Influencers & the Importance of Credibility – an Example from SeaWorld Abu Dhabi

life-lessons-article-by-khalid-alameri-in-the-national

When choosing influencers, brands and publishers need to ask themselves if the person has the credibility and expertise to influence others.

As anyone working in comms will have noticed, 2016 was the year of the influencer. That trend will not only continue into 2017, but it’ll pick up pace. Everywhere you will look, you’ll see brands and organizations working with influencers to address public issues with their stakeholders.

There’s many issues around working with influencers. One, which I’m going to highlight here, is the importance of credibility. Often brands (or publishers) will seek out an influencer  who has a wide following and is popular. That’s unfortunately not the best approach to follow. Instead, brands need to think about credibility, by asking themselves if the influencer they’d like to work with is 1) an expert in this field, and 2) has talked about the issue before, and 3) are considered to have integrity.

I’ve talked about this topic before, most notably when Etisalat brought on-board a load of social media influencers from rival Du. It’s a topic I’ll probably have to keep coming back to again and again, as brands (and publishers) keep on making the same basic mistake.

A fellow communications professional shared with me an opinion piece from the Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper yesterday. It was on why Abu Dhabi and SeaWorld will be a good fit, and why both will benefit the wider environment. The piece was written by Khalid AlAmeri, a well-known and well-respected influencer.

The piece is well-written in terms of the argument, and while I could argue to the contrary I’m going to focus on the choice of the influencer. Firstly, Khalid writes prolifically on entrepreneurship and issues around Emiratisation. He’s well-known and admired for this work. However, he’s not an expert on the environment or wildlife (if he is, his expertise should be highlighted here). He’s highlighted some criticisms of SeaWorld, which is the sign of an experienced writer who knows how to engage in a debate. But again, why should I believe someone who firstly isn’t an expert in the field, and who hasn’t written previously on the subject.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not an easy task to find influencers on issues that aren’t mainstream (fashion, food and travel). However, there are organizations in the UAE which do oversee the environment, such as the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (which I assume Khalid references in the piece), or the Emirates Diving Association. There are also associations and people who take part in marine life conservation, such as the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project. These bodies would have made for a much more powerful and compelling argument, primarily due to their expertise. Knowing this, I’d be much less willing to question their lines of argument. As it stands, Khalid’s opinion piece is weakened due to his lack of credibility in this area (as opposed to his expertise on entrepreneurship). To me, that lack of expertise weakens an argument rather than promotes it.

Departing but not goodbye – Fida Chaaban and Frank Kane step down from The Entrepreneur and The National

Frank Kane (left), and Fida Chaaban have left their marks on the UAE's media scene.

Frank Kane (left), and Fida Chaaban have left their marks on the UAE’s media scene.

The UAE’s media scene can oft be described as a merry-go-round; journalists change roles almost as frequently as their colleagues in the public relations industry. Every so often, a journalist comes along whom I develop the utmost respect for, both in terms of their professionalism as well as their personality. They’re a pleasure to deal with.

Just like waiting for a bus, not one but two of my favorite media are leaving their roles this summer. The first is a lady who has redefined what it is to be an editor-in-chief of a publication. Fida Chaaban came to the UAE around about two and a half years ago to head up the newly-launched title Entrepreneur Middle East. During that time she’s built up a strong editorial team who aren’t afraid to publish news on its merit (and say no to ethically-inappropriate requests). Fida has gone beyond that and she’s lived the brand – she could be found at any and every event talking about entrepreneurship including the good, the bad, and the public relations. Fida was a pioneer in terms of engagement; in a region where many editors-in-chief are unapproachable, she’d always be online (when did she sleep?), and responding to anyone and everyone.

Fida announced the change and her stepping down in her own fashion by posting an article about it online (it’s well worth a read). She’ll be staying in Dubai, so I’m not saying goodbye but rather I hope to see her back in the media space soon.

The second person is Frank Kane. Few people in the regional PR industry worth their salt don’t know Frank, a man who has been reporting in London for decades and who moved to the UAE around a decade ago. If you want to learn about proper investigative journalism, Frank is the man to listen to. Frank has been with The National for almost seven years, and during that time his column has been a must read for anyone wanting to understand the nuances of business and culture in the country. Frank will be stepping down from The National at the end of this summer, but he’ll be staying in the UAE.

I could share many anecdotes about Frank, but I’ll do with just one. Back in 2008 I was working on a deal between the New York Stock Exchange and Qatar on a multi-million dollar investment. I was talking with the head of a major public relations firm from London and his experienced team, reviewing the media list. Such was the reverence (and apprehension) for Frank that when we got to his name the gentleman in question said, “I’ll deal with Frank”. When you’re equally respected and feared by public relations executives, that’s when you know you have made it as a true journalist.

