A Work-In-Progress – What the first capabilities study says about PR in the UAE (and your role too)

Anne Gregory co-lead the Global Capability Framework, and she was in Dubai last week to talk about the first ever study in communication capabilities in the UAE

We had a VVIP in Dubai this week (I was going to say VIP, but everyone is a VIP in this town). Someone who, for me at least, is a public relations rockstar. And a person who has done a great deal to promote the function and its development, globally. Anne Gregory is a name you’ve got to remember. She’s been the chair of the CIPR and the Global Alliance. And, along with Johanna Fawkes, she created the Global Capability Framework (GCF).

I’ve reference the GCF before, and why it should matter to anyone who works in or wants to work in communications. Anne was in Dubai to talk about the UAE GCF research; this piece of work, which is being led by Ganga Dhanesh and Gaelle Duthler from Zayed University, is the first ever study to identify the most (and least) important capabilities of public relations and communication management in the country.

Well, the initial results are in. Anne, Gaelle, and Ganga spoke at an open event this Thursday about the initial findings from the study, to uncover which capabilities matter most to UAE practitioners. The results may surprise you.

These are the top ten capabilities required of communicators in the UAE as defined by the industry here

At the top by a mile is reputation, which makes a good deal of sense given we’re reputation builders. However, what I’m not showing here is what’s at the bottom. Among that group is ethics. Given what’s happening globally (think fake news, distrust of the media and PR), as well as regionally (social media manipulation, political disagreements, a lack of media/communications transparency), I’m partly surprised, partly understanding of the irony of communicators not linking these two capabilities more closely.

To ask a simple question, which I’ve asked before of others, would you trust someone who you don’t think is ethical? Clearly, we’ve got to do more on raising the need for the industry to view ethics as something which is important, and bodies such as the PRCA and MEPRA have got to play their part.

At number two, strategy was another standout. Conversely, measurement didn’t make it into the top ten, and was also near to the bottom of capabilities listed. While there’s a realization among many senior communicators on the need to align the function with their organization’s goals, measurement of outcomes matters, especially to our organizational leaders. It’s how we prove our worth.

Out of the top ten, what I also found interesting was the focus on crisis communications (is this driven by social media, I wonder), as well as environment (this means a contextual understand of all the factors we’re dealing with regarding our functions and organizations), and digital (I’d assume this reflects how quickly we’ve become a connected society).

How can you use the Global Capabilities Framework?

Now, what Anne and the University of Huddersfield/the Global Alliance have also done is make available a brilliant tool that lets communicators assess themselves and their teams against the framework. It’ll allow you to look at your skills, see your strengths and weaknesses, and understand where you need to develop and then re-assess yourself to see how you’re progressing.

There’s two assessment levels: the Core capability assessment is comprised of 11 questions, and the Full assessment has a total of 37 questions.

Once you’ve done your assessment, you’ll be shown a simple spider chart like the below.

This tool is free for any organization that is part of the Global Alliance (for example, CIPR). It also feeds into various professional development programs. You can check out the GCF tool here.

That’s all from me today. Do you agree with this list? Or do you disagree? As always, drop me a note, share your views and get engaged!

Is it time for a debate about how the PR sector deals with Ethics?

Why isn’t the PR industry able to get a grip on and deal with ethical breaches? (image source: Greenbiz)

Don’t fall asleep. Please don’t. What I’m going to say matters to our industry and profession. Over the past week there have been a number of big reads about ethical issues. First there was Fleishman and accusations of astroturfing about a project in Manchester. Then there were the revelations about how Monsanto and FTI Consulting sought to discredit journalists and activists who spoke up about Roundup weedkiller. And there was an interesting read from Stephen Waddington on Dominic Cummings, the communications tactics used during the Brexit campaign and why our political campaigning laws are not fit for a world where online advertising now dominates.

