Stepping up with the Global Alliance: How do you want the Comms Industry to develop?

Global Alliance

I wanted to share the news here first. I’m honored to be nominated to serve on the board of the Global Alliance as a director. I’ll be taking up the post on a voluntary basis from July of this year.

The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management is the confederation of the world’s major PR and communication management associations and institutions, representing 160,000 practitioners and academics around the world.

The Global Alliance’s mission is to unify the public relations profession, raise professional standards all over the world, share knowledge for the benefit of its members and be the global voice for public relations in the public interest.

As part of this mission, I will be serving to represent communications practitioners in the Middle East. And I want to put a question to you all, my friends and colleagues around the region – how do you want the communications industry to develop?

I want to hear your thoughts. I’ll be working to represent the industry, and I care about your opinions. So let me know your response to my question, and let’s find the answer together.

A Guide to Media Relations in Ramadan (and Eid)

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

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

A season for greetings

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

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

Here’s two sample Ramadan message designs for you.

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

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

The Iftar or Suhoor Gathering

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

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

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

The Media Working Hours

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

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

Ramadan Themes

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

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

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

Make the most of the holy month

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

Step up, support the Comms industry. Volunteer for the IABC EMENA Board!

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I’ll be the first to admit it. It’s a well-known secret in the communications industry that we’re awful at PRing what we do. The public relations sector doesn’t engage enough with the outside world in terms of what we do and why we’re of real value to any organization.

For me it was exciting to see the turnout at the annual regional Eurocomm event in London recently. The number of professionals who cared enough to travel to London for several days, and engage in learning and debate about the industry, was inspiring. There’s a lot of good will and positive sentiment around the communications sector at the moment, which I hope will long continue.

But, I’m never satisfied. I’d like for us to build on that engagement, and ask you, the communications professionals who I engage with here online, or through social media, to put themselves forward to volunteer to support the industry’s growth and act as leaders and mentors to those who want to learn about and join the sector.

As a not-for-profit organization that aims to promote public relations both globally and throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, IABC works through volunteers. The Europe, Middle East and North Africa board supports activities across the most diverse, and most exciting region for communicators. Under the board, IABC has a host of country chapters that help with everything from organizing our large events (think Eurocomm which was held in London in March), to smaller activities such as media evenings, webinars and training. Volunteers can also help in research work and soliciting ideas and thoughts from our wider family of members.

If you want to give back and help, why don’t you step up and volunteer on the EMENA board? Volunteering is one of the most rewarding activities that I’ve engaged in, and I’m sure you’d enjoy working with a group of people who could not be more passionate about what we do and why we do it.

Please do drop me a line in the comments or send me a message through social media and we can take the conversation from there. You can find more details here on the IABC website. Nominations are open until Wednesday the 17th May.

So, what do you say? Are you up for it?

Expats, Localization and the Need for Balance

The marcomms industry can and should benefit from both local talent as well as foreign expertise (image source: The Daily Telegraph)

There are some places that are so inspiring, they fill me with passion and energy. I just love working with colleagues and friends in London and New York. Their creativity and insights are exceptional. What strikes me most about these places is their ability to absorb talent from abroad, to the extent that you can’t even tell who is the native and who is the immigrant.

Whilst there’s much to admire about how the region’s marcomms industry has developed, there’s still much work to do when it comes to marrying local insights and talent with foreign know-how. For years there’s been a divide between the Gulf’s public and private sectors: the public was staffed by nationals, and the private by expats. Whilst there were exceptions, this was the norm.

There have been changes, both good and bad. The economic changes in countries such as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi, combined with the increasing number of local marketing and communications graduates, have helped to increase the number of nationals working in the private sector. An insistence on hiring nationals in both government and semi government organizations have led to there being fewer expats in comms and marketing roles in both Abu Dhabi and Doha. For many multinationals, there’s still an over reliance on expat communicators, many of whom don’t know or try to learn about either the local language or culture.

I’ve always believed that there should be more locals in marcomms in the Gulf (one such person who is an inspiration to me and who I will always be proud of is my wife, who is both a local and who heads up marcomms for a multinational across the Middle East region). However, we need to place people based on merit, and we need to have structured succession planning in place. Both are missing today, across the public and private sectors.

