Westernizing the Middle East? Another success for the PR industry…

Remember the last time someone talked about Westernizing the Middle East?

I’m a PR person and former journalist with a long memory. Recent days and talk of tensions in the Gulf have reminded me of a time prior to 2003, when those wise and experienced neo-cons in the West (who know the region much better than those who are from the region) asserted that the invasion of Iraq would transform the Middle East for the better.

The PR industry is responsible for many things. We’ve helped promote transparency, and occasionally gotten our senior leadership to open up to the media and general public. We’ve also been responsible for negating some of the worst crises you’ve never ever heard of. Well, now we’re also responsible for bringing enlightenment to the nether regions of this planet called Earth.

I’m not sure if the BCW CEO Donna Imperato meant to follow in the footsteps of such luminaries as Dick Cheney or John Bolton when she spoke the following words which were quoted by PR Week. But that’s what I pictured when I read the below.


“It’s important to help Westernize the Middle East. It’s good if Western companies are investing there. It will help modernize the governments and culture if you bring Western ideas, thinking and products into that part of the world. Scolding them is not going to help them modernize and make their people freer. I would take on education, destination, and tourism assignments in the Middle East. We’re particularly proud of the Ford ‘Women in the Driving Seat’ work in Saudi Arabia where women got to drive for the first time.”

It’s usually us clients who are putting our foot in our mouths, and our agency partners who rush in to help us. But making such a statement isn’t only reminiscent of colonialism, but also of what happened a decade and a half back (as well as more recently with tensions over Iran).

As communicators our job is to promote understanding. We’re best doing this by seeking to understand our diverse audiences. Donna, I’m always up for a chat as to why the Middle East needs many things, such as more respect for human rights and transparency. However, the last thing we need is more ideas like this which demean the region. And if you’re too busy for a chat, then how about grabbing a copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism. We can then talk about how we can encourage more American school children to learn Arabic numerals in school.

Taking Sides – Questions on and about the Arab Youth Survey

This year’s survey raised a host of questions about not just Arab youth, but whether PR agencies should become part of political disputes in the region

There’s so much which is good about communications in the Middle East – there’s the fast-paced environment, the ability to work across cultures, and an increasing awareness among management that comms matters. However, one area of weakness has always been a paucity of data, which means we’re often left wondering what our audiences are doing and thinking.

Now running for 11 years, the Arab Youth Survey was an initiative by Dubai-headquartered ASDA’A BCW to better understand the largest demographic across the Middle East. The idea was simple – ask people under 30 about their hopes, fears and aspirations. The results of the research could be used to shape government policy, create insights for the private sector and more…

The Methodology

For me, there were two big issues from the survey. The first was who was actually in the survey. For the first time, Qatar was not included. There was no explanation that I’ve seen as to why this happened – given that there’s few issues in traveling to and accessing the country, I can only assume that this was a political decision given everything that has happened between Qatar and the four Arab countries which are in dispute with the country. ASDA’A BCW is headquartered in Dubai, and has substantial business in countries which are in dispute with Qatar. The question I have is this – did ASDA’A BCW not include Qatar for business reasons, or was ASDA’A BCW not allowed to undertake the survey in Qatar by the government (there’s a host of permissions needed to undertake research in many countries across the MENA region). I’ll come back to this issue later on.

They’re not the only questions I have on the issue of how the survey was conducted. My jaw dropped when looking at Yemen; supposedly 50 people were surveyed in Ta’izz and 50 people in Al Hodaydah. How this was possible given both are war zones is beyond me, especially as Syria was excluded also (my assumption is Syria wasn’t included due to the physical risk of undertaking any survey there outside of Damascus).

The other questions I have, I’ve raised before. There’s no description of how the questions were asked (were they structured, semi-structured etc… and who was asking them as well). It goes without saying that this research, presented as is, wouldn’t make it through a single academic peer review. The more transparency there is when it comes to research, the more trust there’ll be in the fairness of the research and the actual findings.

The Insights

This year’s research revealed a number of big insights. One was media consumption.

