media in the region. And it doesn’t help our cause in promoting media as the most effective means to reach out to our target audience, especially when the publication has effectively no audience.

The second issue is digital. Whilst some publishers, titles and journalists have embraced digital platforms including websites, podcasts, vlogs and social media, others have yet to leverage the power of online distribution and amplification. Digital remains a challenge for much of the media industry globally; no newspaper has been able to make a profit and run its business from its online sales revenues. However, with consumers in the Gulf region essentially living their lives online, does it make sense for traditional media publications to not be online?

The other aspect of digital which media needs to leverage is its ability to engage in real time with its audience, and build audience profiles. I’m yet to see or meet an influencer who will be able to give me an up-to-date breakdown of their followers’ interests, age ranges, geographies and other demographics. The media can and should be helping to build up reader profiles which in turn will help us work with them to target the right audiences. This requires trust and transparency, which is still hard to come by with many titles (see the above).

I feel its especially important that journalists build their online profiles. While many are being laid off as publications shrink, brands need reputable voices to work with. For me, there’s little comparison between a professional journalist and a social media influencer in the Gulf (there are exceptions). When reviewing a product, it’s much more likely that a journalist will give a less biased viewpoint, and will include both positives as well as negatives. That builds integrity and trust with readers, which advertisers should seek out as the holy grail of brand building. Journalists need to think about transitioning into content creators and distributors for brands, much like their social media influencer counterparts. The difference will be in their ability to tell a balanced story that is trusted by their readers.

Whilst the region’s media scene is slowly feeling the impact of ad spending shifting online (just look at the recent closures, including 7Days), I cannot and don’t want to image a day where we have no media to work with. The media industry has to play its part in changing to meet the needs of consumers, through embracing both transparency and digital platforms. I have a great deal of respect for the professionalism and expertise of many publications and journalists in the region, and I know how influential they can be. We need to ensure that their influence is recognized in a fashion that is understood outside of the media industry, by businesses who want to engage publicly.

Do you have any inputs or thoughts on the media industry and how they should change to remain relevant? If yes, then please do share them with me in the comments below.

Birth of digital influencers = death of true journalism! Who’s to blame?

Have social media influencers negatively impacted our profession?

I’ll be hosting more guest bloggers on the site. This piece is from Rijosh Joseph, and focuses on the contentious issue of social media influencers and their impact on the media and the concept of public relations in general. Enjoy the read, and thank you Rijosh!

Call me old-fashioned, but I am quite annoyed with the evolution of modern day PR! I often wonder, if not all but at least, some of us PR folks, have lost the plot or whether we are passing the buck to the modern-day advertisers?

The topic had been “vocal” both in my mind and among a few of my peers within this industry. A recent YouGov report published by BPG stirred further debate and hence I find the need to put forth a lay opinion.

When this study was posted as a pitch for editorial opportunities in “UAE Journalists”, a private Facebook group that has members within the media and communications industry, it laid the platform for members to “engage” with their views. And honestly, it was a very interesting thread to follow.

Coming back to the point, it frustrates me to sit with PR teams (clients + agency) only to educate them on the incorrect notion of treating journalists inferior to digital “influencers”.

For instance, a certified journalist, are in most cases, served with a press release, which PR folks expect them to carry in their publication. Yet a blogger or digital influencer, plugged to the cage of technology, and who does not possess any insights on journalism, gets pampered at an all-inclusive media event. I agree, product reviews, giveaways and meals never pay their bills. However, we hardly realize that it is a lifestyle choice that they made.

In my honest opinion, digital influencers could strive for a path wherein the real essence of journalism and the need for materialism, can co-exist. Instead of just showing up at events for the freebies, one can get creative in myriad ways of generating revenue while preserving the quality of good writing.

For starters, one can turn a blog into a revenue generating business-model with meaningful campaigns, rather than a platform for paid editorials or tainted and biased op-eds. For example, if you love travelling, then creating a memorable travel experience alongside partnering with brands that are willing to collaborate and for the same cause will let you fill your pocket and keep the sanctity of good blogging.