What is good is the increasing focus on ethical issues in the industry. We need to talk more about ethics, and realize the importance of this issue. What’s leaves much to be desired is how we are dealing with these issues as an industry. Our associations follow an approach of only investigating an issue once a complaint is made, leading to far too much reaction and not enough pro-active engagement (while I’d like to give the PRCA credit for agreeing to investigate Fleishman, it’s strange how this has occurred – Fleishman has asked the PRCA to investigate its own alleged breach of ethics. Fleishman’s Jim Donaldson is also chair of the PRCA Board of Management).

In some cases, associations aren’t even willing to investigate ethical issues. Case in point is my own experience with MEPRA last year, when I privately and then public asked about how new board members were being added, in a process that was in breach of the bylaws. What was the response, which was supported by many of the board? To paraphrase, “We failed on corporate governance, but you can now go jump…”

Many of us feel that censuring Bell Pottinger was the right thing to do after what they did in South Africa. And yet, the complaint against BP wasn’t raised by a public relations practitioner, but rather a political party and a journalist. Anyone who works in public relations will know a story or two about ethical breaches (always about someone else, of course). And yet, we’re not willing to speak up. Is it because we don’t want to speak ill of the industry, or that we don’t want to be seen as a trouble-maker (only own experience with MEPRA would suggest the latter).

Whatever our reasons for not talking, ethical issues are going to compound, given the increasing ease by which anyone can manipulate digital media. We’ve got to ask ourselves if there’s a better way not just to deal with ethical breaches, but also to educate members about ethics in general. This is a reputational issue that impacts us all, and we’ve got to start talking about an approach to ethics that is fit for today. What say you?

Has the PRCA become MENA’s industry association for communicators?

I’m going to start this post with me eating my own words, and those words were written in 2016. The London-headquartered Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) had just started its operations in Dubai, and I’d criticized them for not engaging with the local association, the Middle East Public Relations Association, and for not being in tune with what the local market needed.

Three years later, I’m happy to say I was wrong. The PRCA MENA chapter has launched a number of big, inspirational initiatives, such as the MENA awards, the Cannes Young Lions for aspiring communicators in the region to present at the world’s biggest marketing event, and even Arabic-language initiatives such as NextGen Arabia to mentor local talent.

What has surprised me about the PRCA MENA has been its ability to expand into the region’s key markets. The organization has chapters both in Egypt and Lebanon, two countries which are the feeders of markets like the United Arab Emirates. The PRCA has moved quickly to establish itself as an entity that is locally based across the region. What has also impressed me is the PRCA’s willingness to reach out and work with other groups.

Where does this leave MEPRA?

For a decade, the Middle East Public Relations Association was the only representative body for communicators in the region. When the PRCA opened up shop in Dubai, my hope was that competition would drive MEPRA forward.

At that time, I was on the MEPRA board and was pushing for geographic growth and more partnerships. Back then, there was a chapter in Qatar, and my hope was that we’d open up in Saudi and Jordan or Lebanon.

Three years later, there’s no chapters outside of the UAE (the Qatar chapter closed down). There are partnerships in place with the CIPR, which is benefiting MEPRA members with additional training options. However, I’d have liked to have seen wider agreements with other organizations to promote certification and best practice sharing (there’s an agreement with the Arthur W. Page Society, but I don’t see how this benefits the mass membership, given Arthur Page is focused on senior practitioners).

I have full confidence in MEPRA’s chair and vice-chair, and I was glad to hear of their plans to do more in Saudi this year. But it’s also clear to me that decisions made to make MEPRA stronger after the PRCA MENA launched in 2016 haven’t resulted in more agility and the ability to get things done quickly.

The region needs a strong local body, and I hope that MEPRA becomes a regional association that is present in the major markets across the region. At the moment, the PRCA seems to have become a membership body that is present where most of the region’s communicators are. And that can only be a good thing as we look to bring the industry together and raise the standard of our profession.

“Spoiled Journalists” – Why Communicators Should Support MENA’s Declining Media Sector

The Gulf’s media has had a shocking year so far, with a series of journalist layoffs in the UAE. Is there anything that communicators can do to support the journalists they work with?

I’ve been around the block, and I’ve read, seen and done so many bizarre things in my profession that I’m rarely phased. But there’s a moment once in a blue moon when I have one of these moments where I’m reliving Arsenio Hall.

