Rebranding for ‘soft power’ – examples from the Gulf

Aramco is looking to spend millions on promoting itself (image source: Twosmokingbarrels)

Now is a good time to be in the branding business, at least here in the Gulf. A slew of governments and government-owned assets are launching brand campaigns. At the beginning of the month, the UAE government announced that it’d be launching a national competition to create the first brand entity for the UAE – seven Emirati artists from each of the country’s seven emirates would work to design a logo and slogan to market the country in campaigns abroad. According to The National newspaper, “Once unveiled [the new brand] will be used widely by government departments and in marketing and adverts.”

The aim of the UAE brand is to reflect a truly Emirati character abroad, which will be based on four values. These valies are ‘giving’, ‘tolerance and openness’, ‘credibility’ and the ‘leadership values’ of the country’s founding fathers.

The second brand launch of note was by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, better known as ADNOC. The UAE’s largest oil firm launched its first ever national branding campaign last week, under the tagline ‘energy for life’. The 95-second video commercial which fronts the campaign was shot by Emirati director Ali Mostafa and shows the young Emiratis in areas such as aviation, science, exploration, space, the arts and sports. The new video is below (it’s subtitled in English), and will be shown across the UAE soon in cinemas and on social media.

The third example is from Saudi, Saudi Aramco in particular. The world’s largest oil and gas company, which launched its IPO this month, will, according to the Daily Telegraph, “splash out nearly £200m on a global marketing blitz next year, as the richest company in the world steps out from the shadows and tries to elevate its public profile. The oil behemoth’s huge advertising push will follow its long-awaited flotation next month when it starts trading publicly on the Saudi stock exchange.”

What’s fascinating about these three examples, and others, is how these brand campaigns are being used to build and project soft power. Look for example at the ADNOC video, which features art, humanitarian aid and sports; this isn’t your regular branding campaign for an oil and gas company. Likewise, with the UAE’s national rebranding campaign the focus is on Emirati values – it’ll be fascinating to see how this unusual approach to nation branding resonates with people outside of the region, especially as emirates such as Dubai and most recently Ras Al-Khaimah have built themselves up as tourism destinations in their own right.

Saudi Aramco’s marketing blitz is the most interesting of all. The company is listing in Saudi Arabia, and it hasn’t announced plans to list outside of the Kingdom. According to Reuters, “the Saudi government will face a one-year restriction on selling more Aramco shares following the domestic listing, according to the sources, meaning any overseas IPO is unlikely to be held in 2020.”

The concept of soft power was the American academic Joseph Nye, who served as a senior official in both the state and defence departments. He believed that various concepts such as culture and communications could direct the decisions/behaviour of others without the need for military force. Soft power influences others using intangible concepts like culture, ideology and institutional norms. And it’s a concept that’s usually talked about, and wielded by, governments. Companies don’t talk about soft power (though they do care about reputations).

And that’s not all. Given that both ADNOC and Saudi Aramco are primarily B2B, it seems these exercises are means to create brands that are based on and aligned with a governmental approach to building soft power. But given they are brands whose businesses are based on oil and gas, will this approach to reputation building work with a Western public who are openly agitating for a greener, more sustainable future?

As always, thanks for reading. And let me know your thoughts.

Shock and Awe: What is happening to the Gulf’s Media?

The Gulf is known for many things, but a controversial media isn’t one of them. The region’s media are known for not causing a stir, and for generally towing the line. There are exceptions – some local, Arabic-language radio stations in the Gulf host phone-in shows. One of them didn’t go so well. Here’s the story from The National newspaper.

It was a call for help from a man who couldn’t afford to provide for his family that was cruelly batted down by a prominent radio host.

But in the 24-hours that followed, Ali Al Mazrouei witnessed a justice of sorts when the radio jockey was suspended and his plight was heard in person by the leaders of the country.

The 56-year-old, a father of nine, spoke of his struggle to get by on a relatively low salary and a large family.

When he phoned Ajman Radio’s morning talk show Al Rabia Wal Nas on Thursday, he tried to highlight what rising living costs meant for families like his.

“The expensive prices are a big problem; everything is too expensive, including fuel, and the income is low,” he said.

“We want to provide for our children but we can’t buy anything; when one cannot make his children happy what is the point of living?”

When he spoke of inflation and the cost of basic goods, the show’s co-host Yaqoub Al Awadhi interrupted him to say there “there are retired people whose salaries are Dh10,000 and even used to be Dh7,000″ before the government raised payments.

