Taking Sides – Questions on and about the Arab Youth Survey

This year’s survey raised a host of questions about not just Arab youth, but whether PR agencies should become part of political disputes in the region

There’s so much which is good about communications in the Middle East – there’s the fast-paced environment, the ability to work across cultures, and an increasing awareness among management that comms matters. However, one area of weakness has always been a paucity of data, which means we’re often left wondering what our audiences are doing and thinking.

Now running for 11 years, the Arab Youth Survey was an initiative by Dubai-headquartered ASDA’A BCW to better understand the largest demographic across the Middle East. The idea was simple – ask people under 30 about their hopes, fears and aspirations. The results of the research could be used to shape government policy, create insights for the private sector and more…

The Methodology

For me, there were two big issues from the survey. The first was who was actually in the survey. For the first time, Qatar was not included. There was no explanation that I’ve seen as to why this happened – given that there’s few issues in traveling to and accessing the country, I can only assume that this was a political decision given everything that has happened between Qatar and the four Arab countries which are in dispute with the country. ASDA’A BCW is headquartered in Dubai, and has substantial business in countries which are in dispute with Qatar. The question I have is this – did ASDA’A BCW not include Qatar for business reasons, or was ASDA’A BCW not allowed to undertake the survey in Qatar by the government (there’s a host of permissions needed to undertake research in many countries across the MENA region). I’ll come back to this issue later on.

They’re not the only questions I have on the issue of how the survey was conducted. My jaw dropped when looking at Yemen; supposedly 50 people were surveyed in Ta’izz and 50 people in Al Hodaydah. How this was possible given both are war zones is beyond me, especially as Syria was excluded also (my assumption is Syria wasn’t included due to the physical risk of undertaking any survey there outside of Damascus).

The other questions I have, I’ve raised before. There’s no description of how the questions were asked (were they structured, semi-structured etc… and who was asking them as well). It goes without saying that this research, presented as is, wouldn’t make it through a single academic peer review. The more transparency there is when it comes to research, the more trust there’ll be in the fairness of the research and the actual findings.

The Insights

This year’s research revealed a number of big insights. One was media consumption.

It may be unsurprising that most young Arabs get their news from social media. What’s not clear is what the actual sources are for their news. I’m going to state this very simply for all those, including media, who simply reshared this insight – social media is a platform, a channel. Facebook doesn’t magically create news. What I’d like to know, and what wasn’t answered, was which are the most popular sources for news on these social platforms. Are they looking to traditional media with digital platforms, digital-only media, or other media outlets (even fake ones). This wasn’t asked, and this was a huge miss as far as I’m concerned.

The other big insight is the issue of religion. Based on the research, young Arabs believe that “religion plays too big of a role in the Middle East.” For me, the statement is too simple (binary choices often are, hence the need for focus groups and open-ended questioning). Why do they feel that this is the case, and what do they mean by reform? Seeing as nearly all the religious institutions are under the control of governments, is this an implied criticism of governments? It’s simply not clear how best to interpret this data apart from they want change.

There’s a host of other insights, such as the youth wanting regional conflicts to end, the demand of the Gulf’s youth that governments continue to subsidize their lifestyles, and how these people are driving e-commerce (that shouldn’t be surprising, given they’re the majority of the population. I was very pleased to see a section on mental health, a topic which has long been a taboo, as well as the impact of drugs, and perceptions towards the quality of education (this is an area which needs drastic reform).

The Issue of Balance

I want to come back to the issue of excluding Qatar, as this is what concerns me the most. For me, communicators are problem-solvers. They are also people who should bring different groups together. By being seen to take sides, we stop being seen as fair and trusted. I keep hearing from regional leaders on the client and agency side about the need to speak truth to power, and the importance of transparency. It’s often harder to see these concepts being put into practice.

What I’m saying is possible to do. I work in the business world, and our aim is to serve our consumers, no matter who they are. We don’t allow politics to get in the way. Once your objectivity is questioned, it’s hard to believe what you say. And, we are the builders of reputations. I hope to see ASDA’A BCW giving a voice to every Arab country next year in the 2020 edition of the Arab Youth Survey. That’s my definition of leadership in the communications space, and that’s what we need more of in the region.

