A Guide to Media Relations in Ramadan (and Eid)

Firstly, Ramadan Kareem! I know I’m late (it’s the workload), but I wanted to share a guide on how to deal with the media in Ramadan. For those who don’t know, Ramadan is the holiest month of the calendar for Muslims globally. Muslims commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammad, which was shared in Ramadan, by fasting during Ramadan. This annual observance of spirituality is regarded as one of the five pillars of Islam, and Muslims fast from dawn till dusk. This also means a shift in work schedules for many, with those fasting working shorter hours.

So, what does it mean for PR in Muslim countries or regions such as the Gulf? Here’s my guide to media relations in Ramadan below.

A season for greetings

It’s usual to receive two sets of greetings during Ramadan. The first is at the beginning of Ramadan, where people wish one another a happy or beautiful Ramadan (we usually say Ramadan Kareem). The second message is shared at the end of Ramadan, for Eid, the festival which marks the end of the month.

The Middle East is a society built on relationships, and it’s no surprise that many PR professionals send out such greetings to media to build their relationship with those in the media. A decade back, I used to receive greetings the old-fashioned way, in paper format. Today, I’m much more likely to receive an electronic version, either shared by email or via instant messenger.

Here’s two sample Ramadan message designs for you.

The start of Ramadan is marked by a crescent moon, and this image is commonly used for Ramadan greetings

Besides the crescent moon, there’s many different images associated with Ramadan. Another common image is the mosque, the place of worship for Muslims.

The Iftar or Suhoor Gathering

It’s also common to invite media to an Iftar, the meal which breaks the fast at sunset. The Iftar and Suhoor, which follows the Iftar later in the evening, are occasions to engage with others. PR agencies and clients will often invite a group of media to dine with them.

What’s great about a media Iftar is the opportunity to meet with and talk to journalists in a relaxed atmosphere, without the need to discuss work. The Iftar and suhoor gatherings are a great opportunity to build relations with key media contacts for an hour or two.

There’s other occasions during Ramadan, which are unique to certain parts of the region. In Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, many firms celebrate with their employees or media during a Ghabga, which is a gathering between Iftar and Suhoor. Whatever they’re called in their respective regions, make sure you know these events and how you can use them for media relations.

The Media Working Hours

Many companies reduce their working hours for those fasting (some reduce the hours for all employees). I asked three media people, one in a newspaper, the second from TV, and a third from a magazine, about how Ramadan changes their operations. Their responses are below:

  1. The Newspaper Editor: Working hours do change, and they don’t. My organization reduces hours like everyone else, but reporters must still find stories to fill our pages. The paper still has to come out. We try to reduce the workload but we still have to provide coverage. We’re less demanding on how many stories they file, but since there are fewer press conferences and events, reporters really have to go the extra mile to find people to talk to. Page counts come down slightly on slower news days, but that usually just means fewer international stories for the editors to source. But deadlines don’t change, reporters must still file stories, and the presses still need to be fed. And in the unlikely event that something big breaks… it doesn’t matter if Iftar is in 15 minutes. We want that story. Now, before competition gets it.
  2. The TV Editor: There aren’t many operational changes. Working hours are reduced for those in admin and management positions. For the editorial and operations teams, the hours are the same as outside of Ramadan. The biggest change is that we shift shows around, so the morning show is moved even earlier. Other program timings may change too.
  3. The Magazine Editor: There’s really no change to how we work in Ramadan.

Ramadan Themes

The other major change during Ramadan is a shift in coverage. Top of the list are issues related to Ramadan, such as charity, spirituality and other related issues. A simple example of a charity initiative is shown below.. The Dubai-based Virgin Megastore launched an initiative called Pay it Forward, in collaboration with delivery service Fetchr, to support the Dubai Foundation for Women & Children, which provides protection and support services to victims of domestic violence, child abuse and human trafficking.

Unsurprising, there’s less discussion about certain subjects (think alcohol, conspicuous consumption on luxury goods, and other issues which contradict the spirituality of the month). Many have come up a cropper on this issue, such as the below which was put out by a hotel in Dubai.