The anchor went on to suggest that someone who could not live on that amount must have poor skills in managing finances and does not appreciate what he has.

Mr Al Mazrouei responded to say he does not spend money on anything other than his basic needs…

“We want to do good, when we see someone like us, we pray for him and we try to help when we find someone poor like us,” he said.

The radio host replied: “Don’t give anyone anything, just hold your tongue.”

“I don’t accept that you defame my country and say the people are all suffering.

“The salary you receive is from where? Where do you feed your children from? This all doesn’t deserve gratitude?”.

Mr Al Mazrouei responded that “I am an original national of this country, I am a Mazrouei,” as the host started to mumble, “where did you appear in front of me now from?” an expression in Arabic indicating an unpleasant encounter with someone.

The ill-tempered exchange continued for some time.

When news of the argument reached Sheikh Ammar bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, Crown Prince of Ajman, he ordered the suspension of host Yaqoub Al Awadhi.

On Tuesday, Mr Al Mazrouei was received by the Crown Prince and the Ruler of Ajman, Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, while Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, ordered that his situation be looked at immediately and his family helped.

Speaking to The National, the father-of-nine said: “This was the first time that I decided to raise this issue, because life was starting to close its doors in our faces. Instead of just worrying in vain every day I decided to take a proactive step.”

He said he does not want the host to lose his job.

“He jumped from topic to topic [when attacking me], it was so strange, but I say, may Allah guide him.

The second incident comes from Saudi, where a presenter on Bidaya TV told one of his guests live on air that his father had died (the video is below). The reaction was universal condemnation online, with a campaign that criticized the station for manipulating emotions for ratings. BBC Arabic has a full report on the story (it’s in Arabic, of course). A number of the station’s employees were suspended.

There’s been a great deal of change in the Gulf’s media over the past year. Is this an example of the change in sentiment which readers may feel on political issues seeping into other parts of the media? I’m not sure. But it cannot be coincidence for two events to happen in such a short space of time in a region which rarely sees such incidents.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

The Art of the Pitch – Advice from UAE Media on what works, and what doesn’t

keepcalm

The pitch – these two words can strike fear into the hearts of a PR executive. And with good reason; journalists can tear a pitch to shreds in the time it takes you to read this sentence. Perfecting a pitch doesn’t need to be hard. But don’t take my words for it. I’ve asked four Dubai-based journalists to talk about the best and the worst pitches, as well as what advice they would proffer to people working in public relations. Thank you to the journalists who shared their answers (disclaimer: no PR people were hurt during the writing of this post). Here we go!

  • What’s the best pitch you’ve received?

Journalist 1

It was from Rachel Maher at PHD UAE.

The pitch was regarding coverage for PHD’s upcoming Brainscape conference. The theme of the year was ‘AI’. She took the time to go through my editorial calendar, factor in the deadlines, and then approach me with a few initial ideas on how we could work together. She then met for a coffee to further brainstorm and was perfectly happy to be part of another feature I had planned around AI – instead of expecting and insisting massive coverage on the event alone.

To summarize, what I liked was:

  • Factoring in the magazine’s timelines
  • Brainstorming to see what works best for the title – not just the company
  • Supporting with contacts and relevant material
  • Not expecting and insisting on exclusive coverage; instead collaborating and adding value to the magazine

Journalist 2

I don’t think there’s been a ‘best’ pitch that has stood out for me – sorry!

Journalist 3

No particular pitch is very memorable – but I’ll tell you the most successful ones were the simplest. “Hey, saw you had a story on X yesterday. Would you be interested in a follow-up/ related story.” Provided they’re telling the truth, I’ll likely stop what I’m doing to listen.

Journalist 4

Best pitch was possibly from a junior PR girl at MSL handling Cadillac, who had found the “Penalty of Leadership” ad and suggested getting the Cadillac marketing manager to write about how it resonates today. I was impressed because it was about advertising, not about the car, I’d not seen the ad, and it was a bit random. Mind you, they never filed. But I was impressed at the pitch.

  • And Worst pitch:

Journalist 1

Honestly, too many to name, so here’s are the kind of pitches that really suck:

  1. The one where they just name the client and state that they want exposure (duh!)

Getting exposure for the client is a PR agency’s job! It’s also their job to figure out how. A generic email stating that we have XYZ client and want to get them featured – without mentioning little else – is frustrating, to say the least.

  1. The one where the client wants control of everything

The client decides when, what and how, they’ll contribute without any regard for the title’s editorial style and/or guidelines. I’ve had several people call asking (rather rudely) why a comma was changed or why a sentence was paraphrased… please, let editors do their jobs!

