Blurring the lines? Publishers who become Content Creators and what it means for the PR sector

As publishers shift their business model to content creation for clients, how should the PR industry react? (image source: writemysite.co.uk)

As publishers shift their business model to content creation for clients, how should the PR industry react? (image source: writemysite.co.uk)

Who’d be a publisher right now? Revenues are dropping, print is going out of fashion (for most of the world), and people are no longer reading long form. So, what does one do? The answer may be to produce content for others.

Earlier this month Dubai-based publisher ITP announced the launch of ITP Live, a new division that would focus on five areas – creating a social media influencers’ agency, video content creation, digital sales representation, e-commerce, live events and training.

Another Dubai-based publisher, Motivate, works with companies to offer products such as video creation. To quote from Motivate’s own website, the firm is able to “conceptualise, storyboard, film, produce, host and share with our audience a beautifully crafted engaging video.”

Creating good content is only half of the battle. For firms seeking out content creation, the appeal of pre-existing media channels to distribute that content may be too good to resist. But, there’s the ethical question of boundaries. For a publisher which is offering a content creation service, should they also offer clients the opportunity to use their media vehicles to distribute that content? Would the usual editorial rules apply?

The Middle East’s publishing sector has been more fortunate than most when it comes to growth; with the exception of the downturn in 2008, relatively few publications have gone belly-up. However, the strain on budgets is telling. Many publications which had a roster of staff now only have one or two editors. With marketing budgets either shrinking due to the economy or being shifted to digital, will more publishers go down the content creation route? How will this affect their editorial policies and how will this affect the public relations industry?

For years, communications and marketing agencies have been the preferred option for companies needing either written or multimedia content. This content would have then been shared, either online or through traditional media channels. Will publishers now begin to compete with PR agencies? There’s lots of lines which are now being blurred. Where do you think we’re heading? I’d love to hear your views.

 

 

Goodbye but not farewell to Lisa Welsh

Lisa is a model professional, and she'll be missed in the region's public relations industry (image source: Hill + Knowlton Strategies)

Lisa is a model professional, and she’ll be missed in the region’s public relations industry (image source: Hill + Knowlton Strategies)

I don’t often write about people in our industry, but there’s always an exception. It’s with a heavy heart that I wish farewell to a public relations professional who has set the bar for our profession.

I first engaged with Lisa almost a decade back in 2006/2007, when I was working as a journalist and she was part of the technology team at Impact Porter Novelli (alongside Chuma Goodwin, Omnia Samra and Mohammad Zaher). She had a tough remit, which was to handle IPN’s tech clients which included HP and Google. Lisa was able to handle both client demands and the media effortlessly, going above and beyond to explain what her clients were doing to a media pack, many of whom had no IT background.

We both moved on (me back to the dark side and client-based marketing communications, her to a bigger agency role), but I kept looking in on her work. She joined H+K Strategies (to all of us old-timers, Gulf Hill and Knowlton), as a director. She rose up the ranks to the managing director for the UAE. She’s left her own legacy through a team and work that is among the best in the region’s industry. I’ve judged a good deal of H+K’s work recently, and it’s been of an exceptional standard. I can see Lisa’s attention to detail and her belief in measurement and outcomes shining through all that H+K is currently doing in the UAE.

Whenever we talked, I would often try to encourage Lisa to come and volunteer, either at MEPRA or with other public relations or communications bodies. Although I felt that she wanted to, she was as always honest and truthful; she said she didn’t have the time to commit. That’s one of the many reasons I respected Lisa; she cared about her reputation, and the reputation of the industry. I will miss her Northern wit, her integrity and her belief in always creating excellent work that would inspire others. I hope this is a goodbye and not farewell, Lisa!

The Agency-Client Conundrum: How to get the best out of your public relations agency

Working with clients in the region can sometimes be a challenge for agencies. We need to change this (image source: Shamley Productions)

Working with clients in the region can sometimes be a challenge for agencies for a variety of reasons. We need to change this (image source: Shamley Productions)

The one issue I hear about again and again from my friends on the agency side is the difficulty of working with clients. The most common retort is that clients don’t understand how to work with agencies. I’ve even seen agency-side colleagues praising their clients on LinkedIn for being open enough to share information with them, which for me is pretty much the basis of any agency-client relationship.

The current state of affairs between clients and public relations agencies needs to be changed. My friends and colleagues on the client side in particular need to change how they engage with their agencies; we need to understand that shouting, raising our voice, berating agency employees or simply demanding all of their time isn’t the basis for a healthy, long-term relationship that will benefit the client.

