It’s been a funny couple of days (I know, it’s 2020). Over the past week, I’ve had two people reach out to me, basically telling me to be careful of what I post. The first was for a piece I wrote mentioning another place and its work on promoting education across the world (which I hope all of us would support). The second was a post mentioning a piece of bread and how much it cost (I’m serious). It goes without saying, more and more of us are self-censoring. And on every issue out there. And that worries me.
Why are they doing it? Partly due to politics, to laws, and to the overall cultural climate around us. We live in an increasingly divided world, where many believe that their viewpoint is the only one that matters. And increasingly, these people are in positions of power. Given the potential reach of social media, where one person can engage with millions, far too many believe that we should only write and share things that agree with them. Ironically, those that break the law whilst agreeing with those in power are not punished. And laws are used to hold others to account for the flimsiest of reasons.
Not knowing where the line is any more, people are remaining silent. Or they’re saying things they don’t believe it. That makes my job as a communicator much harder, as I don’t know if what I’m hearing is true or not. And even if my engagement online is making a difference, how would I know this if people aren’t saying or writing what they feel?
The issue is bigger than this. My belief is that, given enough time and reinforcement, self-censorship extends to our behavior in a number of settings, including our workplaces. We’re less likely to speak up with a new idea, to point out when something isn’t working, or when someone does something wrong. Freedom matters, for our personal lives and for our economies too. I will leave the last word to the American economist Milton Friedman, who was writing about the US, but could have been talking about any place on earth:
I know of no example in time or place of a society that has been marked by a large measure of political freedom, and that has not also used something comparable to a free market to organize the bulk of economic activity
This is the biggest crisis all of us have ever dealt with. The pandemic has impacted every major country, both directly and indirectly. It’s brought whole industries down. And, worst of all, tens of thousands of people have lost their lives. And it’s going to get worse.
The hope is that we can all take action to flatten the curve and reduce the number of infections to a level that our healthcare systems can deal with. And this isn’t just a possibility. Countries such as Singapore and South Korea have shown that the right approach can be found to get us through this in the best shape possible, with fewer infections.
Government communications is key here. I’ve seen some brilliant work, and I’ve seen work which isn’t going to achieve anything other than the opposite of what was intended. Here’s what I hope governments will look at doing right now.
A Single Source of Information
This isn’t just a viral pandemic. We’re seeing fake news spread at an unprecedented rate. Given how many government departments are involved in a crisis response (think health, education, business, finance, legal, customs, transportation, basically everyone), the potential for the message not to be seen is high. Each government department has its own website, its own comms channels, and team.
What a crisis like this requires is a single source of information, especially online. This location needs to take the lead in pushing out any and all information on the virus and its impact, including for individuals and organizations on everything. What others must then do is aggregate information from that website. By doing this, you get people to understand where they should go, not only to source information but to also corroborate what they’ve been told.
One example of a single source is Weqaya.ae, a website set up by the UAE government to educate people on health-related issues. This website is a start (and I haven’t checked out how it looks on mobile, and if the website is responsive in terms of design), but there’s another issue that governments need to tackle, and that’s language.
It’s pretty obvious, but I’m yet to see governments in my region push out information in multiple languages. And I’m assuming it’s the same in many other places. Now more than ever, communicators need to understand their audiences, and push out content in as many languages as possible (this is why diversity and inclusion matters when it comes to comms, which many of us seem to have forgotten). Write a piece in multiple languages, translate infographics, and if you can’t dub over a video, use subtitles. In the Gulf, the languages to look at include Tagalog, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Bahasa… If the linguistic group is large enough, bring in people who know the language to translate, and then push out the content through that single source website and via…
The Use of Influencers
This crisis has been a missed opportunity when it comes to using third parties to get the message out. And I’m not just referring to people with blue ticks or big followings. An influencer right now could include a foreign embassy, an ambassador, or any person or account that’s trusted by a specific group of people. These individuals have mass appeal, they’re trusted, and they post consistently. My feeling is that governments are behind brands when it comes to using influencers (and I’ll say that many social media influencers haven’t helped themselves by being tone deaf to the situation).
Finland has enlisted social influencers in the government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that they are just as useful as mainstream media in a crisis when it needs to inform the population fast, clearly and accurately.