What set me off was a piece published by PR Week Middle East. The journalist had interviewed a Dubai-based public relations practitioner. The title was “Journalists and Social Media Influencers are too spoiled.” I’ll share just one quote from the piece, which you can read after subscribing to PR Week.

Social media influencers and journalists are being so spoilt and most brands raise the bar very high because they send expensive gifts and also, they have been bombarded by hundreds of pitches a day. This will make it near enough impossible for our brand stories to get noticed in the sea of emails flooding to their inbox – as well as the number of gifts they receive.”

Firstly, I don’t understand how any PR person can lay the blame on the media when the gifts are being sent by the PR people (Santa, why did you bring me so many presents this year?). And secondly, at least for much of the media, this just isn’t happening.

The Media is Collapsing

Over the past month I’ve heard first hand about three dozen journalists being fired from two of the largest publishers in Dubai, the Gulf’s media hub. They’re either being offered salaries which are up to a third lower than what they’re currently making, or they’re being laid off because the ad money is being put into digital (read Facebook and Google).

Why does this matter to communicators? Firstly, the expertise of these journalists is invaluable; they know their beat given their local experience (most journalists are expats, and new journalists often come from outside of the Gulf) and they’re able to put stories into context (one journalist who was laid off from Gulf News is probably the best investigative journalist in the Gulf today). Secondly, like in other parts of the world, the number of public relations people is increasing, and the number of journalists is decreasing. Publishers are increasingly turning to freelancers, not just to provide copy to but actually run publications (they’re cheaper, as their direct and indirect costs are lower – think no medical insurance, no end-of-service benefits etc).

What is different in the Gulf is that without employment, expats must leave. There’s no gig economy to speak of, as individuals aren’t free to take on multiple roles/jobs (unless they’re nationals), and few ex-journos are willing to set up content shops given the costs of visas and setting up business licences. In addition, those journalists who remain are frequently finding themselves overextended, and they’re being asked to take up non-editorial activities, be it supporting on sales pitches, or arranging events.

How Can Communicators Help?

While I’d like to think that the global decline in print media is reversible, I’m not that naive. However, as communicators we have to play a part in supporting the journalists we work with (I’ll always have a soft spot for the media, partly because I respect what they do and partly because I don’t want my job simply to be about working with influencers).

Firstly, we’ve got to clearly state why earned media makes sense to our clients. In an age where trust in other media types is falling, much of the public still believes what they read in their newspapers and magazines. We’ve got to go further than this, and start looking at how we can work with media outlets on concepts such as native publishing. If media engagement matters to us, we have to think how we can support these outlets financially whilst ensuring that editorial and sales lines don’t blur (much of what we do with influencers is paid).

Secondly, I think many of us would benefit from spending a day on the media side. The person quoted in the PR Week article is right in one respect – there’s far too many pitches being made, pitches which aren’t relevant and which add little value to the audiences we’re trying to engage with and influence. We’ve got to move away from the mass-blast press release, and start thinking more critically about how we can create content that is both right for a publication in terms of its audience, and is of a high enough quality for the editor to say, “I’d like to run this piece.”

What I feel will eventually happen is that regional brands will start to move in the direction of organizations in Europe and the US by hiring former journalists as in-house content heads. A part of me would welcome this (the quality of content put out in this region needs to be drastically improved), but a part feels that we’ve got to think long and hard as to how we can work with the media industry to explain why they matter and how they should be considered a critical piece of both communications and advertising strategies for organizations in the region.

Given that last thought, I do hope that the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA) will also step up and support the media sector; MEPRA shared the PR Week story without any comments on its own stated view for or against the “spoiled journalist” opinion. We need leadership in this space, and it’s got to come from industry bodies.

As always, I’d welcome your views.

Corporate governance should matter to all of us when it comes to reputation building

I’m sharing this article, which first ran in Communicate Middle East a couple of days back. I care deeply about the industry and about MEPRA, to which I gave five years of board service. My message is simple – we can and must do better when it comes to corporate governance. And MEPRA must lead by example.