It may be unsurprising that most young Arabs get their news from social media. What’s not clear is what the actual sources are for their news. I’m going to state this very simply for all those, including media, who simply reshared this insight – social media is a platform, a channel. Facebook doesn’t magically create news. What I’d like to know, and what wasn’t answered, was which are the most popular sources for news on these social platforms. Are they looking to traditional media with digital platforms, digital-only media, or other media outlets (even fake ones). This wasn’t asked, and this was a huge miss as far as I’m concerned.

The other big insight is the issue of religion. Based on the research, young Arabs believe that “religion plays too big of a role in the Middle East.” For me, the statement is too simple (binary choices often are, hence the need for focus groups and open-ended questioning). Why do they feel that this is the case, and what do they mean by reform? Seeing as nearly all the religious institutions are under the control of governments, is this an implied criticism of governments? It’s simply not clear how best to interpret this data apart from they want change.

There’s a host of other insights, such as the youth wanting regional conflicts to end, the demand of the Gulf’s youth that governments continue to subsidize their lifestyles, and how these people are driving e-commerce (that shouldn’t be surprising, given they’re the majority of the population. I was very pleased to see a section on mental health, a topic which has long been a taboo, as well as the impact of drugs, and perceptions towards the quality of education (this is an area which needs drastic reform).

The Issue of Balance

I want to come back to the issue of excluding Qatar, as this is what concerns me the most. For me, communicators are problem-solvers. They are also people who should bring different groups together. By being seen to take sides, we stop being seen as fair and trusted. I keep hearing from regional leaders on the client and agency side about the need to speak truth to power, and the importance of transparency. It’s often harder to see these concepts being put into practice.

What I’m saying is possible to do. I work in the business world, and our aim is to serve our consumers, no matter who they are. We don’t allow politics to get in the way. Once your objectivity is questioned, it’s hard to believe what you say. And, we are the builders of reputations. I hope to see ASDA’A BCW giving a voice to every Arab country next year in the 2020 edition of the Arab Youth Survey. That’s my definition of leadership in the communications space, and that’s what we need more of in the region.

You can read more about the survey here.

Update: I’ve been told that permissions were not given to conduct the research in Doha, based on a response at the press conference. If this is true, it may reflect a drop in trust/a belief that an agency in Dubai can’t be fair towards Doha. Honestly, I don’t know which sentiment worries me more.

A Women-Only speaker list for marketing and comms in the Gulf

Jehan BoldTalks

A recent LinkedIn comment on an event happening in a couple of months time has led me to write this post, which I initially featured on LinkedIn and which I’m now posting here so people can find it more easily (LinkedIn, your SEO is lousy). The person asked, rightly, why the event only had two women speakers out of a total of nineteen. She could have also asked why there were no Gulf women on the speaker list. In an effort to help event organizers find these speakers and promote diversity on stage. I’m also tired of manels and mansplaining!

All the women below are exceptional in their own right, and these are all people I’ve worked with or heard speak. If you’re organising a marketing, media, communications or public relations conference in 2018 or beyond, you need to include these women in your event.

For added measure, I’m including a number of women who are based outside of the Gulf. If there’s any additional suggestions, then please do share them and I’ll add to the list. And apologies for leaving anyone out.

Jehan Abdulkarim – A Bahraini national, Jehan has worked in the private sector for over 15 years, at blue chips such as Cisco, Oracle and Accenture. She’s also worked as a journalist. She’s the most senior Gulf woman I know working in non-government, and she regularly talks on issues relating to marketing and comms in emerging markets.

Maha Abouelenein – Egyptian-American Maha has worked for a host of tech firms such as Google and Orascom, as well as agencies such as Weber Shandwick. She’s based between Cairo and Dubai, and often talks about marcomms in the tech sector, as well as issues relating to government and public affairs.

Saba AlBusaidy – Oman’s Saba Al Busaidi is one of the most prominent advocates of digital and social media in the Gulf. She frequently talks about digital marketing in both languages, in Arabic and English. Saba was the first Omani women to to be certified as a Social Media Strategist. She has also played a big role in supporting local talent and small-to-medium enterprises.

Dr Hessa AlJaber – One of the highest profile government figures in the Gulf, Qatar’s Dr Hessa AlJaber has led her country’s ICT strategy for over a decade. Dr Hessa has keynoted many an event, with a particular focus on the impact of technology, and the need to promote STEM education among the region’s youth.

