Is Your Content Legal? A Q&A with Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson

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If your content is in breach of the UAE’s laws, you may find yourself in the courthouse (maybe not with Matthew McConaughey, however).

There’s few people who know more about media laws that Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson, who has strived to raise awareness of legislation that impacts those working in communications and marketing. I had the fortune of sitting down with Fiona, to talk content. I started by asking, what is legal and illegal when it comes to content.

Fiona: All content must comply with the print and publications law, which was first published in 1980 and then expanded upon by and executive resolution in the 2000s. This law applies to all media, and how it is distributed, including online. The other law people need to be aware of is the Cybercrimes law of 2012.

These laws include a list of issues which are off-limits, such as criticizing UAE culture, the UAE government, Islam and any subject which could bring disrepute to the country. In relation to the Cybercrimes law, the penalties are stiff, with up to 500,000 AED in fines as well as jail terms. Anyone who is prosecuted and found guilty under the 2012 Cybercrimes law and who is not a national will be deported.

There was a case a couple of weeks ago where a media outlet didn’t obtain the correct releases for material. This material was published on a website, and the two hosts of the show were deported. When these laws are broken, there are serious consequences.

Q: Are enough publishers, brands or agencies aware of these laws?

Fiona: We don’t see enough awareness that people are concerned about this. We get to do pre-publication compliance review for foreign brands, who often approach us, but not for local brands. People don’t realize the laws are there, as they’re not well publicized.

Q: Who oversees these laws?

Fiona: It’s the National Media Council, and Telecoms Regulatory Authority who have the power to block websites.

Q: So how are these laws applicable to social media and social media influencers?

Fiona: The provisions of the Cybercrimes law does not specify who is liable for the content. The brand, the publisher, the agency or the author could be liable for the content under the Cybercrimes act. It could the content producer, the influencer. It could be the owner of the blog. If it’s on a Facebook site, then it could be you or the brand as the account owner. In the recent case which I referred to above, the authorities prosecuted nine parties for one action which was considered to be against the Cybercrimes act.

Q: Wouldn’t the platforms, the likes of Facebook, Snap or Twitter, potentially be liable?

Fiona: Potentially, yes, they could be liable. Most are based outside of the UAE’s jurisdiction so it becomes difficult to apply sanctions against a foreign entity. But the TRA could block their sites for being in breach of the UAE’s content regulations, as they do with materials relating to topics such as gambling.

Q: So what should brands and agencies do in terms of making sure that content is legal?

Fiona: There’s several laws that brands, agencies and publishers should be aware of, including both the Cybercrimes laws and the National Media Council advertising regulations. Familiarity is the most important thing. I’m still alarmed by the number of people who tell me there’s no media laws here, where there clearly are. Start there, train your staff to know what the big red flags are in relation to content, so they’re picked up before the content goes into production.

There’s not only legal issues, but also the reputational issues. Today, UAE nationals will take to social media to make complaints and disparage brands. Sometimes the issue isn’t so much legal as it is reputational. An issue is better resolved before it becomes a problem.

Q: Is producing content in Arabic more difficult than in English?

Fiona: Foreign brands and producers may not understand the culture of the region well. They may not understand the reality versus perception, and we’re often asked to help review not just from a legal perspective but also a cultural one. Having said that, the biggest advertising fail in the last 12 months was Arabic language content produced by Arabic speakers for an Arabic country.

Hashtag hijacking and the need for authenticity – the #EtisalatChallenge

Let’s face it, social media is entertaining. As communicators, we really do need to think through the consequences of using digital. But sometimes, the best of intentions just aren’t enough. Companies who don’t think through the reasoning behind their campaigns will face a backlash online, including derision, contempt, and abuse.

There are many examples globally of hashtag hijacking; possibly the best is McDonalds and its #McStories campaign. Fortunately for us in the Middle East, we now have our own example of how not to launch a hashtag on Twitter. A couple of days back the Abu Dhabi-based telecommunications operator launched an advertising campaign called the #EtisalatChallenge. The idea is simple enough – Etisalat challenges consumers to find offers and prices that are better than their own and they’ll match or beat that offer. You will literally see the below advert everywhere across the UAE at the moment.

Are you ready for the #EtisalatChallenge?

Are you ready for the #EtisalatChallenge?

Now, there’s a couple of issues here. The first is pretty basic; the UAE’s telco market is a duopoly. Both operators are government-owned and there’s not much in the way of competition when compared to other. The second is Etisalat’s reputation. The company isn’t the most consumer-friendly in terms of its support. Shortly after Etisalat launched its hashtag #EtisalatChallenge (complete with a huge marketing campaign), the hashtag itself was taken over by customers complaining about high costs and poor service.

Despite the obvious backfiring of the campaign (and, as you can see from the tweets below, the campaign has been taken over by negative sentiment), Etisalat has persevered with the #EtisalatChallenge.

What’s even stranger is the number of bots, of Twitter accounts which are automated which have are now tweeting the same message about the campaign.

The other element of the campaign which is intriguing is the number of celebrities that Etisalat has brought in. There is one of Scotland’s finest, Gerald Butler, Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan, and Filipina actress and singer Lea Salonga. Etisalat has also paid a number of the UAE’s leading social media influencers. While the use of social media influencers to support marketing campaigns is becoming standard practice, the #EtisalatChallenge in unusual in that many of the influencers have previously worked for the UAE’s rival operator Du. Have a look below.