I’ll miss dealing with both Fida and Frank, and I do hope that both will be back where they need to be (and where we need them to be), behind a desk working on copy that you can’t put down. We need more journalists like them.

PS do follow Fida and Frank on Twitter, at @fida and @frankkanedubai respectively.

Does the Bloomberg deal with ADGM impact its impartiality or not?

Does this deal with ADGM (pictured) mean something for Bloomberg's journalistic impartiality in the region?

Does this deal with ADGM (pictured) mean something for Bloomberg’s journalistic impartiality in the region?

The issue of impartiality is one which is seldom discussed in the Middle East – this probably isn’t a surprise when considering that much of the region’s press is owned by some form of government authority. However, when it comes to international media the issue of impartiality is a different story. Journalists from abroad, news wires in particular, often have to navigate the challenging waters of what to report on and how to report. They know that the consequences of their work can be dire, and I have known several brave journalists who have been asked to leave the country they were based in. For me, they’re often the most trusted source of information.

The deal between Bloomberg and Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM), the aspiring, brand new international financial centre located in the heart of the UAE’s capital city, was announced last week. The deal, which had been in the works for some time, will include the following details as reported by The National:

The partnership will involve major media initiatives from a new office on ADGM’s Al Maryah Island base, including a dedicated digital platform, new programming and an annual conference of global business leaders in the capital.

Tracy Alloway, Bloomberg’s executive editor of markets, based in New York, and a former Financial Times US correspondent, will lead the ADGM editorial operation.

The TV centrepiece of the new initiative will be a daily global markets programme, from new studios in the Dubai International Financial Centre, which will include editorial content from Ms Alloway broadcast live from ADGM.

A new “anchor” broadcaster will soon be named to present the show, which will seek to bridge the gap between Asian and European markets in Bloomberg’s global network.

There will also be a dedicated Middle East edition of the Bloomberg website, with original input from its 80-strong editorial team, headquartered in Dubai.

I heard about the deal some time back, and what was said to me was that ADGM would be financially supporting Bloomberg’s news organization in Abu Dhabi. It’s a great deal for ADGM, which was recently set up and which has aspirations to become a global hub for financial trading. Alongside the likes of Reuters and Dow Jones, Bloomberg is a global name when it comes to business reporting.

However, is impartiality impacted when money is involved? How will Bloomberg report bad news from ADGM? And how would ADGM respond? All of us who have worked in the media industry in the region know stories of how publishers will behave differently for advertisers, often not reporting negative pieces and instead pushing out good news.

Bloomberg is a different proposition to a local publication; its reporters do write everything, warts and all. Similarly, there’s been a major push to make ADGM a global player on the financial stage, with experienced executives brought in from Singapore and London.

For the sake of argument, let’s address the elephant in the room. As a matter of principle, should Bloomberg have said yes to the deal? Even if no reporting lines are broken, does the deal imply that there could be a measure of bias? Time will tell and each and every organization has its ups and downs. I’m looking forward to seeing Bloomberg’s new setup in ADGM and what it means for journalism and impartiality in the Middle East.

Executives promising to go naked on television, Cobone’s PR stunt, and The Address’ post-crisis crisis?

Paul Kenny's fake PR release for Cobone, Ziad El Chaar naked on TV and Emaar's ongoing issues following the Address fire made this week an interesting one for media in the UAE (image source: Arabian Gazette)

Paul Kenny’s fake PR release for Cobone, Ziad El Chaar naked on TV and Emaar’s ongoing issues following the Address fire made this week an interesting one for media in the UAE (image source: Arabian Gazette)

Media in the Middle East is rarely dull, and the past few days have proved that there’s some hilarity as well as serious questions about what people in our region do and then tell to the media.

Let’s start with the real estate brand which is developing a reputation for foot-in-mouth disease. Speaking to the Sunday Times, Damac’s Managing Director Ziad El Chaar told The Sunday Times he would “go on TV naked and resign” if the worst market projections are realised. Aside from the fact that any naked executive dance on television would be illegal in the UAE (at least without a VPN), his comment hasn’t been taken too well judging by the reaction on Arabian Business’ online portal. Maybe there’s some fans of naked real estate executives out there. If so, please do show yourselves so we can get you help…

Another bizarre piece from last week which wasn’t picked up widely. Speaking to an audience of entrepreneurs last week, the founder of discounting site Cobone Paul Kenny admitted that he used a PR stunt to kick-start his business. Shortly after founding the site, Kenny put out a press release claiming that 1,000 vouchers for a discounted pizza had been sold to Cobone consumers. That release, Kenny now claims, was a fake. Let’s quote Kenny from the Arabian Business story.