Atelier was criticized on social media for its gold-themed Iftar (and for the advert also mentioning alcohol)

Make the most of the holy month

Ramadan is a great time for engaging with media, and building relations. I hope that you’ll enjoy this time of year as much as I do, both for the spirituality of the occasion as well as the opportunity to see media friends.

Guest Post – Failing at the basics

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The anonymous editor really isn’t impressed by the lack of communication skills on show on the region’s agency side

Here’s a guest post for you, from our anonymous editor who has some advice for us public relations professionals in the region. Enjoy the read!

Here’s a question for you PR practitioners – what would your client think if a journalist told them ‘I emailed your agency with a request two weeks ago but I didn’t get any reply from them’?

The client wouldn’t be impressed, right?

So why, as a journalist, am I faced over and over again, with deafening silence when I contact so many different agencies? In the past six months, I’ve had numerous occasions where I have sent a request to an agency, and gotten absolutely no reply whatsoever. The same agencies are quite capable of making constant phone calls to my mobile when they want something, but apparently seem to think it’s OK to not even acknowledge an email sent ‘proactively’ by a journalist.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a reply, even if its just saying – ‘we got your email and our team will be in touch’. I don’t know whether you are waiting for the client to respond, but at least telling me you are working on it, or that the client is away, lets me know, so I can find another source or another interview subject if you aren’t able to reply by my deadline.

Sometimes an email may go to the wrong practice team or to someone who is on holiday. But everyone should know that if they are the wrong person, they need to pass the email along to the right person. An ‘out of office’ message is a simple courtesy. Even if you are not working with that client any more, not replying is bad for any future relationship with that reporter.

At the end of the day, your client is paying you to field media enquiries – I don’t expect 24-7 service (even if many clients might seem to believe they own every hour of your day!) – but your client has a right to expect communications from media during office hours are answered asap. Not ‘I was in meetings all week’ or some other excuse…

Failing to respond to an email from a ‘customer’ is a basic failing in business practice, for any business. When the business is PR and you are selling the strength of your ‘relationships’ with the media, it’s just plain stupid.

Rein in or let loose? How should an in-house communicator behave with media-friendly colleagues?

As an in-house communicator, would you reel an experienced colleague in or trust them to communicate well? (image source: http://www.questionpro.com/)

As an in-house communicator, would you reel an experienced colleague in or trust them to communicate well? (image source: http://www.questionpro.com/)

I had an interesting conversation today with a journalist (I still do that every now and then, as they’re a very fun bunch to be around). He was telling me about a recent event, of how a communications head for an organization came to him and asked about an award won by this person’s organization. It seems that the award nomination hadn’t been vetted by the communicator, and they wanted to know more about the nomination, including who specifically had submitted the nomination.

The journalist wasn’t particularly happy with what he saw interfering after the event. His viewpoint was clear, telling me that:

Yes, some journalists actually have relationships with people in organisations that don’t involve PR or comms, and while you can help that relationship, don’t mess around with it when it works so well!

As communicators, it is a natural instinct for us to control the message, especially when there’s an external party such as a journalist involved. However, does this always work? Does it make sense to rein in fellow staff members, especially when there’s potential to damage a relationship with your colleague or with the journalist whom your colleague has a relationship with.

For the journalist in question, much of his frustration comes from a feeling that when the marcomms team gets involved, the editorial process comes to a halt. In contrast, his source get to the point, he knows what to say and gives content that the journalist wants.

Would you rein in a colleague, especially one who is able to communicate well and who has a good relationship with a journalist? Or would you let them loose, albeit with some conditions and observations. You tell me, I’d love to hear your views.

And by the way, the award nomination won a top prize on the night.

