Middle Eastern Resilience

13 years, 4 months ago

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Despite the recent conflict in Lebanon, demand for PR continues to develop strongly in the Middle East. Dave Robinson paints a picture of revenue growth and increasing campaign sophistication.



Huge external investment fuelled by oil revenue surpluses, modernization programmes across a number of states, campaigns for tourism and foreign direct investment, a more determined set of Arab nations wanting to take an equal footing on the world stage and have their achievements recognized, swelling stock markets and a huge mix of foreign businesses and foreign nationals present in the region have been some of the influences that have seen the PR industry blossom and flourish in the last five to ten years across the Middle East and North Africa region. But while PR is flourishing it is certainly not yet mature as an industry and still lacks the recognition and stature that it enjoys in some markets – particularly the West.

Dubai, the modernizing force of contemporary Arabia could rightfully be said to be leading the way in terms of the growth and development of the PR industry, operating as a hub for many businesses in the Gulf in particular, but also across the wider Middle East. However, it would be incorrect to assume that Dubai and the UAE is the only market to see growth and development in the industry.

Saudi Arabia with its vast oil wealth and a recent move towards more aggressive modernization and investment programmes also represents a booming market, as does Qatar, the oil and gas rich peninsula which will this year host the Doha Asian Games. Indeed Bahrain and Kuwait, perhaps less in the spotlight than in the past, continue to have dynamic economies with strong growth and this in turn stimulates the growing PR sector in those markets. And let us not forget the Levant with Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Palestine, as well as Egypt and the Maghreb (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria) which are all seeing significant growth in the PR sector in the last few years.

MEPRA Turns Pro

MEPRA, the Middle East Public Relations Association, will this year appoint a full time general manager and launch chapters in Qatar and Saudi Arabia to meet the growth of the industry and provide a more expansive service to its members. The change from an organization which relied solely on the free time and goodwill of its members to promote the industry to a professional organization which will drive positive change and development in the industry marks the coming of age of PR in the Middle East as a profession and an economically viable business activity.

While the economic environment is positive across the Middle East in terms of the PR industry, the challenges that are traditional to developing markets – HR issues, client education, budgets, evaluation, scope of services, role within the marketing mix – are matched with indigenous problems such as the need to for strong Arabic skills (particularly in writing), the complexity and the limitations of the regional media, lack of reliable research in terms of consumers, opinion formers, etc and clients who have been conditioned by advertising agencies that the only ‘real’ solution to a communications challenge is to spend above the line.

Training and development are key not only in terms of developing and retaining talent within agencies, but also to ensuring there is a common level of understanding and best practice in the burgeoning in-house PR sector within the Middle East, as well as among clients.

As with most markets, results and achievement are perhaps the best examples to demonstrate the power of PR and there are campaigns in the region which would win awards in most so-called mature PR markets.

Why do they not win awards at home? Two main reasons. The first is that there is not yet an established, credible, domestic awards programme for PR within the region. Campaign magazine in Dubai last year held its first awards event, and while there was a category for PR it was both limited in scope and very limited in terms of the criteria for judging. Moreover, it was limited to work primarily done in Dubai or by Dubai companies. This year promises to be a great improvement with the magazine actively consulting with the industry on how to improve the quality of the entries, the categories and the judging criteria (if not the judges – who were mainly from a non-PR background last year).

Measurable Objectives

The second reason is that, as in most PR markets, there is not enough focus from agencies, in-house teams or clients on evaluation and measurement. This begins with establishing proper measurable objectives, a commonly agreed methodology to evaluate and then actually researching the effectiveness of the PR programme. While this is best done by formal market research methods most of the time, there are a myriad of ways that we can measure output and outcomes from a PR campaign to show results and measure their effect – this will be a critical part of the development of the industry in the next five years in the region.

The good news is the industry is growing at between 15% and 25% year on year across the Middle East according to most estimates. The in-house sector is growing (showing that major businesses are valuing PR enough to make it an internal function in addition to agency support – although this is also putting pressure on agency resources through aggressive recruitment from agency to in-house) and no blue chip business in the region, domestic or international, would these days be likely to communicate without considering PR as an element of the comms mix.

Budgeting properly for PR programmes remains an area which needs to improve, but this is, in my opinion, beholden upon the agencies and in-house teams concerned to demonstrate the value and contribution to justify the budget as much as it is beholden upon marketers and communicators on the client side to wrestle budget away from above the line work and divert to PR.

Education

The opportunities ahead are education, education, education. Educating and training staff to ensure commitment to and growth of best practice. Educating clients about the ways that PR can help them achieve their business goals through communicating results and committing to evaluation methodologies which are practical and appropriate. Educating clients that PR is more than media relations.

In respect of the last point we have seen significant expansion of services in the region to now include crisis and issues management, financial and investor relations, corporate social responsibility counsel, internal communications and a small but developing public affairs area, alongside the more traditional and established media relations.

The stability of the region is often a concern for outside observers and investors. However, the Middle East is a resilient region and unfortunately well used to conflict and trouble. The recent conflict in Lebanon is a case in point. Many lives and businesses have been tragically ruined by this awful violence, but in many, many cases the Lebanese have picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and set about rebuilding their lives and livelihoods.

Many in the communications industry have moved to Dubai, Cairo, and Amman to name but a few places and are back in action within weeks of the conflict ceasing. And judging by the past it will only be a matter of time before Beirut and the rest of Lebanon rebuilds itself once again and becomes the jewel of the Levant, which it had just begun enjoying again until conflict struck once more this year.

In conclusion, the Middle East is an incredibly dynamic, fast-paced and economically booming environment where PR is growing quickly in its influence, importance and size as an industry. If PR professionals can work together on some of the bigger picture issues which face us in the next stage of growth and ignore the everyday rivalries and competition, then we can look forward to a rare situation in the world today – a booming PR industry that is recognized and valued by its clientele in a booming economy which supports and allows for growth and profitability.

With most Middle Eastern economies seeing between 5-15% growth GDP year on year the opportunities are clearly there – it is up to us to reach out and take them.


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The Author

Dave Robinson

Dave Robinson, CEO Middle East, Hill & Knowlton. H&K is the most established international agency in the Middle East with a 21-year presence in the region. Covering 15 Middle Eastern countries through a combination of owned offices and exclusive affiliates, H&K is also one of the largest agencies operating in the Middle East, working with a combination of some of the most well known international and domestic companies across all major industry sectors.

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