The PR industry in the UAE: A missed opportunity?

6 years, 10 months ago

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Despite the multinational make-up of its workforce and growing media sophistication, the United Arab Emirates remains a market in which PR is seldom used strategically. By Heather Astbury.



A safe haven and expat paradise isolated from the regional political and religious struggles and insulated from much of the global economic meltdown, the UAE is a target for companies and professionals searching for new markets and new opportunities. This is what provides the United Arab Emirates with much of its strength, but it also presents many challenges, especially in the world of PR and Communication.

With expats making up more than 80% of the population, it is not uncommon to find companies who can boast employees from more than 80 different nationalities. Imagine the internal communications challenge that presents for a company. Then think about how that translates to that company’s customers. If you have more than 80 nationalities in your company you can be fairly confident your customers are from a wide variety of nationalities too and this means communication plans need to take into account an incredible range of languages and cultural differences.
 
Many companies operating in the UAE have an international focus and therefore, as a PR practitioner here, you will be required to communicate at least regionally if not internationally. If you try to use a ‘one size fits all’ communication strategy you will not be successful. Even if you are communicating regionally, it is vital not to underestimate the importance of regional differences within the Arab world. 
A mistaken assumption
 
Many PR professionals from the West think they can lump the Arab world together into one basket, draw up a plan for the region and be successful. They are wrong. To have the same PR tactics in Lebanon as in Saudi Arabia, for example, will doom your plan to failure. If it works in one country, it won’t necessarily work in the other – and in all likelihood it will fail in both. To really gain a foothold in the Arab world, your PR campaign needs to be targeted, localized, relevant and in the right languages. 
 
I know of one company who had received no coverage in Saudi Arabia, one of its key markets, for several months, despite significant announcements having been made. Upon further investigation this company discovered the PR agency they were using - headquartered in London with an office in Dubai – had no Arabic speaking person working on the account and no Arabic contact name was being included on press releases or the website.
 
Even in Dubai, a significant proportion of Arab journalists are not comfortable speaking English – if they speak it at all – and are never going to print a press release they receive in English or call someone who is clearly not Arabic speaking for information or to set up an interview. This agency, with no Arabic capabilities, could not even begin to carry out effective communications in Arabic speaking countries, and yet they were happily reporting every month that they were doing precisely that.
 
This region poses significant communication challenges that are not present in other parts of the world I have dealt in, but the industry here is woefully unprepared to deal with them.
 
Although, of course, there are some excellent exceptions, by and large the industry here is made up of wannabes, who wouldn’t know strategic communication if it turned up at a cake cutting ceremony – yes, that is still one of the preferred methods of launching something in this part of the world. 
 
Defining the problem
 
The problem goes like this. Senior management, many of whom are Emirati and very well connected, regard PR as a cheap form of advertising and think it is all about issuing a press release. They have an expectation that every bit of news from the company – no matter how mundane and uninteresting to the general population – must be covered in the media. 
 
The local media oblige by printing every press release they receive verbatim, spelling mistakes and all, regardless of the news value of the release. Obviously this makes it more difficult for PR practitioners to argue this form of PR is not effective. In many companies all that is required of the in-house PR person, therefore, is to churn out press releases and arrange cake/ribbon cutting ceremonies. They will gain media coverage for their company and their senior executives will be happy.
 
This problem is perpetuated because not enough people know there is anything wrong with this or that there is a more effective alternative. For too many companies here PR is managed by a Sales and Marketing person, an enthusiastic but inexperienced and unqualified individual or outsourced to an agency managed by someone in finance, marketing or perhaps the CEO.
 
Although there are some moves in the right direction, it will take a long time before the practice of public relations in the UAE becomes something the country can become proud of. The industry has to do a lot more to educate people here about what PR is and what practitioners realistically can and cannot achieve for companies. Perhaps the first line of attack should be the recruitment industry. Whenever I have recruited here I have seen endless CVs with marketing experience or qualifications – or even worse, CVs from social media ‘experts’. I have seen very few with any PR experience and certainly not strategic PR experience.
 