If one is in to fashion and beauty, then developing a fashion line or partnering with make-up brands they believe in for workshops etc., will lead consumers to their webpage, at the same time maintain the dignity of unbiased content with a penchant for money.

The core essence of blogging is channeling one’s opinion based on their passion points. It does not become a blog if it turns out to be a tool to endorse commercial products.

In the last couple of years I have come across several bloggers and digital influencers who “review” products, but end up in situations wherein they stoop-down to cringe-worthy negotiations, like refusing to publish the review without payments or price-tags being involved. It had also got to the point where they create a drama when we politely decline the opportunity and request to collect the product to return to the client as they are all part of a rotating media review sample quota.

Similarly for media events, if influencers expect them to be invited, it is only fair for PR folks to expect them to cover it. Be it, positive, negative or neutral – give us the coverage if you have shown up to the event and taken a press kit. It is highly frustrating when they send an email with their rate card following the event to publish or cover it. Instead, stop asking to be paid to be part of a media experience and honestly write your thoughts about it. That isn’t the role of true bloggers.

The point here is, I’m not trying to fully kill or disapprove influencer marketing. As communications professionals, we must tie up with influencers only if they can provide clients with tangible analytics to back up exactly what ROI they can bring to a campaign. But with the current state-of-affairs, too many lines have been crossed and it is appalling that we are forced to please every new kid on the block who claims to be an influencer and, worse, bend and break to their whims and fancies.

From the debate on this topic in the “UAE Journalists” Facebook post, there was one comment, which caught my attention to also reflect from the other side of the spectrum. The post stated:

“What is the difference between a paid influencer and a journalist who has absolutely no freedom or inclination to write a story unless there’s significant advertising spend? What’s the difference when a journalist calls you up, asking if you can get them tickets for a concert or movie, etc. Not saying all journalists do this, but let’s be honest, most do. Whether we like it or not, celebrity influencers have always been a part of the marketing and comms-mix, now with social media, the rise of the “digital influencer” is inevitable. You and I, may not have let an influencer sway our opinion on a product or service, but I think most of us, have tried out that new restaurant just because we heard everyone talk about it.”

And it is sad that I have to fully agree to the above post. All UAE journalists are not saints. We all have had our countless experiences that make us wonder as to why chose to be in PR. It is also a fact that in this region, the ethics in journalism among journalists have gone down. This might also be a reason for incessant rise in influencer marketing.

So, what can be done to clean up the mess?

To begin with, from a digital perspective, I feel it is time the scene becomes regulated by relevant authorities of the media council to make it mandatory that all paid editorial content on digital platforms get declared as “sponsored content” as opposed to how it is being offered to readers now. This should bring about a sense of equilibrium among all stakeholders playing within this sphere of media and communications.

And on that note, it is high-time, members within digital fraternity consider ways to stop asking for money merely to be part of a media experience. And as responsible PR professionals, we must not dig our own grave by fostering current practices with influencer marketing.

Departing but not goodbye – Fida Chaaban and Frank Kane step down from The Entrepreneur and The National

Frank Kane (left), and Fida Chaaban have left their marks on the UAE's media scene.

Frank Kane (left), and Fida Chaaban have left their marks on the UAE’s media scene.

The UAE’s media scene can oft be described as a merry-go-round; journalists change roles almost as frequently as their colleagues in the public relations industry. Every so often, a journalist comes along whom I develop the utmost respect for, both in terms of their professionalism as well as their personality. They’re a pleasure to deal with.

Just like waiting for a bus, not one but two of my favorite media are leaving their roles this summer. The first is a lady who has redefined what it is to be an editor-in-chief of a publication. Fida Chaaban came to the UAE around about two and a half years ago to head up the newly-launched title Entrepreneur Middle East. During that time she’s built up a strong editorial team who aren’t afraid to publish news on its merit (and say no to ethically-inappropriate requests). Fida has gone beyond that and she’s lived the brand – she could be found at any and every event talking about entrepreneurship including the good, the bad, and the public relations. Fida was a pioneer in terms of engagement; in a region where many editors-in-chief are unapproachable, she’d always be online (when did she sleep?), and responding to anyone and everyone.