Let me highlight my point. I live in a city which wants to be a global hub, attracting investment and tourism from abroad. That city’s government has been prioritizing national hiring to such an extent that it’s rare to find a foreigner in a mid or senior level comms post today in either a government or semi government role. What has happened is young nationals who don’t have the necessary experience or knowledge have been brought in (or roles have been left open), and as a result the work done and respect given to the function has dropped. There’s less diversity and inclusion in these government organizations, leading to a lack of understanding of foreign audiences and stakeholders.

I’ve also come across countless multinational executives who don’t understand the importance of hiring local knowledge. To them, global strategy only needs to be translated. There’s no understanding of local insights, and an inability to communicate with local audiences because of the lack of any marketing or communications people who are from or connected to the local population. I’ve known regional comms people in the private sector who’ve never even gone to Saudi, despite it being the biggest market in the Gulf. It’s all too easy to manage issues remotely, and let the agency deal with an issue.

We’ve got to change these two approaches in the region. There needs to be a balance, an understanding that foreign expertise is often needed whilst initiatives are created to support knowledge transfer to capable locals. Rather than replacing foreign expertise overnight (which has happened in some places), let’s get these professionals to pass on their expertise through job shadow programs, teaching and mentoring. In one of my previous roles I was asked to do this, and I considered it part of my role in developing the local profession. Others should do the same.

Our region can be as diverse and as exciting as London and New York, and I don’t see why the marcomms industry should be any different. Let’s start making use of both local insights and foreign experience, and combining them to create better work. We need balance in approaching this issue. As always, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this issue.

Do You Know Your Rights? Public Relations and the Law

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Yes, I also used to have nightmares about lawyers. But don’t worry, they’re a friendly bunch, especially if you work agency-side.

The law! These are the two words that’ll send most PR practitioners running into the distance and over the horizon. Public relations practitioners aren’t always savvy about their legal rights, or what local legislation means for how they (or their clients) operate.

It was a refreshing change to see this issue tackled at this year’s PR Pressure conference. Organized by Secret PR and now held for a second year, the event included a panel of legal minds who were willing to tackle everything from intellectual property (including pitches), to social media and influencers and chasing debts.

I’m going to summarize some of the key points made by the speakers – Cedar White Bradley Group’s Fatema Fathnezad, Norton Rose Fulbright’s Dino Wilkinson, Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson, Lincoln Legal Consultants’ Nasir Ilyas and Rafi Yachou from InDate.info – on a number of areas which are, or should be, of concern to communicators.

Getting Your Contract Right

As Fiona Robertson clearly pointed out, much of what goes wrong legally starts with the contract. Be as precise as possible in terms of deliverables, avoid jargon, and ensure that you understand what recourse you have to legal help in the jurisdiction under which the contract is applicable. You’ll end up spending much less on a good contract than on any legal dispute (up to a tenth according to Robertson), so ensure that the contract is watertight and clear to all parties.

Who owns the Intellectual Property (and pitches)

We work in a content industry, and yet so little of what we do with content is understood within a legal framework. For example, do you ask for consent from those people that your photographer is taking pictures of? Are you clear on when and where content which you have purchased usage rights for can be used? And what happens when your content is misused, such as after a pitch?

Fatema Fathnezad suggested that agencies trademark their logo and services, and include these trademarks on all materials. In addition, before and after a pitch agencies need to communicate in writing that the material being presented is under copyright and that as such the execution of these concepts cannot be undertaken without the agency’s permission and compensation being paid. Remember that you cannot legally own an idea, but you can copyright and protect the execution of that idea.

Social Media and Influencers

This one may be common sense, but the first thing that agencies and clients need to bear in mind is that they need to manage administration rights of social media accounts.

Secondly, when it comes to influencers any paid content must be considered as advertising. Dino Wilkinson pointed out that many influencers in our region are reluctant to clarify to the public when content is paid for, but as per the advertising laws there are rules which must be followed by both brands and influencers (you can see them here).

Like many other jurisdictions around the world, there’s not as much legislation around influencers as they should be (for example, do they need to have a business license to operate). Both Dino and Fiona spoke of the need for agencies to have contracts in place with influencers, and for there to be background checks on the influencer – remember that these people will be representing your brand or your client, and so the proper due diligence should be done.

Chasing Payments/Debts

Some of the most interesting comments were made by Nasir Ilyas and Rafi Yachou on the issue of debts. Some of the inputs were logical – chase on payments before they’re due and reschedule payment terms if the client has issues paying. If non-payment occurs, look to resolve the situation directly but amicably. And get a lawyer involved – up to a quarter of cases are settled by a letter from a lawyer. There are dispute mechanisms available in the country, such as the DIFC Small Claims Tribunal, but these mechanisms will cost you time and money, so beware of what you’re getting yourself into.

