Sondos Al-Qattan: Lessons from a social media star and a self-made crisis

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.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

My 2018 Predictions and Hopes for the PR & Communications Function (Part 1)

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Here’s my top four predictions for 2018 and what we as an industry will need to tackle (image source: http://www.marketingland.com)

I’m writing this in the spirit of the very best forecasters, the people who put thoughts onto paper at the beginning of the year which turn out to be so wide of the mark a couple of months down the line that I will be forced into hiding.

So, here we go. I’ve sorted the post into two parts. The first is what I think will happen (hence predictions) over the course of the next twelve months. My hopes will follow tomorrow.

2018 Predictions

  1. More Political Uncertainty  If you think 2017 was tough when it came to political leadership (or lack thereof), you haven’t seen anything yet. We’ve had a taste of 2018 and what to expect in the region with the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This will be the year when US foreign policy shifts 180 degrees, on all sorts of issues. And others will behave accordingly. Other groups will need to step into the breach, and that means either the business community or the public. Expect more proactive lobbying and public affairs, and more reactive shifts in corporate social responsibility strategies.
  2. More Online Regulation  2017 may have been a great year for the likes of Facebook and Google (both registered record-high share prices in 2017), but last year may become a Pyrrhic victory for them, and other social media firms. Calls are growing in the US for broadcast regulations on political advertising to include social media following alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential elections, whilst European regulators are exploring how they can force the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter to take more action on extremist content online – this will include fines. Even in the region, there’s a concerted effort to update laws to better regulate topics such as influencer marketing – keep an eye out for the UAE’s new digital legislation in 2018. Whatever happens in 2018, expect social media platforms, and the content hosted on them, to be more closely regulated.
  3. Expect more Online Crises – This may not be that surprising (yes, I can see you scratching your head and wondering why I’ve put this in). But I don’t mean an irritated consumer posting a piece of content about their poor customer service experience. Rather, I’m talking cyber-espionage, hacking, and whistleblowing. Last year we witnessed political disputes which were initiated by website hacks, a sustained series of leaks from email accounts which had been broken into, the hijacking of social media accounts, and more whistleblowing leaks. 2018 won’t be any different; in fact, this year will only see even more illegal activity online. 2018 could be the year when online hackers shift from politics to brand-jacking, targeting corporates for money (think bots artificially spreading content that impacts brand and corporate reputations). As an industry, we’re going to have to do a much better job of understanding the technical aspects of the online world.
  4. The Agency Model Breaks/Evolves – This isn’t an issue which has gotten nearly enough attention over the past couple of years (with the possible exception of the good work done by the team at the Holmes Report). Agencies aren’t making much, if any, money these days. Costs are high, talent is scarce, and clients are cutting budgets or shifting money into other areas. Publicly-listed PR agencies are looking at single-digit growth globally, and geographies which offered more, the likes of China and the Middle East, have also slowed down. With more competition both within the industry and without the industry, especially from the advertising and management consultancy sector, will 2018 be the year when agencies look to change how they approach client servicing, or is it the year when clients look to alternatives. There’s already a growing trend in the Middle East to embed agency people into the organization, essentially turning them into contracted roles, especially in government and semi-government organizations. Time will tell, but it’s clear to me that we need a healthy agency model for us to sustain the industry.

So there you have my four basic predictions. What are your thoughts? As always, I look forward to hearing from you.

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

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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.

 

The 3 issues today’s crisis comms professional needs to tackle

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Make sure that you’re prepared for these three big issues which are shifting the crisis comms goalposts (image source: http://www.bairdscmc.com)

It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that the world is changing, and with it the way that crises develop. I was listening to a very engaging podcast by the Gulf News business team, with communications professional Omar Qirem (check out the post here).

While the conversation touched on a host of crisis issues and triggers, there were three big issues that are relatively new, and which are shifting the crisis communications landscape.

Hacking and Emails

Long gone are the days when whistleblowers would walk out of offices with a suitcase full of papers. Today, information is conveyed electronically, and all it took for Chelsea Manning to leak hundreds of thousands of US military documents to Wikileaks was a single USB drive. Hacking is becoming a real problem for both governments the world over, as well as corporates (just ask Sony).

Hacking is developing from the well-understood concept of the ethically-troubled whistleblower to groups-for-hire who are ready and willing to hack email servers, or public domain accounts in the search of damaging information. Hackers can also attack websites and social media accounts to fake news, or even create fake sites which are mirrored on the real thing.

We’re going to have to become more aware of these threats, and develop mitigation strategies, including better security (at the very least, please use two-factor authentication as much as you can and don’t use the same password for every single account), and also educate executives on the need to communicate differently. What you write can be leaked; are you willing to see that email on the front page of a newspaper, or a website?