So, how do we change this? Here’s a couple of pointers:

  • Agencies are Consultants – For me, my agency team are consultants. They’re not there to be transactional, to give me a press release and then send it out. They’re there to advise me on the external environment, to provide counsel on opportunities and risks, and to support me in my job. More of us need to think consultants rather than simply implementers of basic tasks (and if you’re an agency which lives on press release writing and distribution, you also need to step up your game.
  • Inform them – I’m always amazed by how little agencies know about their clients. And it’s often not their fault. Clients need to give as much information to their agencies as possible. Agency teams are an extension of the client, and they’re representing the client with external stakeholders. Agency teams should be meeting regularly with clients, they should be give access to internal materials, and they should be made to feel that they are a natural extension of the client.
  • Learn how agencies operate – Far too few people on the client side have worked either as media or on the agency side. If client leads don’t have this experience, they need to develop an understanding of how agencies work. This means spending time with the agency teams, listening and observing how they operate. This will help in promoting a better understanding of agencies, which clients can then take back into their own operations.

These three pointers are pretty simple. It’s up to clients to put in the effort, to learn about their agencies and respect the value that agencies can bring when they are empowered by clients. As a client, if you’re not happy with your agency then change agencies. If you’re changing agencies regularly, maybe the problem isn’t on the agency side.

If you’re on either the agency or client side, do let me know your thoughts on the above. What have I missed, and what would you change or add to the above? As always, I’d love to hear from you.

The need to move comms past window-dressing: Adopting a standard certification for comms

For many companies, it feels as if communications is simply window-dressing. We have to change perceptions about our profession (image source: http://www.hansboodtmannequins.com)

There are times when I have no other reaction but to laugh. I was sat with an acquaintance and we were talking about a company which was hiring for a senior comms role. Me being me, I wanted to help out and recommend someone, and I asked the obvious question.

“What are they looking for?” I said.

“A pretty Lebanese girl,” was the response.

My friend was part joking, but also part serious. And here’s why. For far too long, communications has been seen as a nice-to-have, a function that isn’t really strategic. Unfortunately, what has often happened is that communications has become the department where either someone senior is left to ‘retire’, or it’s the place where an inexperienced but attractive character is brought in.

This Has To Change

We need to stop treating communications as a window dressing. Reputation matters, in both good and bad times (ask anyone who works at Volkswagen about the importance of reputation and its cost to the business). Today, thanks to social media, any one consumer or stakeholder can call out your company, for both good reasons and bad. And yet, few companies in the MENA region have people who can effectively steward and build reputations.

So, how do we do it?

Firstly, the industry needs to talk more about what communications truly is and what it can do for organizations and their publics. Many of us will work tirelessly for our brands, but we’re awful at doing public relations for ourselves. There’s not enough people out there, particularly among the C-level crowd and within human resources who actually know what communications is about. As an industry we have to spend more time educating our peers, so that they know what we do and the value of our work.

Secondly, we need a universally accepted certification. Would you go to a lawyer who doesn’t have a degree. Or how about a doctor who didn’t attend medical school? And yet, most of us in the communications industry have never studied public relations and understood the theory underpinning our work. If we’re to evolve, and become better at what we do, then we need to go forward as an industry and adopt a standard certification, be it that advocated by the CIPR or IABC. We need people who are accredited, who have invested time in their development, and who can say, “I know my communications theory and this is how I can prove it.”

I’m used to the status quo. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t want change. I want our profession to be respected, to have a seat at the table, and to be strategic. I hope you’ll join me, so that together we can push for change.

@Wadds on uncertainty and life in the UK post-Brexit

In another guest post, I’ve asked the respected public relations industry figure Stephen Waddington to share his thoughts on Brexit. Strap yourself in for the read.

The vote for Brexit will have many consequences for the UK, including for its communications industry, argues Wadds (image source: http://www.fortune.com)

The lack of planning and political fallout from the UK’s European Referendum mean that Brexit will remain a work in progress for a long time to come.

Alex asked to me to draft a guest blog post reflecting on life in Britain post Brexit shortly after the European Union (EU) Referendum result at the end of June.

I dodged the opportunity initially, not because I didn’t have a view, but because for three or four weeks it was really difficult to make sense of what was happening in the UK.

It’s has taken me the summer to come to terms with the fact that the UK voted to leave the EU. I was convinced by conversations on Facebook and Twitter that UK citizens would vote remain. I was stuck in a filter bubble.

The Referendum divided the country. The remain campaign was based on rational argument; the Brexit campaign, by contrast, on emotion.

UK citizens used the Referendum as an opportunity to vent their anger at the political classes in London and Brussels. It exposed a split between London, Northern Ireland and Scotland which all voted remain and the rest of the UK which voted Brexit.