  1. The one where the agency knows nothing

I’ve had PR folks reach out with random pitches from artificial insemination to the hottest ladies’ night out. While the latter is helpful personally, I don’t know how it’s relevant to the magazine. So, in some instances, I ask which section they’re pitching this for. Of course, the replies are sections that don’t exist.

  1. The one where they overestimate their client

As harsh as this might sound, sometimes a company/spokesperson is just not worth being featured. They don’t have anything interesting or new to offer – even if the topic fits within the editorial structure of the title. PR folks refuse to understand the shortcomings of their client and get extremely pushy by suggesting different angles and story ideas.

Journalist 2

LITERALLY everything in October that’s centers around Breast Cancer Awareness. From pink cupcakes to pink drinks to yoga on the beach, there’s absolutely no connection and it’s just a way for brands to peddle their name for the month.

Journalist 3

I am actually failing to come up with the example of a really bad pitch. I think it’s because I’ve heard so many bad pitches over the years, I assume that everything is a bad pitch; as a result, I only listen for about 10 seconds. If the PR hasn’t gotten to the point, I either ask them to get to the point NOW (if I sense there may be some usable behind the rambling) or just shut them off. If I shut them off, it means I’ve probably forgotten about them about 10 seconds later.

Journalist 4

So many! One girl pitched me the new line of Samsonite suitcases and I asked her where I should run it. “The Business News section,” she suggested. (I was on Communicate then). I told her I couldn’t find that section, so she said wherever I saw fit. I said the back page, Dish section would probably be best. She agreed. Then when I ran the conversation in full on our back page, her boss called me to say she was in tears. Should he fire her? No, I said, as she’s guaranteed to always read the mags she’s pitching to from now on. I felt like a bit of a shit, though.

  • What’s your advice to PR people re pitching to media

Journalist 1

Be considerate. As cliché as it sounds, please understand the pressures under which journalists and editors today are working. Stop wasting their time with numerous calls; a barrage of emails; irrelevant messages; and being pushy.

Be relevant. Do your research, go through a couple of previous issues (not just the most recent one), and then see how you can add value. Your job is to get exposure for your clients, not ours. Figure out how. We’d be happy to work with you, not do your job for you.

Push back. Sometimes, you know your client is wrong. Let them know. And if you can’t, don’t approach with us something you don’t believe in yourself.

Know how much is too much. I can’t say this enough but please stop calling, emailing and Whatsapping…all at the same time!

And most importantly, you don’t always need to pitch! The best PR folks, in my opinion, are the ones who are responsive, quick and present when journalists and editors need a comment or contribution.

Journalist 2

Know. Your. Audience. I don’t want to receive pitches or releases about going back to school or the latest women’s fall collection if that’s not what I write about. Also, if you’ve emailed me about something, there’s absolutely no need to give me a phone call a few hours later to see if ‘I’ve had a chance to review the email’. If something really does interest me, I will respond and take things forward myself.

Journalist 3

Get to the point. Be honest, even if you think it means I won’t be interested. Be ready to accept rejections (I’ve send emails telling me entire dept to ignore emails from a PR if – after getting a no from me – they try to go around me to another editor or reporter. Deliver on what you promise.

Journalist 4

The usual. Know the magazine. Tailor the pitch to the readers, not to your client. No one gives a damn about how market leading your client’s solutions are; they want to be informed, educated or entertained. The point of a B2B mag is to help readers do their jobs better, not to let them ignore free advertorial.

  • Has Social Media changed the pitch?

Journalist 1

This is hard to answer because I am the social media generation. I haven’t personally experienced pitches prior to social media. Having said that, for better or for worse, I don’t see the growth of social media having any bearing on the pitching process.

Journalist 2

I thankfully haven’t been pitched too often via SM, but on occasion an agency or PR person will tweet me or send a message on Facebook saying that they’d like to connect for a story or brand. It’s certainly an easier way to connect with people, but I still think it’s better to pitch something via email or phone call (provided the pitch is relevant!)

Journalist 3

Thanks to social media, it’s just gotten more chaotic because about half the industry isn’t using social media (hi, just calling to let you know I sent you an email) and the other half hits you up on random platforms I really don’t use. I get more pitches of LinkedIn, which I hate and am almost never on, than Twitter, which I am on waaay to much.