“We can reach a large part of the public in Finland through official communications and traditional media, but it’s clear the authorities’ messaging doesn’t always reach all population groups,” the government communications director, Päivi Anttikoski, said.
“The aim of this cooperation is to provide better access to information for those who are difficult to reach through traditional channels. As far as we know, Finland is the only country in the world to have defined social media as ‘critical operators’,” – along with doctors, bus drivers and supermarket workers.
Adapt Social Media
Governments have to innovate when it comes to crisis communications. They’ve got to create new channels based on usage and popularity. Oman set up a new Twitter account sharing all official news on what’s happening in the country. The account was set up this month, but it already has 65k followers, and is tweeting in multiple languages.
Transparency and Expertise Matters(Especially for Leaders)
My friend Julio Romo wrote a brilliant read on what Singapore is doing to combat the Coronavirus. Given that the state has come through this better than anyone else, their government communications should be studied widely. One aspect of what they’re doing is promoting clear information as to what is happening on the ground, and tell residents what actions they need to take. Their leaders have been using social media and traditional media effectively, to push out a clear message on what is happening, the actions the government is taking to make things better, and what the public can do to help.
And third, look to who is delivering your message. Doctors and scientists have emerged as the best communicators right now, because they understand the subject better than anyone. Look to Dr Anthony Fauci, who has become a household name in the US thanks to his clear, no-nonsense advice. Their understanding of the issue is reassuring. I’d like to see more scientists being given the opportunity to speak and guide the public (have a look at this WEF article about scientists and communications).
My last piece of advice is avoid making comments in the heat of the moment, especially on social media. I’ve seen so many government communicators in the Middle East mouth off on Twitter, making statements about the impact of the virus on the economy only for these statements to become nonsense a couple of days later. I’ve seen others talk about how well residents have been treated, only to have the country close its borders a couple of hours later. To paraphrase, trust takes time to build, and disappear in an instant. Do what you can to engage, to educate, and to listen as well (we don’t talk about listening enough in communications).
That’s the short of it for me – let me know what you’d add, and let’s start communicating better. What we do matters now more than ever, to keep people safe and save lives. We have been given an opportunity to make a difference for the better, so let’s take it.
I’m going to say from the outset that everyone makes mistakes. And I also have considerable respect for work the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), the largest broadcaster in the Middle East, has produced (Ahmed Al Shugairi’s Khawatir is the most inspiring program ever aired on Arabic-language television). But what I saw on MBC’s social media channel yesterday horrified me. Before I describe the scene for non-Arabic speakers, I’m going to share the video below.
The video was shared on MBC’s social media account on the evening of the 30th September. It’s effectively a promo for their new series of Arabs Got Talent. Someone wanted to create a video, and they thought it’d be a good idea to depict a would-be suicide bomber on stage, and choosing life instead of destruction.
The dialogue basically conveys the person on stage saying, after he’s opened up his shirt to show the explosive belt, that, “they trained me to blow you all up, but I’ve chosen life and Allah. Can I now sing.” He’s asked by the presenters what he’s doing, and then asked to sing.
There are so many better ways to fight extremism. And there are so many better ways to promote a show (and this is a promo, for anyone who is asking). Given the issues the Middle East faces when it comes to how it is perceived abroad, as well as Islam, who thought this was a good idea? And why did the presenters go along with the idea?
Let’s stop with the stereotyping BS. Extremism is a serious issue, and it should be handled as such, rather than as a prop for a publicity stunt. I’m happy that MBC has taken this down, and I hope that there’ll be discussions internally as to how to better handle such a serious subject, especially by a program which is watched by millions.
I’ve spoken previously about the issue of purpose marketing in the Middle East (mainly the lack of any local brand engagement on big issues such as gender equality and sustainability). One popped into my timelines this week. Sadly, it’s an example that will be long remembered for what went wrong, rather than right.
Nada Dairy is one of the largest manufacturers of dairy products in the Gulf. The company decided to create a video in the run up to Saudi National Day this week. The video attempts to draw a line between the Kingdom’s new cultural policies, and those which were promoted several years ago (this is putting it crudely). The video depicts traditional views as backwards.
