Sustainability is such an important part of the work of many firms today, and yet there’s never been a piece of research that seeks to give us a sense of how the practice is doing in the MENA region. That’s no longer the case, thanks to the work undertaken by Sustainable Square. I sat down with the co-founder Monaem Ben Lellahom to talk about what’s happening in the sustainability space and how firms are doing when it comes to alignment with the SDGs, across industries and by regions.
The marcomms industry can and should benefit from both local talent as well as foreign expertise (image source: The Daily Telegraph)
There are some places that are so inspiring, they fill me with passion and energy. I just love working with colleagues and friends in London and New York. Their creativity and insights are exceptional. What strikes me most about these places is their ability to absorb talent from abroad, to the extent that you can’t even tell who is the native and who is the immigrant.
Whilst there’s much to admire about how the region’s marcomms industry has developed, there’s still much work to do when it comes to marrying local insights and talent with foreign know-how. For years there’s been a divide between the Gulf’s public and private sectors: the public was staffed by nationals, and the private by expats. Whilst there were exceptions, this was the norm.
There have been changes, both good and bad. The economic changes in countries such as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi, combined with the increasing number of local marketing and communications graduates, have helped to increase the number of nationals working in the private sector. An insistence on hiring nationals in both government and semi government organizations have led to there being fewer expats in comms and marketing roles in both Abu Dhabi and Doha. For many multinationals, there’s still an over reliance on expat communicators, many of whom don’t know or try to learn about either the local language or culture.
I’ve always believed that there should be more locals in marcomms in the Gulf (one such person who is an inspiration to me and who I will always be proud of is my wife, who is both a local and who heads up marcomms for a multinational across the Middle East region). However, we need to place people based on merit, and we need to have structured succession planning in place. Both are missing today, across the public and private sectors.
Let me highlight my point. I live in a city which wants to be a global hub, attracting investment and tourism from abroad. That city’s government has been prioritizing national hiring to such an extent that it’s rare to find a foreigner in a mid or senior level comms post today in either a government or semi government role. What has happened is young nationals who don’t have the necessary experience or knowledge have been brought in (or roles have been left open), and as a result the work done and respect given to the function has dropped. There’s less diversity and inclusion in these government organizations, leading to a lack of understanding of foreign audiences and stakeholders.
I’ve also come across countless multinational executives who don’t understand the importance of hiring local knowledge. To them, global strategy only needs to be translated. There’s no understanding of local insights, and an inability to communicate with local audiences because of the lack of any marketing or communications people who are from or connected to the local population. I’ve known regional comms people in the private sector who’ve never even gone to Saudi, despite it being the biggest market in the Gulf. It’s all too easy to manage issues remotely, and let the agency deal with an issue.
We’ve got to change these two approaches in the region. There needs to be a balance, an understanding that foreign expertise is often needed whilst initiatives are created to support knowledge transfer to capable locals. Rather than replacing foreign expertise overnight (which has happened in some places), let’s get these professionals to pass on their expertise through job shadow programs, teaching and mentoring. In one of my previous roles I was asked to do this, and I considered it part of my role in developing the local profession. Others should do the same.
Our region can be as diverse and as exciting as London and New York, and I don’t see why the marcomms industry should be any different. Let’s start making use of both local insights and foreign experience, and combining them to create better work. We need balance in approaching this issue. As always, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this issue.
I’ve been fortunate in my career to have worked with some amazing brands and organizations. In particular, the most forward-thinking have focused on the issue of sustainability. It’s become a passion for me, as I want my daughter to inherit a world that is better than ours.
I’m often asked to support events on sustainability. One such initiative which I’m very proud of being able to help is that of the UAE’s Ajman Center for Social Responsibility. Launched by the Ajman Chamber this year, the Ajman Center for Social Responsibility aims to promote the concept of sustainability for both the public and private sectors as well as create a resource for sustainability across this emirate. Assisted by the consultancy firm Sustainable Square, the team at the Center have set for themselves a vision of becoming the regional and global reference for social responsibility and sustainability practices. And, judging by the energy they have, I feel they’ll reach this goal.
