Saudi Telecom, Boycotts, Social Media (راح_نفلسكم#) and Stock Price Impact

Forgive my wordy headline, but there’s a lot to get into this story. Before anything else, let me spell out the context. Saudi and Saudis love social media, but they haven’t been enthused by the efforts of the telecommunication providers in the country to block free call apps or services offered by the likes of FaceTime, SnapChat and WhatsApp. To add insult to injury, consumers have claimed that the Kingdom’s three telcos (Mobily, Saudi Telecom and Zain) have rolled back unlimited data services.

So what have the country’s social media-crazy consumers done? Yes, you guessed right. They’ve taken to social media to call for a boycott. Under the hashtags (which basically means we’ll bankrupt you) and  (boycott telco companies), the idea is simple.

Starting from last weekend, Saudi users have begun to switch off their phones. The hashtag and others have gone viral, and users have taken to Twitter to demand action against the telcos, including physical boycotts of stores.

The ultimate mark of consumer sentiment is cartoons, and Saudi’s most prominent cartoonist Abdullah Jaber stepped in to pen his own thoughts on the issue (the below translates as the Telco company on the right, saying to the consumer, “why are you angry?”

Saudi Telecom in particular has been hit, both in terms of its social media following (the carrier has lost almost 150,000 followers on its Twitter account), as well as its share price which dropped by several percent on Sunday morning after trading opened on the Saudi bourse.

stc-followers

Saudi Telecom’s Twitter account @STC_KSA lost over 140,000 followers in the space of two days as boycott calls spread (source: Twitter Count).

stc-stock-price

Saudi Telecom’s stock price was also hit on Sunday, with an initial fall of 8% (source: Google Finance)

There’s a further dimension to this story, with some online accounts in the UAE calling for similar action to be taken against the two telco incumbents (see the hashtag  and ).

Is this type of online activism on a single economic issue going to become more common, particularly with the state of finances across the region? And what can communicators do about an issue that is about a product and a strategy that consumers don’t like?

As always, it’d be good to hear your thoughts.

The importance of reputation – the examples of Mubadala and IPIC


The concept of reputation, which can be defined as how much stakeholders trust organizations, is often difficult to measure. It’s an intangible, an idea which is often best understood at the most inappropriate time (in other words, during a crisis).

In Abu Dhabi last week news broke about a merger between two government-owned investment vehicles. The deal between Mubadala and IPIC would create a combined fund worth US$135 billion according to Reuters. At a time of budget tightening due to low oil prices, the merger promises to bring about significant cost savings according to media reports.

Reuters had another interesting take on the merger, which I’ll copy from the article.

IPIC is also in the midst of a row with 1MDB. The Abu Dhabi fund has asked a London court to arbitrate in a dispute with the Malaysian state fund over a debt restructuring in which IPIC is claiming about $6.5 billion.

While unlikely to impact these proceedings, the sovereign wealth fund analyst said the scandal had undermined IPIC’s reputation and so a tie-up with Mubadala, which is considered one of the better-run state investment funds in the region, would be beneficial.

The analyst that Reuters spoke to argued that IPIC’s reputation was hit by the issue in Malaysia. In addition, the departure of its previous CEO and dealings in its investments such as Arabtec have also contributed to reputation all issues. In contrast, Mubadala has a strong brand, helped in part to the leadership of its management and financial transparency.

It’s not only communicators who need to understand that every action will impact organizational reputation (leaders of listed companies know all too well what public sentiment can do to the stock price, and their jobs). The Mubadala-IPIC merger is an example of how much both good and not so good reputations can impact the business.

Keep Calm, Say Nothing – QNB’s response to the customer data hack crisis

Qatar National Bank's reputation has literally gone down like the Titanic according to this visual from a reader of Doha News (source: Doha News)

Qatar National Bank’s reputation has literally gone down like the Titanic according to this visual from a reader of Doha News (source: Doha News)

Like it or not, there will be times when the proverbial @#$% hits the fan. Each and every organization will go through a crisis. What matters is how an organization responds to the crisis and communicates this response.

Before I talk about the bank in question, I want to step to talk a little about crisis communications. Crisis comms is an artform, and some people (who get paid lots of money) do crisis comms for a full time living. When dealing with a crisis, communications theory states that there are three steps. The first is pre-crisis, which involves setting up a team and processes (the who and the how), and then practising for situations that are likely to occur. The second phase is the crisis itself, and the third is post-crisis and fixing the issue.