The issue with this political stance is that you’re clearly alienating a significant number of consumers. The Kingdom isn’t a democracy, but consumers are free to choose whichever brands they want. And this video has demonstrably hurt Nada’s reputation. Boycotts of its products have been trending on Twitter all this week, and the news has even led to boycott calls in Kuwait.
Nada’s response was to “apologize” for the video (which has been pulled from its feeds). The company also states that it recognizes and respects all views. The statement (which is the first image in this post) may not be the end of the issue, given the strength of the online responses. What is clear is marketers must think long and hard as to what positions they take on societal issues and causes, if they want to both be a supporter of societal change as well as a company that builds a loyal consumer following. If Nada’s management believed in these principles, then the brand has to stick with them. No one will believe in a brand that flip-flops on a societal stance.
I’ve been closely following what’s been happening in Hong Kong. What interests me is how all sides are communicating, how they’re using social media, and also where the industry stands on a big issue such as democracy and transparency.
I reached out to Arun Sudhaman, the CEO of the Holmes Report. Arun is both based in Hong Kong and is one of the leading journalists for the public relations industry worldwide. Here’s our talk on what’s happening in Hong Kong, the impact of social media today, how communicators are struggling with their values and what’s being asked of them, and why purpose is such a hard issue to get right.
If there’s one article you should read today, it’s this piece in the Washington Post by Shibani Mahtani and Regine Cabato. Titled “Why crafty Internet trolls in the Philippines may be coming to a website near you”, the article explains what has happened over the past couple of years in the Philippines in relation to the business of social media troll farms.
If you’re not familiar with the idea, I’ll explain. A troll farm is described as an organization whose employees or members attempt to create conflict and disruption in an online community by posting deliberately inflammatory or provocative comments. Traditionally, troll farms were state-led/sponsored (think Russia in the 2016 US elections). This has also happened in other countries. In the article by Mahtani and Cabato, they describe the rise of social media manipulation as an extension of Filipino politics (another great article to read is here, from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba).
As I’ve mentioned, the concept of social media manipulation isn’t new. We’ve had countless reports into what state actors such as Russia, Iran and others have tried to do online, through mass social media manipulation. What’s fascinating about the Washington Post article is how the Philippines is redefining this concept and turning it into an industry (there’s now both negative and positive trolling), how those who provide the troll farm services are now looking not just to politics but to business as well, and, most worryingly for everyone who works in our industry, is how PR firms are quietly offering the service to their clientele.
It doesn’t surprise me that the Philippines is leading the way in the area of troll farming. The country has a young, English-speaking population, a large service industry, and a tough economy. And Facebook is everywhere, controlling what people read and think when it comes to news, politics and business. To quote from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba:
If you want to know what happens to a country that has opened itself entirely to Facebook, look to the Philippines. What happened there — what continues to happen there — is both an origin story for the weaponization of social media and a peek at its dystopian future. It’s a society where, increasingly, the truth no longer matters, propaganda is ubiquitous, and lives are wrecked and people die as a result — half a world away from the Silicon Valley engineers who’d promised to connect their world.
Facebook launched “Free Facebook” in the Philippines in 2013. The idea was to partner with a local carrier to offer a portal of free, basic internet services (Free Basics) that would fuel Facebook’s aggressive global expansion. To Zuckerberg, at least, the experiment was successful. “What we’ve seen in the Philippines is … a home run,” he said in a speech at a 2014 conference in Barcelona. Last November, Facebook partnered with the Duterte government to build an undersea cable system that would connect Philippine internet systems to the rest of Asia and the US.
In 2012, 29 million Filipinos used Facebook. Today, 69 million people — two-thirds of the population — are on Facebook. The remaining one-third does not have access to the internet. In other words, virtually every Filipino citizen with an internet connection has a Facebook account. For many in one of the most persistently poor nations in the world, Facebook is the only way to access the internet.
Social media trolling took off in the Philippines during the 2016 Presidential campaign. And many saw the business opportunity. Washington Post spoke to one PR executive who claims his agency is paid anywhere from about $38,000 to $57,000 — “depending on their needs” — on a month-long retainer for up to eight months.