Hind Al-Nahedh – A pioneer in the social media space, not only in Kuwait but in the wider Gulf, Hind Al-Nahedh’s experience spans Corporate Communications, social media, integrated marketing, collaboration and blogging. Hind is often sought out to talk about social media and content/influencer marketing in the Gulf.

Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud – Princess Reema’s work across philanthropy, social purpose and business has consistently challenged gender conventions in conservative Saudi Arabia. In 2010, the marketing and PR worlds took notice when Princess Reema’s ‘Woman’s Stand’ campaign won Best in Show at the EMEA SABRE Awards. Her work in CSR and in marketing means she’s often approached to talk at events and conferences.

Fida Chaaban – Lebanese Canadian Fida straddles both the media and communications worlds. Prior to her current role, she was the editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur Middle East magazine. Today, she serves as the chief communications officer of KBW Investments. With an eye for both, Fida talks about how the two can learn from and improve one another.

Elda Choucair – As the CEO MENA at agency PHD, Lebanese national Elda is probably the most senior woman working on the agency side today in the Gulf region. Elda’s specializes in media planning and strategy. She’s also often asked to talk about how the industry can better promote/support women who want to work in the advertising & creative industries.

Ganga Dhanesh – As Assistant Dean for research and graduate studies at Zayed University’s College of Communication & Media Sciences, Singaporean Ganga is playing a key role in developing the next generation of Emirati female communicators. Ganga’s research areas are strategic communication management, corporate social responsibility and internal relations.

Mariam Farag – Marian leads CSR for MBC, the largest broadcaster in the Middle East region. She’s also worked with the United Nations. Mariam often talks about a number of her passions, including corporate social impact, storytelling, humanizing the brand and youth development.

Maria Gedeon – A destination marketing executive with over 14 years of experience, Maria heads up marketing for Majid Al Futtaim Cinemas. She’s also a board member for the Marketing Society and talks about the challenges and opportunities facing the industry.

Noha Hefny – An Egyptian national with 16 years of experience in comms roles with the United Nations, PepsiCo and McKinsey & Company, Noha talks about issues such as mentorship, social entrepreneurship, brand and corporate reputation.

Louise Karim – Living in Dubai since 2009, UK national Louise has led marketing teams at leading regional and international companies including DABO & Co, The Dubai World Trade Centre and Emirates Airlines. Today she manages mums@work, a female-focused recruitment agency. Louise often talks about the issues women face in the industry.

Eleni Kitra – As a global sales lead for Facebook across the Middle East and Pakistan, Eleni is an expert in contemporary digital marketing trends. A Greek national, Eleni has also worked as the MD for OMD Greece. She’s also passionate about mentoring.

Zaira Lakhpatwala – Zaira is the best-known female journalist in the Gulf reporting on the marcomms industry. Zaira heads up Communicate magazine, part of the Mediaquest Group, and she often moderates panels on the marketing and communications industry, on a host of subjects. If you’re looking for an expert/journalist, Zaira is your woman.

Summer Nasief – A Saudi national with a distinguished career in the private sector, Summer has led technology teams for the likes of IBM, Honeywell and Microsoft. Summer talks about innovation and how technology is changing a host of industries, including marketing and communications.

Maysoun Ramadan – Hailing from Jordan and Turkey, Maysoun is the head of Communication and Public Affairs for Roche Diagnostics Middle East. Maysoun’s passion includes talking on the issues of gender parity and female representation. Maysoun is also an EMENA board member for the International Association of Business Communicators.

Fiona Robertson – Fiona is a Senior Associate in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications practice in Dubai’s Al Tamimi & Co. law firm. In plain English, that means she knows the region’s media laws better than anyone else, and is able to knock the eyeballs of any audience out of their sockets with her understanding of legal issues.

Kindah Sais – A Saudi national with Lebanese roots, Kindah is the Global Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Leader, for the Middle East and Africa at Boeing International. Her career includes roles at Procter & Gamble, and Ogilvy. Kindah talks about the importance of creating diverse and inclusive work places and teams for firms based in the region.

Heba Sayed – As an IBMer who works across both marketing and technology, Egyptian national Heba is often asked to talk about how technology can be better leveraged by both marketeers and communicators in the areas of customer engagement, augmented intelligence (IBM’s definition for artificial intelligence) and digital solutions.