“We were second to market. GoNabit [an online group buying website founded by Dan Stuart and Sohrab Jahanbani] was first. When we launched, everyone was saying: ‘You are the same as GoNabit,’ which we were but I said we weren’t.

So I went to at Vapiano, which is an Italian restaurant, and bought a thousand pizzas at a huge discount and they sold out by 12pm. I put a big sold out sticker on the site and an hour later I released a press release saying ‘Cobone.com breaks e-commerce record in the Middle East.’

And the truth is that everyone started reading and asking ‘Who is this company Cobone.com?’ ‘What is e-commerce?’ ‘What’s a record?’ You know it created a lot of interest in the business and instantly people started recognising us as a different business.

I remember that a day after you could do a Google search to see we were on around 483,000 websites. First, e-commerce in the Middle East was never covered. Then what is an e-commerce record? What is Cobone.com?

So you got a ball rolling of media interest from that point.”

There’s a popular saying about the luck of the Irish. And there’s another saying about making one’s own luck. Luckily for Kenny, no asked if the news was real (or checked with the restaurant). If they had, his deception may not have worked so well.

And finally, another follow-on story about the New Year’s Eve fire at The Address, from The National in which one owner of property at the hotel lost 1.3 million Dirhams worth of art in the blaze.

Ramin Salsali spoke out this week urging The Address owner Emaar Properties to quickly process residents’ compensation claims as well as repair the property. To quote from the story.

“Until now, they [Emaar] have been very fair and have quickly reacted to accommodate people, put them in hotels, give them the first basic possibilities just to start to recover.”

He expected “a very unbureaucratic and pragmatic approach” from the developer in terms of how claims were handled – especially since a police report last week indicated that an electrical short-circuit from a spotlight caused the blaze.

“The whole world is now watching. The effect on real estate is unbelievable. People have pulled out of contracts where they don’t know about the fire safety of the cladding. It’s not good for Dubai.”

One of the greatest challenges any organization can face is not just the crisis itself, but the post-crisis reflection and learning. Emaar isn’t there yet in terms of dealing with any major grievances from those who lost property and items during the fire (and there’s been remarkably little negativity from any of the hotel’s residents so far), but the communication with this group of people needs to be both clear and quick to get these issues resolved. Otherwise, Salsali’s point about blow-back for the Emirate’s real estate sector may become true. Let’s hope not.

And for the next post I’ll be talking daddy issues again. It’s been a while since I posted any stories about my little princess, and I’m looking forward to it!

Flip-Flopping during a crisis – how Damac’s handling of the Trump backlash has proved costly

First you don't see it, then you do. Damac initially removed Trump's name after his comments on Muslims, only to restore it a couple of days after (top photo by Reuters/bottom photo by  Rahul Gajjar of Khaleej Times)

First you don’t see it, then you do. Damac initially removed Trump’s name after his comments on Muslims, only to restore it a couple of days after (top photo by Reuters/bottom photo by Rahul Gajjar of Khaleej Times)

Imagine for a moment, if you will, one of your key business partners/influencers saying something controversial. Imagine that they’ve just racially attacked your most important group of customers. And then imagine that, rather than dumping this partner, you instead flip-flop around the issue and end up not only looking rather foolish, but do yourself and your reputation a fair amount of harm in the process.

If you work at Damac, you don’t need to imagine any of the above. The Dubai-headquartered real estate developer, which counts Donald Trump as one of its business partners, has been flip-flopping since Trump came out with a comment on the 7th of December that there should be a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the United States. This statement, which was made following the deadly shootings in California’s San Bernardino, weren’t the first Trump had made about Muslims. He had previously that he was in favour of shutting down American mosques and establishing a database for all Muslims living in the US or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion.

Damac’s relationship with Trump International includes branding for two Trump-branded gold courses and a collection luxury villas at the developer’s Akoya project in Dubai. I don’t know the full extent of the relationship, but local newspaper 7DAYS claimed that, in addition to the licensing fees that Damac would have to pay to Trump for the use of his name and image, Trump himself had invested in the project.

Following the controversy around Trump’s latest Muslim statements, Damac put out a statement that could be called, at best, avoiding the issue.

Damac Properties senior vice president Niall McLoughlin told 7DAYS in a statement: “We would like to stress that our agreement is with the Trump Organisation as one of the premium golf course operators in the world and as such we would not comment further on Mr Trump’s personal or political agenda, nor comment on the internal American political debate scene.”