Others are seeing the possibilities too. The authors of the Washington Post article claimed that “several paid troll farm operations and one self-described influencer say they have been approached and contracted by international clients, including from Britain, to do political work. Others are planning to expand overseas, hoping to start regionally”. One opinion quoted in the story claims that social media trolling in the country is a billion dollar business.
There’s no doubt in my mind that social media trolling will have an impact not just on politics in every democracy around the world (if it hasn’t already), but that these services will be turned towards business, especially the notion of positive trolling, of using fake accounts to talk up a business and their activities. I am also in no doubt that Facebook and the other internet giants will do nothing to stop this (Facebook’s efforts to stop what’s going on in the Philippines have been derisory at best).
So, what can we do as PR practitioners? There’s not that many options on the table. The most obvious one is to both act ethically, and speak up publicly about why ethics matters. We’re not vocal enough about this issue, and we need to change that. Another way to push back is to be more vocal about what we want the tech firms to do. We’ve got to stop treating the likes of Facebook and Google as champions of public relations, and rather as companies who are not doing enough to fight for and on behalf of our publics online.
If you have any ideas on the above, please do share them. This is an issue that’ll affect us all. And we have to take collective action to fight back. The real me is signing out for now…
I love the idea of impartiality, that notion of fairness above all, of equal treatment of all rivals or disputants. The notion of impartiality is difficult to define in practice; we all have our biases. And then there’s the politics of any given situation. It’s fair to say that, given global events, impartiality is becoming increasingly hard to come by. This is especially the case in the Middle East, where the number of conflicts and disputes is sadly increasing between neighbors and nations. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to be perceived as impartial.
Of course, social media hasn’t helped. Social media is the metaphorical can of kerosene that makes disputes explode across cyberspace. But now, the social media companies want to start cracking down on content that fuels hatred and extremism. What is Facebook’s idea? To introduce “an independent oversight board of experts to review its content decisions.”
The company is embracing a wider set of approaches for how it operates. Our CEO Mark [Zuckerberg] had a comment on the earnings call recently where he talked about how, for when we launch products now that touch societal issues, we are going to go out and consult on them and think in advance about how to build them.
We had discussions pretty much every week internally, and one of the ideas that was proposed was that we should create some board to do a review of really difficult content decisions. I think there was an emerging consensus that it was something worth trying and worth building.
There was a growing sense that the [content] decisions we were taking are ones that we shouldn’t make alone and I don’t think that speaks to any single issue. It is about a growing belief that we don’t believe the decisions should sit solely inside Facebook.
A lot of the matters that will go before the board are the hard questions of trade-offs between those principles and trying to figure out for a specific piece of content, where do you set that line? That line is a hard one at times to figure out.
There has also been fairly consistent set of feedback that the people who should serve [on the board] should be folks who are deeply deliberative and who are impartial.
While I usually applaud any social media firm for opening up and engaging with more transparency, this suggestion of an “impartial board” is also dangerous. Who decides who and what is impartial? Given what is happening in many regions, including my own, how will Facebook ensure that politics doesn’t seep into discussions? Many state actors have manipulated social media for their own ends, and Facebook itself has a terrible track record of sustaining partners with external stakeholders (mainly because it doesn’t seem to listen, just ask Snopes). And, how do you define impartiality in a region which has never been so afflicted by political and sectarian differences?
If they’re going to be transparent about this issue, then Facebook needs to go all in and clearly state who they’re meeting and why (particularly in regions where there’s little to no independent civil society). Otherwise, it just strikes me as another public relations exercise rather than a workable plan which will produce the intended results (and given trust in Facebook is probably at an all-time low, this is not what they need).
And, speaking as a person who cares deeply about the notion of impartiality and fairness on social media, the last thing we need is more news columns on bad ideas which won’t deliver in practice. Facebook, prove me wrong.
We’re a couple of weeks in, and the whole swell of media attention has gradually faded out. The mammoth US$3.1 billion deal by Uber to purchase Careem made headlines globally – it was the largest in the Middle East for a tech startup, and it focused the world’s media on a regional success story. The deal also comes before an IPO that will catapult Uber into the big leagues of the multi-billion dollar tech firms who have gone public. It’s unsurprising that so much attention was paid to the deal between the two dominant ride-hailing apps in the Middle East.