Lessons from West Africa: The Need to Move Beyond Media Relations and Other Observations

Every now and then I’m allowed out of the country, and some of those trips make for some remarkable learnings. One of my recent trips was to Ghana. I met with a fair number of communications professionals from across West Africa, including from Nigeria. There was much talk around what I call the usual suspects – digital, social media, measurement et al – but what struck me most was the challenge that our colleagues in West Africa face when it comes to educating clients on the need to move beyond media relations.

There was one panel which opened my eyes to how similar West Africa is to the Gulf. Four gentlemen (and no ladies) from the national Nigerian and Ghanaian PR and African associations took to the stage to talk about the challenges and opportunities faced by communicators in the continent.

A fixation on media relations

What seemed to be repeated over and over again was the need to move communications away from pure media relations and towards a more holistic model; like in the Gulf, it seems that many clients are keen to get their pictures in the papers, their voice on the radio and their silhouettes on television. There wasn’t much in the way of a response from the panel, aside from pointing a finger at the numerous journalists who had joined the public relations profession and who were keen, or so the argument would go, to keep the industry focused on media relations as the only deliverable for clients.

Nigerian regulation and the slow pace of change

What was a surprise to me was that Nigerian comms professionals have to be registered with the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations to hold mid to senior-level comms roles in the country. Living in a part of the world which is unregulated when it comes to PR (nearly all of the comms people I know don’t even have a formal education in the discipline), I do like the idea of having an independent standard to meet and maintain. However, as one member of the audience pointed out, it had taken her just over a decade of chasing to secure her membership of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations and hence be eligible to hold a senior comms role. While some aspects of the sector may be different in Nigeria, bureaucracy remains.

Discussing the the evolution of PR in Africa #PRSAccra

A photo posted by Gideon Kodo (@gideon_kodo) on Feb 19, 2016 at 6:33am PST

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The rise of the female comms professional

You don’t need me to tell you that women are better communicators. They simply are, full stop. It was wonderful to see that three-quarters of the room were women, and many of them young ladies at the beginning of their careers. The local panel was full of men, an observation not lost on one brave lady who pointed out the imbalance between those on the stage and those in the room. However, looking long-term women will hopefully dominate at the top as they do at the mid and entry levels in the comms sector in West Africa.

A photo posted by @chiyneze on Feb 19, 2016 at 6:27am PST

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A focus on national talent

Another observation was the strength of the national talent. There were very few expats, which was a revelation for yours truly after being based in the Gulf for so long. While I was imagining Nigeria’s Lagos becoming a hub for comms across Western Africa and hence attracting expat talent, what I saw was a room full of (mainly) young, talented Nigerians and Ghanaians who care deeply about what they do and why they do it.

A photo posted by Mya (@mariann.balogun) on Feb 18, 2016 at 9:29am PST

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If you have experience of comms in West Africa I’d love to hear your inputs. Do you agree with the above, is there more you’d like to add or am I off on my observations. Don’t be shy, leave a comment or two!

Lessons on media relations and transparency from the World Government Summit

Dubai's World Government Summit has become a global event for government employees and is closely followed by the media (image source: Trade Arabia)

Dubai’s World Government Summit has become a global event for government employees and is closely followed by the media (image source: Trade Arabia)

This month was host to another mega event in Dubai, the World Government Summit. The conference, which even hosted an address by President Obama, aims to become the leading platform for governments, the private sector and the public to learn about and collaborate together for innovation in government.

Two areas caught my eye. The first was that of media relations. There’s been a good deal of talk about how the communications industry is changing and media relations will become less important. That isn’t the case, at least for the vast majority of us who spend most of our day pitching, preparing for media interviews, and following up.

There was a sizable media presence at the event, which is testament to the World Government Summit’s global reach. However, while there were dozens of international journalists – whose flights and accommodation were paid for – the story for the local journalists I knew was different. Few Dubai-based media were reached out to except by email, with no phone calls. And some didn’t receive an email to arrange for registration. One journalist I talked to spoke about his frustration on having to chase the agency to get his registration sorted out. He was particularly peeved by a lack of support or empathy from the agency about the issue, and not only him but his whole team being missed out. As he told me, ‘a sorry would have gone a long way when it comes to good will.’

