Public Relations and the Coronavirus – How will we be impacted?

Every industry will be affected by the impact of the coronavirus, including PR. There’ll be opportunity for some, and pain for others (image from BBC News)

Everywhere and everything is Coronavirus. Which is understandable, given how it’s changing every part and place of our world. But I wanted to talk about Public Relations/Communications and what this means for all of us.

The advent of the Coronavirus may be a business boost for some, but it be harder times for many in the industry. Here’s my basic run-down of what we should all expect.

Increased Demand for Crisis Comms and In-House People

If you’re working as a crisis communications consultant, you should have already had dozens of requests coming in for support (my general view of crisis comms is if you’re asking for help during a crisis, then it’s usually too late).

What’s fascinating is client-side demand for communicators. I’m seeing many government entities looking for senior people. My feeling is they’ve been blindsided by this, and they have little to no crisis planning. This is especially true for internal communications.

Prepare for Drastic Budget Cuts

Budgets are going to be cut, and agencies will feel this soon (I’m sure many already are). Contracts won’t be renewed, and clients will want to reduce the scope of work. I know the argument about PR being more cost effective than marketing, but this won’t have much of an impact on business leaders who need to save money for business continuity planning.

The Opportunity and the Challenge

It’s amazing to see how many companies have my details. I’ve received over 200 emails from companies, all listing what’s happening to the business. Everyone is asking questions, and this is a huge opportunity for communicators to support on messaging and positioning.

However, there’s a caveat here. Things are moving so fast that positions and messages can change overnight, especially for certain industries. I’ve seen senior communicators praise what their country is doing for the public one night, only for the government to announce a closure of its borders in the morning. Communicators have to be extra careful about positioning/messaging right now, and ensure that whatever is being conveyed is actually being put into practice.

We All Need Support

Whatever your role and your activity, you’ll need support. None of us have gone through anything like this before (SARS/MERS were the closest examples, but they were still regional). We will all need help in terms of what we are doing. And we will also need mental support.

So many people are relying on us to help them understand what is happening and what they need to do. Let’s do more to support one another. I’ve been encouraged by what regional and global associations are doing. It’s incumbent that all of us reach out to friends and colleagues in the industry to check on one another, and be there to listen and to help. This also includes giving to financial assistance programs run by the likes of the CIPR.

I want to wish you all the best of health right now. Stay well, stay safe, and stay the course. We will prevail.

What’s the Middle East’s biggest communications issue? It’s the Arabic language

Arabic is a beautiful, rich language. And yet the communications industry is struggling to attract good Arabic language writers. How can we correct this? (image source: Arab America)

I feel like I’m writing something Kafka-esque. In in the Middle East, a geography of 200 million souls who read and write essentially the same language (I’m going to side-step the awkward question of how Arabic is spoken), and I’m working in communications. And yet, the industry is dominated by non-Arabic language speakers, at least in cities such as Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai.

This isn’t just anecdotal. Overall, just 32% of respondents to PRCA MENA’s inaugural Middle East PR and Communications Census 2019 were nationals of countries in the region. Overall, a fifth of the region’s PR professionals are British, 18% come from India, and the range of other nationalities represented are indicative of the Middle East PR corps having a richly-varied culture mix.

Diversity matters, of course. But I don’t think we even have that when it comes to engagement, given that so much of the content being produced is in English (the most widely spoken language in the UAE isn’t even English, it’s Hindi).

There’s been a concerted push by governments to promote the Arabic language. Friday the 18th of December is the UN Arabic language day. And Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched Madrasa, an online initiative with over a thousand videos to help promote learning of the Arabic language.

The communications industry has to play its part too. There’s obvious benefits to improving our ability to communicate in and create Arabic language content. We’ll be reaching a much wider audience in their language. In addition, understanding a language is one step to understanding a culture and its traditions. And by strengthening our Arabic language capabilities, we’ll be able to put Arabic first and create content that’s not translated (any Arabic language native speaker can spot translated content a mile off).

This isn’t going to be a short-term fix. Many of the Arabic-language experts working on the agency side are from countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Given politics in their own countries, it’s much harder to come across visas for them. We’ve got to do more with the Arab nationals who are already in the Gulf region.

So, what role can we play to change?

Develop Arabic Talent

First of all, we’ve got to foster stronger connections with universities across the
region, and better educate Arab youth on the opportunities that a career in public relations and communications will provide. And we have to do this as an industry. It’s something I hope that the PRCA will continue to work on.