The Rise of Values-Based Communication

Consumers aren’t just interested in what brands make and sell. They want to know what we stand for. This public interest has partly been driven by the political climate in the US and Western Europe and by the behavior of millennials and their increasing skepticism of established institutions. For brands, value-based communications is a key point of differentiation, particularly for industries which have been impacted by technology-driven commoditization. Think of Paul Unilever’s Polman and his passionate belief in sustainability.

Conversely, executive behavior which is looked down upon by the public can have serious business implications. Whilst the official reasons for Uber being stripped of its London license were due to questions around passenger safety and drivers’ rights, the behavior and words of former CEO Travis Kalanick haven’t done Uber any good. The apology proffered by the new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, seems to have gone a long way to defusing some of the tension between Uber and Transport for London which oversees the company’s license to operate.

Data and Online Regulation

We’ve been living in the internet age for over two decades now, and business has benefited from a relative lack of legislation and regulation about what can and can’t be done online, particularly with data. That has slowly changed as governments have sought to understand how the internet has changed our lives. Upcoming legislation in Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is going to change how corporations monitor and store data (it’s been covered in some detail by Rachel Miller for the CIPR). There’s no doubt in my mind that the online and social media networks will also have to deal with more governmental oversight. There’s been a string of scandals around issues such as extremist content on YouTube,  Facebook and the Trump election, and Twitter’s lack of action on far-right hate speech.

Whilst I’m certain that more regulation is coming, and soon, it’s far too early to say how this will change how we as communicators operate online. There will be more data-related crises, either due to how data is collected and used, or due to an inability to adhere to these new rules.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts. What issues do we need to better understand when it comes to modern-day crises? Please do share with me your thoughts.

Trump’s CEOs: Why they felt having a dialogue was better than taking a moral stand

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The CEO of Merck, Kenneth Frazier, was the first executive to quit President Trump’s business councils after the events of last week (Photo: Evan Vucci, AP)

For a moment, you could hear the sighs of relief in boardrooms across America. The CEOs of blue chip firms such as General Motors, IBM, Johnson & Johnson and PepsiCo are no longer under the microscope for their response, or lack of, to the happenings in Charlottesville, Virginia last week. These executives were part of President Trump’s business advisory groups. To quote more on the story for those who haven’t been following the news, here’s the report from The Guardian:

Donald Trump was forced to disband two White House business councils that were disintegrating around him on Wednesday in the wake of his controversial remarks about the weekend violence in Charlottesville.

The Strategic and Policy Forum and the White House Manufacturing Jobs Initiative were both dissolved as corporate leaders continued to resign.

Trump claimed in a tweet that this was his decision, writing: “Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!”

The collapse of the advisory bodies follows seven different corporate leaders stepping down from the two councils in recent days including the CEOs of both Campbell’s Soup and 3M on Wednesday.

Trump had previously stated that resignations from both panels were of no consequence. “For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place. Grandstanders should not have gone on. JOBS!” he said on Twitter on Tuesday.

Wednesday’s abrupt decision came after Trump confidante Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of the Blackstone Group, held a conference call for about a dozen members of the strategic and policy forum who decided to abandon it, the New York Times reported. Executives from the manufacturing council had been due to hold a similar call that afternoon, the paper added.

On Wednesday, corporate leaders who sat on the councils raced to denounce Trump’s comments about Charlottesville and to support the dissolution of the advisory bodies. Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan and a member of Strategic and Policy Forum, said in a statement: “I strongly disagree with President Trump’s reaction to the events that took place in Charlottesville over the past several days.” He added that he agreed with the council’s decision to disband.

Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, who had previously said on Monday that he would not step down from the manufacturing advisory board, put out a statement on Wednesday afternoon announcing that he had resigned.

Three members of the manufacturing council resigned on Monday after Trump’s initial refusal to condemn the neo-Nazi and white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville by name. Two more followed on Tuesday after Trump defended some of the protestors in a press conference at Trump Tower. The president targeted one of the CEOs, Kenneth Frazier of Merck, in two tweetsincluding one where he mentioned Frazier, the lone African American CEO to step down, by name.

What is most striking about the events of last week was the slow reaction of these executives, particularly from firms who champion diversity and inclusion. Merck’s CEO, who was the first to act, felt compelled to leave the council due to a matter of personal conscience.

This was a minority opinion, and may CEOs were determined to remain, despite the President’s refusal to condemn extremist hate groups. To quote from the Washington Post, some, such as the four government contractors on the president’s advisory councils — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Harris Corp. and United Technologies — waited until after the councils had disbanded to publicly weigh in, if they did at all. Even then, several stopped short of singling out the president for blaming “both sides” for the violence at a white supremacist rally this past weekend in Charlottesville.