Last week someone allegedly released a huge amount of customer data which was hacked from Qatar National Bank. The 1.4 gigabyte file was put online for download. A data hack of customer information is one of the worst things that can happen to a retail bank. But it gets worse. To quote from Doha News.

The data included the financial and personal information of thousands people, many of them QNB customers, and is being spread widely on social media and file-sharing websites.

Cyber security experts said as many as 400,000 customers could be affected, in what is being called one of Qatar’s biggest data breaches.

Since yesterday, several customers have reported attempts to break into their bank accounts, although these appear to have been blocked before any transfers took place.

Others have said there have been attempts to access and even alter their social media accounts.

Yes, it was that bad. But instead of communicating and advising customers on what to do and how to keep themselves safe, QNB’s media team didn’t say a thing. Well, almost. Again, back to Doha News.

More than 24 hours after the data breach became public, QNB has not answered questions from Doha News on what actions customers should take to protect themselves and many customers say they have yet to be contacted by the bank.

Online, it has continued to respond to questions by pointing to yesterday’s statement that said it does not comment on “social media speculation,” even though the confidential information about thousands of its customers is online for anyone to access.

According to the reaction of dozens of customers, some of the information is correct. And yet, even QNB’s Call Center and retail branches are holding fast and not saying anything. One customer was allegedly told that the allegations were ‘propaganda’.

All credit to Doha News. The Qatar-based news website has covered the issue from its beginning with a level of thoroughness that should be a lesson for all local media outlets in the region. The last piece it ran was about a website which could help QNB customers check if they were hacked or not.

Doha News has also been doing much of the work which should have been done by QNB itself, namely advise customers on what is happening, tell them what action they should take and why. QNB’s silence on the issue is a classic example of how organizations in the region used to deal with a crisis prior to the advent of social media. You dig your head in the sand and hope it’ll go away. Well, this is what they’ve done and their reputation has gone down with the Titanic.

Instead, they should have been responding through all consumer-focused communications channels, including social media (a digital crisis consultant I respect greatly and ex-head of comms for the BBC, Donald Steel, advises that any online response should take no longer than 15 minutes). By acknowledging the problem, by explaining how their customers can keep safe, and by promising a review of their security setup, QNB would have helped to have turned a crisis into an opportunity to demonstrate both transparency and concern for customers and their well-being.

In their response (or lack thereof) QNB has looked archaic and they’ve compounded the damage by seeming not to care. I hope that others take stock of the online backlash and understand that when it comes to a crisis in the Gulf, silence is never golden.

Taylor Bennett’s Kate Hamilton-Baily on what executives are looking for when it comes to top communicators

Reputation management and internal communications are two skill-sets in demand, according to Kate Hamilton-Baily

Reputation management and internal communications are two skill-sets in demand, according to Kate Hamilton-Baily

There’s been much talk about communications and how the role of the communicator is changing. As part of this debate, I wanted to get a different insight. I spoke to Kate Hamilton-Baily, Director at the leading global communications executive search firm, Taylor Bennett, to get her perspective on what business executives are looking for from their communication directors and what we need to do to make sure that we’re prepared for today’s job market. Kate spoke at IABC’s Eurocomm 2016 event in Rotterdam. I caught up with Kate to ask her a couple of questions on issues such as skills, employability and the convergence of marketing and communications.

Alex: So tell me about yourself Kate.

Kate: I’m one of the directors of Taylor Bennett, an specialist executive search firm which focuses purely on senior communications roles. With our sister companies Heyman Associates in the United States and Taylor Bennett Heyman, in Asia and Australasia. We have fifty search professionals globally focused on senior communications briefs and we meet over two thousand senior communications professionals every year, so we have a pretty good understanding of what is shaping today’s top communicators.

Alex: So, what are the big communications issues that executives care about?

Kate: Reputational management has moved up the agenda following the financial crash in 2008. It is now recognized as having a tangible impact on the success of a business or organization or institution. In line with this has been the breakdown of trust between the public, government and many parts of the business world, alongside the growth of digitization and an incredible range of new social media channels. Internal communications and engagement has really come of age and is seen as a strategic and important discipline. Then there is the convergence between marketing and communications.

Digital has had a major impact on the communications role, as has the breakdown in trust between the public, government and business. Executives want someone who can cut through all of the data and tell the organization’s story in a creative, transparent way that will engage multiple audiences externally and internally. They’re looking for a talent that can marry the gap between what the organization says and means and what the public hears and understands.