You can read more about the survey here.

Update: I’ve been told that permissions were not given to conduct the research in Doha, based on a response at the press conference. If this is true, it may reflect a drop in trust/a belief that an agency in Dubai can’t be fair towards Doha. Honestly, I don’t know which sentiment worries me more.

Why Communicators must stop Virtue Signalling

We’ve got to be honest about the challenges we face and how we deal with them

I just love conferences, especially about communications. There’s always the chance there’ll be a fascinating panel with a group of communicators who share their experiences and insights. I enjoy listening to professionals who tell it like it is, with no embellishments. However, when working in the communications function there’s always a danger that we stick to the narrative and come out with viewpoints that sound wonderful, but which are the opposite of reality.

Last week was one of those occasions. The excellent team at the Holmes Report were in Dubai for their second IN2Summit MENA. The opening, headline session asked if CEOs in the Middle East should take a stand on public debates and policy-making.

Given everything that’s happening, from the introduction of taxation to regional politics, you’d think that CEO activism would be at an all-time high. However, it’s hard for me to remember the last time a CEO in the Gulf spoke up on a hot topic (there are exceptions, and interestingly enough, the CEOs who do speak out often tend to be nationals who are close to government leaders).

I hoped I’d be wrong, and kept any questions to myself. However, when following the debate online, there seemed to be little alignment between what the panelists were saying and what’s actually happening on CEO engagement in the Middle East region. The moderator referenced Nike and Unilever, both great examples from regions where there’s significantly more freedom to engage in political debate.

One speaker commented that: “I believe CEOs should be involved. They should preserve the interests of the country as well as holding core values that are aligned with the government. Change doesn’t always come easy but it’s always necessary.”

Part of our roles as communicators is to agitate for change that will benefit our stakeholders. However, we are being disingenuous by sharing insights that are contrary to what is happening? Do we have activist CEOs who can openly engage on public issues in MENA? If there are more than ten, then please do share their names. I can come up with similar examples – one from two years back focused on whether we are speaking truth to power, which is a rarity in our region.

We need to ask these questions of ourselves, but we also need to be honest with our answers. Virtue signalling doesn’t do us, or those we work with, any good, especially when we need to work to change not just our roles but our environments as well. We must have the courage to speak up honestly, and point out when there are contradictions in what we want to do and what we actually do. This will not only benefit current practitioners, but also future generations (at the event there were several dozen students in attendance).That’s how reputations are built, on aligning our words with our actions.

A New Year’s Wish – For PR people to disclose their client relationships (especially on social media)

full disclosure

Can we have more disclosure when it comes to agency-client relationships and content in the region? (image source: multiplesclerosis.net)

When I was young, naive and altruistic, I used to wish for all sorts of lovely things, like peace in the Middle East, an end to discrimination and that type of stuff. Now, I’m (a little) older, and my New Year’s wish list is a little shorter, and, I hope, much more reasonable.

On my 2018 list, there’s one wish. And I need your help to make it happen. It’s pretty simple really. All I’d like is a little more transparency in the region’s public relations industry. I’ve seen a couple of recent examples from senior executives on the agency side, and there seems to be a trend of agency people writing content for sharing, either on social media or through traditional media, which promotes their clients either directly or indirectly. Two examples from this month are below.

What’s also disappointing is that when asked about a client relationship, there’s no response.

My point isn’t about the content – both pieces are well written. Rather, it’s about the need to fully disclose our relationships as PR practitioners and communicators. We talk about the need to be open, and to foster debate. By not disclosing our paid relationships, and not responding when asked, we are doing neither. And, in case you didn’t know, disclosure is legally mandated by the Federal Trade Commission in the United States, the Advertising Standards Authority in the United Kingdom, and by other authorities in Europe.

NicolasTeneoADNOCPost

Teneo has been advising ADNOC on the ADNOC Distribution IPO. However, there’s no disclaimer here of this, or no response to a direct question.

The below tweet links to an opinion piece on Arabian Business, where a Burson Marsteller client is referenced (the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition) by the writer, who is the Chief Executive Officer of the public relations agency ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller. There’s no disclosure of this relationship, the opposite to how Ford is referenced in the article. And there’s no response to the question either.