“It’s no secret that I care about the communications industry in the region. I’ve done more than my fair share when it comes to supporting people and organizations in becoming more aware of what good communications is all about, and why it’s central to building strong reputations. I’ve also spent years advocating for the adoption of best practices, including good corporate governance, through both my day job and my board positions for several communications associations including the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA), Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and Advertisers Business Group (ABG).

Good corporate governance builds reputation; weak corporate governance undermines trust. I’m not simply talking about following regulations and laws, but also the need to be transparent as well as feel that an organization’s leadership is doing the right thing, listening to concerns and acting with integrity. As a member of the communications industry who is interested in how my profession is perceived, I care about reputations and the need to do the right thing.

One of the organizations I’ve supported, both as a member and through a board position, is the MEPRA. As a member, I’ve always maintained that we must adhere to the strongest standards of corporate governance. It’s integral to our mission of empowering communicators in becoming strategic advisors, particularly to organizational leadership.

Given that, I’m confused as to how at least three members have been added to the organization’s Strategy Board in the months following the Annual General Meeting on February 5. There was no member’s vote on their nomination and no communication sent to members besides the update on the website. And I’m struggling to reconcile this with what’s stated in the MEPRA Charter. I’ll quote from the Charter:

  • The Boards shall be elected from MEPRA’s members.
  • The election will take place at the Annual General Meeting to be held each year or at an Extraordinary General Meeting if required and agreed by a majority of the Executive Board.
  • The Executive Board shall be responsible for establishing the nomination and election process each year, provided always that: nominations for each office of the Boards will be invited from the members of the association when giving notice of the Annual General Meeting. The Executive Board must receive all nominations in writing in reasonable time before the date of the Annual General Meeting. Every nomination shall be supported by at least two voting members of the Association. The Executive Board will circulate the list of nominations to members not less than two weeks prior to the Annual General Meeting.
  • Election will be by a simple majority of the members eligible to vote.
  • Voting will be by secret ballot.
  • All MEPRA members are eligible to vote in the election of the Strategy Board. Only members of the Strategy Board are eligible to vote in the election of the Executive Board. Only members of the Executive Board are eligible to vote in the election of Chair and Vice Chair. No member may vote for him or herself.
  • If for any reason a member of the Boards is unable to serve for a full two years the vacancy will be advised to the members and the Executive Board may fill the vacancy from any candidates that express an interest in filling the vacancy and which have the competencies required in order to fill the relevant role. The decision of the Executive Board in relation to filling vacancies shall be final.

This article won’t win me many plaudits, and I expect that I’ll be criticized for openly airing this. However, we must be able to have the courage to speak honestly, even to those in power. Speaking truth to power means that we believe deeply in what we say, that we care, and that we understand the risks of not doing so. Doing what’s right, rather than what is politically convenient, is incumbent on all of us.

It would be easier for me – or any of us – not to say anything. I was asked by a board member, “Why do you care?” I care because I am part of this region and this industry. Reputations matter, especially for a body that represents what we do. I believe in the region’s talent, and our ability to break down misperceptions about the Middle East when it comes to corporate governance.

I also realize that if we are not transparent, if we don’t engage proactively, and if we don’t follow our own rules, we will not have the trust that we need to raise the profession from one that simply executes to one that advises and guides a company and its board to do the right thing.

If you don’t believe me, that’s fine. I may be taking all of this too seriously. However, go and ask any Abraaj shareholder about the implications of weak corporate governance. If you still don’t understand the need to build strong corporate governance and its role in reputation building, then maybe communications isn’t the right role for you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

SunilJohn

Slow to No Growth

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

Government Spending Grows

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

Payment Terms and Governments

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

Is Industry Action Going to Happen?

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

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

The Six Essentials for Promoting Brand Building and Trust Among MENA Consumers (MEPRA/YouGov Research)

trust-in-blue-marker

Trust is one of those intangibles which we as communicators must always focus on. Trust, that notion of one person relying on and believing in a second person, is key to changing attitudes and behavior. But how do you build trust, and what channels should you focus on? These are the questions that we need to answer to be able to do our job of building and protecting reputations. So, where should one begin when looking to build trust?