Instead of publicly taking Trump to task and distancing the company from his statements, Damac took a different approach. A couple of days after the outcry, on the 10th of December Damac took Donald Trump down – his image and name that is, from their developments. To quote from 7DAYS.

Hoardings that previously carried photos of the billionaire businessman advertising Damac’s Trump-branded golf course and luxury villas stood bare on Umm Suquiem Road on Thursday, right at the entrance to the development.

All well and good you may think – Damac quietly rebranded their development and distanced themselves from Trump. However, in a further twist, Trump’s name was back on billboards two days later, on the 12th of December. Here’s how the English-daily Khaleej Times put it:

On Friday, a prominent advertising billboard showing Trump golfing that had stood at the Akoya development, where the housing and one of the golf courses is being built, was gone. All that remained of it was the board’s brown wooden background. Another billboard declaring the development “The Beverly Hills of Dubai” still stood nearby.

Trump’s name also appeared to have been pulled off one sign greeting visitors to the complex. The sign, outside a sales office at the site, originally had Trump’s name in lettering on a stone wall. But on Friday the letters were littering the ground in front of it.

A second, similar sign facing a major road was intact with Trump’s name on it. Earlier in the week, that sign had been taken down but by Friday, it was back in place.

“The exterior signage at Trump International Golf Club, Dubai was temporarily removed on Tuesday for a short period of time, however as of last night, the signage is back up and fully intact,” the Trump Organization said in a statement to The Associated Press on Friday.

Also, the Damac webpage dedicated to the Trump PRVT gated community, which is part of the development, appeared to have been removed, leading only to a “not found” page.

Since the development is still under construction, the removal of the branding with Trump’s name and image seemed to be largely symbolic. It was not known if it signaled Damac will outright break the licensing contract.

Damac Properties has declined to comment on the removal of Trump’s name and billboard from the property. It earlier said it “would not comment further on Mr. Trump’s personal or political agenda, nor comment on the internal American political debate scene.”

To change the issue, Damac has switched tactic. Instead of talking politics, the developer announced that it would guarantee rental returns for those buying in its Akoya (Trump-branded) project. The National broke the story last week.

Damac Properties, the developer caught in a storm over its partnership with the controversial US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, is offering lucrative rental returns on some of its properties to lure investors.

Damac, which said it would stick with Trump International despite his anti-Muslim tirade, is providing a 24 per cent rental guarantee on selected units in Dubai, including the Akoya project associated with the billionaire, the developer said in a statement.

Owners of selected properties will be able to secure an eight per cent annual return in the first three years after handover.

The company was offering these returns because it believes the Dubai property market is “set for stable growth in the medium term”, Damac said. “We have seen quite a bit of scaremongering in the market in recent months, which can have a detrimental effect on sentiment in the market,” said Niall McLoughlin, the senior vice president at Damac. “By providing such a high, tax-free offering on our units, we are putting our head above the rest and underwriting any fluctuations that may occur down the line.”

Reputational issues become even more important for companies which are listed, as Damac is. Damac’s shares initially fell 15 percent following the muted response. Investors may also not have appreciated the rental guarantee initiative, as you can see from the share price chart below.

Damac's share price fell after the initial outcry. The share price has also fallen following Damac's attempts to repair the reputational damage through the rental incentive promise.

Damac’s share price fell after the initial outcry. The share price has also fallen following Damac’s attempts to repair the reputational damage through the rental incentive promise.

While I don’t know the relationship between the two, would Damac have been wiser to have taken an initial hit and exited the contract with Trump rather than flip-flopping on the issue, drawing it out and drawing more attention to the brand association? Add in the costs with guaranteeing rental returns in addition to the share drop, and this crisis will prove costly both in the short as well as the long-term. To me, the media and the company’s shareholders the answer about whether or not to dump Trump – and take a short term hit through contractual obligations but save the company’s reputation and keep shareholders and customers happy – seems fairly obvious.

Innovation, Data and Control – Squaring the Circle in Dubai

Can governments in the Middle East find a way to balance control with innovation and access to data?

Can governments in the Middle East find a way to balance control with innovation and access to data?

Someone re-found their mojo this month. The English-language newspaper The National published a number of eye-opening pieces on two issues that are often discussed, but little understood.

The first was an investigative piece (yes, I know!) on the challenges that Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority (RTA) has faced with the disruption caused by app-based taxi providers such as Uber and its local rival Careem. To put the story into context, the RTA does not only regulate taxis in the Emirate of Dubai, but it also manages its own fleet of taxis.