Alex: What other issues are you seeing? What is driving communications?

Kate: We’re witnessing the need for both deep expertise in areas such as internal communications and engagement but also broad corporate leadership attributes and skills at the top end able to understand how to campaign effectively and get their message across in a very noisy world. Business understanding remains critical.

If I look into career progression, mid-career experiences are vital in terms of your future progression. So, for example, if you have only worked in an external communications role, or in government relations, spending a year in internal communications will give you a completely different perspective and really help as you go for more senior director level roles.

Alex: Tell me about convergence. What does this concept mean to communicators and their careers?

Kate: Convergence has been around for a while, especially in the B2B space. Marketing used to lead communications especially in the B2C sectors, but with concepts such as reputation management it’s become more complex. You’re now seeing communication directors who have responsibility for the corporate brand. And on the flip side, CMOs who are responsible for a far more fluid and complex communications landscape. However, there is an opportunity for communicators to learn from their colleagues in marketing especially around adopting a strategic and analytical approach and merge those skills with the storytelling approach that communicators are expert in. Measurement isn’t a natural focus for some communicators but this is changing. And then there’s the ownership of channels, such as social media. That can be a difficult internal debate. Communicators also need to be very well networked, to know the business and understand the challenges that other functions and colleagues, in operations, HR and IT face so, that they can step in and support them.

Alex: What skills, experiences and personal attributes do clients ask for?

Kate: This varies based on the business leader and the industry they’re in. There’s a real variance in what the ideal communications leader looks like based on the business, the organization and what the CEO is looking to do.

There are general trends, however. Internal communications and engagement has moved up the CEO’s agenda. And many business leaders are looking for a strong, integrated in-house approach featuring the full complement of skills communications, public affairs, sustainability and internal communications that can work across multiple markets.

What I’d add is that business leaders want a communications person who has good judgment, who can offer strong counsel in a crisis, who understands the business, is a good leader and who can make a meaningful contribution to the business whilst building a strong communications team. There is a long list!

Alex: How should a communicator assess their abilities and look to get ahead?

Kate: Firstly, we want to understand what you have done in your career and how you did it. The context of the challenge, the a-b journey. People in communications can change sectors and the ability to adapt to different cultures and industries is highly valued. We are also interested in your leadership and management capability. How have you developed your team, what lessons have you learned and what challenges have you faced. Who you are as a person and what motivates you is really important to understand. Some firms will use psychometrics within a process to help understand how people will fit in and behave in contrast to others. And there’s the interview process which can be multifaceted, in order to get different viewpoints.

Alex: What’s your one piece of advice to communicators in terms of what they should do to help their career prospects?

Kate: Challenge yourself, don’t be afraid of changing sectors. Ask to do different things, ask for more responsibility, to be seconded to a different country, or have the opportunity to work on a new project. Know your strengths and areas for development and work on them. Network. Most importantly enjoy what you do. And of course, get to know headhunters!

McDonalds Saudi and the Saudi national who was arrested – a lesson in virality and crisis comms

Last week Saudi’s social media space was alive with chatter and calls for a boycott. But this wasn’t for a global cause, a political issue, or a case of consumer activism. It wasn’t even about the color of a dress or the shenanigans of a Kardashian. Instead, it was about a Saudi national who tweeted a complaint about the drink he’d been served at a McDonalds restaurant and the rapidly escalating series of events which got him put in jail.

I’m going to try to keep this story as simple as possible for factual reasons.

A young Saudi national Abdulrahman bin Jumah was at a McDonalds outlet in Jeddah on the 19th of October and ordered a meal, which included a coke. Inside the cup, he claimed he found a cockroach. He then shared the image on social media to his followers (which I assume would have been less than the 3,216 followers he has now). As Abdulrahman deleted his Tweets, here’s an alleged image from another Saudi Twitter account who retweeted the Tweet.

This was the initial tweet from Abdulrahman on the 19th of October with the alleged cockroach in the cup

This was the initial tweet from Abdulrahman on the 19th of October with the alleged cockroach in the cup

Abdulrahman tweeted his experience and contacted the local municipality online at their Twitter account @JeddahAmanah. The municipality took swift action and closed the branch in question the day after on the 20th.

