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.
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.
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?
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.
This is part two of my 2018 wish list (I’d rather not call it a resolution list, as we all know how resolutions end up). These points underline how I think we can move forward as a function and become better as an industry. Here we go.
My Hopes for 2018
- Gender Equality – 2017 was a defining year for gender equality, with campaigns such as #MeToo underlining how much still needs to be done for women to have parity with men in the workplace. Unsurprisingly, these campaigns passed over much of the Middle East, with little discussion of sexual discrimination. With others leading by example and not just words (Iceland is the first country in the world where companies with 25 or more employees now need to get government certification to prove that they offer equal pay for work of equal value), will 2018 be the year when the industry promotes gender equality? Some agencies have already begun; following her appointment as the new CEO for MEMAC Ogilvy in September, John Seifert, Ogilvy’s worldwide chief, said Patou Nuytemans would be “a real agent of change” for the company. “Patou is one of our boldest and bravest leaders,” Seifert said. “She will be a brilliant role model for a whole pipeline of young female talent who will become the leaders in our business.” I’m hoping for more positive change for all the women working in our industry.
- Merit-Based Hiring – I’ve talked about merit-based hiring before, and the damage that is being done to the industry by unsustainable practices, especially hiring based on nationality. We’re already facing a hiring crisis in cities such as Abu Dhabi and Doha when it comes to government entities and communications roles; there’s not enough experienced nationals to fill these roles, and expats are often only offered one-year contracts, which just isn’t good enough to attract the right talent. Both the private and the public sectors need to work together to understand how to create a long-term plan that encourages Arab nationals to join the industry/function. Governments also need to appreciate the importance of diversity in their communications function, especially when communicating with a diverse range of stakeholders (and communications leaders in the government sector, especially expats, need to start speaking truth to power). We’ve got to move away from quotas/filling roles with certain groups, and think differently to ensure that we have the right people in the right roles. Only then will communications be valued and used as much as it needs to be.
- Promotion of Arab talent – We’re facing a shortage of Arabic language natives in the industry. This has been exacerbated by challenges in bringing Syrians into the industry (Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians and Syrians make up the vast majority of talent in the industry who can read, speak and write Arabic fluently). With the Eastern Gulf facing its own issues due to a focus on English-language across education systems and at home, the PR industry has to address the Arab talent question. It needs to do more with universities across the region and prioritize promoting communications and public relations as a viable career option for Arab nationals. The industry also needs more Arab national role models who are willing to step up and act as role models for others (considering how many agencies and communications professionals there are in the region, there are simply not enough visible leaders and mentors, both from the wider Arab world and especially from the Gulf). Let’s hope 2018 is a good year for Arab talent.
- Better Government Engagement – The past couple of years have seen a transformation in terms of how governments in the region communicate with their stakeholders. Government leaders are online, on social media, and they’re actively pushing out communication. This year is transformational for two countries in the Gulf, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with the introduction of tax. As the American saying goes, taxation leads to representation. This may not be the case in the Gulf region with the expatriates, but now that we have a proper taxation system in place, there will be more questions from expats especially as to where the money is being used. More transparency and engagement from the region’s governments will go a long way to building trust with the public. If governments are going to continue improving how they communicate, they’ll need a more diverse set of communicators, both in-house and agency-side (see point 2).
There you have it, that’s my wish list for what I’d like to see the industry doing this year. Do you agree, and do you have any more you’d like to add? As always, I’d like to hear from you.
The pitch – these two words can strike fear into the hearts of a PR executive. And with good reason; journalists can tear a pitch to shreds in the time it takes you to read this sentence. Perfecting a pitch doesn’t need to be hard. But don’t take my words for it. I’ve asked four Dubai-based journalists to talk about the best and the worst pitches, as well as what advice they would proffer to people working in public relations. Thank you to the journalists who shared their answers (disclaimer: no PR people were hurt during the writing of this post). Here we go!
- What’s the best pitch you’ve received?
It was from Rachel Maher at PHD UAE.
The pitch was regarding coverage for PHD’s upcoming Brainscape conference. The theme of the year was ‘AI’. She took the time to go through my editorial calendar, factor in the deadlines, and then approach me with a few initial ideas on how we could work together. She then met for a coffee to further brainstorm and was perfectly happy to be part of another feature I had planned around AI – instead of expecting and insisting massive coverage on the event alone.