For those of us in the region, what’s also unsurprising is the feeling that many have for both brands. Uber and Careem are Marmite brands, with Middle Eastern consumers either loving or hating them. Some will swear by Careem, and refuse to take an Uber. Given the strength of brand loyalty, it was especially important that the two companies, communications functions and executive teams get the messaging right.
Lessons from Uber – Speed Matters, Keep It Simple and Engage Everyone
I’ve lost count of the number of times that a deal between Uber and Careem has been talked about. I’ve even joked with journalists who seem to get constantly misinformed by the comms teams at the firms. There were leaks, but many of us took the latest piece about any deal with a pinch of salt. When news of the deal was broken on the 24th March by Bloomberg, it seemed different. There were specifics in terms of numbers, on how the Careem brand would disappear into the Uber operation, and on how all shareholders needed to be informed.
Two days later, the deal was confirmed. Uber announced the deal. The format was strange for many of us here, where social media dominates. Instead of a tweet, Uber sent out an email. The copy was short but succinct, with the option of clicking through to Uber’s website. The emailer can be seen in full below.
The email’s message was repeated throughout social media. Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has spent ample time here in Dubai, both giving media interviews to regional press as well as the global newswires, as well as meeting with government bodies to reinforce media interviews to reinforce the message, and government engagement as part of an engagement tour.
On a side note, Uber’s CEO is a dream executive for communicators. He’s composed on camera, he sticks to the message, and he leans in, showing respect for those he’s engaging with. It’s a stark contrast to how things used to be at Uber.
Lessons for Careem – The Messenger Matters
While Uber was straight out of the blocks with a coordinated message, Careem amplified that message through its own social media channels. However, the response was mainly negative, with many users fearing that Careem would become Uber. The Careem comms team understood this, and their messaging was focused on Careem remaining independent post merger.
While this approach makes sense, what they failed to do was personalize the message. They should have used their CEO Mudassir Sheikha to record a video message about the acquisition, focusing on why it made sense for Careem and how the company would be staying independent (they could have also turned to their Saudi co-founder Abdullah Elyas to record the same message in Arabic).
Personal messaging matters to the public – they need to see and hear a person they know, rather than a brand. Given the importance to Careem customers of independence from Uber, I ‘m not surprised that an email from Careem’s CEO to employees ‘was leaked’ to the media last week, which re-emphasized that the company will operate as a stand-alone entity (nothing leaks, unless you’re Julian Assange or the White House). The fact that Careem’s comms missed the mark on the independence message on the first day of the deal means that they’re going to have to repeat this message. The lesson here is get the message right the first time around.
What’s also fascinating is to see how Careem’s own users shared messaging the company put out in 2016, focusing directly on how it was better than Uber. The advertising wasn’t so subtle, as you can see from the video below which is still up on Careem’s Youtube site.
Consumers remember what a brand does, especially when it involves direct attacks on competitors. That’s why such activities are pretty rare. Now that Careem is part of Uber, I’m a little surprised these ads are still up on Careem’s social media. Maybe it’s time the team remember that they shouldn’t only look ahead in their messaging, but they should also look behind to what was done previously to see if it doesn’t impact their current messaging.
That’s it from me. If you have any insights you’d like to share, please do get in touch!
Will brands continue to work with Sondos Alqattan after this outburst?
It’s news that has gone global, from CNN and Buzzfeed in the US all the way to Manila. No, it’s not movement on the Middle East peace process, or an update on the fight against extremism. Instead, the headlines are being made by a social media star and her views on a specific nationality. I’ve lost count of the number of articles and videos I’ve seen that have featured Sondos Al-Qattan, a Kuwaiti national and make-up tutorial social media star who has 2.3 million followers on Instagram. Sondos is one of the original social media stars; she’s worked numerous beauty brands, and she’s made significant money doing so.