Simple enough? You’d think so (and restaurant closures are a fairly common occurrence in Saudi as you can see from this tweet announcing the closure of a KFC outlet in Jeddah. I cannot comment as to whether a restaurant closure would be common for McDonalds Saudi).

After a day however (I’m assuming here the 21st), the branch reopened and Abdulrahman tweeted his thoughts on the issue, namely that he was surprised that the branch could open so soon, and that he wasn’t looking for compensation but rather an apology for the experience. Again, these are screen shots as the original tweets were deleted.

Abdulrahman tweeted his surprise at how the restaurant could have opened so soon after its closure for an alleged health violation

Abdulrahman tweeted his surprise at how the restaurant could have opened so soon after its closure for an alleged health violation

Now this is where it gets murky as later on in the day Abdulrahman was accused of defamation by McDonalds Saudi Arabia. He tweeted his experiences as he was first accused of defamation…

Abdulrahman shared on Twitter the news that McDonalds had made an allegation of defamation against him. Defamation is a criminal offense in Saudi Arabia

Abdulrahman shared on Twitter the news that McDonalds Saudi had made an allegation of defamation against him. Defamation is a criminal offense in Saudi Arabia

And then arrested by the police. Defamation is a criminal rather than a civil offense in Saudi Arabia. After the below tweet Abdulrahman’s timeline supposedly goes quiet.

The Saudi at the center of the allegation was even tweeting as he was being held by police for defamation

The Saudi at the center of the allegation was even tweeting as he was being held by police for defamation

On the 22nd Abdulrahman tweeted an apology, four times, writing that the bug was not in the cup and that he was sorry for using social media when making the allegations against McDonalds Saudi. The second time he used two hashtags, McDonalds arrests the national and we are all Abdulrahman Jumah (ماكدونالدز_تعاقب_مواطن #كلنا_عبدالرحمن_جمعه#)

McDonalds Saudi also put out a statement online in response to many in Saudi who have come out to ask about the allegations or who have supported Abdulrahman stating that the case was caused by an intention to gain financially from the allegation that he’d made and that, following the apology, McDonalds Saudi had dropped the case.

McDonalds issued a statement

McDonalds issued a statement that the allegation was false and the case is now closed

Abdulrahman deleted all of the story’s tweets, except those in which he makes an apology.

Without knowing the facts in the case, it’s hard to know what really happened. Did Abdulrahman really find a cockroach in his drink or was it a case of extortion? However, Saudis on Twitter have not been kind to McDonalds Saudi and their involvement of the police. The hashtags used by Jumah are replete with angry responses to McDonalds Saudi. The case has also made the national media, albeit indirectly.

Makkah Daily's Abdullah Bin Jaber parodied the story in typical fashion by lampooning McDonalds for their actions

Makkah Daily’s Abdullah Bin Jaber parodied the story in typical fashion by lampooning McDonalds Saudi for their actions

McDonalds Saudi certainly acted quickly in terms of responding to the crisis, but did they respond in the right way? Has the issue done more damage than it otherwise would have thanks to the actions of McDonalds Saudi, or were they right in involving the police when they did due to their belief that they were being blackmailed?

What are your thoughts? What lessons can we take from this case? I’d love to hear from you.

PS Saudi social media personality Omar Hussein has also talked about the issue. For you Arabic-language speakers out there you can see his Facebook video below.

The Gulf’s push to improve its image – why actions speak louder than words

The Gulf's foreign ministers have worked hard to change perceptions of the region abroad. But is there a simpler solution?

The Gulf’s foreign ministers have worked hard to change perceptions of the region abroad. But is there a simpler solution?

I love a good read, especially fiction. But when living in the Gulf, fact can often feel more surreal than fiction. Last week the UAE’s English language daily Gulf News reported on efforts by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council to improve its image abroad, most notably in Europe and the US. To quote from the newspaper:

Foreign media officials in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have stressed the need to formulate a common media strategy that will reflect the positive image of the six member countries abroad.

The officials, who were holding a meeting in the Qatari capital Doha, reviewed plans and suggestions for future actions in their communication drive with the international community.

The GCC, established in 1981, comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“The participants discussed several issues related to the progress of their work, including a common strategy to rectify the distorted image that some Western media have about the countries in the region,” Ahmad Al Buainain, the head of the foreign media department at Qatar News Agency (QNA) said.

“The meeting also discussed several papers and new ideas regarding the way forward for the GCC foreign media in European and Asian countries in order to convey the realities on the ground, he said, quoted by QNA.

