Team TMN catch up with Farah Sawaf, Managing Director and Founder at Soul Communications, who talks about her role and what she thinks of the PR industry in the Middle East…
Name: Farah Sawaf
Nationality: Palestinian, Lebanese and American
Current job title: Managing Director and Founder, Soul Communications
When did you first arrive in Dubai?
I arrived in 2004 determined to return to my Middle East roots. Having been in the U.S for most of my life, Dubai was a beacon of opportunity for young and ambitious individuals, which is why I wanted to explore opportunities here.
Where did you work prior?
I first joined Ogilvy PR as Account Executive, which in retrospect was a great launch pad as it offered in-depth exposure to Dubai’s rapidly evolving media landscape. Having worked with Ogilvy PR, I later joined Arab Media Group (AMG), part of ARN radio network as Marketing Manager and most recently worked with Meraas Development as Manager – Communications, where I joined as a part of the marketing team to inaugurate the company.
What were your first impressions of the PR industry in the Middle East?
Upon landing in Dubai, my first impression was that the PR space was in many ways secondary to the advertising spend. Advertorials and marketing promotions on the back of advertising expenditure were the norm.
Has your opinion changed much?
As a general rule, PR since then has certainly evolved in sophistication with today’s clientele understanding the sheer power that a well-structured communications campaign can deliver in parallel to advertising. In many ways, PR has become an essential tool, which in conjunction to advertising whether digital or print, can deliver the targeted results.
Tell us about your current role…
Soul Communications is honestly more than just PR. We partner with clients to listen to what keeps them up at night thereby gaining a deep awareness of their strategy. Our ultimate intention is to create a game plan that is fully aligned with their goals – which is merely our starting point. The soulful relationships we engender with our clients help us gain access to enriching more than just their communications priorities. Specifically, with regards to the F&B market, the expertise we’ve developed over the years touches a multitude of clients operations; be it the development of a bespoke children’s menu, cross-marketing initiatives linked with like-minded vendors or even enhancing service delivery through in-house training sessions catered to front of house staff.
What challenges do you face?
PR is not a magic wand and cannot deliver instant results. Clients are increasingly demanding instant gratification. We constantly face situations where we collectively have to be patient not only before the media, but also for our intended target market to catch on to our strategy. In many ways we need to let our ‘magic potion’ take its course before the positive results come our way.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
The best reward is when you see an idea come to life and the market reacts positively to an activation we created from scratch. As innocent as it seems, I also very much love to see our clients happy when we inform them of a success we’ve had. Many of our clients are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and every dirham they spend on us is hard-earned by way of sacrificing time with loved ones and late nights at the office amongst many other efforts. We take this reality to heart and work tirelessly to ensure clients receive the highest possible return on their Soul investment.
How has PR managed to stay relevant in today’s digital age?
Like any line of business, Soul has had to ride the wave of PR into the digital age by embracing this evolution. Working with digital tools to communicate is no different than working with conventional ones. In other words, there is simply no substitute for understanding a brief, identifying targets and aligning resources and activation plans towards achieving those goals.
How has social media in the region evolved to become an integrated part of the PR industry?
Social media has become part and parcel of any coherent and well-structured communications campaign. Yet, as with any new technology, the first phase of its life typically sees its use being abused given the lack of awareness about its pros and cons. Within the region, unfortunately there’s been a proliferation of individuals and agencies claiming to make the impossible possible through the exclusive use of social media. Be it promising an unreasonable number of social media followers within an unrealistic period of time or an ability to reach a specific and previously untapped market segment through the sole use of social media – the reality is that there are many ‘false digital prophets’. On the flipside, Soul takes the view that there is no substitute to a balanced and holistic communications approach, one that takes advantage of all possible activation tools available to us be it digital or traditional.
What do you think of PR ethics in the industry today?
PR ethics are a function of your own individual ethics. Having been in the region for close to fifteen years and given my husbands’ background here for close to thirty years, we take our reputations seriously. As previously noted, I’m often surprised about the low level of ethics in the form of false promises made by our counterparts in the PR space. Yet, clients need to recognise that they are partly to blame due to the downward pressure they exert on our fees. There is simply no substitute for time, effort and quality work because it is virtually impossible to receive ‘Rolls Royce’ quality PR results with a ‘Geely’ PR spend. In other words ‘if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys’ not to mention all the inevitable false promises.
Describe yourself in five words…
Soulful, determined, genuine, humble and dynamic.
Who inspires you?
My family! As the mother of three little boys, I am constantly loving and learning non-stop. Alongside my husband and extended family, I have a strong support network allowing me to believe anything is possible.
What’s your most overused saying?
PR is like going to the gym. You feel a difference that first month, but the real results will only be achieved with consistency, maintenance and ensuring you change up the routine every once in a while.
Five things you can’t live without?
Dinner and bath time with my little boys, my husband’s friendship, orange blossom water, mint chocolate chip ice cream and culinary magazines.
If you could have one work wish granted, what would it be?
Patience, everyone needs bucket-loads of it.
If you weren’t in your current role, what would you be doing?
Hosting a cooking show.
What’s your favourite form of media?
Each media provides a different form of satisfaction. Print is more for visual needs and is able to aesthetically define a message. Radio is for expressing the genuine emotionality of a message and tuning it to the ears of a captive audience – almost like a conversation without the immediate feedback.
What advice would you offer to someone looking to start a career in PR in the UAE?
Be an individual. Many marketers say the same thing and often replicate what the other is doing. Stay true to what you believe in and focus on achieving results only if they fall within your principles.