Support Arabic Leadership

Part of the lack of appreciation for the Arabic language is that there aren’t enough Arab nationals in leadership roles, both on the agency side and with clients. Global agencies especially must prioritize fast-tracking Arab talent into leadership roles.

Arabic first

Most of the Arabic content put out by communicators is actually translated from English. We’ve got to turn this around, and start prioritizing Arabic content production, both in the written word, with audio and video. Arabic is such a rich, descriptive language, and so much is lost when content is merely translated.

There’s no better place to start than with myself, and I’m going to commit to writing more myself in Arabic. If you have any suggestions on this subject, please do share them.

Getting PR Creative: Technology, Stunts and Film-Making Inspirations

Wendy’s consistently uses technology to engage followers (and a wider audience), often at little to no cost, proving that creativity is possible even on a budget

Are you still stuck sending out press releases on that new executive hire? Or prepping for a new product launch with a stock photo and a couple of lines of text? Communications can often feel that it’s a function which is devoid of creativity. With this post, I wanted to inspire you to think that creativity is possible, even on the tightest of budgets. All you need is insights into your audience, imagination, and the bravery to try something new!

Creativity and Technology

I want to share a couple of technology-related ideas and concepts from big brands. One is as cheap as you can imagine (thank you Wendy’s), and another is more expensive, but also shows how new tech can bring life to a very old product.

First up is Wendy’s Fortnite. Watch the video below to see how a simple creative idea can result in a major impact.

The second concept I wanted to share is from Lego. Lego is a brand which is 87 years old. The product is known by kids and adults worldwide. And yet the brand is trying a host of new technologies to change hold children (and adults) play with the products.

One new concept they’ve launched is Hidden Side. This theme is all about ghosts! What have the good people at Lego done? They’re using augmented reality through an app on our phones to transform how we both look at our lego sets, and play with them. Creating a gaming app certainly isn’t a cheap option, but it does make me think about how new tech can give any brand and its engagement a new lease of life. Have a look at the below video to get an idea of how these new Lego sets change the concept of gameplay.

Creativity for PR Stunts

I do love a good PR stunt. They’re a simple way to garner lots of headlines, and also make a wider point about the brand/product and why it is so special. And PR stunts can be both creative and low-cost. Here’s one from Huawei, which has become a master of both PR stunts and trolling its rivals on their areas of relative weakness. Watch what they did to Apple recently. As an iPhone owner, I wish I was in that line.

Creativity in Film-Making

If you have the budget, and are looking to win over hearts and minds in the long-term or tackle a big issue, then film-making is the way to go. I’m talking here YouTube series, television or streaming services here. Two recent examples reminded me how powerful film-making can be. The first was for the new Dora movie. Whilst I’m not a Dora fan (my daughter is), the sight of a group of four teenage girls dancing to the music and following all the twists and turns brought to life how a well-crafted idea can create millions of fans and also open their minds to new concepts (I don’t think anything/anyone has done as much to promote Spanish to the English-speaking world as Dora).

The second piece of content I saw which brought home to me how powerful film-making can be to tackle big issues was Sacred Games, a fictional story about Mumbai’s gangsters and a plot to transform India. There’s a lynching scene which addresses the issue of religion and hatred in India. The scene is brilliantly shot, and has driven debate on race relations in India today in a way that no brand could do. Have a look at the scene below (it is graphic).

I hope these creative ideas have inspired you as to what you can do to liven up your approach to comms and public relations. Whether you have no budget, or an ATM in your office, there’s lots you can do to get people excited and engaged. So, what are you waiting for?

The Billion Dollar(s) Business of Social Media Trolling in the Philippines, and what it means for Public Relations globally

Social media trolling is big business in the Philippines. And that business is about to go global (image source: When in Manila)

If there’s one article you should read today, it’s this piece in the Washington Post by Shibani Mahtani and Regine Cabato. Titled “Why crafty Internet trolls in the Philippines may be coming to a website near you”, the article explains what has happened over the past couple of years in the Philippines in relation to the business of social media troll farms.

If you’re not familiar with the idea, I’ll explain. A troll farm is described as an organization whose employees or members attempt to create conflict and disruption in an online community by posting deliberately inflammatory or provocative comments. Traditionally, troll farms were state-led/sponsored (think Russia in the 2016 US elections). This has also happened in other countries. In the article by Mahtani and Cabato, they describe the rise of social media manipulation as an extension of Filipino politics (another great article to read is here, from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba).