Journalist 4

Everyone used to want to see their clients in the mag. Saying I’d use a story online would always be seen as second best. That’s because they all wanted to leave it on their desks, show it to their mums, etc. Now, it’s the opposite. They all want it online, not just in print, so they can share it with their social networks.

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.

What does the closure of 7Days mean for the UAE’s print industry?

7days

7Days was a refreshing change to the region’s media landscape. The paper, which is closing for good at the end of December, will be missed by its readers and by the industry.

Many of us in the media industry were saddened to hear of the impending closure of the English-language daily 7Days. The paper was founded 13 years back in Dubai, and ran on a free distribution model similar to the concept pioneered by the Metro newspaper back in London.

7Days was unique in many ways. First was its business model, which was to make money through advertising rather than newspaper sales. Secondly, 7Days positioned itself as a community newspaper. It had a strong roster of journalists who focused on local interest pieces. And the community responded in kind; 7Days became known for its letters page, where readers would often vent their frustrations (I’ll admit, I was a huge fan).

The paper had struggled with its finances; a month ago, the management team announced that they’d be cutting the daily print run to once a week and focusing online. And now, the paper will be shutting down completely. To quote the statement made by 7Days CEO Mark Rix:

“The current trading environment and future global outlook for print advertising remains severely challenged. Whilst it was our stated intention to re-focus and restructure the business for 2017 and beyond, it has since proved not possible to create an acceptable cost base that could deliver a viable and sustainable business. It is therefore with great sadness that we announce the unique 7DAYS news brand will close and thus, cease to inform and entertain the UAE in its refreshing and inimitable way.”

While there’s been much talk about the decline of print, both globally and regionally, I have a different take on 7Days. Most of the papers in the region are government-owned, and as such their operations are bankrolled by the state. In addition, due to their ownership they’re seen as a means to communicate with government and hence attract a level of advertising that may seem incongruous with their distribution/readership numbers. For those who have worked in media here, they will be aware that a number of dailies have been unprofitable for many years.

7Days was different – it was an attempt to redefine how a paper could operate and make money. 7Days didn’t hold the same editorial line as other papers in the UAE due to its ownership (the paper is part-owned by the UK’s Daily Mail General Trust). And its distribution setup was different as well; the paper made money from advertising and classifieds rather than paper sales. The paper was also audited; at its height the paper distributed over 62,000 copies daily (except Fridays).

The fact that 7Days was able to operate for 13 years with an operating model that was both new and unique to the region is a testament to how well the paper was run by the editorial and sales teams. 7Days survived many challenges, including one imposed closure and one recession. However, with money flowing from traditional to new advertising models such as digital and social, the model has not proven to be sustainable without the backing of government largess. Even in the Gulf, the future seems to be focused on digital media.

I was asked by one young public relations professional, Rehmatullah Sheikh, what would happen to 7Days digital assets, particularly its social media following. The paper has developed a large online presence, with 161,000 followers on its @7DAYSUAE Twitter account, and 644,730 likes on its Facebook site. Some have suggested that the paper, particularly its letters section, could live on through these sites. There certainly seems a will among the readership to see 7Days continue in some form or another. Could 7Days become a pioneer for the second time, and promote a public-led media forum through its online assets? I for one hope that 7Days will continue in some shape or form.

What does Instagram’s UAE communications remit say about how outsiders understand the region?

Instagram has been a huge hit in Saudi, especially among the Kingdom's youth. How will Instagram's comms team reach out to these groups? (image source: http://sustg.com/)

Instagram has been a huge hit in Saudi, especially among the Kingdom’s youth. How will Instagram’s comms team reach out to these groups? (image source: http://sustg.com/)

Client wins can often make interesting reading, especially when the brand is a household name. Last week was no exception, with the Dubai-based House of Comms winning a brief to represent Instagram in the UAE.

The news caught my attention for a couple of reasons. Firstly, House of Comms is enjoying remarkable success; the agency which was founded in 2012 has expanded rapidly, picked up a host of big name clients and won numerous awards for its work. The agency’s growth reminds me of the rapid rise enjoyed by Dabo & Co (which was eventually bought by Edelman). House of Comms does have an affiliate network across the region, including in the Gulf.

What struck me was Instagram’s choice of market to enter into. While the UAE is the regional public relations hub of the wider Middle East region, I would have thought that the company would have taken a more regional approach to public outreach (Editor’s Note: the agreement with House of Comms is for the UAE, but also includes advisory work for other markets). For instance, the first market to embrace paid influencer marketing, particularly on Instagram, was Kuwait. In terms of numbers on the platform, Saudi is the largest country in the region by far, with a greater number of users than the UAE. Egypt is another key market for the picture and video service. If you’re looking for details on Instagram usage, have a look at the stats below from the second quarter of 2015 from an earlier blog.

