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.

Ramadan and the Impact of Social Media

We’re only a week or so away from the holiest month of the Islamic year, when Muslims fast to remember the first revelation of the holy Koran to the Prophet Muhammed. Just as the Middle East has embraced social media, so have Muslims. Ramadan is one of the most active times of the year for social media in the Middle East, on all social media channels, as Muslims reach out to friends and family, as they prepare for the Holy Month, and as they celebrate in the run up to Eid.

First of all, let’s look at Twitter. The short messaging service recorded over 51 million mentions of Ramadan last year, with 8.4 billion impressions.

The number of Tweets during Ramadan in 2015 based on Twitter's own internal statistics

The number of Tweets during Ramadan in 2015 based on Twitter’s own internal statistics

Google’s focus is on YouTube, in particular channels which have a specific relationship with this period of the year. Cooking is initially popular (Ramadan meals are cooked and served at home), followed by religious channels and general entertainment.

YouTube viewership during Ramadan changes dramatically as you can see from this internal Google data

YouTube viewership during Ramadan changes dramatically as you can see from this internal Google data

And last but not least, there’s Facebook. During 2014, 14.6 million Muslims in the MENA region posted 47.6m updates on Ramadan and Eid. The attached presentation from Facebook provides fascinating insights into when Muslims are online and how much more time they’re spending online, as well as the shift towards mobile and a breakdown of chatter by age and sex. Facebook believes that millenials are shifting away from television and towards the internet, which may be disconcerting for advertisers and television networks.

Facebook MENA Ramadan Insights

While it’d be fascinating to understand how Muslims are using Whatsapp and other messaging services to spread religious messages and other related content, I don’t have any data on this (and other) channels.

Whatever you’re planning for Ramadan, do remember the importance of social media channels to Muslims across the region. Make your content engaging (either entertaining or informative), relevant, and shareable. And Ramadan Mubarak!

Getting engagement right – Zain Kuwait’s ‘We Know You Well’ ads

Advertising is a tortuous task – get it wrong (which most brands do) and your advert is either forgotten or, even worse, hated. Consumers will turn over as soon as they view the advert or hear the copy. But when a brand gets the advert right, the content becomes engaging, entertaining and even iconic. Think Fairy, Hamlet or Heineken.

Unlike in the UK, brands in the Middle East are loathe to do things differently. The Kuwait-based telco Zain is different however. They’re often looking at pushing the envelope in terms of both creativity and message.

My wife stumbled across a couple of adverts run by Zain this Ramadan. Named ‘We Know You Well’, these adverts which are purely aimed at promoting the brand are a fun poke at the younger generation of Kuwaitis and how, despite their lifestyle changes, they still revert to their old selves. If you know any Gulf Arabs, especially Kuwaitis, Saudis or Bahrainis, ask them to explain the particulars to you. The message in the second video is easier to understand, but the nuances and details, from the accents to the music and the voice-over text are uniquely understandable to anyone who knows Kuwait. The title of the adverts also plays on the telco’s own name (Zain means well or good in Arabic).

The adverts are simple, the message is clear, and the content is not only engaging but entertaining (both thanks to the voice-over as well as the acting). The characters are believable as well. All in all, they’re a powerful piece of content which consumers can not only understand but enjoy.

For an added extra, Zain also released a behind-the-scenes video on social media.

If you want to be bold, then look no further than Zain Kuwait and how the telco does advertising. You are truly Zain my friends…

Coca-Cola, tackling prejudice & swapping television advertising for digital and CSR this Ramadan

Is Coca-Cola's anti-prejudice message a winner this Ramadan?

Is Coca-Cola’s anti-prejudice message a winner this Ramadan?

A global icon and the brand that defined Christmas has been making waves this Ramadan. Coca-Cola, which spent $3.3 billion on advertising globally in 2013, made a surprise announcement this Ramadan through its Egyptian subsidiary. Instead of spending sizable sums of money on television spots during Ramadan, which is the peak viewing season, the Egyptian operation would only spend money on paid digital spots on Facebook and YouTube. To quote from the company’s press release (please do excuse the hyperbole, the writer was probably on a sugar rush whilst penning this):

This festive season Coca Cola is giving back to the Egyptian community by replacing their always hotly-anticipated television ads with a unique campaign against prejudice rolling out exclusively on digital media. Their TV ad budget is instead being poured into their project of developing 100 villages. In recent days they have also galvanised Egypt’s digital population, pledging that for every post featuring a finger raised against prejudice (symbolising one extra second) they will donate one additional pound to their project.

While the idea of saving advertising money by pulling television ads and using that budget to spend on CSR is different to say the least, especially for a household brand such as Coca-Cola (and, which, in any case isn’t true as Coca-Cola has spent heavily on pan-Arab television advertising), the notion of tackling prejudice is an interesting angle for Coca-Cola to take.