Plans include holding seminars and meetings with research centres or organizing events at international functions in Europe and in which the GCC countries are participating, he added.

“This new drive is a continuation of the activities conducted by the foreign media officials at past events,” he said.

Ahmed Mussa Al Dhabyan, the head of media cooperation at the GCC Secretariat General, said that the GCC foreign media officials sought to build on their successful experience and formulate a new strategy that matched the latest developments in the communication field.

“The world has gone beyond the global village concept and has now become a single house,” he said. “The GCC has a significant political and economic weight and it has a special standing internationally, and therefore it needs to have a foreign media presence that matches its stature,” he said.

Earlier this month, reports surfaced from Washington D.C. that Saudi was hiring a variety of lobbying groups to bolster its public image in the US. Clearly, the Gulf cares about its reputation abroad, especially when the region’s governments see what they feel to be negative coverage.

On his Facebook account, political commentator (and Sharjah royal family member) Sultan Al-Qassemi gave his take on the article in the Gulf news with a list of suggestions to improve the Gulf’s image abroad.

1- Release activists.
2- Suspend capital punishment.
3- Allow political participation.
4- Eliminate Kafeel (sponsorship) system
5- Expand women’s rights.
6- Enact environmental protection.
7- Broaden citizen’s rights.
8- Bolster freedom of expression (yes within “limits”)

I’d make it even simpler. As any good and ethical public relations practitioner will tell you, your actions speak louder than your words. If the region is serious about tackling any negative perceptions or reputation issues abroad, then behaviour which is contradictory to accepted human norms in regions outside of the Gulf (read the West) must be tackled, and free(r) access should be given to the media. With social media and the internet, it is so much harder to hide anything or to spin information or events. Take for example the leaking of documents from Saudi’s Foreign Ministry recently.

The best way to been seen in a positive light is not more seminars or meetings in European capitals with research centers. Instead, one must behave in a positive light, followed by encouraging the media, both local and international, to report without bias.

While I’ve been in this region long enough to know better, I am still an optimist at heart. And I still believe we are capable of change for the better, as this region is magical in so many ways. However, a word of note. If my face turns shades of blue or purple, do please remind me to breathe.

Stepping into the Continent’s Political Minefield – Etihad’s Independence Day faux-pas

When I was growing up and in the Gulf, I was often told by my father, “don’t talk about three things.” Those three things were politics, religion and sex. One was to never go against this cardinal rule. Of course, rules are made to be broken. But there’s a difference between when an individual does this, and when a corporation gets it wrong.

The past couple of days are important for our friends from the Asian sub-continent. The 14th of August is the commemoration of Pakistan’s independence from the British Empire. The very next day, the 15th of August, is symbolic for Indians as the date of India’s independence. Both countries are neighbors, but due to history and politics their relationship hasn’t always been neighborly.

Etihad stepped into the political minefield yesterday. The national airline was ostensibly trying to do the right thing by reaching out to Indian nationals and wishing them a Happy Independence Day. Over and above the emotional aspect of the occasion, the move makes perfect sense – Etihad has a sizable stake in the Indian airline Jet Airways, and Indians make up over a third of the UAE’s population. The post, on Etihad’s LinkedIn page, should have been welcomed by all.

Etihad's Happy Independence Day message to India... It's a shame Etihad forgot to do the same for Pakistan the day before.

Etihad’s Happy Independence Day message to India… It’s a shame Etihad forgot to do the same for Pakistan the day before.

However, Etihad forgot one thing. They hadn’t posted the same for Pakistan the day before. Reading through the comments and it’s clear that the Pakistani nationals have found umbrage with Etihad’s faux-pas. While the majority of responses are positive, those from Etihad’s Pakistani national followers speak for themselves.

Etihad's move to wish well to India and not to Pakistan for their respective Independence Days didn't go down well with the airline's Pakistani fans

Etihad’s move to wish well to India and not to Pakistan for their respective Independence Days didn’t go down well with the airline’s Pakistani fans

It’s an easy mistake to make in a country which is home to over 130 different nationalities, but when you consider that Pakistani nationals make up a sizable percentage of the UAE’s population (probably 10 to 15 percent), plus the history between the two nations, maybe Etihad would have been best advised to either go all in or not wish anyone a Happy Independence Day. As is, a simple omission can lead to the loss of both business and reputation among a key segment of the population.