For many of us communicators in the Middle East region, we’ve taken on the mantle of championing sustainability. Sometimes it’s due to reputational reasons; the need to be seen to be doing good. For others, it’s been about the willingness to tackle an issue that isn’t going away. There’s some confusion around sustainability and the role of communications in the Middle East; I remember well one senior comms professional erroneously commenting during a public meeting that the function has always been with communications, despite all of the literature from the 1950s and 1960s by Bowen, Freeman and others which argues that organizations have a social obligation to “to pursue those policies, to make those decisions, or to follow those lines of action which are desirable in terms of the objectives and values of our society.” In short, when it comes to sustainability in the Middle East, we can come across as a confused bunch.
For me, sustainability should be at the heart of any organization – it should be a part of every person’s job function. So, what is the role that communicators should play? We are the change agents, the people whose job it is to tell stories around purpose, and who can best use engagement to win over various stakeholder groups, be they internal (employees, management or shareholders), or external (government, NGOs or the public) as to why there is a need to become more sustainable and how we should get there.
Examples of good sustainability communications work are both global and local in nature. Take for example the work done by Mars for its M&Ms brand. Mars reached out to the M&Ms consumer base in a smart way, by using the M&Ms characters everyone knows, to talk about initiatives around sustainable cocoa production and other CSR causes by telling the stories through the same M&M characters used to promote the brand.
On a local level, a good communications campaign can be something as simple as promoting safe driving, which environmental and engineering consulting services firm CH2M launched both globally as well as locally.
As communicators, our role is to understand our audience(s), know how to engage with them, and shape messaging that will impact both attitudes and behaviours. It’s never easy to change habits that have been ingrained for years, especially when it comes to sustainability (anyone who has worked on a recycling initiative will know how hard it can be to get people to recycle rather than throw materials into the trash).
However, that’s the beauty of our job as communicators. We’re the front line, the people who take a concept and make it happen with those groups whom we need to come on board. To quote from the United Nations Environmental Program:
Public communication has a key role to play to build on these emerging trends and to make sustainable development approachable and understandable. Informed, motivated and committed people can help us to achieve our sustainability goals. However, communicating effectively about sustainable lifestyles is a challenge. One needs to consider not only what to communicate, but how to communicate it.
Important factors of success include content, messenger, choice of media and tone. Experts are coming to realise that traditional messages from governments and green groups urging the public to adopt the environment into their day-to-day decisions need to be overhauled. Many of these messages are simply too patronising, guilt-laden or disapproving. Instead of turning people on to the environment, they risk switching
them off. The lesson to be learned is that communication styles have to be positive and tailored to different circumstances and cultural contexts.
If you want to know more about communicating sustainable issues, there are people who specialize in this issue. Sustainable Square’s Monaem Ben Lellahom is a great person to approach as he both understands the issue of sustainability as well as how to communicate around it; another person who focuses on sustainability is Stephen King, who focuses on the sustainable development goals. I’d urge you to reach out to either or myself to ask questions about how we can communicate sustainability better in this region.
TOMS’ sustainability strategy is simple to understand, its aligned to the business, and it’s designed with consumers – and social media – in mind
It’s fair to say that getting sustainability right is a challenge for most companies; it’s even harder when you throw consumers into the mix. However, every now and then a campaign comes along that makes you sit up and take notice.
Founded in 2006, the US-based shoe retailer TOMS was founded with a strong sense of giving back to communities in need. The company’s promise was simple – for each pair of shoes bought, it would donate another pair of shoes to a child in need. To date, TOMS has given more than 35 million pairs of new shoes to children in need.
This year TOMS brought their global CSR campaign, which has been running for eight years, to the United Arab Emirates. The company has taken its original premise of “One Day without Shoes”, an event where participants do not wear shoes throughout the day in order to raise awareness for TOMS’ goal of giving shoes to children-in-need, online and onto social media.
The concept is a simple yet powerful initiative where they would like people to take a picture of their bare feet and share it on Instagram. With each picture shared, one pair of shoes will be given to a child in need. A simple picture tagged with #WithoutShoes can help the cause and provide a donation.
As of last Thursday afternoon, more than 296,000 children will benefit from the campaign, according to the company’s website. It’d be interesting to see how many UAE consumers got involved (I’ll see if I can get a response from the UAE retailer which has the TOMS franchise, Apparel Group.
The below are just a sample of the 300,000 plus images which have been generated over the past two weeks, both by consumers as well as celebrities and the media. Let’s hope other companies can learn from TOMS and how powerful a simple concept such as this can be for the brand, the consumer and for communities in need.