Westernizing the Middle East? Another success for the PR industry…

Remember the last time someone talked about Westernizing the Middle East?

I’m a PR person and former journalist with a long memory. Recent days and talk of tensions in the Gulf have reminded me of a time prior to 2003, when those wise and experienced neo-cons in the West (who know the region much better than those who are from the region) asserted that the invasion of Iraq would transform the Middle East for the better.

The PR industry is responsible for many things. We’ve helped promote transparency, and occasionally gotten our senior leadership to open up to the media and general public. We’ve also been responsible for negating some of the worst crises you’ve never ever heard of. Well, now we’re also responsible for bringing enlightenment to the nether regions of this planet called Earth.

I’m not sure if the BCW CEO Donna Imperato meant to follow in the footsteps of such luminaries as Dick Cheney or John Bolton when she spoke the following words which were quoted by PR Week. But that’s what I pictured when I read the below.


“It’s important to help Westernize the Middle East. It’s good if Western companies are investing there. It will help modernize the governments and culture if you bring Western ideas, thinking and products into that part of the world. Scolding them is not going to help them modernize and make their people freer. I would take on education, destination, and tourism assignments in the Middle East. We’re particularly proud of the Ford ‘Women in the Driving Seat’ work in Saudi Arabia where women got to drive for the first time.”

It’s usually us clients who are putting our foot in our mouths, and our agency partners who rush in to help us. But making such a statement isn’t only reminiscent of colonialism, but also of what happened a decade and a half back (as well as more recently with tensions over Iran).

As communicators our job is to promote understanding. We’re best doing this by seeking to understand our diverse audiences. Donna, I’m always up for a chat as to why the Middle East needs many things, such as more respect for human rights and transparency. However, the last thing we need is more ideas like this which demean the region. And if you’re too busy for a chat, then how about grabbing a copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism. We can then talk about how we can encourage more American school children to learn Arabic numerals in school.

Why Attacking the Media Doesn’t Work – A Case Study with Etihad and Bloomberg

Unlike for certain politicians, corporates attacks on the media rarely work and often backfire

It’s fair to say the corporate communications world is a fairly quiet place in the Gulf, but every now and then there’s a story that even manages to make me go agog. Last week, whilst sitting in the dentist’s clinic, I picked up a copy of the local publication Arabian Business. The front cover was a story on the Abu Dhabi-headquartered airline Etihad. The airline has had a lot of turbulence of late, with a loss of $4.8 billion over a three-year period as investments were pulled in failing airlines.

With this in mind, I was looking forward to a good read about how Etihad was turning things around, and getting back on track. Instead, it’s fair to say the introduction wasn’t what I was expecting, particularly the quotes from the CEO of the airline (who is presumably media-trained). Have a read below, or see the original piece here.

Attacking the media isn’t a strategy that is often used by corporates, and should be avoided

Any good media person (and, by extension, corporate executive) should know that the media won’t always get a story right. It’s our role to protect and build reputations. For the media, their job is to report the news as they find it. This is especially true of newswires, which both seek out business news that isn’t pushed out by the communications team and seek to verify their news reporting through multiple sources.

Why did Etihad’s CEO attack Bloomberg? I’d argue frustration with the reporting, which I understand. Here’s what he should have done.

  1. Use Positive Language – What surprised me more than anything was the use of the language here, especially given who is being talked about. I have a great deal of time for newswire journalists, as they’re often the best in the industry. Negative language sticks in the reader’s mind, and makes everything else pale in comparison. I’ve forgotten everything else in the piece, which is much more positive, due to the negative language used here.
  2. Focus on your Company’s Own Actions – It’s a simple rule of media work that you focus on what you’re doing and the vision behind it. There’ll always be opinions and views on your organization, both good and bad. Reputations are built on actions, and Etihad has been looking to turn around the business and trim losses. That’s the lead story. Instead, the CEO has gifted the journalist a major headline, and re-focused the issue on the story he didn’t like.
  3. You’re always “On The Record” – Even the first comment, about being guarded, was strange. Every time I’ve given media training, I’ve always emphasized that anything an executive says is on the record, regardless of what is placed in front of them. In an interview, it’s good to build a rapport with the journalist, and put them at ease. A likeable executive is one of the best ways to do this (the best example from the aviation sector is the likes of Richard Branson, who always comes across as an interesting person you’d love to have a conversation with).

Ultimately, the media is one channel that communicators use to get information out to the public and other stakeholders. Nobody is right 100% of the time, including even the best journalists. If they’ve written a piece that’s incorrect, a communicator’s job is to get on the phone with them, point out the mistakes, and get on with telling their firm’s story positively.

Calling out the media publicly, through the CEO and in a derogatory fashion, only sours the relationship with both that outlet/journalist and also with the media in general. It also focuses the media on the negative issue, and ensures that the topic becomes front and center in any future media engagement. Any business which does this never gains any reputational value. It makes for a good read, however. So thank you Etihad from one reader for keeping my mind preoccupied whilst I waited to see my dentist.

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…