How Can Communicators Weather The Middle East Economic Downturn?
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How Can Communicators Weather The Middle East Economic Downturn?

As the economic outlook worsens for the Middle East, what now for the region’s PR industry?

Alex Malouf

How Can Communicators Weather The Middle East Economic Downturn?

It’s been a painful couple of years for the Middle East’s economies, particularly for oil exporters who have watched as a barrel of crude plummeted from over US$100 to under US$30 at the start of 2016. The financial hit has taken time to filter down, but 2016 has been especially difficult for the Gulf’s economies, which are fuelled by government spending.

The issue of late payments is again becoming a concern, most tellingly for smaller, independent agencies who are working with local organizations. And talent is another concern; due to regional geopolitics, Iraqi and Syrian nationals are unable to get a work visa, which is impacting the availability of Arabic talent available to agencies based in Dubai.

There is a silver lining to this cloud. Public social media usage is booming across the Middle East, and both businesses and governments are turning to agencies to support their digital outreach and engagement work. Across the Gulf, a post-sanctions Iran is another opportunity. We’ve already seen one multinational agency enter into Iran, a country of almost 80 million, through an affiliate agreement. And others are looking to do the same, to tap into a market that is young, that is educated and which has embraced social media (via virtual private networks) just as much as their neighbors.

The region’s public relations industry has never been without its challenges. Faced by a lack of local talent, much of the work has been done by expatriate PR professionals who aren’t familiar with the customs, languages and cultures of the Middle East.

More recently, a number of countries in the Gulf have pressed for rapid localization of communications positions in both government and semi-government institutions. The result has been roles filled junior communicators, or roles which haven’t been filled at all due to a lack of nationals in the profession.

While there are issues to address, the picture is far from bleak. Compared to the financial crisis in 2008/2009, the Middle East PR industry is stronger in terms of its offerings, is more diversified thanks to a wider client base, and is more mature thanks to an increasing focus on specializations such as internal comms and public affairs.

What does need to improve is cross-industry collaboration. Communicators on the agency side in particular need to understand what is happening with the market when it comes to client-side payment issues, and the industry needs to take a position on charging for pitching (when times are tough, pitching shouldn’t be taken for gratis by clients).

And the comms industry has to do a much better job of promoting itself; agencies do stellar work every single day when it comes to building reputations for clients; let’s start doing the same for the industry.

Clients also need to play their part, and push for greater awareness of the benefits that communications can bring to the organization, particularly on the digital side (it’s eye-catching how many executives are still not using digital channels to communicate to their stakeholders, despite the proliferation of social media here). There needs to be greater awareness of the value of the communications discipline among other organizational functions, starting with internal comms.

And finally, there’s the issue of contextual intelligence. We can only do better work by understanding our stakeholders and publics more deeply. We cannot do this without knowing local cultures. Communicators from overseas need to make the effort to know the region, rather than hoping the region will adapt to them.

As part of this effort, we need to promote the industry to more young Arabs, and help them build their experience and expertise. This should not be done through rapid localization of positions, but through gradual knowledge transfer and learning on the job from colleagues who will invest time into mentoring and coaching.

The comms industry across the Middle East and North Africa has grown remarkably, and will continue to grow over the coming two years, albeit at a slower pace. We all agree that communications should be seen as a key function in any business. Let’s take the downturn to think how we can best get there, together.

Alex Malouf is vice-chair of the Middle East PR Association.

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