Transformation MENA Roundtable

After the recent roundtable organised by TRACCS and The Holmes Report entitled ‘Transformation: The Communications Industry in the MENA Region today’, we catch up with Mohamed Al Ayed, President and CEO of TRACCS, to discuss the outcome of discussions and the conclusions drawn…

This roundtable was the first of its kind to occur in the UAE. When did it take place and where was it held?
The roundtable took place on May 29, 2014 at The Ritz-Carlton DIFC, Dubai.

Where did the concept of the roundtable originate?
The concept originated as a joint initiative between TRACCS, who are committed to investing in the development of the industry and exploring the direction it takes, and The Holmes Report, who has recognised the rapid growth and evolution of the industry in the MENA region in recent years. We thought the topic of ‘Transformation’ was very relevant, given a number of issues in the industry regarding the simultaneous fragmentation and integration of the media, the move from a service-driven to a strategy-driven approach, and the need to strike the right balance between respecting and reflecting local cultures and sensitivities as well as working in line with internationally accepted norms and tools.

How did the partnership with The Holmes Report come about?
TRACCS was the first and is still the only Middle East public relations company ranked among the top 250 public relations consultancies in the world on The Holmes Report Global Rankings, and we’ve been working with The Holmes Report for the past four years. We have been involved in a number of interesting projects with the Holmes Group over the years, most recently at the In2Summit 2014 in London in May, where I participated on a panel talking about “Tomorrow’s Talent”.

Who were the communications experts and senior executives involved in the roundtable?
The in-depth discussion was moderated by Paul Holmes, Founder of the Holmes Group, with the participation of Dr. Ahmed Bin Ali, Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications, and Official Spokesperson of Etisalat Group; Bassem Terkawi, Senior Director of Strategic Communications at TDIC; Erwin Bamps, Chief Operating Officer at Gulf Craft; and myself. The roundtable focused on key issues affecting the growth and sustainability of the public relations industry in the MENA region’s rapidly evolving business and cultural environment.

What key issues were focused on during the two-hour roundtable?
The two-hour roundtable covered a range of issues, including senior buy-in of PR in regional organisations, the need for measurement, meaningful engagement of stakeholders, the growing challenge of reporting in a fragmented and rapidly changing media environment, building and retaining talent, and ways in which a company’s geographical location in the Middle East furthers or hinders its global communications efforts.

What were some of the positive conclusions drawn from the roundtable regarding the communications industry?
One positive development highlighted was the universal acceptance that in-house PR departments and PR agencies no longer needed to prove their value to senior management, and that the function of PR was widely understood and increasingly taken seriously. Etisalat’s Dr. Ahmed Bin Ali emphasised that PR is “no longer an accessory to a business, it is a necessity that is paramount to creating the identity and vision of the organisation.” Bassem Terkawi from TDIC remarked that PR departments today are often approached for a “stamp of quality” and assurance of public approval for initiatives, in much the same way as legal departments are requested to review initiatives to protect the company from litigation.

What are the continuing drawbacks that the communications industry face in the region?
There was widespread agreement that more effective metrics to assess performance outcome and impact are needed, although there is weak will within the industry to introduce effective reporting parameters. Gulf Craft’s Erwin Bamps stated that the proliferation of media channels and opportunities for exposure meant that PR professionals find it harder to keep pace with client demands and prove the value of their work through multiple metrics. He added that companies are also finding it harder to analyse results. He underscored the importance of meaningful engagement as opposed to mass engagement. Paul Holmes backed his observations on the clear move from a “bombardment” form of communications to one that favored “creating connections”.

However, one of the major drawbacks is that measurement and reporting continues to be an issue, especially as more and more channels of communication gets utilised in the mix. Clients and PR professionals need to realise that ‘more’ does not always equate to ‘better’. You may be able to report and document a great deal of data, but if you are not utilising that data intelligently it serves no purpose.

Were suggestions made on how to assess performance outcomes and impact more effectively?
One of the suggestions, as discussed earlier, was to focus on quality rather than quantity. It’s about reaching out to the right set of influencers and gauging success on the right metrics. Actionable insights are much more important than reams of data.

How did the roundtable justify the claim that the PR industry has reached the ‘maturity’ phase in the transformation of the industry?
There are five critical phases in the transformation of any industry: realisation, understanding, growth, maturity and innovation.

We can look at it along three dimensions: Corporates have gone beyond the stage of realisation of the value of PR and are using it intelligently and effectively. Governments in the region have also widely recognised the importance, value and power of communications that are done right. And finally, homegrown talent in the region is now looking at PR as a long-term career prospective and no longer as a stepping stone to something else. This is a defining change in the development of the industry as we will now see more talented and invested individuals join great local PR practitioners in this region. They understand the culture and the business and that can only be good news for the industry as a whole.

What conclusions were drawn regarding social media and its future in the region?
All participants agreed that social media has resulted in a fundamental change to the entire communications landscape in terms of speed, approach and results. Erwin Bamps highlighted the issue of brand ownership in the age of social media, stating that at no time has it been more starkly evident that “a company does not own a brand, a brand exists in the public domain”.

Social media proliferation is changing the skills required to succeed in the communications business today. You need to be present everywhere in a relevant manner and understand how to exist and interact with your audiences on multiple platforms intelligently. In today’s changing communications landscape, PR professionals have three choices – adapt, migrate or become obsolete.

Paul Holmes said that today a PR practitioner is “expected to do everything and that is changing the core nature of the business and the skills required to succeed in it.”

One of the main issues in the communications industry today is finding talent that has the right skill set to deliver what is required in today’s communications landscape. As the landscape and tools needed to function in it evolve, PR practitioners today need to have the ability and interest to constantly develop their own skills in order that they may continue to deliver results.

What specific observations were made about how being geographically headquartered in the Middle East affects a company’s global messaging and perception?
With regard to this, the participants made a number of interesting observations. Gulf Craft touched on how earlier prejudices against the “Made in the Middle East” tag has in recent years changed on the back of Dubai’s successful PR efforts – according to Bamps, today “if you are from the UAE, you are the guy that preaches innovation”. Bassem Terkawi said that for a company like TDIC being tasked with developing internationally recognised museums such as the Louvre and Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s position on a global stage has definitely helped accelerate communications, but has also put all efforts under intense global scrutiny. All the participants agreed that internationally there was a significant distinction between being a “Middle East” brand and a “UAE brand” and that an association with the UAE came with the expectation of surprising and over-delivering on all promises made.

What other initiatives are TRACCS undertaking to develop the communications industry in the region?
The ‘Transformation’ roundtable is one of several key initiatives being undertaken by TRACCS to develop the communications industry in the MENA region, following PR Forums organised by TRACCS in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Lebanon. Training and equipping Arab PR professionals with the tools they need to function in a globally competitive industry is one of our primary focus areas and also one of our biggest competitive advantages in a rapidly maturing industry.

We were recently awarded an In2Sabre Award for our Agency Employee Program ‘Driver’s Seat’ at the In2Summit 2014 held last month in London. We are committed to working closely with the educational sector over the next five years to train more local practitioners across the region, with the MENA-wide launch of our award-winning ‘Driver’s Seat’ program.


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