More than two months after the result we’re becoming used to living with the uncertainty. What Brexit means and how it will happen are both a work in process.

The Conservative Prime Minster resigned and was replaced without a leadership election. The Labour party remains in the midst of leadership election.

The new Prime Minister Theresa May has created a Ministry for Brexit led by Eurosceptic David Davis, and has appointed Brexit campaigners Liam Fox and Boris Johnson as trade secretary and foreign secretary respectively.

Both Davis and Fox are recruiting the small army of people needed to work on the exit negotiation with the EU. 1,250 positions have been created in trade and diplomacy.

The UK will have two years to negotiate its exit once it triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

In that time it will need to determine how to manage more than four decades of law that are entwined with the EU, and negotiate trade deals on an industry-by-industry basis with the 27 member states, and major countries around the world.

There’s also the issue of the free movement of people. Take back control [of UK borders] was a campaign slogan for the remain campaign.

It’s an issue that impacts the UK’s future trade agreements but also impacts UK citizens living in EU countries and EU citizens living in the UK.

People like markets don’t respond well to uncertainty. The government needs to move quickly to reassure people and investment that the UK remains a good place to both invest and build a career.

The UK is a centre of excellence for talent in the creative industries, including my own trade, public relations. I’m keen to see this remain the case.

The emergency budget, and recession, both predicted by the remain campaign haven’t happened. But UK currency shows no sign of returning to pre-referendum levels.

£1 was worth $1.50 on the day of the Referendum. Today the £ is trading at an average of $1.30. The foreign exchange markets have priced down UK assets by more than 15%. It’s the one area of absolute certainty.

The rest is yet to be seen.

Stephen Waddington is Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University. He blog at wadds.co.uk and you can connect with him on Twitter @wadds.

Birth of digital influencers = death of true journalism! Who’s to blame?

Have social media influencers negatively impacted our profession?

I’ll be hosting more guest bloggers on the site. This piece is from Rijosh Joseph, and focuses on the contentious issue of social media influencers and their impact on the media and the concept of public relations in general. Enjoy the read, and thank you Rijosh!

Call me old-fashioned, but I am quite annoyed with the evolution of modern day PR! I often wonder, if not all but at least, some of us PR folks, have lost the plot or whether we are passing the buck to the modern-day advertisers?

The topic had been “vocal” both in my mind and among a few of my peers within this industry. A recent YouGov report published by BPG stirred further debate and hence I find the need to put forth a lay opinion.

When this study was posted as a pitch for editorial opportunities in “UAE Journalists”, a private Facebook group that has members within the media and communications industry, it laid the platform for members to “engage” with their views. And honestly, it was a very interesting thread to follow.

Coming back to the point, it frustrates me to sit with PR teams (clients + agency) only to educate them on the incorrect notion of treating journalists inferior to digital “influencers”.

For instance, a certified journalist, are in most cases, served with a press release, which PR folks expect them to carry in their publication. Yet a blogger or digital influencer, plugged to the cage of technology, and who does not possess any insights on journalism, gets pampered at an all-inclusive media event. I agree, product reviews, giveaways and meals never pay their bills. However, we hardly realize that it is a lifestyle choice that they made.

In my honest opinion, digital influencers could strive for a path wherein the real essence of journalism and the need for materialism, can co-exist. Instead of just showing up at events for the freebies, one can get creative in myriad ways of generating revenue while preserving the quality of good writing.

For starters, one can turn a blog into a revenue generating business-model with meaningful campaigns, rather than a platform for paid editorials or tainted and biased op-eds. For example, if you love travelling, then creating a memorable travel experience alongside partnering with brands that are willing to collaborate and for the same cause will let you fill your pocket and keep the sanctity of good blogging.

If one is in to fashion and beauty, then developing a fashion line or partnering with make-up brands they believe in for workshops etc., will lead consumers to their webpage, at the same time maintain the dignity of unbiased content with a penchant for money.

The core essence of blogging is channeling one’s opinion based on their passion points. It does not become a blog if it turns out to be a tool to endorse commercial products.

In the last couple of years I have come across several bloggers and digital influencers who “review” products, but end up in situations wherein they stoop-down to cringe-worthy negotiations, like refusing to publish the review without payments or price-tags being involved. It had also got to the point where they create a drama when we politely decline the opportunity and request to collect the product to return to the client as they are all part of a rotating media review sample quota.

Similarly for media events, if influencers expect them to be invited, it is only fair for PR folks to expect them to cover it. Be it, positive, negative or neutral – give us the coverage if you have shown up to the event and taken a press kit. It is highly frustrating when they send an email with their rate card following the event to publish or cover it. Instead, stop asking to be paid to be part of a media experience and honestly write your thoughts about it. That isn’t the role of true bloggers.