Yachou suggested two novel agency approaches to clients – firstly, do a background risk assessment, so that you understand the history of payments both for a particular industry and a specific client. Secondly, there are insurers who will underwrite agency billing; if a client doesn’t pay, the insurer will make up the shortfall. We’re talking about billing in the millions of Dirhams here, so it’s not going to help small agencies, but it is a thought for those medium and larger sized agencies who want to hedge their risks.

Thank you to Secret PR

I want to say a big thank you to Sarah Mohamed and her Secret PR team for arranging this event, which is free to attend and which does tackle the big issues that the industry faces (other topics included the Arabic language and digital). Sarah and the team put a great amount of effort in to make this work, and it’s good to see a group of people take the initiative to educate others. Thank you Sarah!

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Sarah Mohamed is the head of Secret PR and the dynamo behind the PR Pressure event (image source: Campaign Middle East)

What challenges will communicators face in 2017?

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It’s no understatement to say that 2016 was a shock to the system. We’ve faced political upheavals, the rise of populists and the proliferation of fake news, and that’s just for starters. The Middle East region has been impacted by continuing conflict as well as financial belt-tightening caused by low oil and gas prices. Needless to say, 2016 hasn’t been the easiest 12 months for many communicators.

So what do we have to expect in 2017? Looking into my crystal ball, I see  a number of issues that will grow in prominence. Here’s my take on them:

  • Political Interference and its Impact on Brand Values

The rise of populist politicians isn’t anything new, but their use of social media to communicate directly with their publics, eschewing traditional media, is something brands will have to deal with. We’ve already seen how Donald Trump is impacting brands in the US (examples include his tweets on Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which have wiped billions off company share values).

Communicators will need to work out how to deal with this new type of political interference. They’ll need to improve their online engagement, using the same social media tools as these politicians (Twitter, I hope you realize how much of a god-send Trump is for your platform), as well as espouse brand values that stakeholders believe in and want to defend.

There’s a danger here that brands will retreat into communicating in the same populist language as the politicians, or simply keep quiet and hope that the storm will pass them by. I hope that brand owners and communicators will instead engage on issues with a purpose and positive values.

  • Expect More Fake News

Whether we like it or not, fake news is here to stay. The year that was 2016 saw fake news become a cottage industry, with ‘content producers’ in places like Macedonia spewing out false stories which went viral through social media and which generated thousands of dollars of ad revenues. Much of this fake news was focused on politics; this is likely to change in 2017, with fewer key political votes. Instead, we’re going to see more fake celebrity news, as well as fake news in languages other than English. This may play into regional conflicts. Brands need to be aware of what is being said about them, especially in Arabic, Farsi and other regional languages.

  • The Continued Rise of Social Influencers

 

Whether you like it or not, 2016 was the year of Social Influencers. This trend is set to continue into 2017, particularly with Snapchat having opened up an office in Dubai, and with brands/organizations realizing that they have to do more to engage with stakeholders online. Expect there to be more questions around online metrics such as reach, engagement and, most important of all, return-on-investment. Also expect that the cost of working with social influencers will rise, particularly in locations such as Dubai, Kuwait and Riyadh.

I hope that brands will start to think differently about the type of social influencers they’d like to work with, and begin nurturing relationships with real fans with smaller followings rather than purchase engagement through influencers who have large followings but who don’t necessarily understand or love the brand. In other words, we need to rethink what social influencers are and what they mean to us.

  • The Urgent Need to Prove Our Worth 

This is a perennial favorite, but we’re going to struggle to underline the value that we bring to our organizations in 2017. Why? Because of an inability to link our outcomes to organizational objectives for many of us, partly due to a lack of awareness/understanding about the need to leverage measurement values. We’re also lacking a universal definition of what we do and globally-accepted certifications that prove we can walk the talk. The Global Alliance is working hard on the first issue, and others such as the CIPR and IABC are pushing ahead on the second. However, we’re still going to struggle with proving our worth to those that we work with and others that we need to work with.

There are a number of others who have shared their own views. Wadds has a longer list which is a fascinating read (you can see it here), and Omnicom’s David Gallagher has written down his own thoughts on the issues we will face in the year ahead.

What are your thoughts. What challenges will we see, and what are you looking forward to in 2017? I’d love to hear from you.

Guest Post – Failing at the basics

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

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

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

The client wouldn’t be impressed, right?

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

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

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

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

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