To summarize, what I liked was:
- Factoring in the magazine’s timelines
- Brainstorming to see what works best for the title – not just the company
- Supporting with contacts and relevant material
- Not expecting and insisting on exclusive coverage; instead collaborating and adding value to the magazine
I don’t think there’s been a ‘best’ pitch that has stood out for me – sorry!
No particular pitch is very memorable – but I’ll tell you the most successful ones were the simplest. “Hey, saw you had a story on X yesterday. Would you be interested in a follow-up/ related story.” Provided they’re telling the truth, I’ll likely stop what I’m doing to listen.
Best pitch was possibly from a junior PR girl at MSL handling Cadillac, who had found the “Penalty of Leadership” ad and suggested getting the Cadillac marketing manager to write about how it resonates today. I was impressed because it was about advertising, not about the car, I’d not seen the ad, and it was a bit random. Mind you, they never filed. But I was impressed at the pitch.
- And Worst pitch:
Honestly, too many to name, so here’s are the kind of pitches that really suck:
- The one where they just name the client and state that they want exposure (duh!)
Getting exposure for the client is a PR agency’s job! It’s also their job to figure out how. A generic email stating that we have XYZ client and want to get them featured – without mentioning little else – is frustrating, to say the least.
- The one where the client wants control of everything
The client decides when, what and how, they’ll contribute without any regard for the title’s editorial style and/or guidelines. I’ve had several people call asking (rather rudely) why a comma was changed or why a sentence was paraphrased… please, let editors do their jobs!
- The one where the agency knows nothing
I’ve had PR folks reach out with random pitches from artificial insemination to the hottest ladies’ night out. While the latter is helpful personally, I don’t know how it’s relevant to the magazine. So, in some instances, I ask which section they’re pitching this for. Of course, the replies are sections that don’t exist.
- The one where they overestimate their client
As harsh as this might sound, sometimes a company/spokesperson is just not worth being featured. They don’t have anything interesting or new to offer – even if the topic fits within the editorial structure of the title. PR folks refuse to understand the shortcomings of their client and get extremely pushy by suggesting different angles and story ideas.
LITERALLY everything in October that’s centers around Breast Cancer Awareness. From pink cupcakes to pink drinks to yoga on the beach, there’s absolutely no connection and it’s just a way for brands to peddle their name for the month.
I am actually failing to come up with the example of a really bad pitch. I think it’s because I’ve heard so many bad pitches over the years, I assume that everything is a bad pitch; as a result, I only listen for about 10 seconds. If the PR hasn’t gotten to the point, I either ask them to get to the point NOW (if I sense there may be some usable behind the rambling) or just shut them off. If I shut them off, it means I’ve probably forgotten about them about 10 seconds later.
So many! One girl pitched me the new line of Samsonite suitcases and I asked her where I should run it. “The Business News section,” she suggested. (I was on Communicate then). I told her I couldn’t find that section, so she said wherever I saw fit. I said the back page, Dish section would probably be best. She agreed. Then when I ran the conversation in full on our back page, her boss called me to say she was in tears. Should he fire her? No, I said, as she’s guaranteed to always read the mags she’s pitching to from now on. I felt like a bit of a shit, though.
- What’s your advice to PR people re pitching to media
Be considerate. As cliché as it sounds, please understand the pressures under which journalists and editors today are working. Stop wasting their time with numerous calls; a barrage of emails; irrelevant messages; and being pushy.
Be relevant. Do your research, go through a couple of previous issues (not just the most recent one), and then see how you can add value. Your job is to get exposure for your clients, not ours. Figure out how. We’d be happy to work with you, not do your job for you.
Push back. Sometimes, you know your client is wrong. Let them know. And if you can’t, don’t approach with us something you don’t believe in yourself.
Know how much is too much. I can’t say this enough but please stop calling, emailing and Whatsapping…all at the same time!
And most importantly, you don’t always need to pitch! The best PR folks, in my opinion, are the ones who are responsive, quick and present when journalists and editors need a comment or contribution.
Know. Your. Audience. I don’t want to receive pitches or releases about going back to school or the latest women’s fall collection if that’s not what I write about. Also, if you’ve emailed me about something, there’s absolutely no need to give me a phone call a few hours later to see if ‘I’ve had a chance to review the email’. If something really does interest me, I will respond and take things forward myself.
Get to the point. Be honest, even if you think it means I won’t be interested. Be ready to accept rejections (I’ve send emails telling me entire dept to ignore emails from a PR if – after getting a no from me – they try to go around me to another editor or reporter. Deliver on what you promise.