Valerie Tan – As the VP for communications at Emirates, Valerie is one of the best speakers out there on contemporary communications practices. A Singapore national, Valerie is able to give a unique perspective on communications across the Middle East and Asian Pacific region.

My 2018 Predictions and Hopes for the PR & Communications Function (Part 1)

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Here’s my top four predictions for 2018 and what we as an industry will need to tackle (image source: http://www.marketingland.com)

I’m writing this in the spirit of the very best forecasters, the people who put thoughts onto paper at the beginning of the year which turn out to be so wide of the mark a couple of months down the line that I will be forced into hiding.

So, here we go. I’ve sorted the post into two parts. The first is what I think will happen (hence predictions) over the course of the next twelve months. My hopes will follow tomorrow.

2018 Predictions

  1. More Political Uncertainty  If you think 2017 was tough when it came to political leadership (or lack thereof), you haven’t seen anything yet. We’ve had a taste of 2018 and what to expect in the region with the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This will be the year when US foreign policy shifts 180 degrees, on all sorts of issues. And others will behave accordingly. Other groups will need to step into the breach, and that means either the business community or the public. Expect more proactive lobbying and public affairs, and more reactive shifts in corporate social responsibility strategies.
  2. More Online Regulation  2017 may have been a great year for the likes of Facebook and Google (both registered record-high share prices in 2017), but last year may become a Pyrrhic victory for them, and other social media firms. Calls are growing in the US for broadcast regulations on political advertising to include social media following alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential elections, whilst European regulators are exploring how they can force the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter to take more action on extremist content online – this will include fines. Even in the region, there’s a concerted effort to update laws to better regulate topics such as influencer marketing – keep an eye out for the UAE’s new digital legislation in 2018. Whatever happens in 2018, expect social media platforms, and the content hosted on them, to be more closely regulated.
  3. Expect more Online Crises – This may not be that surprising (yes, I can see you scratching your head and wondering why I’ve put this in). But I don’t mean an irritated consumer posting a piece of content about their poor customer service experience. Rather, I’m talking cyber-espionage, hacking, and whistleblowing. Last year we witnessed political disputes which were initiated by website hacks, a sustained series of leaks from email accounts which had been broken into, the hijacking of social media accounts, and more whistleblowing leaks. 2018 won’t be any different; in fact, this year will only see even more illegal activity online. 2018 could be the year when online hackers shift from politics to brand-jacking, targeting corporates for money (think bots artificially spreading content that impacts brand and corporate reputations). As an industry, we’re going to have to do a much better job of understanding the technical aspects of the online world.
  4. The Agency Model Breaks/Evolves – This isn’t an issue which has gotten nearly enough attention over the past couple of years (with the possible exception of the good work done by the team at the Holmes Report). Agencies aren’t making much, if any, money these days. Costs are high, talent is scarce, and clients are cutting budgets or shifting money into other areas. Publicly-listed PR agencies are looking at single-digit growth globally, and geographies which offered more, the likes of China and the Middle East, have also slowed down. With more competition both within the industry and without the industry, especially from the advertising and management consultancy sector, will 2018 be the year when agencies look to change how they approach client servicing, or is it the year when clients look to alternatives. There’s already a growing trend in the Middle East to embed agency people into the organization, essentially turning them into contracted roles, especially in government and semi-government organizations. Time will tell, but it’s clear to me that we need a healthy agency model for us to sustain the industry.

So there you have my four basic predictions. What are your thoughts? As always, I look forward to hearing from you.

Journalists, Respect and why Communicators should deal Honestly with the Media

The region’s independent media are under pressure like never before, either financially or from online harassment. Comms people should treat the media with the respect they’ve earned (image from Sri Lanka’s Awantha Antigula)

I’m an old hack, literally. I used to work as a journalist, and I still have a soft spot for those who are part of this profession. I also know how hard it is to be a journalist, especially one who wants to go after the stories which aren’t press releases, and who will put up with the competing pressures of an editor who wants more breaking news versus the challenge of finding and then getting sources to talk on a particular issue.