Coca-Cola has launched a number of video shorts for YouTube and Facebook about prejudice, with the key tag line that we should look beyond the seven seconds it takes to form an opinion about others. Have a look at the below (unfortunately, they’re only in Arabic).

Coca-Cola Middle East is taking a similar approach to its Ramadan messaging, by promoting a world without labels through abandoning its own labeling.

To quote from Coca-Cola’s own website:

“A limited-edition run of red Coca-Cola cans features the brand’s white dynamic ribbon, but not its signature scripted logo. The backs of the cans include the anti-prejudice, pro-tolerance message: “Labels are for cans, not people.”

“Coca-Cola Middle East also released a video documenting a unique social experiment that highlights stereotyping in society. The short film shows how Coke invited six strangers to an iftar – the nightly fast-breaking meal during the holy month of Ramadan, which runs through July 17 – in the dark. The guests conversed without forming prejudices about their fellow diners based on physical appearance.”

Coca-Cola’s approach to Ramadan has been both welcomed as well as questioned. Dubai-based public relations professional and blogger Alexander McNabb posted a list of hilarious thoughts which he shared with Coca-Cola’s media agency about the announcement. Go have a read, and let me know what you think about what Coca-Cola is doing this Ramadan.

How the World’s Media was Pranked by Paris Hilton, Ramez Galal and that Plane Crash Stunt

Was Paris in on the prank? Or did she have no idea what was going on?

Was Paris in on the prank? Or did she have no idea what was going on?

If you’ve been catching some television in between fasting, praying, breaking the fast, and trying to work during the holy month of Ramadan, you may have come across a series on MBC One channel called Ramez Wakel Al Jaw (quite literally Ramez eats the air). The idea behind the show is simple – take up a celebrity in a scenic flight above Dubai, pretend that the plane is going down, and film the ensuing chaos. Each show, which is aired on a daily basis, would feature a different celebrity.

The big draw for the show, which is only being aired during Ramadan (which is essentially the prime time for TV viewership in the Middle East), was Paris Hilton, the hotel chain heiress and Hollywood socialite. Paris was the only non-Arab celebrity to be featured on the show, and she was used extensively in the ad campaign leading up to the show’s launch (in fact, she was the only celebrity to be featured in the aforementioned ads).

Now, we come to the Paris episode itself. To quote from the UAE’s English-language The National:

It began last Sunday when Hilton’s episode was broadcast as part of Galal’s latest MBC ­comedy series.

The set-up involved the stars boarding a light plane for a leisurely, aerial tour over the emirate, only for the situation to escalate — or should we say, descend — into terror: the aircraft suddenly nosedived after a simulated technical failure. The video clip, which went viral after it was uploaded on YouTube, shows Hilton getting anxious, then panicking as skydivers masquerading as passengers open the cabin door and leap out.

Only after the plane returned to the ground was the celebrity told the truth. Taking it surprisingly well, a shaky Hilton goes on to praise Galal for “taking it to the next level. I have seen Punk’d [American prank reality show hosted by Ashton Kutcher] but you have taken me on a plane and nearly killed me”.

For a more visual explanation, CNN’s report sums up the story wonderfully.

Paris’ response to the episode being aired was swift. She intended to sue, according to TMZ.com which broke the news.

Paris Hilton is telling business associates … she will sue the people responsible for putting her on a plane that appeared to be in crash mode … just to get a rise out of her.

We’re told Paris is furious over the stunt … in which a TV crew got the pilot to pretend to shut down the engines in her plane, and then nose-dive to the ground. Paris says she was in mortal fear for her life … something the video pretty clearly shows.

Our sources say she’s “totally freaked out” over flying anywhere … something she’s required to constantly do. She’s already called her lawyers to find out who’s responsible, and they told her she has a solid case for emotional distress.

Paris tells them she had absolutely no clue this was a prank … she wasn’t in on it. She also doesn’t believe anyone in her camp was involved.

The episode and the reaction of Paris to sue Ramez Galal made headlines the world over, despite no one outside of the region having heard of the show. The idea of a global celebrity having been pranked in such an abhorrent stunt with her life seemingly at risk was enough to garner hundreds of pages worth of media attention.