Emirati social media celebrity Mthayel Al Ali was a Du supporter

Emirati social media celebrity Mthayel Al Ali was a Du supporter

But now Emirati social media celebrity Mthayel Al Ali is also an Etisalat fan

But now Emirati social media celebrity Mthayel Al Ali is also an Etisalat fan

Egyptian footballer and model Sherif Fayed was part of Du's marketing before his switch to Etisalat

Egyptian footballer and model Sherif Fayed was part of Du’s marketing before his switch to Etisalat

Egyptian footballer and model Sherif Fayed is also a fan of green as he shifts to #EtisalatChallenge

Egyptian footballer and model Sherif Fayed is also a fan of green as he shifts to #EtisalatChallenge

Before her support for the #EtisalatChallenge UAE media personality Diala Ali was a Du supporter.

Before her support for the #EtisalatChallenge UAE media personality Diala Ali was a Du supporter.

From blue to green - UAE media personality Diala Ali shows her support for the #Etisalat Challenge

From blue to green – UAE media personality Diala Ali shows her support for the #Etisalat Challenge

While one can easily fault Etisalat for getting out the cash and spending a fortune on social media endorsements, these online influencers are more to blame in my eyes. They’re doing their own brands more harm than good by changing from one corporate brand to the other so quickly. Their authenticity is at stake, and for someone who runs a social media agency Mthayel Al Ali should understand that authenticity matters to fans, and fans are the reason these people are paid to endorse brands. There’s little long-term thinking from influencers who have worked with Du previously and whom are now working with Etisalat.

Going beyond the pains of creating corporate hashtags (which, in this case clearly don’t work), what was Etisalat thinking? And what is it still thinking, seeing as the campaign is failing so badly? Come on, share with me your #EtisalatChallenge!

When it comes to social media, advertising and the Middle East, why don’t we have any ethics?

The region loves social media, but its influencers and advertisers are less keen to say when a post is paid for (image source: www.business2community.com)

The region loves social media, but its influencers and advertisers are less keen to say when a post is paid for (image source: http://www.business2community.com)

Who needs ethics right? Ethics are boring, they’re dry, and they mean we have to use disclaimers. Ethics really aren’t fun. But you know what, without them we’d be in a fair amount of trouble. With the Arab Social Media Influencers Summit happening this week in Dubai, and a fair few social media influencers being in town (including quite a few from Kuwait who don’t make it clear that they accept money for posting on their social media channels), I want to reprint this post which I shared with the Media Network Middle East last month. I’d love to hear your views on ethics, or the lack thereof, when it comes to social media and advertising in our region.

While European and American consumers are benefiting from crystal clear regulations on sponsored social media content, there’s little to no clarity here on the same.

We’re awash with social media in our region. Everywhere you go, you’ll see people sliding their fingers left and right, pushing up and pulling down on their smartphone screens. We’re all at it, checking our Instagram accounts, refreshing our Twitter feeds, and posting Facebook updates.

Today we have social media celebrities, people who have become famous through their online activities. There are Instagrammers in Kuwait with over a million followers, Facebookers in the UAE with hundreds of thousands of likes, and Saudi Tweeters with followings equal to the population of Bahrain.

Alongside these social media celebrities we have witnessed the rise of paid posts. Those of you with a keen eye will have noticed how many celebrities online have become more commercial, and have begun to share updates, images and videos promoting brands.

There’s nothing wrong with promotional advertising. Using paid influencer marketing is a common tactic to spread awareness, promote a brand, and to engage social media users across the globe. Online advertising can be more cost effective in terms of measurement and reach.

However, there’s no distinction between an advert and paid-for content. Both involve a payment of some kind by a company for a promotion of its brand or services. Regulators across Europe and the United States have essentially ruled that if money is changing hands, obvious disclosure must occur in-ad. Their reasoning is simple; consumers have a right to know what is an advert and what is not an advert.

While European and American consumers are benefiting from crystal clear regulations on sponsored social media content, there’s little to no clarity here on the same. Consumers here have no authority to turn to or no regulations to guide them on what is and what isn’t sponsored.

There seems to be little eagerness for brands or social media celebrities to advertise what is paid-for content either. This is understandable, as their followers may be less inclined to engage with a post if they know it is sponsored, or even follow a person who they know accepts money for posts.

While this lack of disclosure may appeal in the short term and help to maximise revenues (paid-for posts in Kuwait can fetch up to three thousand dollars per posting), it does nothing to building goodwill and trust with consumers across the region. A lack of honesty and transparency on what social media celebrities are paid to post will negatively affect trust in both the sponsoring brand as well as the celebrity who is accepting the payment in return for sharing the content.

In the US the burden is on brands to ensure that their endorsers, such as bloggers and online influencers) are in compliance in terms of disclosure. Paid-for posts have to include language such as #Ad, Ad: or Sponsored. Even brand posts and shares by a company’s employees have to be clearly labeled to account for the bias.

Either brands can take action and begin to self-regulate, or they can wait for regulators to finally step in and possibly take a harder-line approach to sponsored influencer endorsements. Is risking a reputation and trust, built up over years of marketing, worth risking over a lack of disclosure? I hope the answer is no.