One example was Lockheed Martin, which offered no public statement. The firm’s chief executive Marillyn A. Hewson sent a note to employees on Wednesday, hours before the councils were folded, explaining that she would remain a member because the group’s mission “remains critical to our business,” even as she insisted that “white supremists, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups have no place in our society.”

Other, such as PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, personally condemned the violence, but failed to act beyond that.

Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies was unmoved, with his spokespeople telling the media that: “While we wouldn’t comment on any member’s personal decision, there’s no change in Dell engaging with the Trump administration and governments around the world to share our perspective on policy issues that affect our company, customers and employees.”

So, what was behind the inability to move? Did these executives believe that it was worth remaining to engage with a President whose position on the Charlottesville events has been condemned?

The best comment I read was shared by a communications colleague online (thank you Tim for this share). Corporate language consultant Michael Maslansky stated, “The era of the fence-sitter corporation is over. If you’re silent about an issue, then each side will assume you’re on the wrong side. You end up really having to choose.”

Corporate leaders have to choose; they can no longer sit on the fence. And they have to be prepared for the backlash, particularly from a President who takes anything and everything personally. Corporate leaders also need to act individually, as the CEO of Merck did – it’s telling that the CEOs who stuck it out decided to end the council via a conference call, preferring collective responsibility over personal ownership (which seems to be a habit of corporate life these days).

I hope those leaders who didn’t criticize what happened last week finally do so. Apple’s Tim Cook has been vocal about his position. It’s time to get off the fence people, and not only say what you believe in and advocate for as a company, but turn those words into actions.

Is Your Content Legal? A Q&A with Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson

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If your content is in breach of the UAE’s laws, you may find yourself in the courthouse (maybe not with Matthew McConaughey, however).

There’s few people who know more about media laws that Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson, who has strived to raise awareness of legislation that impacts those working in communications and marketing. I had the fortune of sitting down with Fiona, to talk content. I started by asking, what is legal and illegal when it comes to content.

Fiona: All content must comply with the print and publications law, which was first published in 1980 and then expanded upon by and executive resolution in the 2000s. This law applies to all media, and how it is distributed, including online. The other law people need to be aware of is the Cybercrimes law of 2012.

These laws include a list of issues which are off-limits, such as criticizing UAE culture, the UAE government, Islam and any subject which could bring disrepute to the country. In relation to the Cybercrimes law, the penalties are stiff, with up to 500,000 AED in fines as well as jail terms. Anyone who is prosecuted and found guilty under the 2012 Cybercrimes law and who is not a national will be deported.

There was a case a couple of weeks ago where a media outlet didn’t obtain the correct releases for material. This material was published on a website, and the two hosts of the show were deported. When these laws are broken, there are serious consequences.

Q: Are enough publishers, brands or agencies aware of these laws?

Fiona: We don’t see enough awareness that people are concerned about this. We get to do pre-publication compliance review for foreign brands, who often approach us, but not for local brands. People don’t realize the laws are there, as they’re not well publicized.

Q: Who oversees these laws?

Fiona: It’s the National Media Council, and Telecoms Regulatory Authority who have the power to block websites.

Q: So how are these laws applicable to social media and social media influencers?

Fiona: The provisions of the Cybercrimes law does not specify who is liable for the content. The brand, the publisher, the agency or the author could be liable for the content under the Cybercrimes act. It could the content producer, the influencer. It could be the owner of the blog. If it’s on a Facebook site, then it could be you or the brand as the account owner. In the recent case which I referred to above, the authorities prosecuted nine parties for one action which was considered to be against the Cybercrimes act.

Q: Wouldn’t the platforms, the likes of Facebook, Snap or Twitter, potentially be liable?

Fiona: Potentially, yes, they could be liable. Most are based outside of the UAE’s jurisdiction so it becomes difficult to apply sanctions against a foreign entity. But the TRA could block their sites for being in breach of the UAE’s content regulations, as they do with materials relating to topics such as gambling.

Q: So what should brands and agencies do in terms of making sure that content is legal?

Fiona: There’s several laws that brands, agencies and publishers should be aware of, including both the Cybercrimes laws and the National Media Council advertising regulations. Familiarity is the most important thing. I’m still alarmed by the number of people who tell me there’s no media laws here, where there clearly are. Start there, train your staff to know what the big red flags are in relation to content, so they’re picked up before the content goes into production.

There’s not only legal issues, but also the reputational issues. Today, UAE nationals will take to social media to make complaints and disparage brands. Sometimes the issue isn’t so much legal as it is reputational. An issue is better resolved before it becomes a problem.

Q: Is producing content in Arabic more difficult than in English?

