Are you listening and engaging clearly? Really?

Listening baby

Listening to and engaging with audiences in clear language that is understandable even to a toddler is the basic building block of comms. And yet far too many people aren’t doing this.

Houston, we have a problem. And unlike this last sentence, which was transmitted clearly from space and the Apollo command module to NASA back in 1970, we as a function are not getting the three basic tenets of communications right.

Listening

Did you recently read about the WHO decision to make Zimbabwe’s President Dr Mugabe a goodwill ambassador. Or the NHS AirBnB concept to free up beds? I once though that such headlines would be the purview of April Fools or the Onion website.

I’m frequently finding that organizations are not listening to their stakeholders, and are making decisions which, in hindsight, turn out to be poorly thought through and which do reputational damage.

Engagement

Part of the reason why we’ve gotten so bad at listening as organizations because we don’t engage with anyone outside our offices. It seems to be a trend for far too many communicators to be glued to their laptops or smartphones and not actually getting out enough to meet face to face with real people.

This trend would also explain why communicators are pushing out content of their choosing rather than actually responding to the needs to their audiences, be they media, consumers or any other group. I’m constantly being told by journalists about how their requests are being ignored, and yet when the firm wants something they’ll be all open to reaching out. What ever happened to give and take, transparency or an open dialogue?

Clear, Understandable Language

No, your office opening won’t revolutionize the region. Your latest product isn’t “a globally recognized innovation”, and your work on developing a new site for buying diapers isn’t groundbreaking.

We have a tendency to use jargon, to make what we’re doing sound smarter, more grandiose than it really is (and it’s not new, as this 2014 article from The Guardian shows).

We need to ask ourselves if our words pass the child’s test. Could we explain what we are doing to a child, and would they get it? If not, then we need to scrap the wording, and drop from the public release all the phrases that we love to use internally.

We all understand the basics of communicating as individuals. We listen to the other person, we engage with them and respond, and we look to do so clearly and concisely (ok, not all of us). If it’s so simple to understand as people, then why do we struggle as organizations to get these basics right? As always, I’d love to know your thoughts on this.

The Media, the Web and Influence – a Journalist’s Response

 I wrote earlier this year about the waning influence of media, and how the media could tackle this through more transparency and better use of digital.

The piece elicited a response from one journalist here in the UAE whom I greatly respect. I wanted to share that response with you below.

On auditing and transparency:

Yes, there’s a lack of transparency and yes, there should be auditing but I’m not sure how much that would help. Most advertisers either don’t care or don’t understand that a publication with smaller numbers but the right target audience could still be valuable. In any case, an insane amount of deals are done because the media planners/agency guys and publishers are friends. So to your point, even if there were to be proper auditing, I’m not sure how much it would help the media industry regain its influence. 

On influencers and audience profiles:
Okay, the media and influencers should be treated separately. By default, media (and journalists) are – or should be – influencers, but in the context of the way the term is used here, they are not. So, why are we talking about an influencer who will give a breakdown of their followers? This is an issue, but a completely separate one.
With regards to media building reader profiles, yes they should but it’s important to define whether it should be sales or editorial. The issue of trust and transparency is relatively not as pressing when dealing with editorial because they have nothing to gain per se by bluffing/inflating numbers and audiences. Moreover, if editorial is interested in covering a story, they will do so (or at least, they should) regardless of PR/comms professionals pitching or not pitching said story. In fact, PR/comms need to think beyond what they want to communicate and instead look at what journalists want to do and try and be a part of that – something I’m sure you’re more than familiar with. It’s frustrating, to say the least, to speak to a company when they want to push something but not when you’d like them to weigh in on something.
On journalists as influencers:
There needs to be a line between journalism and whatever passes as content nowadays. Journalists should NOT be content creators and distributors for brands. It has to be either/or. They can’t have a balanced view if they’re speaking for a brand (understandably so)…it’s the whole reason we strive to keep editorial and sales apart. If anything, we need more journalists – not content creators or influencers – to dig up new stories, angles, and perhaps most importantly, be brave enough to pursue those stories.
Have a view? If you do, then drop me a line. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And to the journalist who wrote this, I’d like to say thank you.

