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.

#Sit_Down_Hind (#اقعدي_يا_هند) and sexism in Jordan’s politics

All credit to #BBCTrending for an amazing piece on politics in Jordan, following a bizarre debate in the country’s Parliament which turned from a discussion on the Muslim Brotherhood to one of sexism in politics. Please read the full story here from the BBC’s website. In the meantime, I’m going to quote from the BBC piece below. Even if you’re not an Arabic speaker, the body language of those in the video can be understood by anyone.

The Jordanian parliament is no stranger to screaming matches but a recent incident was so controversial that it provoked people to poke fun at their MPs online.

Earlier this week, during a heated argument over the Muslim Brotherhood, independent MP Yehia al-Saud was cut off by one of his female colleagues, Hind al-Fayez.

“Sit down Hind!” al-Saud yelled several times.

When al-Fayez ignored him, al-Saud turned his gaze and hands upwards and shouted “May God have his revenge on whoever brought quota to this parliament!” – a reference to female parliamentary quotas.

Local media reported that al-Saud later made another comment that women were created to put on make-up and cook for their husbands.

Videos of the incident have had over a million views on Facebook and YouTube, and were quickly followed by sarcastic comments and memes.

The Arabic hashtag “Sit down Hind” mocking the MPs also became popular in Jordan.

If there’s anything we have in abundance in the region, its a sense of humor. With scenes like this and outdated views on the place of women, we need a sense of humor more than ever.

The Middle East and its addiction to Facebook – 2013 stats and figures

Yes, we Arabs have adopted Facebook as our own (image source: muslimscrisisgroup.wordpress.com)

Most of us in the region already know how effective and powerful Facebook is. The social media site played a prominent role in the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt, and its popularity has endured in the face of challenges from other services such as Twitter and YouTube (I’m not even going to mention Google+ in the same sentence).

Facebook released some figures this week about the site’s usage in the Middle East. According to Facebook’s head of MENA Jonathan Labin over twenty eight million people in the Middle East and North Africa are using Facebook every day. Fifty six million use the site every month and of those thirty three use a phone or tablet device to check their profile. Fifteen million people access the site on a daily basis from their mobiles.

I’m going to give you a little more insight into a couple of different regions: Saudi Arabia; Egypt; the GCC; North Africa, and the Levant. The below figures, which were compiled last month, give a good deal of insight into gender split, age, marriage status, number of friends and page likes, access methods, and interface usage. If you’re a marketer in this region and you’re not using or leveraging Facebook (especially on mobile) then start rethinking your advertising and communications approach.

Attacks on Al-Jazeera intensify following the fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

Al-Jazeera has come under fire for its alleged political ideology in its coverage of Egyptian news (image source: islam.ru)

Who doesn’t know Al-Jazeera? The Doha-based and Qatar-owned news broadcaster became infamous for its airing of messages from Al-Qaeda’s leaders, most notably Osama Bin Laden. The news channel, which was created in 1996 following attempts by the British Broadcasting Corporation to set up their own Arabic channel failed, has always been the target of criticism partly due to its political inclinations and its inability to criticize its owners – the State of Qatar – while running documentaries and publishing news critical of neighbouring Middle East states.

However, Al-Jazeera has been having a particularly rough time of late following recent events in Egypt. partly of its own making but what’s even more interesting is the level of coverage that other media has given to targeting Al-Jazeera following the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Government in Egypt.

Ever since the events of the end of June and the start of July in Cairo it’s almost felt as if there’s been a witch-hunt against Al-Jazeera due to its Egyptian coverage. The main accusation? Al-Jazeera’s bias towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

While I understand the accusation, the fact that many of those making the claims are firstly media publications and secondly state-owned doesn’t sit well with me. I know of few state-owned media who are not guilt of being their master’s voice and hence being guilty of their own allegations against Al-Jazeera. Furthermore, I always find it strange when media attack other media; it’s hard enough being a journalist as it is today without being criticized by fellow colleagues.

I’m going to highlight a couple of articles below, from the Dubai-based and Dubai-owned Gulf News. The first and the most conspicuous news item was a special which was run on the 14th July entitled Al Jazeera loses respect over Egypt coverage. Do read over and share your views with me on this one.

Founded in 1996 and funded by Qatar, Al Jazeera was supported by many Egyptian revolutionaries. Demonstrators in Tahrir Squar chanted for it. Also, Al Jazeera staffers were feeling proud that they contributed to the Egyptian revolution with their work and coverage. They made the network the most popular channel in the country.

However, when the now ousted president Mohammad Mursi pushed through an unpopular consistution last November, many Egyptians found themselves flipping from Al Jazeera to other Egyptian networks. Distrust over its coverage reached unprecedented levels and took it from being the most popular to the most hated channel — its staff were now feeling embarrassed as their reputation was dragged through the mud.