I know of one example of where a candidate was required to work in a team handling the launch of a product in 20+ countries. The in-house Head of HR suggested a candidate who he said had a real passion for communications and the industry in which the company operated. He knew this because she said so in her covering letter. What experience did she have? She was running a dry cleaning business in the Philippines.  
 
Long term benefits
 
If companies start to recruit properly trained and experienced PR people to work in their communication departments they will see the difference a carefully constructed Strategic Communications plan can bring to their business. If they allow the PR/Communication department its proper place – i.e. not as part of a marketing function – they will see the long term benefits reputation management and stakeholder engagement can deliver. And properly qualified people in an in-house role will result in the need for agencies to deliver clearly thought-out and effective communications plans based on objectives and audiences not on column inches. 
 
However, the agencies need to step up too. There are too many agencies here that don’t understand the scope of benefits PR can deliver to a client and don’t accept they need to improve. I was recently due to speak at a Corporate Communications conference in Dubai. The conference was part of a series which has been very successful in a number of other countries and attracts some interesting speakers, including the official spokesperson for William and Kate’s Wedding, the former VP of Corporate Communications for BP and the Director of Corporate Communications for Microsoft in MENA. 
 
Sadly, the conference was cancelled because there were not enough registrations. That the industry here thinks it has nothing to learn from seasoned Communications professionals such as these is disappointing.
 
New arrivals
 
But things in the UAE are changing. New media outlets have opened in recent times, which are more like the media you would find in international media centres. The National is a broadsheet newspaper based in Abu Dhabi and although some argue it is not completely at liberty to criticise the Abu Dhabi rulers, it is certainly viewed as having a go at Dubai regularly enough to convince readers it is closer in nature to the UK’s Guardian, on which it is modeled, than to Dubai’s Gulf News. 
 
CNN has recently set up in Abu Dhabi and Sky News Arabia was established last year. The growing number of international media outlets and those operating to an international standard will make it increasingly difficult to issue a release with no news value and receive coverage in return. This will mean PR agencies and in-house teams will have to work harder and be more creative if they are to ensure their company remains on the radar of the media and their company’s key stakeholders. 
 
Concerning enough as this may be for companies whose only audiences are in the region, many companies operating here are attempting to communicate with global audiences. While in the short term you may enjoy coverage for every press release you issue in this market, no matter how badly written it is, that same communications strategy is not going to work in other more sophisticated markets.  
 
Appetite for ideas
 
There is a tremendous opportunity for the PR industry in the UAE to grow and develop and, perhaps one day, secure a spot alongside the more established centres, such as London and New York. Budgets, although no longer the seemingly unlimited budgets they used to be, are still not under the kind of pressure they are in the West. The entrepreneurial spirit here means that ideas are listened to and taken seriously which can be very rewarding for those working in the creative industries. But the lack of professionalism in the industry means it has a long, long way to go. 
 
Local companies are developing international markets from the UAE and multinational corporations are establishing their regional HQs here, so the opportunities exist. However, until UAE based companies gain respect for and understanding of the distinct benefits PR can bring to a business and until there is the properly skilled workforce here to deliver these benefits, the PR industry in the UAE is, and will remain, a missed opportunity. 
 
 
Thought Leader Profile
A Strategic Communications Professional with more than 15 years' experience of Journalism, PR and Corporate Communications in the UK and UAE, Heather Astbury has been based in Dubai for the past five years. Heather holds an MA (Hons) from the University of St Andrews, an NCTJ Certificate in Journalism from Napier University and the CIPR Diploma in Public Relations from Queen Margaret University College.

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The Author

Heather Astbury

A Strategic Communications Professional with more than 15 years' experience of Journalism, PR and Corporate Communications in the UK and UAE.

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