But if we step back a moment, let’s talk through what happened and why this was obviously planned from the get-go:

1) The timings – the show was pre-shot; in other words, it wasn’t live. Paris was used extensively to promote the show, and one would have thought that Paris would have looked to sue immediately after her episode was shot several weeks before Ramadan. This wasn’t the case.
2) The payment – no celebrity worth their salt does anything for free, and Paris is no different. If you want her, you have to pay. If TMZ.com is to be believed, Paris was apparently paid over a million dollars to take part in the stunt. She’d have known beforehand what was going to happen. Nevertheless, she pulls off the acting (unlike in her movie roles).
3) The publicity – both Paris and Ramez benefited from the media coverage of the show. Paris comes off as someone we can feel for and empathize with, which isn’t usually the case. And Ramez gets global coverage for the show which boosts the ratings, and for himself. The threat to sue amplifies the media coverage.

The question is, who got scammed? Paris, the viewers or the media? No matter what, everyone seems to have been entertained.

In the irony of ironies, a SkyDive Dubai plane crash-landed in the desert this week. The incident, which closely resembled the prank scenario, was widely reported by the media.

This emergency landing wasn’t a prank…

Whilst there were fortunately no injuries, none of the media made the connection between Ramez Galal and his show, which is based at SkyDive Dubai’s site, and the plane coming down in a similar scenario. It’s just as well for Ramez – one lawsuit is more than enough this Ramadan. But you tell me, is life imitating art, or is art imitating life?

A hijab, bacon and McDonalds’ breakfasts – the wonderful world of Ramadan advertising

Ramadan is a wonderful month, a time of spirituality for the world’s Muslims. It’s also the time of year when the advertising rules change as Muslims fast during the daylight hours and look to spend their nights either with family or in prayer.

In keeping with reaching out to Muslims, advertisers need to be ever-aware of religious sensitivities. Brands often feel the need to make a change to their ads. One such change, which was spotted by Dubai-based communications professional Mohammed Kharroubi (Twitter handle @mkdubai), involved the retailer Carrefour. Spot the change below.

Brands sometimes get things horrendously wrong. Another retailer, the UK retailer Tesco, made a huge faux-pas, when they promoted smokey bacon-flavor Pringles as part of a Ramadan promotion. For those who don’t know, any pork-related products are considered haraam in Islam and are not consumed by Muslims. The below image went viral and has resulted in masses of media coverage in the UK.

Tesco has been pilloried on social media for selling smokey bacon-flavoured Pringles as part of a Ramadan promotion

Tesco has been pilloried on social media for selling smokey bacon-flavoured Pringles as part of a Ramadan promotion

And then, there’s the bizarre. According to Dubai-based marketing consultant Hussein Dajani, McDonalds has been running advertising for its breakfasts this month on the radio on Dubai. Unfortunately, Muslims fast during the day, and most of the McDonalds restaurants serving breakfast will be closed.

With Ramadan, it really does seem that while some brands are able to adapt and thrive, others need to do their homework. What are your thoughts? And do you have your own examples of successful and unsuccessful Ramadan advertising?

Lessons in cultural misunderstandings from the Gulf

Are we more a melting pot or a basket-case of cultural groups? (picture source: http://kidspartyheaven.wordpress.com)


The Arabian Gulf is often called a melting pot of cultures, where diverse groups and nationalities meet, work and live together and understand one another. Every now and then, there are moments when a different reality comes to light, when it’s blindingly obvious that we still have a long way to go.

I had the pleasure of having two of those ‘cultural moments’ last Wednesday. The first was with Emirates, the national airline of Dubai. Emirates is an interesting organization, in that it’s one of the most profitable airlines in the world, is owned by the Government of Dubai, and yet most of its senior management is not from the Gulf region.

I enjoy flying Emirates, and I often receive a great service from the airline. I had to rebook both my and my wife’s ticket and pay for the difference over the phone. All went smoothly, until it came to the issue of payment. You see, the habit in the most of the Arab world, and particularly in the Gulf, is for the wife not to take her husband’s name for religious reasons. And yet, I couldn’t pay for her ticket over the phone because my surname obviously is different. The lady on the other end of the phone wasn’t an Arab, but she wasn’t the person who drew up the rules at an airline owned by an Arab government.

Cultural misunderstanding one was resolved not through explaining why my and my wife’s names were different – I did try my best – but for other reasons (I’m a Skywards airline rewards member, which solves everything over the phone). The second cultural crossed-wires was much more fun and less painful but just as much an eye-opener.

I received a message from a friend asking for information about a company I know. Here I was naively thinking he was looking for a job. Instead, he’d been asked by a parent to check up on a person at the company whom a family member had received a proposal of marriage from.

While I’m never averse to providing a job reference or to help someone in their search for the right role, I explained that I may have to draw the line on background checking someone I didn’t know to help facilitate (or not) a marriage request.

We often talk about melting pots, about coming together and living alongside others in harmony et cetera. But how much do we really know about the other? And how often does our lack of cultural awareness catch us out? With Ramadan only a few days away maybe it’s time we did more to understand each other and our diverse backgrounds?