A senior official at Al Jazeera who did not want to be named said that while the network appeared to be a neutral media network it was still a political tool in the hands of the Qatari emir. “He personally visited the studios during the Iraq war to make sure no footage of dead of abducted soldiers was aired. It was clear he was under US pressure,” the official said.

“In a special meeting in 2009 attended by some media seniors in Doha, the Emir said that Egypt’s regional role must be ended forever,” said another official. “When the Muslim Brotherhood announced it would field deputy chairman Khairat Al Shater as a candidate in the elections, the news team slotted it as the second story in the news bulletin, but then upon special request from the Emir’s palace, it was bumped up to the first news story.”

A producer claimed that when people started complaining and accusing Al Jazeera of favouring Islamists in Egypt, the station started to exclude any outspoken political analysts and opponents of the Brotherhood from appearing on its screen. On the other hand, he said, video reports that propped up Mursi and the Brotherhood’s image were welcomed by management in Doha. Anchors who used to interrupt the Muslim Brotherhood’s opponents in live interviews were judged as excellent.

The perceived bias prompted many leading journalists and TV anchors to leave the network. Aktham Suliaman, the German-based correspondent who left the station recently, told the German magazine Der Spiegel: “Before the beginning of the Arab Spring, we were a voice for change — a platform for critics and political activists throughout the region. Now, Al Jazeera has become a propaganda broadcaster.”

Another Beirut-based correspondent said that “Al Jazeera takes a clear position in every country from which it reports — not based on journalistic priorities but rather on the interests of the Foreign Ministry of Qatar. In order to maintain my integrity as a reporter, I had to quit.”

Other interesting articles from Gulf News include Al Jazeera staff resign after biased Egypt coverage, Al Jazeera’s role raises questions, and media bias infuriates Egyptian moderates which I am quoting from below.

Al Jazeera’s Egypt channel (Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr) is blatant in its support for the Brotherhood giving no platform whatsoever to the other side. Egyptian authorities attempted to remove it from air, but failed to do so because Al Jazeera allegedly hijacked broadcast vehicles from Egyptian State TV, now protected by the crowds in Rabaa Adawiya.

Local reporters were so incensed they demanded the ejection of Al Jazeera’s senior editor in Egypt from a press conference. Some 22 of Al Jazeera’s employees resigned asserting pro-Islamist bias at the top. On Friday, I was shocked to see someone I recognised on the stage in Rabaa Adawiya, engaged in whipping up the crowds.

There was the host of Al Jazeera’s programme Bela Hodod (Without Frontiers) Ahmad Mansour advising on how to manipulate media coverage and insisting that pictures of June 30 massive anti-Mursi protest had been photoshopped.

June 30’s aftermath has not only thrust the Arab world’s most populated country into uncertainty, it has eroded media credibility and prompted the crossing of a thin red line between honest reporting and political/ideological propaganda. Journalism requires an ethical revolution before Al Jazeera, CNN and others can ever be trusted again.

What I find ironic is the lack of coherency of the argument as it relates to allies. An example in point would be Bahrain. The island’s press is markedly pro-government, and yet there’s no media bias criticism from those who have pointed their finger at Al-Jazeera. If you’re going to adopt an argument at least be consistent in its use. Otherwise, why should we the public trust any of you?

The pride of the Gulf: Kuwaitis and their determination to realize their civil rights

Kuwait has seen unprecedented levels of demonstrations over the past month

Kuwait isn’t a place one would naturally associate with freedom and democracy. The country and its nationals are often derided by other Gulf Arabs for a number of reasons (if you live in the Gulf you’ll understand what I’m talking about here).

When it comes to participation in government, there’s no doubt in my mind that the rest of the Gulf could learn a great deal from Kuwait. The country has always had, by GCC standards, a vibrant and active political scene. Kuwait’s Constitution guarantees democratic representation by virtue of Article 6, Part 1 which states that “the System of Government in Kuwait shall be democratic, under which sovereignty resides in the people, the source of all powers.”

When talking about civil protests in the Gulf area a common refrain has been to ask “why are there any protests at all?” The perception is that Gulf Arabs have money, and that they are looked after and provided with all that they may need by their respective governments. This may be true in some cases, but it misses the point entirely. Kuwaitis are demanding more say in their government and how the country is ruled.

The challenges in Kuwait are best summed up by Kuwaiti opposition leader Musallam Al-Barrak in his article for the Guardian newspaper. You can read the article here, but I will also quote from it below.

We are protesting against an unconstitutional change in the electoral law pushed forward by the emir. The electoral system divides Kuwait into five districts; 10 parliamentarians are elected from each district. Previously people could cast four votes per ballot, but the new law permits voters to cast only one. This change aims to quell the national assembly’s role, as it facilitates the governing authority’s control of electoral outcomes – which in turn undermines the country’s democratic legitimacy.