Fida announced the change and her stepping down in her own fashion by posting an article about it online (it’s well worth a read). She’ll be staying in Dubai, so I’m not saying goodbye but rather I hope to see her back in the media space soon.

The second person is Frank Kane. Few people in the regional PR industry worth their salt don’t know Frank, a man who has been reporting in London for decades and who moved to the UAE around a decade ago. If you want to learn about proper investigative journalism, Frank is the man to listen to. Frank has been with The National for almost seven years, and during that time his column has been a must read for anyone wanting to understand the nuances of business and culture in the country. Frank will be stepping down from The National at the end of this summer, but he’ll be staying in the UAE.

I could share many anecdotes about Frank, but I’ll do with just one. Back in 2008 I was working on a deal between the New York Stock Exchange and Qatar on a multi-million dollar investment. I was talking with the head of a major public relations firm from London and his experienced team, reviewing the media list. Such was the reverence (and apprehension) for Frank that when we got to his name the gentleman in question said, “I’ll deal with Frank”. When you’re equally respected and feared by public relations executives, that’s when you know you have made it as a true journalist.

I’ll miss dealing with both Fida and Frank, and I do hope that both will be back where they need to be (and where we need them to be), behind a desk working on copy that you can’t put down. We need more journalists like them.

PS do follow Fida and Frank on Twitter, at @fida and @frankkanedubai respectively.

Did Arabian Business get hoodwinked by the Arab World’s most intelligent person?

Did Arabian Business fully fact check Dr Manahel's credentials before publishing this interview?

Did Arabian Business fully fact check Dr Manahel’s credentials before publishing this interview?

I just love obscure words, and hoodwinked is one of those phrases that we just don’t use enough. The term’s original meaning was to blindfold; its contemporary connotation is to deceive. I’ve finally got a reason to use this phrase in a question which I have on the cover story of the latest edition from Arabian Business.

For those of you who don’t know, Arabian Business is the most widely-distributed English-language weekly business magazine in the Gulf. The publication regularly breaks exclusives and its editorial team are among the most respected journalists in the business regionally.

This last issue was an interesting one. The cover was headlined by a lady called Dr Manahel Thabet, the founder of a business consultancy firm called Smart Tips. According to the Arabian Business piece, Dr Manahel Thabet has an IQ of more than 168, putting her in the top 0.1 percent of the world. Impressed? There’s more (and I’m now quoting from Arabian Business).

Arguably the smartest living Arab, Thabet has three PhDs. The latter, which she received a few days after our interview, suggests how education systems should cater to gifted and talented students to ensure they reach their greatest potential, a subject she is passionate about given her own experience as a gifted child.

Thabet considers herself a polymath — someone who is passionate in many areas — similar to Leonardo di Vinci, who was as great a scientist as he was an artist and engineer. Far from her latest thesis topic, her first PhD — which she obtained at the astonishing age of 25 — is in financial engineering and goes a long way to explain interest rate behaviour. She became the youngest person ever and only Arab to receive such a PhD magna cum laude (with great distinction).

The second is a 350-page groundbreaking formula that scientists and space researchers believe could help them measure distances in space without using the speed of light. The likes of Nasa and the French space agency have been competing for access to it.

All this has been achieved while running her own financial advisory firm and contributing to numerous organisations and boards.

All of this is remarkable, but the more people claim, the more I want to see and understand their credentials. And, this is where it gets interesting thanks to the internet, Google and a wonderful service called Reddit.

A number of Reddit users have taken it upon themselves to discuss Dr Thabet’s credentials, and they’ve taken a sledgehammer to a number of those qualifications.