In terms of the Gulf, it’s no surprise that Saudi leads the way – there are 10.7 million monthly active users in the Kingdom (just over a third of the population). The UAE follows with 2.2 million monthly users. And, to the West, Egypt has 3.2 million monthly active users. What’s even more impressive is daily active users – a whopping 6.1 million for Saudi, 1.2 million for the UAE, and 1.1 million for Egypt.

In addition, there’s the parent brand to think of. Instagram is owned by Facebook, which has its own PR agency in the region (which is regional). Up until recently, that agency was supporting Instagram. So, why the change? Would having two agencies for the two brands help or hinder media outreach, especially when Instagram is known as a Facebook product?

While the agreement is only for the UAE, I hope that Instagram, one of the most popular social platforms in the Middle East, expands its regional approach to engagement. The Instagram team should have oodles of data to look at when it comes to usage in each and every different country, and they’d be smart to look at Twitter’s model of engaging with influencers to get them onto the platform. Let’s hope that as a digital business, Instagram takes a data-based approach to engagement in an emerging market and work in key markets, rather than follow the much traveled path of using a hub to work remotely instead of actually doing the hard work and going in-country.

Local Insights – the UAE’s Media Coverage of the Conflict in Yemen

The conflict in Yemen and the UAE's involvement has helped to bring the community together, according to Emirati editors (image source: vocativ.com)

The conflict in Yemen and the UAE’s involvement has helped to bring the community together, according to Emirati editors (image source: vocativ.com)

I wanted to share a fascinating view into Arabic-language media opinions here in the UAE. This week saw the Emirati Media Forum here in Dubai. One of the topics up for discussion was the coverage of the conflict in Yemen. The conflict, which the UAE has been an active participant in since March of this year, has claimed the lives of approximately 70 Emirati combatants. The text below is from Gulf News and is a unique glimpse into how the conflict and those Emiratis who have died have helped to shape the Arabic-language media sector in the UAE and its coverage of the conflict.

The ability of Emiratis to transform tragedy into a sense of unity and national pride was the focal point of discussion at the second session at the Emirati Media Forum.

The session’s theme was ‘The UAE media’s responsible stance on the Yemen events’.

Mohammad Yousuf, president of the UAE Journalists Association, said the media was able to transform the sense of shock, tragedy and loss to positivity and pride.

Sami Al Riyami, Editor-in-Chief of Emarat Al Youm, said the Yemen war was a new experience for the UAE and for the people in the media sector.

“The news came as a shock to us too, as we are humans and Emiratis before we are media people. We were shaken by it as we were not used to seeing the bodies of our martyrs wrapped in the UAE flag — it’s an overwhelming sight. But we were able to turn the tragedy into love and pride for our country,” he said.

Explaining through various media channels why the UAE went to war, what the martyrs died for and what war entails helped in [achieving] this transformation, he said.

The media had no shortage of stories of heroism to write about, Al Riyami said, as the stories just presented themselves.

“It was not about scooping [from] other media outlets; we were all working together so we could get the information out to the people.” Al Riyami said.

In one instance, he said, one of their correspondents lost contact and they had no material to publish. Al Riyami said he called one of his contacts in another newspaper, who gave him the news material to fill the gap in coverage.

“It is our national duty, not a competition about who is getting exclusive content,” he said.

Ali Obaid Al Hameli, director of Dubai TV’s News Centre, said that with the loss of the first martyr on July 16 this year, media outlets felt a great sense of responsibility on how best to break this news to the people of the UAE and, more importantly, to the families of the martyrs.

“The UAE leaders’ engagement and stance and their heartfelt visits to the families of the martyrs and the wounded helped change people’s attitudes and made our job easier,” he said.

He said that they were shocked when they visited martyrs’ families, as the families were the ones consoling them and raising their spirits and not the other way round.

“Many of the families wished that they had more children — brothers and sons — to fight for the UAE,” Al Hamli said.

Abdul Hady Al Shaikh, executive director of Abu Dhabi TV, said that the media also shed light on the humanitarian efforts of the UAE in Yemen — and not just on the military intervention.

“We also wanted to show the Yemeni streets and people, not just coverage of our troops there,” he said.

On the topic of social media’s role, Al Riyami said it is every Emirati’s duty to offset rumours that surface on this platform, by giving correct information on the subject.