On a deeper level, however, the demonstrations are against individual rule, something Kuwaitis have long and actively refused. In 1962, when the current constitution – which limits the governing authority’s role – was issued, it established that the public has the right to impose its opinions on the emir through the elected national assembly – a right that the governing authority refuses to acknowledge. The current struggle is therefore a struggle for power. Is power – as stated in the constitution – for the public, or is it – contrary to the constitution – for the emir?

The majority of people also believe that the government, representing the ruling family, is not serious in its battle against corruption. In fact, people are convinced they are sponsoring it. This belief was one of the reasons behind the dissolution of the 2012 parliament and the recent changes in the electoral system, following the opposition’s exposure of evidence that state money was being transferred to private accounts in London, Geneva and New York, and of the previous government bribing parliamentarians in 2009.

I for one am proud of the Kuwaiti people for standing up for what they believe to be their rights and against the actions of Kuwait’s ruler. They’ve shown bravery, determination, and a belief in themselves despite the very real risks to themselves. Kuwait’s people, both men and women, clearly believe in themselves and their ability to take the country forward. Kuwaitis have proved that they are prepared to risk a great deal for the right to govern themselves and fight corruption.

In his article for the Guardian Al-Barrak writes that in the end the people of Kuwait will be triumphant. I would hope that any victory for democratic participation in Kuwait would be felt by others across the Gulf. Will we one day look back to Kuwait in 2012 and say this is where the Gulf’s Arab Spring began? Today Kuwait and its people should be seen as the pride of the Gulf.

While the country does seem to be going through an unprecedented crisis, I do also feel that the Emir of Kuwait should be recognized to an extent for allowing protests (or at the very least, not cracking down in the same/similar manner to his GCC neighbours). Maybe I’m wrong on this, but Kuwait would seem to be the one country in the Gulf which allows for its nationals to protest openly. While I have read about and been told of attempts to use force and arrests to dispel protestors I certainly couldn’t imagine these scenes being repeated in any other city in the Gulf as of today.

For more on what is happening in Kuwait watch the below report from Al Jazeera’s English channel which makes for fascinating viewing.

Don’t be evil – Google, freedom of speech, corporate responsibility and that video

I’m a huge fan of Google. The company has defined the internet era. Google is the world’s most popular search engine. Youtube is more popular than television in many parts of the world. Google Maps has redefined how we get from A to B. I could go on and on, but you get the point. Google has even entered the common language as the term people use when they refer to searching on the internet: “Go Google it…”

Google has done all of this and more while living by its ‘don’t be evil’ corporate motto. While Google has been criticized before for bending and breaking this mantra (most notably with its operations in China), the last couple of weeks have been remarkable. There’s probably few of you out there who have not heard about the film, named ‘the Innocence of Muslims’. The film, which has caused a global uproar, was uploaded to Youtube at the start of July.

Since then, there have been riots and demonstrations worldwide. Dozens have been killed and injured. And yet, Google has refused to pull it off Youtube. According to an AP story from two weeks back:

“Google is refusing a White House request to take down an anti-Muslim clip on YouTube, but is restricting access to it in certain countries.

The White House said Friday that it had asked YouTube to review whether the video violated its terms of use. Google owns YouTube, the online video sharing site.

YouTube said in a statement Friday that the video is widely available on the Web and is “clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube.” (the full piece can be viewed here)

Google argues that only materials which are in clear violation of laws or that promote hate speech will be removed from Youtube.
Google says The Innocence of Muslims does not however breach YouTube guidelines. However, Google has blocked users from seeing the video in India, Indonesia, Libya and Egypt due to local laws and “the sensitive situation”. Youtube’s full statement from Friday 14 September is below.

“We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions. This can be a challenge because what’s OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video — which is widely available on the Web — is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, we’ve restricted access to it in countries where it is illegal such as India and Indonesia as well as in Libya and Egypt, given the very sensitive situations in these two countries. This approach is entirely consistent with principles we first laid out in 2007.”

For me, the video is the clearest indication yet that Google has given up on its ‘Don’t be evil’ mantra. Google had to pull down a video from Brazil after its resident of its Brazilian operations was arrested for breaking local laws.

Google constantly argues that Youtube is a channel and that it has no say in what should be on that platform for the sake of free speech. However, how many newspapers would accept advertising from Neo-Nazi groups? How many television channels would run an advert for euthanasia? Just like these media channels, Google has a responsibility to its audience. This cannot simply be about pure profit and driving up viewer numbers. Google sells products globally, it has to be responsible globally as well.

The fact that these videos are still on Youtube shames Google. I for one hope that the company I have admired for so long finally wakes up and does the right thing on this issue and others in the future by better defining and vetting what should go up on platforms such as Youtube and reacting to communities sooner rather than not at all.

Please Google, don’t be evil…

Google, please don’t be evil. Come back from the dark side.