At the end of the day, this isn’t about a person but more about a process. How do journalists in the region verify their sources? This isn’t the first time I have been left questioning a piece of journalism due to a lack of credibility (does anyone remember the fake press release on a non-melting ice concept for Dubai which was published in AMEInfo, Al Bayan, Al Khaleej and Gulf Today). But if there’s any doubt at all as to what a source is saying or their credentials, shouldn’t the journalist call it out?

Thoughts anyone?

How to, and how not to, pitch to the media

Let’s get rid of those bad pitches and give journalists fewer reasons to use the delete button (image source: http://www.meltwater.com)

Having worked as a journalist, as the head of an agency, and finally on the client side, I’ve learned a fair few lessons on the art of pitching a story. The beauty about the communications industry is that no matter how many year’s you’ve put in, you still keep learning. This was the case on Monday of this week, when I received an agency email pitch which basically used the client’s latest piece of coverage as the pitch.

Thanks to that experience I’m sharing with you some tips on how to properly pitch to the media, developed by Forbes contributor Cheryl Connor. They’re simple but effective, and they focus on the content and the delivery rather than the traditional media relations approach used still by many in the region.

1. Choose a target. And make sure the target will actually fit. For example, thousands of companies through the years have attempted to pitch The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg on writing about products such as network traffic management tools. Yet he specializes in covering products consumers would use. A good fit? Not at all.

2. Read the writer’s prior articles. Thoroughly. Read them with an eye for their interests, their themes, and the way your idea would help extend their subject matter further. (Not “I see you wrote about XX, so how about you write about it again?”) When you make your pitch, let the writer know how and where your idea might fit. Think through the idea through the reporter’s eyes—how will this piece be of interest and need to the reader? How will it meet the criteria the publication and the writer’s section and assignments must meet?

3. Pitch a story—don’t pitch your company. Believe it or not, your company and product, by themselves, are not an interesting topic. But as part of a broader story or an example of a pervasive need or a message—now they can shine. Think of what that story might be and imagine what it might look like in the hands of the reporter you’ve chosen. From that point of view, prepare your pitch. Make your pitch by email first. Let it gel for at least an afternoon, or preferably for a day. If the idea is a good one, the reporter may respond right away. If you don’t hear back, perhaps the next step is a call. When you call, refer to the earlier message. Regardless of whether the reporter has seen it or not, re-forward as a courtesy as you are talking to allow the individual to scan the high points of the message and preliminarily respond.

4. Be respectful of the reporter’s right to make the decision. As tempting as it is to ply the reporter with a strong armed pitch, you will be more successful by respecting the reporter’s right to say yes or no, while providing them with as many meaningful reasons as possible to have the desire to say yes. Is the story an exclusive? An idea or a slant that hasn’t been offered to anybody else? Will it be of broad need and interest to the reporter’s readers or viewers, and does it give them strong news or an angle on the information that hasn’t been presented before? All of these ideas will help.

5. When you speak to the reporter, get straight to the point. The whole idea of buttering a reporter up to the topic you called for is a bad one. Clearly you phoned because you wanted something. With the first words out of your mouth, let them know what it is, and what your reasons are for thinking it’s a good idea. If it’s yes, follow through quickly with the next steps. If not, why not? For another person or with another approach could it be a better idea? With the business of the call handled, you can then visit with the reporter for a bit and catch up if they have the time and the willingness. And at that point, they’ll know the personal interest is sincere.

6. Be honest and transparent about your desire for the interview or the meeting. For example, I was extremely annoyed to get an urgent message from a vendor needing my next available time to discuss their public relations only to find out their one and only reason for the appointment was to give me a demonstration of a product they were hoping I would cover for Forbes. And it was a product that didn’t fit my area of coverage, at that. The executives wasted an hour and a half of their time and mine. Not only will they not see coverage, but the company they represent will now find it highly difficult to get a return appointment with me when they genuinely do want to meet to discuss their PR.

7. If you can’t reach the reporter, avoid the temptation to call repeatedly. Listen to the reporter’s voice mail—it will often provide you with clues. For example, the reporter may be on vacation this week—out sick—moved to another beat (or even another publication) or may be so adamantly opposed to voice messages that you should be aware the message will likely never be heard (or may even offend them). If you do leave a message, one message in a day is ample. If the reporter has left a cell number on the message, refrain from using it unless the matter is genuinely urgent. They’ll appreciate the courtesy you use in reaching out in the ways they most like to be contacted.