Given this, you’d think she’d have some savvy when it comes to what she says online. This doesn’t seem to be the case. On the 14th of this month Sondos spoke against the new laws put in place by the Kuwaiti government governing the treatment of Filipino workers in the country. To put it mildly, Sondos wasn’t pleased. A video of her was shared where she criticized the new laws. To paraphrase:
“For people who want to get a Filipino domestic worker, what are these ridiculous work contracts you’ve got to sign? The woman I met with was reading out the rules to me and I was shocked. Put aside that they need to be given a break every five hours, that’s normal. But, how can you have a ‘servant’ in your house who gets to keep their passport with them? Where are we living? If they ran away back to their country, who’ll refund me? Even worse, is that they get a day off every single week! What’s left? Honestly, with this new contract, I just wouldn’t get a Filipino maid. She’d only work six days a week and get four days off a month.”
The condemnation was swift, both in the media and on social platforms despite the original clip being deleted. The video below is just one example of many of how she’s been criticized.
Kuwaiti social media star Sondos Alqattan caused outrage after she complained about Filipino workers getting a day off and not surrendering their passports pic.twitter.com/HblKM1rY2O
What’s telling about the case isn’t just how to get yourself in trouble online. The Sondos incident is a wealth of lessons, for both communicators and social media influencers.
There is no Local – Sondos may have thought that she was addressing a local, Kuwaiti audience (she was speaking in Arabic on a local Instagram account). However, there is no local online. Her comments were widely shared, and translated. Once they were translated, her views went global.
Audience is Authority – If this was a Gulf national with a couple of hundred followers, it’d have been dismissed. With a following of over two million, this would have never been the case with Sondos. Social media influencers (and brands) must understand that people are hanging on your every word, both good and bad.
Brands will make a Choice – With her words, Sondos offended a whole nationality, a population of over 100 million who spent over 1.28 billion dollars on imported makeup in 2015. Brands who work with Sondos, the likes of Phyto, Max Factor and others) will quickly decide if they want to put their sales in danger (they should have already put out statements by now, especially given the number of calls for boycotts on her YouTube pages). Brands who are looking to work with social media influencers are increasingly understanding the need to do safety checks; if an influencer has said something negative, brands will simply not work with them.
Stop Digging – Sondos has done pretty much everything she can to nullify criticism. She’s turned off comments on her Instagram page, her Twitter account is private, and she’s not responded to any media queries. A new video has been posted tonight by Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas in Arabic, where she basically repeats her initial messages and adds that she sees the media coverage as a good thing as it’ll make the Kuwaiti government take action on behalf of those who hire Filipino maids. Some people just don’t learn.
This issue may go away in a couple of days – people have short attention spans. But in a world where there’s no concept of local, Sondos would have been best advised to listen to the criticism and apologize in English for her views. As it is, I don’t see how she can continue to work with global brands when she herself has become a toxic brand.
In the rest of this post, I’ll share the definition of what is an influencer as per the NMC, the process to get certification, as well as three questions I have on issues which maybe aren’t addressed or which have not been talked about. Thank you to Lexis Nexis and Fiona Robertson at AlTamimi for the below.
Who is an “influencer”?
The legislation is straightforward as to who is covered. To quote from the National Media Council:
“Any person who practices the above-mentioned media activities on Social Media, on a commercial basis, shall obtain a prior license from the Council, provided that:
1. It shall have an account on the generally recognized Social Media;
2. Ads that are presented on Social Media shall be subject to the advertising standards that are applicable at the Council;
3. Social Media accounts’ owners who offer paid advertising services shall obtain a license from the National Media Council in accordance with the applicable regulations in this regard and hereunder.
4. The account owner is responsible for the content of the account.”
What happens to those pushing out content on behalf of employers? The definition of electronic advertising is wide enough to ask me this question. Many employees share content from their employers. I’m assuming this won’t come under the purview of the NMC, but it’d be good for them to explicitly say so.
Is this a blow to the concept of micro-influencers? The idea of people with smaller followings online, say 20,000 on Twitter and Instagram, working with brands has become popular over the past year. Often these people don’t take much money in return for sharing any content or working with a brand. Would they be able to afford the licensing? In addition, would an influencer agency want to take them on board, and bevvy up the cash with the prospect of getting a lower return than working with someone more established, with stronger brand appeal and a greater number of followers?
I guess we’ll find out how this all plays out soon. In the meantime, Ramadan Kareem!