Fiona: Foreign brands and producers may not understand the culture of the region well. They may not understand the reality versus perception, and we’re often asked to help review not just from a legal perspective but also a cultural one. Having said that, the biggest advertising fail in the last 12 months was Arabic language content produced by Arabic speakers for an Arabic country.

The rise of the Khaleeji Woman as online content creators (part two)

As it’s International Women’s Day, I couldn’t wait any longer and, I’ll be brutally honest, I wanted to see lots of cake porn! Here’s the second of a two-part guest blog on how women across the Gulf are using social media and their skills not only to create entertaining and informative content, but to also earn a living. In this second post, Paul Kelly, creative director and co-founder at Digital Ape, argues that brands need to rethink how they both develop and execute content creation strategies with online female content creators in the Gulf. Enjoy the read, and let Paul know what you think!

During the last post, we discussed a survey of MENA based women, and their attitudes to content, particularly food content online. This week we will focus on the content creators who these surveyed women follow and imitate. We will look at how they are creating engaging content and why that matters for brands and publishing houses alike.

How are they doing it?

People are attracted to people. If I can find someone online, who understands what happens in my day, speaks my dialect and knows what I need better than say a publisher in Dubai, then I will follow their content, and my friends will too.

Women across the GCC are doing this in their millions, Khaleeji women want to see themselves reflected in their entertainment, and they want advice and recommendations tailored to them. Gone are the days when they must consume content created by an American in New York, and served to them on TV or in print. Women from the UAE to Saudi and beyond and seeking out other women who look like them, speak like them and understand their lives.

This I believe is one of the reasons why old fashioned publishing houses, should be quaking in their boots. As much as we try, Western or Levantine men in Dubai will never truly understand what Khaleeji women want in entertainment content, and now that they have a choice, these women will choose to consume content made by their peers and when that happens at scale, these content creators become publishers in their own right.

A content creator who builds an audience and keeps them engaged is no different to a publisher, and creators with a female Khaleeji audience, have an audience underserved by content, and exponential growth rates equal revenue.

The train-wreck.

So how has it come to influencers being ridiculed for their work? Worse still, how has it come to people calling themselves influencers, buying audiences and getting a free meal ticket?

Aside from the typical Dubai-syndrome of echo chamber marketing; it’s a mix of naïve marketing managers chasing trends, agencies ill-equipped for creative relationships (trying to replace banner ad revenue) and people who see social media as a shortcut to making a quick dirham.

Instead of actively investing the time needed in these powerful communities, brands, in place of real strategies, throw wads of cash at so-called influencers and hope for big results, often leading to disappointment.

At Digital Ape, we’ve got this down to an art. Just like money is a hygiene factor when it comes to employment, so too is it when it comes to dealing with real people creating content. It’s about giving content creators what they need; Props, filming equipment, sessions with filmmakers, assistance in real-time sessions with editing, contract help, this way everyone gets the best of the relationship. Creators develop better content with help from the brand thereby growing audiences, which in turn helps the brand. Women develop a revenue stream from content that fits and that the audience understands. This isn’t horse trading it’s about developing a win-win situation for creators, brands and audiences.

Find the fit for your brand by having an empathetic network of people to draw on, then seek out their audiences. Work WITH them. Don’t use influencers, work with your content creators. It’s an investment that pays handsomely.

 The future.

It’s no surprise that local publishing houses are scrambling to get on board with the creator craze – they after all, were the content creators and influencers of an older generation. Less able to respond to a new reality of screens and pixels, and even less able to understand how to convert revenue from the eyeballs they’ve been left behind as content becomes borderless and habits are quickly changing.

After all, is what someone like PewDiePie doing any different to what VICE was doing in 2010? Arguably with 54mn subscribers (at time of writing) on YouTube he has as much impact as a medium sized cable network. Is Kim Kardashian any different to Hello! Circa 1998? Her ability to shift units of anything she sells is phenomenal.

Some will argue until that until we have proper regulation in the GCC we’ll never achieve a level of sophistication that will mean any content creator is taken seriously.

Forget that.

What I am, and us at Digital Ape say, is that the content creators are the new publishers. Instead of being locked up in an edit suite at MBC, they are at home in their own bedrooms with their phones, doing the exact same thing, for an audience which increases with every post.

What we are seeing is a new model of content democracy where the 1% who make the content for the 99% are now starting to take back their revenue. Where once it was the Newscorps or CNN’s or ITP’s relying on their talent to sell time, space or inches, it’s now the Felix’s, Rayyan’s and countless mothers, wives and daughters who have a passion to create that will shape our entertainment for the next 20 years.

Digital Ape’s research with MENA women underlines the role digital plays in offline purchase intent