8. Consider the strengths of Twitter. Twitter can often be a clue as to where the reporter is and what they are doing on that day. For example, if they Tweet they just arrived at the Oracle World trade show, it’s no wonder they didn’t answer the office phone. Now you know. Time your next call for after the event. Also, many reporters will respond to direct messages through Twitter faster than any other mechanism. Use that advantage, when you can take it, with skill.

These points reflect my own sentiments. A pitch should be interesting and to the point, add value to the journalist and her/his audience and relevant to the journalist’s beat. Communicators are story-tellers. The more interesting our story, the better the chance that the journalist will say yes to the pitch. There’s far too many badly thought-out pitches being made, mass emails promoting a person or a company. The next time you pitch, send the email to a colleague and ask them to answer you, in all honesty, if they’d buy your pitch.

Copy and Paste: Gitex news and repeating the same message

I used to joke with a good friend of mine who works as a journalist that companies would often recycle news year after year during the region’s largest technology exhibition. I’d tell him that firms would simply change the date of the previous year’s press release and joke that maybe he’d do the same.

I was reading over one news piece from Dubai Airport Free Zone (DAFZA) during this year’s GITEX. The piece, which I’m pasting below and which is linked to here, is on the launch of the organization’s first official mobile application.

DAFZA launches its first mobile application, in 2013

DAFZA launches its first mobile application, in 2013

I thought I’d seen the news before, so obviously I asked Google. And what did I find?

DAFZA launches its first mobile application news, from GITEX 2011

DAFZA launches its first mobile application news, from GITEX 2011

Copy and paste anyone?

The UAE, Egypt and the dangers of an open bias among media

How can a journalist consider him or herself a professional after openly declaring a media bias? (image source: http://www.thepoliticalcarnival.net)

There’s few proverbs which would sum up today’s Middle East more than “may you live in interesting times”. Unfortunately as we are discovering over and over again, that Chinese proverb is not a blessing but rather a curse. When I look at Egypt over the past couple of weeks I would have thought I was watching a Ramadan-season tragi-comedy rather than real life events. The situation is desperate; the sense of hurt and anger is palpable on all sides of what is now a conflict between two opposing forces.

Generally speaking, the media in Egypt is also becoming more polarized. Most media outlets in the region are owned either directly or indirectly by the government or by groups and individuals with a specific agenda. Even those media who don’t have a particular bias still have to self-censor for fear of crossing a red line. However, it’s rare for a (supposed) journalist or media group to come out and openly show a bias.

Two incidents made the headlines this week in the UAE. The first, and the most brazen, was an announcement of a one million Egyptian pound (US$143,000) bounty for information leading to the capture of three Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt. The pledge was made by an Emirati columnist named Hamad Al Mazroui through Twitter (Hamad has been called a journalist but he write columns rather than factual reporting).

This bizarre event was followed by a statement published by the UAE Writers Association in which it stated that “it is against the attempts of the Brotherhood to manipulate the tolerant image of Egypt and moderation.” The statement, which was first published on the country’s national newswire, reiterated the UAE Writers Association’s support for the Egyptian Writers Union, which has listed the Brotherhood in the terrorism list. The Association also commended the UAE’s unwavering support to Egypt.

I have few illusions about national media being influenced by their respective governments’ policies. However, the aim of journalists should be to report the facts and then provide analysis. Research by Gallup has shown that public trust in the media is highest when the media shows no bias; the opposite is true when there is an open bias.

Do such actions help to resolve the situation in another country? Do they help us to understand what is happening on the ground? And do they promote a sense of trust in media outlets here when reporting or commenting on the situation in Egypt? Journalism comes with responsibilities to report and analyse in a manner that is balanced and removed from prejudice. Let’s have more of this please, and less of an no open bias.