How the Media Industry can regain its influence in today’s Social Media world

Is Print Dead

Print may not be dead in the region, but are there way that the media industry can regain influence lost to social media celebrities? (image source http://abcodigital.com)

I recently had an email exchange with a colleague in the PR industry here in Dubai on the issue of the communications industry and how to develop. I asked, what do we need to do better to make the communications function in the region better. His response was fascinating. To quote:

The truth remains that more and more media outlets are closing down, journalists being made redundant, consumers not reading much – but “following” social trends!

All what most of us have done is jump into the “influencer” band-wagon and discuss $ rates on the number of posts along with potentially a storyline. This should change. We need to find something more creative than being short-sighted to tap into the money.

But what keeps me awake at night (beyond other things, of course!) is what if media outlets close down, journalism as a profession becomes history – who the hell do we pitch our stories to?

While it’s true that the PR industry in the region has had a hand in the rapid and prominent rise of social media influencers, what about the case for the PR industry’s role in the declining influence of media, particularly print.

Here’s my two cents on how the media in the Gulf should work to regain its influence in today’s digital age. Let’s start with a look at one issue which the media has struggled with, namely transparency:

  • Audited Media – The number of audited print publications in the region is relatively low (we’re probably talking percentage-wise in the single digits). Whilst publishers such as ITP, and, most especially, Motivate have pushed for audited print titles, few others have followed suit. Audited numbers make our job of targeting the right media easy; we’re able to easily compare media titles, understand the reader breakdown and make a judgement as to whether a certain title is worth working with editorially (and then, later down the line, through advertising). It helps PRs clearly align media outreach with the business strategy, and it gives us trusted, independently audited numbers to back up our approach.
  • Unaudited Media – The vast majority of media in the region isn’t audited. Their numbers cannot be verified, and my assumption (which I assume is commonly shared in the industry), is that distribution numbers and readership is over-inflated. There’s no way that we can trust the circulation numbers given by publishers, and there’s no way that we can trust that the audience that we need to reach is seeing our messaging.
  • Advertising Media – Forgive the name for this third category. This is media which is created solely for the purposes of capturing advertising revenues, with limited to no circulation. With little to no circulation to talk of – in contrast to the publicized circulation numbers – such media and their publishers have done little to no favor to the reputation of media in the region. And it doesn’t help our cause in promoting media as the most effective means to reach out to our target audience, especially when the publication has effectively no audience.

The second issue is digital. Whilst some publishers, titles and journalists have embraced digital platforms including websites, podcasts, vlogs and social media, others have yet to leverage the power of online distribution and amplification. Digital remains a challenge for much of the media industry globally; no newspaper has been able to make a profit and run its business from its online sales revenues. However, with consumers in the Gulf region essentially living their lives online, does it make sense for traditional media publications to not be online?

The other aspect of digital which media needs to leverage is its ability to engage in real time with its audience, and build audience profiles. I’m yet to see or meet an influencer who will be able to give me an up-to-date breakdown of their followers’ interests, age ranges, geographies and other demographics. The media can and should be helping to build up reader profiles which in turn will help us work with them to target the right audiences. This requires trust and transparency, which is still hard to come by with many titles (see the above).

I feel its especially important that journalists build their online profiles. While many are being laid off as publications shrink, brands need reputable voices to work with. For me, there’s little comparison between a professional journalist and a social media influencer in the Gulf (there are exceptions). When reviewing a product, it’s much more likely that a journalist will give a less biased viewpoint, and will include both positives as well as negatives. That builds integrity and trust with readers, which advertisers should seek out as the holy grail of brand building. Journalists need to think about transitioning into content creators and distributors for brands, much like their social media influencer counterparts. The difference will be in their ability to tell a balanced story that is trusted by their readers.