As I’ve mentioned, the concept of social media manipulation isn’t new. We’ve had countless reports into what state actors such as Russia, Iran and others have tried to do online, through mass social media manipulation. What’s fascinating about the Washington Post article is how the Philippines is redefining this concept and turning it into an industry (there’s now both negative and positive trolling), how those who provide the troll farm services are now looking not just to politics but to business as well, and, most worryingly for everyone who works in our industry, is how PR firms are quietly offering the service to their clientele.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Philippines is leading the way in the area of troll farming. The country has a young, English-speaking population, a large service industry, and a tough economy. And Facebook is everywhere, controlling what people read and think when it comes to news, politics and business. To quote from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba:

If you want to know what happens to a country that has opened itself entirely to Facebook, look to the Philippines. What happened there — what continues to happen there — is both an origin story for the weaponization of social media and a peek at its dystopian future. It’s a society where, increasingly, the truth no longer matters, propaganda is ubiquitous, and lives are wrecked and people die as a result — half a world away from the Silicon Valley engineers who’d promised to connect their world.

Facebook launched “Free Facebook” in the Philippines in 2013. The idea was to partner with a local carrier to offer a portal of free, basic internet services (Free Basics) that would fuel Facebook’s aggressive global expansion. To Zuckerberg, at least, the experiment was successful. “What we’ve seen in the Philippines is … a home run,” he said in a speech at a 2014 conference in Barcelona. Last November, Facebook partnered with the Duterte government to build an undersea cable system that would connect Philippine internet systems to the rest of Asia and the US.

In 2012, 29 million Filipinos used Facebook. Today, 69 million people — two-thirds of the population — are on Facebook. The remaining one-third does not have access to the internet. In other words, virtually every Filipino citizen with an internet connection has a Facebook account. For many in one of the most persistently poor nations in the world, Facebook is the only way to access the internet.

Social media trolling took off in the Philippines during the 2016 Presidential campaign. And many saw the business opportunity. Washington Post spoke to one PR executive who claims his agency is paid anywhere from about $38,000 to $57,000 — “depending on their needs” — on a month-long retainer for up to eight months.

Others are seeing the possibilities too. The authors of the Washington Post article claimed that “several paid troll farm operations and one self-described influencer say they have been approached and contracted by international clients, including from Britain, to do political work. Others are planning to expand overseas, hoping to start regionally”. One opinion quoted in the story claims that social media trolling in the country is a billion dollar business.

There’s no doubt in my mind that social media trolling will have an impact not just on politics in every democracy around the world (if it hasn’t already), but that these services will be turned towards business, especially the notion of positive trolling, of using fake accounts to talk up a business and their activities. I am also in no doubt that Facebook and the other internet giants will do nothing to stop this (Facebook’s efforts to stop what’s going on in the Philippines have been derisory at best).

So, what can we do as PR practitioners? There’s not that many options on the table. The most obvious one is to both act ethically, and speak up publicly about why ethics matters. We’re not vocal enough about this issue, and we need to change that. Another way to push back is to be more vocal about what we want the tech firms to do. We’ve got to stop treating the likes of Facebook and Google as champions of public relations, and rather as companies who are not doing enough to fight for and on behalf of our publics online.

If you have any ideas on the above, please do share them. This is an issue that’ll affect us all. And we have to take collective action to fight back. The real me is signing out for now…

When Alex Met Arun: Thoughts on the future of the industry, good corporate governance and values-based engagement

I had the pleasure of speaking with the Holmes Report’s Arun recently, on a host of topics. I interviewed him for a podcast, looking at the future of the communications industry. He asked me about recent corporate governance issues in the Middle East. We also spoke about the rise of values-based communications. Have a listen and enjoy. And get involved by sharing your opinion.

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?

Creatives, PR and Media – Where are the Gulf’s Faces to Watch?

There’s many young faces to watch in the Gulf’s creative, public relations and media industries, but if you’re looking for Gulf nationals on the agency side you’ll be sorely disappointed. The industry must find ways to solve this issue of diversity and inclusion.