The point here is, I’m not trying to fully kill or disapprove influencer marketing. As communications professionals, we must tie up with influencers only if they can provide clients with tangible analytics to back up exactly what ROI they can bring to a campaign. But with the current state-of-affairs, too many lines have been crossed and it is appalling that we are forced to please every new kid on the block who claims to be an influencer and, worse, bend and break to their whims and fancies.

From the debate on this topic in the “UAE Journalists” Facebook post, there was one comment, which caught my attention to also reflect from the other side of the spectrum. The post stated:

“What is the difference between a paid influencer and a journalist who has absolutely no freedom or inclination to write a story unless there’s significant advertising spend? What’s the difference when a journalist calls you up, asking if you can get them tickets for a concert or movie, etc. Not saying all journalists do this, but let’s be honest, most do. Whether we like it or not, celebrity influencers have always been a part of the marketing and comms-mix, now with social media, the rise of the “digital influencer” is inevitable. You and I, may not have let an influencer sway our opinion on a product or service, but I think most of us, have tried out that new restaurant just because we heard everyone talk about it.”

And it is sad that I have to fully agree to the above post. All UAE journalists are not saints. We all have had our countless experiences that make us wonder as to why chose to be in PR. It is also a fact that in this region, the ethics in journalism among journalists have gone down. This might also be a reason for incessant rise in influencer marketing.

So, what can be done to clean up the mess?

To begin with, from a digital perspective, I feel it is time the scene becomes regulated by relevant authorities of the media council to make it mandatory that all paid editorial content on digital platforms get declared as “sponsored content” as opposed to how it is being offered to readers now. This should bring about a sense of equilibrium among all stakeholders playing within this sphere of media and communications.

And on that note, it is high-time, members within digital fraternity consider ways to stop asking for money merely to be part of a media experience. And as responsible PR professionals, we must not dig our own grave by fostering current practices with influencer marketing.

What does Instagram’s UAE communications remit say about how outsiders understand the region?

Instagram has been a huge hit in Saudi, especially among the Kingdom's youth. How will Instagram's comms team reach out to these groups? (image source: http://sustg.com/)

Instagram has been a huge hit in Saudi, especially among the Kingdom’s youth. How will Instagram’s comms team reach out to these groups? (image source: http://sustg.com/)

Client wins can often make interesting reading, especially when the brand is a household name. Last week was no exception, with the Dubai-based House of Comms winning a brief to represent Instagram in the UAE.

The news caught my attention for a couple of reasons. Firstly, House of Comms is enjoying remarkable success; the agency which was founded in 2012 has expanded rapidly, picked up a host of big name clients and won numerous awards for its work. The agency’s growth reminds me of the rapid rise enjoyed by Dabo & Co (which was eventually bought by Edelman). House of Comms does have an affiliate network across the region, including in the Gulf.

What struck me was Instagram’s choice of market to enter into. While the UAE is the regional public relations hub of the wider Middle East region, I would have thought that the company would have taken a more regional approach to public outreach (Editor’s Note: the agreement with House of Comms is for the UAE, but also includes advisory work for other markets). For instance, the first market to embrace paid influencer marketing, particularly on Instagram, was Kuwait. In terms of numbers on the platform, Saudi is the largest country in the region by far, with a greater number of users than the UAE. Egypt is another key market for the picture and video service. If you’re looking for details on Instagram usage, have a look at the stats below from the second quarter of 2015 from an earlier blog.

In terms of the Gulf, it’s no surprise that Saudi leads the way – there are 10.7 million monthly active users in the Kingdom (just over a third of the population). The UAE follows with 2.2 million monthly users. And, to the West, Egypt has 3.2 million monthly active users. What’s even more impressive is daily active users – a whopping 6.1 million for Saudi, 1.2 million for the UAE, and 1.1 million for Egypt.

In addition, there’s the parent brand to think of. Instagram is owned by Facebook, which has its own PR agency in the region (which is regional). Up until recently, that agency was supporting Instagram. So, why the change? Would having two agencies for the two brands help or hinder media outreach, especially when Instagram is known as a Facebook product?

While the agreement is only for the UAE, I hope that Instagram, one of the most popular social platforms in the Middle East, expands its regional approach to engagement. The Instagram team should have oodles of data to look at when it comes to usage in each and every different country, and they’d be smart to look at Twitter’s model of engaging with influencers to get them onto the platform. Let’s hope that as a digital business, Instagram takes a data-based approach to engagement in an emerging market and work in key markets, rather than follow the much traveled path of using a hub to work remotely instead of actually doing the hard work and going in-country.