Last week was a wake-up call for me as to how hard it is to be a journalist today in the Gulf, especially one who works for an organization that isn’t government-controlled and who wants to shed a light on a subject which doesn’t fit the official narrative. This post is for those journalists, and it’s a reminder to communications people in the region why respect and ethics should be central to how they behave.

Media Still Matters

First of all, let me make this clear to everyone who thinks that social is the be-all and end-all of what we should be doing today. The media still matters, especially for communicators (any head of comms who doesn’t read the papers during the day shouldn’t be in their respective position). There’s a couple of basic reasons why:

  1. The media gives us the simplest means to view different opinions, be they from government-owned publications or independents. And they get us out of our social media bubbles.
  2. Media also allows us to understand the priorities of those who own the media, such as governments.
  3. At their best, journalists can ask the hard questions that push us to think through how and why we are communicating. This is crucial especially in the Gulf, where there’s often not enough critical thinking or self-examination.

The Media owes us Nothing

We should never approach the media with the expectation that they’ll run anything verbatim. Likewise, we shouldn’t expect them to run with our narratives, and not ask questions. We shouldn’t expect them to publish our pictures. The media owes us nothing (this is a clear point in the IABC code of ethics). It’s up to us to be as good as we can be as communicators, and ensure that we communicate effectively, transparently, and in dialogue with the media.

Let’s be Respectful of the Media

We can and we should ask questions of media coverage which we believe to be inaccurate. However, what I have seen recently is a trend by Gulf-based or Gulf-focused social media accounts to start calling certain media and what they write as fake and fake news respectively. This mirrors what is happening in the United States. Just because we don’t like something does not mean that we should vilify it. Our job as communicators is to engage, persuade and advocate for our causes. If you can’t do that, then I suggest you go and join the advertising sector.

Ethics Matters, Personally and Professionally

Two other worrying trends are for media to be disrespected or even threatened online (especially female journalists). Another trend is for the narrative and facts to be changed after the fact, including through the use of documents or material which could easily be described as questionable. Again, ethically we must communicate honestly, clearly communicate the facts, and not do anything which we know to be dishonest.

Bell Pottinger underlined the need to act ethically. Communicators in the Middle East and especially the Gulf should stand up for ethics. The last thing I want to see is the industry making global headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The Media, the Web and Influence – a Journalist’s Response

 I wrote earlier this year about the waning influence of media, and how the media could tackle this through more transparency and better use of digital.

The piece elicited a response from one journalist here in the UAE whom I greatly respect. I wanted to share that response with you below.

On auditing and transparency:

Yes, there’s a lack of transparency and yes, there should be auditing but I’m not sure how much that would help. Most advertisers either don’t care or don’t understand that a publication with smaller numbers but the right target audience could still be valuable. In any case, an insane amount of deals are done because the media planners/agency guys and publishers are friends. So to your point, even if there were to be proper auditing, I’m not sure how much it would help the media industry regain its influence. 

On influencers and audience profiles:
Okay, the media and influencers should be treated separately. By default, media (and journalists) are – or should be – influencers, but in the context of the way the term is used here, they are not. So, why are we talking about an influencer who will give a breakdown of their followers? This is an issue, but a completely separate one.
With regards to media building reader profiles, yes they should but it’s important to define whether it should be sales or editorial. The issue of trust and transparency is relatively not as pressing when dealing with editorial because they have nothing to gain per se by bluffing/inflating numbers and audiences. Moreover, if editorial is interested in covering a story, they will do so (or at least, they should) regardless of PR/comms professionals pitching or not pitching said story. In fact, PR/comms need to think beyond what they want to communicate and instead look at what journalists want to do and try and be a part of that – something I’m sure you’re more than familiar with. It’s frustrating, to say the least, to speak to a company when they want to push something but not when you’d like them to weigh in on something.
On journalists as influencers:
There needs to be a line between journalism and whatever passes as content nowadays. Journalists should NOT be content creators and distributors for brands. It has to be either/or. They can’t have a balanced view if they’re speaking for a brand (understandably so)…it’s the whole reason we strive to keep editorial and sales apart. If anything, we need more journalists – not content creators or influencers – to dig up new stories, angles, and perhaps most importantly, be brave enough to pursue those stories.
Have a view? If you do, then drop me a line. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And to the journalist who wrote this, I’d like to say thank you.