The piece, which is a fascinating insight into how the Emirate is not only run but also how it is looking to balance control with innovation, poses the question of how a government which controls much of the business in the country promotes innovation whilst protecting its revenues. For me, the key paragraphs in the article, written by the newspaper’s business editor Mustafa Alrawi, are below.

In Dubai, The National understands, Uber and Careem have narrowly escaped a clampdown by the regulator that would have significantly curtailed their abilities to operate. The biggest issue has been the alleged failure to maintain prices above taxi fares. On its website Uber states that “ … in Dubai, regulations require our fares be 30 per cent higher than taxi fares”.

It is understood, however, that the regulator had been planning a far stronger response to the practices of private hire companies booked by smartphone app, ahead of new regulations to address the emergence of technology-led companies in the transport sector. These regulations are expected next year, according to previously reported comments from the RTA.

It is understood that the Dubai government stepped in before the row escalated to ensure that innovative companies such as Uber and Careem would not be hamstrung by any action by the RTA. The circular is understood to represent a kind of temporary truce between the regulator and the technology firms maintaining the status quo for now.

A second article the following day in The National touched on another important issue for the country – that of statistics and control over information. Here’s the introduction:

A new law that demands companies seek government approval before carrying out surveys in Dubai could damage the property sector and discourage research in the emirate, experts have warned.

The Dubai government announced a law late last month intended to help enable the Dubai Statistics Center “to establish an advanced statistics system”, according to a statement. But experts zoomed in on a provision in the new law that forbids private companies from “conducting any survey[s] without obtaining authorisation from the Dubai Statistics Center”.

As pointed out by one of those interviewed, there’s no such thing as a data vacuum. The lack of any official data will be filled by rumours, which can prove to be much more damaging.

Professor Joseph Kadane, chair of the American Statistical Association’s committee on scientific freedom, which produces reports for the United Nations on best practice in government statistics, warned that the new law would likely lead to the spread of “uninformed rumours and uncertainty about the extent of the downturn” in Dubai’s property market.

“This will do far more harm to Dubai’s economy than allowing private surveys to be conducted and published,” Mr Kadane said. “International investors, in particular, are sensitive to the quality of the information available to them in deciding where to invest.”

Both articles touch on fundamental issues relating to innovation and data. The underlying theme is control. Governments in the Middle East have long controlled everything around them, including their economies. In today’s digital world, where innovation can come out of nowhere and where data can be created and spread in an instant, governments need to understand that the control of yesterday is no longer possible and instead look to collaborate.

And, on a final note it’s great to see good local reporting. I hope The National keeps it up.

Innovation and the need to think simply

Innovation starts with the ability to ask a question

Innovation starts with the ability to ask a question

This week is a special one in the UAE – it’s officially Innovation Week and the country is full of activities extolling the virtues of innovation and all that this word entails (I admit, I’ve come to dislike this word, not because of what it stands for but rather its constant misuse).

As I’m a media junkie, two news pieces stuck out. The first was an effort by the Dubai Media Office to promote innovation through its Media Innovation Lab, a quarterly event that aims to promote a culture of innovation and creativity in media. To quote from Emirates 24/7, “the initiative seeks to share knowledge on media-related innovation among corporate communication and media professionals and media students. It is also in line with the UAE leadership’s directives to promote innovation in all sectors.”

The second is even more ambitious, and, quite literally, out of this world. I’ll let The National’s copy explain this innovation for you:

High school and university students from across the UAE have the chance to directly shape the future of space exploration.

Two competitions giving them the opportunity to watch their experiments blast off on a rocket to the International Space Station were announced on Tuesday at the launch of The National Space Programme in Abu Dhabi.

In the initial stages of the programme, The National, Abu Dhabi Media’s English-language newspaper, has linked up during Innovation Week with the UAE Space Agency, Boeing and other public and private organisations.

The National Space Programme contests are Genes in Space, challenging high school pupils to create a DNA analysis experiment, and the Satellite Launch project, in which a university team will build a satellite.

There’s a third strand I’d like to bring in here. I had the pleasure of talking to a university professor who teaches media here in the UAE. He was recalling the story of an occasion when the power failed at his academic institution. One of his students, a local, asked if she should cover the happening for the university student publication. He said yes and encouraged her to go and follow up with the operations department who look after issues relating to maintenance.

This student did just that and headed down to the operations department to understand more about the power cut. When she did meet someone, she asked what happened and explained why she was asking a question. And the response? “Why are you asking such questions? Who is your professor?”

While I love the ambitions of blasting into space or talking about creativity in the media, I’d love to see us put our feet on the ground and push for a climate where a question is welcomed, both from each of us as individuals as well as the media. As for the curious student, the brave lady did publish her story. She’s my innovator this week.