To show those in the region how it can and should be done, have a look at the below from Bob Pickard, the Canada-based principal at Signal Leadership Communication. In his Tweet he’s not even referencing a client, but rather sharing his opinion as a client himself. His words underline exactly why we need to disclose our paid relationships, due to the implicit bias it causes.

My company mandates that I disclose when I tweet about a company issue, by using hashtags such as #employee, clearly stating my employer in my social media profile, and through any other means that would remove any doubt as to my relationship with the company. I’d also hope that companies here in the region would adopt similar transparency policies. They’re easy to find online – here’s one from P&G from 2011 which is openly available on the internet.

So, are you with me? Can we have disclosure and transparency when it comes to client relationships in the region? As always, let me know your thoughts.

 

Research: Online Influencers in the UAE widespread, but measurement & transparency still lagging

InfluencerMarketingResearchBPG

The latest research by BPG, Cohn & Wolfe and YouGov underlines how mainstream online influencer marketing has become. It also highlights areas for improvement in areas such as measurement and transparency

If you needed any more evidence that online influencer marketing is here to stay, then continue reading. The latest research by BPG Cohn & Wolfe and YouGov answers a host of questions as to what is happening on social media channels, and raises even more on areas such as measurement and transparency.

Sampling over 100 in-house marketing and communication experts and brand managers across a diverse range of industries in the UAE, the results show that influencer marketing is very much mainstream:

  • 94% of polled marketeers say engaging with social media influencers benefits their brand
  • 49% currently work with social media influencers in the region
  • 43% spend up to US$10,000 per social media influencer campaign

That’s the good news (especially if you’re an ‘influencer’). The reasons behind using influencer marketing and engagement are a little more varied, as you can see below. The top three reasons for using influencers are 1) to reach various groups and demographics, 2) boost a brand’s presence online, and 3) a complement to traditional advertising. As for what influencers will be doing, they’re most likely to be 1) mentioning brands, 2) providing event coverage, and 3) reviewing products.

The Value of Influencer Marketing

There are of course challenges. Firstly, there’s not a big pool of influencers, and those who are in the market focus on specific areas (fashion, food, cars… repeat). Over half (55%) of those polled said the biggest challenge they face is finding relevant influencers. Putting two and two together, this challenge may partly be of our own doing; it seems that rather than working with those who could be defined as micro-influencers, marketers and communicators want influencers who have a large audience. The second most common challenge (41%) is negotiating terms and conditions, which would suggest that most influencers are working freelance. This has to change next year – the introduction of VAT should mean that those influencers who are paid financially will have to register their own company or work through an agency.

most successful influencers

And then there’s the issues of money and measurement. While budgets would seem to be growing in this area – most budgets are now between 1,000 to 10,000 US dollars – social media influencers are most likely to charge per post or video (47%) or by an exchange of free products and experiences (47%), closely followed by cost per engagement (41%). There’s less of a focus on cost per click or cost per acquisition engagement, suggesting that whoever is negotiating isn’t familiar with digital advertising (both these models are the most commonly used sales models in digital advertising).

social media charging

And then there’s outcome measurement and transparency, two areas that show some concerning results. Just over a third of respondents (37%) said they’re measuring the ROI of their spend on sales and business results (I’d have hoped for a higher number, especially on the consumer side), followed by engagement (29%), and traffic to websites (18%). When it comes to disclosure, of influencers having to write that content is sponsored (which is a legal requirement in some markets such as the US and the UK, and is legally required of firms who are publicly listed in those countries), we must do better. Just under two-thirds (63%) sometimes request influencers to publish a disclaimer. Almost a quarter (24%) never influencers to publish a disclaimer. This isn’t my idea of transparency, and this will have to change if we’re to gain the trust of the people we want to engage with (it may also change next year when new legislation comes in).

measurement & transparency

So there you have it. If you’d like to see the survey summary then please do visit the MEPRA website. I’m also including a link to the Influencer Marketing Survey raw data here.

If you work with influencers, or are defined as one, then what do you think about these results. Do they bear out to what you see, especially in terms of platforms being used (Snapchat at 2%, and Twitter at 10%) and how influencers are engaging online? And how would you like the industry to evolve? As always, do drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.

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.