The usual. Know the magazine. Tailor the pitch to the readers, not to your client. No one gives a damn about how market leading your client’s solutions are; they want to be informed, educated or entertained. The point of a B2B mag is to help readers do their jobs better, not to let them ignore free advertorial.
- Has Social Media changed the pitch?
This is hard to answer because I am the social media generation. I haven’t personally experienced pitches prior to social media. Having said that, for better or for worse, I don’t see the growth of social media having any bearing on the pitching process.
I thankfully haven’t been pitched too often via SM, but on occasion an agency or PR person will tweet me or send a message on Facebook saying that they’d like to connect for a story or brand. It’s certainly an easier way to connect with people, but I still think it’s better to pitch something via email or phone call (provided the pitch is relevant!)
Thanks to social media, it’s just gotten more chaotic because about half the industry isn’t using social media (hi, just calling to let you know I sent you an email) and the other half hits you up on random platforms I really don’t use. I get more pitches of LinkedIn, which I hate and am almost never on, than Twitter, which I am on waaay to much.
Everyone used to want to see their clients in the mag. Saying I’d use a story online would always be seen as second best. That’s because they all wanted to leave it on their desks, show it to their mums, etc. Now, it’s the opposite. They all want it online, not just in print, so they can share it with their social networks.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave, with no cellphone connection and no newspaper rounds, there’s only one topic of conversation today in the PR industry. That is the expulsion of Bell Pottinger from the UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association for its work with the South Africa-based Gupta family. The agency was found to be promoting racial divisions through fake social media accounts in order to divert attention away from their client’s government connections and accusations of improper acquisition of wealth. Here’s a brief background, from the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
Bell Pottinger, one of the City’s leading public relations agencies, has been expelled from the industry’s trade association after an investigation found its secret campaign to stir up racial tensions in South Africa to be the worst breach of ethics in its history.
The Public Relations and Communications Association said Bell Pottinger was unethical and unprofessional, had brought the industry into disrepute and has banned the firm from its membership for at least five years.
The punishment, unprecedented for a firm of Bell Pottinger’s size, was handed down after the PRCA investigated a complaint from South Africa’s main opposition party that the PR firm sought to stir up anger about “white monopoly capital” and the “economic apartheid” in South Africa.
Bell Pottinger was being paid £100,000 a month by client Oakbay Capital, the holding company of the wealthy, powerful and controversial Gupta family, who have been accused of benefiting financially from their close links to the South African president, Jacob Zuma. Both have previously denied such a relationship.
The PRCA decision to investigate and then expel Bell Pottinger was announced following a complaint by the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, about Bell Pottinger’s work.
There’s been a chorus of voices congratulating the PRCA for this decision (could they have taken any other route?), and insisting that the industry should follow more rigorous ethical guidelines.
What concerns me is 1) how any agency would have taken on a brief to harm others on behalf of a client, 2) why any body would need a complaint to be made to take action when the information was in the public domain (the story broke in Spring of this year, and we’re now into September), and 3) why is this particular case being highlighted when there’s a myriad of other client-agency relationships which should be under the spotlight.
Let me spell out some of the ethically-dubious issues that are there for all to see. We have the US Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is issuing grand jury subpoenas seeking testimony from public relations executives who worked on an international campaign organized by former Trump campaign adviser Paul Manafort as part of his investigation into the alleged Russian interference in US elections, a whole raft of PR agencies and lobby groups working for governments with poor to nil human rights (a recent example is APCO and the Egyptian government), and agencies working with firms who impact public health. Bell Pottinger’s founder Tim Bell has an interesting CV; he’s worked with the Pinochet Foundation, Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Assad and Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator.
The industry has historically had a reputation for spinning. The father of PR, Edward Bernays, was long associated with the tobacco industry. Anyone who has worked in the industry in the region will know of the role that Hill & Knowlton played in pushing the United States into the first Gulf War through the use of a fictional story about dying babies. More recently we’ve seen agencies use fake digital and social media accounts to discredit groups, corporations or countries on behalf of clients. I could go on…
We have to face up to the fact that the PR industry has an ethics problem. There are far too many agencies who will take the business if the cheque has enough zeros. For an industry that trades in reputation above all, we have to take a far stricter stance on ethics, at least at an agency level. While I applaud the PRCA for what it has done, this is only scratching the surface. We shouldn’t start patting ourselves on the back when the job to clean up the industry has only just begun.
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.