While I understand the urge to engage globally – after all, the event is now the World Government Summit – not involving local media is a idea that will only sour the agency’s relationship with the local journalists in the short to medium term; and trust me, you don’t want to deal with an aggrieved journalist, let alone put them in front of a client. Plus, in today’s digital age, I don’t buy this concept of local and global media. Everything is online, and much of it is curated by services such as Google News. It’s now a case of getting that content seen by the relevant stakeholder, which can be done through increasing paid reach or seeding the content on other sites.

Transparency and its impact on credibility

The second insight is around the inaugural “World’s Best Minister” Award. According to the summit’s website, the “World’s Best Minister” Award was “thoroughly and independently managed by Thomson Reuters where the search for the nominees is conducted according to the established criteria”.

To quote from the Summit’s website, details on the criteria and judging panel are below:

The criteria of the Award were set by the organizer of the World Government Summit. The criteria for selecting the candidates WAs based on various financial and non-financial metrics, and their improvement over time. These are based on data disclosed by the World Bank, United Nations, Legatum institution and various other well known resources that provide data and statistics on economic information, social metrics and government services.

The primary focus for 2016 has been on initiatives in the healthcare, education, social and environmental services.

The judging panel consists of six judges from various backgrounds, who provide different perspectives on the candidates based on their experience, expertise and insights. They include senior executives from the World Bank, OECD, Ernst & Young, Strategy & Co and the Abraaj Group on their personal capacity.

From an initial selection of 100 ministers, the winner turned out to be Greg Hunt, Australia’s environment minister. This choice has proved to be highly controversial, particularly in Australia where the Australian government has been criticized for its approach to green issues.

My focus however is the response from Thomson Reuters who, I feel, have sought to distance themselves from the choice of the winner. To quote from the Guardian.

But Thomson Reuters said it was “not correct” to say that the company initiated the award or were responsible for designing the selection process.

“Thomson Reuters was solely responsible for assisting in the administration of the award, to a set of criteria approved by the World Government Summit organisers,” said Tarek Fleihan, head of corporate communications for the financial information company in the Middle East, Africa and Russia.

Transparency is key to credibility. And whilst I do love the idea of awarding government officials who innovate on behalf of their citizens, the controversial choice and the ensuing contradictions surrounding the process hasn’t helped to make the award as credible as it should be.

What are your thoughts? Were you at the event? I’d love to hear your views on these two points.

First the Kama Sutra pictures, and then the 2022 GCC media resolution – what is happening to Qatar’s media scene?

It’s not been the best of summers for Qatar’s media scene. First, there was a slip at the Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq. It wasn’t so much a slip-up as a huge !@#$-up. The paper’s long-time editor-in-chief Jaber Al Harmi was forced to resign after the publication of a photograph depicting sex scenes from the Kama Sutra. The story was best told by the Associated Press. But before that, the offending image is below.

Al Sharq's choice of imagery  for henna tattoos really couldn't have been worse. But where did they find the image?

Al Sharq’s choice of imagery for henna tattoos really couldn’t have been worse. But where did they find the image?

The image showed the woman’s palms decorated in numerous tiny tattoos showing a couple engaged in sexual intercourse.

Harmi took to the paper’s website to describe the incident as “a completely unintended mistake” and the “worst” he had known in his 25-year career in journalism and said he took full responsibility for what happened.

He said he “offered my resignation out of moral responsibility”.

It is not yet known if the resignation has been accepted by the paper’s bosses.

“All apologies are not enough for such a serious mistake, which occurred by publishing morally inappropriate images,” wrote Harmi.

“Our values and principles provide a red line that cannot be breached and so I presented my resignation to the board.”

He added: “This tragic incident revealed to us the extent of the adherence of our community to religion, values and morals.”

On Twitter, he wrote that “all those behind this mistake” have been fired.