I’ve enjoyed reading about the future of the region’s marcomms sector over the past couple of weeks in Campaign Middle East. The publication has listed the ‘ones to watch’ in the creative, public relations and media sectors. The people featured are an impressive bunch, and just reading about their abilities, potential and experiences at such a young age (they’re all 30 or under) is inspiring.

I was struck, however, by one detail. I didn’t see anyone I recognized as a Gulf national. There was so much talent from countries such as Egypt and Lebanon, but no one from Saudi or the UAE.

For anyone based over here, it’s probably not a surprise that there’s not enough diversity and inclusion in the marcomms industry/function, especially on the Agency side (this listing was Agency-focused). While there are Gulf nationals working agency-side, especially in Bahrain and Saudi, there’s certainly not enough.

How Can We Attract More Nationals?

The marcomms industry isn’t alone in struggling to attract enough young national talent – only one percent of the Emirati labor force is employed in the private sector, compared to 60 percent in government. But the landscape across the Gulf has shifted in a number of countries. Governments in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia are heavily promoting the idea of nationals applying to the private sector. More nationals are also eager to try new fields, particularly in the creative space. Here’s my suggestions on what each party must do to change perceptions and encourage diversity and inclusion.

The Industry and National Misconceptions

Let’s begin with the agencies and private sector firms who hire (the client side). We’ve got to break down the misconceptions and stereotypes around nationals, focusing on two key points. First, there’s the issue of work ethic; for far too long, there’s been a view that Gulf nationals don’t want to and won’t work the longer hours that the private sector asks of them (governments traditionally worked from 7 or 8am to early afternoon). Second, there’s compensation; Gulf nationals have often earned more working for the public sector.

I’m not going to be naive and pretend that these issues don’t exist. In Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE there’s a high differential between private and public sector pay for nationals, as well as additional benefits such as longer vacations.

However, we’ve already seen a shift in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi, where it’s common to find a national working in marketing or comms on the client side. To their credit, some agencies such as Gulf Hill and Knowlton have always looked to hire local in these markets (they had a large roster of Saudis some years back, and they’ve also hired a number of Bahrainis). In these markets governments are both telling their nationals to look towards the private sector and reducing the compensation differential.

For many in the private sector, they’ve not even put in the effort to test if the old stereotypes are true. There’s nowhere near enough engagement with universities across the region, not enough internships for nationals, and little in the way of mentoring. These are low-cost activities, which both agencies and clients should be undertaking. At the very least, they need to look for local talent, so they can benefit from insights that only nationals can bring to the table.

Governments and Talent Development

The private sector is only one half of the challenge. The other is governments.  Understandably, the region has long sought to develop its own talent. The number of nationals working in the marcomms function has risen rapidly, at least on the government side. It’s understandable that many nationals, particularly in Qatar and the UAE, would want to work in the public sector – pay in these two countries is, generally speaking, much higher. Plus, there’s a preference for locals, meaning there’s less competition for positions.This has become a double-edged sword. There’s more marketing and communications jobs in government, pay is better, and there’s less competition for these roles. What this has led to is young nationals being advanced into senior roles, often when they’re not yet ready or experienced enough.

If governments are serious about developing local talent, they’ve got to change this approach to public sector hiring and instead focus on long-term development, in partnership with private sector firms. This could include funded internships, either at home or abroad, as well as engagement with industry associations such as the IABC to promote certifications and long-term career mapping (I’ll share more about this soon). What’s clear is that national communicators who have worked only in one sector are missing out on all the potential learnings and development the other can offer, including the ability to work with and learn from other nationalities and culture (diversity and inclusion is also an issue on the government side).

Advice for Young Gulf Nationals

My advice for any young Gulf national is simple. Go and explore the private sector, understand the training and development it can offer you, and ensure you’ve tried every single option before you go into the public sector. If you’re after a challenge and you’re passionate about what you do, the money and position will follow. But if you want to be the very best you can be, and learn from a wider group of people from around the world, then moving into the private sector will be the best thing that you can do.

Likewise, we need you. We need the industry to be more diverse and inclusive (this equally applies to the public sector, where there aren’t enough expats working today), we need your insights and knowledge, and we need your understanding of the local culture, behavioral psychology, and awareness of how the Gulf’s local communities are changing. Today, we don’t have enough of this on the agency or client side. And it’s our loss. This scenario needs to change.

If you want to talk more, message me. I’m always giving my time to universities, to talk about the profession and help you understand your options. I’m happy to answer any question you may have, and point you in the right direction.