In The Hot Seat – Tariq Al Sharabi

Team TMN catch up with Tariq Al Sharabi, Managing Director, Cicero & Bernay (C&B) who talks about his current role and offers his thoughts on the PR industry in the Middle East…

Name: Tariq Al Sharabi

Age: 42

Nationality: Palestinian, combining the heritage of Jerusalem from my mother and the warmth of Nablus from my father

Current job title: Managing Director

When did you first arrive in Dubai?

I’m proud to have been born and raised in Dubai.

Where did you work prior?

I began my career at a boutique local advertising agency in Dubai. During my time there, one of my clients was a PR agency and I worked closely with the General Manager, who informed me that I was in the wrong industry. Following his advice, I took a leap of faith and joined his agency in 2002, taking my first steps in the PR world. I started right at the bottom, worked my way up and later joined C&B in 2006. The rest is history.

What were your first impressions of the PR industry in the Middle East?

I came into the PR world completely fresh so it took a lot of research to find my feet in the industry. At the time, PR was not yet fully-fledged in the Middle East and as far as I could tell it lacked any strategic influence. I could see that PR agencies across the world were having a real impact on important areas like public and government affairs, and I believed that Dubai was ripe for this sort of meaningful communication. The Dubai government was already setting an excellent example of how PR could be taken to the next level, and I knew that Dubai could serve as the ideal platform for an industry-wide shift in this direction.

Has your opinion changed much?

In the years since, PR has come of age in the Middle East. It was once considered an add-on to business as usual, but it is now a major part of any sound business plan, leading communication and playing an essential strategic role in helping companies to accelerate their growth ambitions, meet their business objectives and deliver ROI. Dubai has become a global hub for PR best practices and a model for how PR can drive business strategy.

Tell us about your current role…

I have been with C&B since its inception and as a result, I feel personally responsible for its long-term success. As Managing Director, I focus on developing C&B’s new business and affiliation opportunities to drive the agency’s growth, while continuing to enhance our client services with innovative solutions that go beyond traditional methods. I am responsible for adding value for C&B’s clients as we expand our portfolio and footprint locally, regionally and globally.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

I live for the moments when my instincts are proven right. A good idea can emerge in a second and in that instant you have a wonderful gut feeling that it is right and that it will work. When the campaign results justify this intuition, I find it hugely gratifying. Meeting new faces every day is another rewarding part of my job because I am a true people person; people are a constant source of inspiration and interest for me.

How would you be rather contacted at work?

You can’t beat the phone. To really chew over an idea, get to the heart of an issue or understand a client’s point of view, you simply have to talk. Taking a personal approach to communication is at the heart of our industry and I think much of that can be lost over email or WhatsApp.

What challenges do you face?

We operate in a very rapidly evolving industry and the main challenge is not just keeping up with it, but ahead of it. The pace of progress is relentless, particularly with digital transformation, which means that we are engaged in a constant battle to develop our know-how and stay ahead of the curve. At the same time, we need to remain highly attuned to shifting consumer behaviours. This is not just about following trends but instead about anticipating and setting them.

What do you think is the secret to successful leadership?

The word leadership always strikes me as very top down in character. It suggests that you are in front, ahead or on top of your team, but in my opinion true leadership is more about supporting your team from behind, beneath or within. If you are the captain of a ship or the cox of a rowing boat, you steer and support your crew from the back of the vessel, and I believe this is an important thing for leaders to remember.

How has PR managed to stay relevant in today’s digital community?

I think there is a misconception that PR is somehow separate from the digital community, whereas the two actually work hand in hand. If anything, PR has become more relevant in today’s digital community, because digital transformation has significantly broadened the scope and impact of our work. In the digital era, PR has simply taken a different and more exciting shape by moving onto new platforms — this has given PR the potential to communicate in a more meaningful way than ever before.

In your opinion, what makes a PR campaign successful?

A campaign is successful when it changes lives. That may sound dramatic but it really is the crux of what we do because public relations begins with people. The change can be as simple as helping a customer to discover an offer or as important as helping them to find their dream home. Having an impact on real people is the measure of success in PR.

What do you think of PR ethics in the industry today?

In our increasingly competitive environment, PR ethics is of paramount importance. This is particularly true in light of my answer to the previous question because at the end of the day, we are impacting people’s lives. In the UAE, we are fortunate to work in a very ethical PR industry that is characterised by sensitivity, honesty, integrity and fair competition. We like to keep it clean!

Describe yourself in five words

This is where I find myself instinctively reaching for my phone, because to describe myself I need more than five words — I need to talk to you.

What inspires you?

Dubai is my ultimate source of inspiration. I was born and raised here and I feel a deep pride in this city, which constantly amazes and challenges me. Its pulse, rhythm and ambition are driving forces in both my life and my industry; PR in Dubai is significantly influenced by the city itself and I enjoy this symbiosis.

What’s your most overused saying?

“Let me tell you something.” I don’t hear myself saying it but I’m told that it’s a recurring phrase in the office and my personal life. This makes sense because I always have an opinion or a story to share, and I guess this has become my ‘hook’.

Five things you can’t live without?

Life would be a struggle without Saturday night football, coming home every night to my daughters’ smiles, a good cup of mint tea, people around me and the standard of service that we all enjoy in Dubai.

What’s your favourite form of media? (i.e. TV, radio, print)

From a professional perspective, I believe that TV continues to play a very significant role, particularly in our region. While print is losing ground, radio is also still highly engaging and always on, at least in the car. But let’s not forget digital media, which is the undisputed champion and will only go from strength to strength from here on in. From a personal perspective I would have to say TV because it offers a level of escapism that you just don’t get with any other media. 

What’s the most exciting thing that has happened to you in your career?

This is an easy question because I had the privilege of working with Diego Maradona when he was the Head Coach of Al Wasl Football Club. The experience was surreal in many ways. I remember receiving a text from the club asking me to prepare for a meeting with Maradona in five days’ time, and honestly believing that it was a practical joke. It was one of those rare moments that a dream becomes reality, which was exciting for both me and the media. Unsurprisingly, attendance was high for those press conferences!

If you weren’t in your current role, what would you be doing?

I would be doing anything that involves communicating with people. I love engaging, talking and sharing stories with people, and I have a flair for making them smile and connect with me. This is one of my defining characteristics and I believe it would hold true in any job, whether behind a counter, in a meeting or in front of an audience.

How do you see the PR industry changing in the UAE in the coming years?

We are currently in an era of digital transformation and it is far from over. While we are mastering social media and enhancing our digital analytics, I believe there are new heights to be reached when it comes to mining the true value of big data for PR purposes. I also believe that PR will continue to strengthen its strategic role in businesses, where it has become the leading communication method for impacting the bottom line.

What advice would you offer to someone looking to start a career in the PR industry in the UAE?

To thrive in the PR industry, you absolutely must be a positive people person. There is no room for negativity, pessimism or comfort zones in our world, and you also have to be ok with waking up to a whole new set of challenges every day. This is true of the global PR industry, but in the UAE we also need to add cultural sensitivity to the mix. To succeed in the UAE’s PR industry you have to understand the make-up of this country and the values of the people who live here. It is important to remind yourself where you are and develop a deep understanding and appreciation of the UAE’s unique culture.