Based on research by YouGov, which was commissioned by the Middle East Public Relations Association and which included a survey of across the six Gulf states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, the place to begin isn’t online, but rather face-to-face. Fake media, less impactful advertising, and third-party advocacy are also reshaping where consumers in the region put their trust.

I’ve written three blog posts on the issue which I’ve already published on the blog, to explore the findings country-by-country, but here’s the big picture headlines from the research, which surveyed 4,475 people across the region.

1. Face-to-Face with family/friends is key to influence

It should be obvious to us all, and here’s another reminder for anyone working in communications/marketing. If you want to build trust in a brand, its products and services, then look at how you can engage the public through word-of-mouth. Across the region, 85% of respondents trust product and service recommendations from their family and friends. Nothing else comes close to these positive statistics.

2. Online works if you focus on friends and family, less so on social influencers

Over the past couple of years we’ve shifted for an incessant focus on digital to idolizing anything social. As the first big finding shows, in-person interaction is still the most persuasive. Online engagement does work, but it’s not as effective; 52% of respondents trust online recommendations about products and services from family and friends (interestingly, the percentages are highest for the Gulf and lowest for the Levant).

When it comes to social influencers, consumers are conflicted – 34% do trust social influencers/people with large online followings on products and services, compared to 29% who find them untrustworthy. A lack of transparency re paid/sponsored content probably isn’t helping. What’s helping even less is a tendency for social influencers in the region to say little which is negative when reviewing products and services.

3. There’s not as much trust in the media as we PR people may think

I was surprised by how low the scores were when it came to trust in the media as a source of information on products and services. The top-rated media was a brand’s own website (which should make sense, but given how bad websites are in the region this is still surprising), which scored 46% for trustworthiness. Every other medium scored in the 30s, which is a surprise considering how much faith public relations professionals put in securing editorial coverage with media outlets (for many, it’s still the essence of their day jobs). Blogs scored the lowest, at 31% trustworthiness (they were rated as untrustworthy by 30% of respondents). Should brands invest more in their own online media? The answer would seem to be an obvious yes.

4. Advertising is trusted almost as much as the media (except when it’s online)

The research is a mixed bag for the advertising sector. Out-of-home advertising such as billboards seem to be the most trusted by consumers, with a trust rating of 36%. Television is close behind with 35% trust, followed by radio at 31%. Online comes in last, at 28%. There’s more mistrust than trust for online advertising, with 33% of those polled not believing product and services information they see when displayed as an online ad. This may be due to misleading advertising around product pricing and availability. Whatever the reason for the low trust levels (especially online), marketers need to do more to win the trust of consumers, especially with trust in advertising dropping; 61% of those polled agreed with a statement that they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago.

5. Social media is a popular news source, but it’s not trusted thanks to ‘fake news’ concerns

Social media is becoming/has become a key source of news for most people (58%) in the region when compared to five years back (and there’s no distinction either by age, which is surprising). However, there’s still a trust issue. Almost half (48%) agreed they they have low trust in social media, which isn’t that surprising given the amount of fake/incorrect information out there. Which goes to underline the need for brands to focus on their owned media channels even more so.

The research did hammer home the power of third-party advocacy. When asked if they have more trust in what a third party says about a good or a service than what a brand says about its own goods and services, 65% responded by saying yes. Brands need to focus on winning over trusted individuals/groups who can influence consumers.

6. When it comes to social media, Facebook is King

If you’re looking to find out about a product or service in the region, it seems that Facebook is the place to go. Over half (53%) said that they found Facebook to be the most useful platform as a source of information (this rose to 72% for Egypt). Nothing else came close. WhatsApp was a distant number two, at 12%, and Instagram third at 9%. There was no mention of Twitter, and it would have been good to have understood where Twitter and YouTube featured as sources of information on products and services for the public.

So that’s the big picture for you. Keep an eye on the blog in the coming few days as I put out country-by-country reports. If you need more specific information, please do reach out to me.