Whilst the region’s media scene is slowly feeling the impact of ad spending shifting online (just look at the recent closures, including 7Days), I cannot and don’t want to image a day where we have no media to work with. The media industry has to play its part in changing to meet the needs of consumers, through embracing both transparency and digital platforms. I have a great deal of respect for the professionalism and expertise of many publications and journalists in the region, and I know how influential they can be. We need to ensure that their influence is recognized in a fashion that is understood outside of the media industry, by businesses who want to engage publicly.

Do you have any inputs or thoughts on the media industry and how they should change to remain relevant? If yes, then please do share them with me in the comments below.

Lessons on media relations and transparency from the World Government Summit

Dubai's World Government Summit has become a global event for government employees and is closely followed by the media (image source: Trade Arabia)

Dubai’s World Government Summit has become a global event for government employees and is closely followed by the media (image source: Trade Arabia)

This month was host to another mega event in Dubai, the World Government Summit. The conference, which even hosted an address by President Obama, aims to become the leading platform for governments, the private sector and the public to learn about and collaborate together for innovation in government.

Two areas caught my eye. The first was that of media relations. There’s been a good deal of talk about how the communications industry is changing and media relations will become less important. That isn’t the case, at least for the vast majority of us who spend most of our day pitching, preparing for media interviews, and following up.

There was a sizable media presence at the event, which is testament to the World Government Summit’s global reach. However, while there were dozens of international journalists – whose flights and accommodation were paid for – the story for the local journalists I knew was different. Few Dubai-based media were reached out to except by email, with no phone calls. And some didn’t receive an email to arrange for registration. One journalist I talked to spoke about his frustration on having to chase the agency to get his registration sorted out. He was particularly peeved by a lack of support or empathy from the agency about the issue, and not only him but his whole team being missed out. As he told me, ‘a sorry would have gone a long way when it comes to good will.’

While I understand the urge to engage globally – after all, the event is now the World Government Summit – not involving local media is a idea that will only sour the agency’s relationship with the local journalists in the short to medium term; and trust me, you don’t want to deal with an aggrieved journalist, let alone put them in front of a client. Plus, in today’s digital age, I don’t buy this concept of local and global media. Everything is online, and much of it is curated by services such as Google News. It’s now a case of getting that content seen by the relevant stakeholder, which can be done through increasing paid reach or seeding the content on other sites.

Transparency and its impact on credibility

The second insight is around the inaugural “World’s Best Minister” Award. According to the summit’s website, the “World’s Best Minister” Award was “thoroughly and independently managed by Thomson Reuters where the search for the nominees is conducted according to the established criteria”.

To quote from the Summit’s website, details on the criteria and judging panel are below:

The criteria of the Award were set by the organizer of the World Government Summit. The criteria for selecting the candidates WAs based on various financial and non-financial metrics, and their improvement over time. These are based on data disclosed by the World Bank, United Nations, Legatum institution and various other well known resources that provide data and statistics on economic information, social metrics and government services.

The primary focus for 2016 has been on initiatives in the healthcare, education, social and environmental services.

The judging panel consists of six judges from various backgrounds, who provide different perspectives on the candidates based on their experience, expertise and insights. They include senior executives from the World Bank, OECD, Ernst & Young, Strategy & Co and the Abraaj Group on their personal capacity.

From an initial selection of 100 ministers, the winner turned out to be Greg Hunt, Australia’s environment minister. This choice has proved to be highly controversial, particularly in Australia where the Australian government has been criticized for its approach to green issues.

My focus however is the response from Thomson Reuters who, I feel, have sought to distance themselves from the choice of the winner. To quote from the Guardian.

But Thomson Reuters said it was “not correct” to say that the company initiated the award or were responsible for designing the selection process.

“Thomson Reuters was solely responsible for assisting in the administration of the award, to a set of criteria approved by the World Government Summit organisers,” said Tarek Fleihan, head of corporate communications for the financial information company in the Middle East, Africa and Russia.

Transparency is key to credibility. And whilst I do love the idea of awarding government officials who innovate on behalf of their citizens, the controversial choice and the ensuing contradictions surrounding the process hasn’t helped to make the award as credible as it should be.

What are your thoughts? Were you at the event? I’d love to hear your views on these two points.