But it got better. Following on from the unfolding crisis at FIFA, Qatar has been looking to tackle the corruption allegations surrounding its winning of the 2022 World Cup. As part of this plan, Qatar lobbied the Gulf to request media support. What they got was a call by the Gulf’s governments for all regional media to support Qatar. More from the Doha News website.

In an effort to “counter” media criticism of Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup, the GCC is calling on journalists in the Gulf to publish stories that support the country’s right to host the international football tournament.

The directive was released following a meeting of GCC information ministers in Doha this week. In a joint statement carried by state news agency QNA late last night, they said:

“GCC information ministers renewed their call for the media to counter all those who seek to question the right of the State of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, stressing GCC states full solidarity with the State of Qatar and encouraged media in the GCC to continue countering these campaigns at home and abroad.”

As we say, the media should report the news and not make the news. However, with all that is happening in Qatar, expect more media machinations soon.

How to destroy a brand through poor communications – the Nakheel example

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I’ll admit it. Every now and then I do get pangs of schadenfreude when I see brands being pulled up online by the media and the public. However, seeing a brand destroy itself is a different proposition.

I’ve been watching Nakheel for some time, and I’ve written about the company and its bad media habits before. The Dubai government-owned real-estate developer is responsible for some of the Emirate’s most iconic projects, including the Palm Jumeirah and The World. However, its customer service is, unfortunately, just as infamous as its successes are famous.

Last week, Sarah Townsend of Arabian Business wrote a scathing piece on Nakheel. Entitled ‘Nakheel PR: The toughest job in Dubai?’, she took a sledgehammer to Nakheel’s reputation The article is well worth a read, especially for those of us whom have spent long enough in the region to forget what quality journalism looks like.

If it were just one person taking aim at Nakheel, the issue would be manageable. However, due to our digital world reputation-bashing is a team sport. The article has gathered seventeen comments, all negative and some from disgruntled Nakheel owners. My favorite is the below.

A comment from a not-very-happy Nakheel property resident on the Palm

A comment from a not-very-happy Nakheel property resident on the Palm

On top of this, Nakheel is facing additional issues regarding its stalled Palm Jebel Ali project. However, it’s not the media which is causing trouble for Nakheel, but rather angry investors who have yet to see their properties take shape after years of delay. To quote from The National.

Hundreds of investors on Dubai’s Palm Jebel Ali have called on developer Nakheel to restart the project.

An estimated 400 to 450 people, most of whom made down payments during Dubai’s boom years between 2004 and 2008, find themselves in financial limbo.

All the units under the Palm Jebel Ali project, including its signature and garden villas and water homes, are “under cancellation”, according to Dubai’s Land Department.

In November, 74 homeowners wrote to Mohammed Al Shaibani, the head of the Ruler’s Court and Dubai Investment Authority, to look into the matter.

“The lack of certainty as to when our homes will be built has caused, and is causing, tremendous financial and emotional suffering for us and our families, and many of us continue to endure ongoing mortgage and rental costs while we are waiting,” the letter says. “Many of us have invested our life savings into the Palm Jebel Ali.”

Over a 100 Palm Jebel Ali owners have set up a group on Twitter with the handle @PJAOwners to lobby the government on their issue (bizarrely Nakheel doesn’t have an account on Twitter and there are several Facebook accounts, none of which seem to be legitimate).

For an organization which claims to be one of the largest and most successful property developers in the world, the media issues that Nakheel has gotten itself into are unforgivable (blacklisting the media doesn’t help). Having said that, many of the company’s issues are rather to do with how they operate. Public relations can never be used as a figleaf for unpopular or damaging actions. As Mark Twain said, “The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.”

At the end of her article Townsend stated that Nakheel are looking for a PR exec to join their ranks. I could be even bolder and suggest that they look at how they do business and rebuild their reputation first. Anything else would be putting the cart before the horse and will continue to destroy what is left of Nakheel’s brand. I’m betting things will get worse for Nakheel in terms of its brand image and reputation. But I won’t take any pleasure from watching this sorry story of a brand being destroyed from within.