Khaled AlShehhi, Executive Director of Marketing & Communication at the Public Diplomacy Office in the UAE Ministry of Cabinet Affairs and the Future, tells Communicate how he got into marketing, what his work means to him, and how he sees the role of government communications.
What is your background and when did you start in this role?
Before I pivoted to marketing, I was in the engineering field. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Khalifa University in 2004 and worked at Etisalat for ten years. After starting in the technology department, I progressed to engineering to provide ICT solutions to enterprise customers. There, I was directly involved in the product life cycle, from development to marketing and sales. I was basically an engineer wearing a business hat, developing a customer-oriented approach to sell a product, service, or idea.
In my decade [at Etisalat], I worked on many exciting projects and achieved a lot. One of my proudest achievements was [contributing to the] setting up of a greenfield telecommunication company in Nigeria, leading to the smooth and successful launch of Etisalat’s GSM services there. I learned a lot in that time and this opened my mind to other opportunities.
After ten years, I felt it was time for a change. Of course, letting go of what you have known for a decade is tough, uncomfortable, with many aspects to consider. But it was all worth it. It may be challenging but change is a good thing when it propels you forward. At that time, I watched an interview of H.E. Mohammad Al Gergawi, the Minister of Cabinet Affairs and the Future in the UAE, on MBC. MBC was the first TV channel to tour H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s offices, whose ambitions and projects they discussed. During the interview, H.E. Al Gergawi described H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid as an extraordinary leader, adding that his initiatives are extraordinary, his offices are extraordinary, and his staff is extraordinary. That was the sign I was looking for. I knew where I was headed. I wanted to be extraordinary in a place driven by excellence and greatness, where not even the sky is the limit.
In 2015, I joined the Public Diplomacy Office (PDO) as Director of the Digital Communication Department, working on national projects for the UAE Government and the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives (MBRGI) in addition to the World Government Summit. What drew me to the PDO was the opportunity to develop a creative idea [that would] inspire, motivate, uplift, and persuade people on a larger scale – in other words, the chance to have a greater impact.
It’s precisely what H.E. Saeed Al Eter, the Chairman of the UAE Government Media Office, allows me to do. Not only did he believe in me and provide me with this opportunity, but he also continues to inspire, motivate, and empower me every day. He keeps me and my team on our toes and pushes us to do more and better, from generating ideas to getting results. We’re fortunate to have a leader who not only is a firm advocate of creativity but also contributes actively to our brainstorming sessions for each project, in order to come up with groundbreaking ideas.
This [role] has expanded my horizons and opened the door to new fields and experiences – most notably, humanitarian endeavours. I never expected to lead the digital elements of projects that would bring whole communities of people from around the world together, as we did during the Covid-19 outbreak. This is a very fulfilling and stimulating role.
What are the key initiatives of which you are the proudest?
There are several major initiatives that come to mind, especially our digital campaigns for innovative humanitarian projects – for example, the World’s Tallest Donation Box and the Well of Hope initiative. These two campaigns stimulated donations from the public for two very important cause, to provide food to the needy during Ramadan and clean water to over one million individuals in disadvantaged communities.
Most recently, there were the “Mars Shot” and the “First Arabic Countdown” campaigns to accompany and celebrate the launch of the Emirates’ Hope Probe to Mars, the first-ever Arab mission to another planet. “Mars Shot” is a global digital campaign run in conjunction with Kevin Hart’s [foundation], that invited people from around the world to apply for a chance to see their wildest dream come true. The “First Arabic Countdown” social media campaign drew attention to the probe launch and maximized its audience.
Earlier, I also managed the digital strategy of key projects including the launch UAE Nation Brand, the 2017 “Year of Giving,” the 2016 “Year of Reading,” and many others.
One project I am particularly proud of is the digital communications management for the World Government Summit in 2016 and 2017. The event is a global platform that brings together thought-leaders, state heads, policymakers, and dignitaries to discuss shaping a future of governments capable of adapting to a fast-paced world and harnessing innovation and technology to solve universal challenges facing humanity. During these two editions, we elevated and innovated with our digital activations; we broke records with the #WorldGovSummit hashtag on Twitter, which crossed the one billion mark in terms of impressions.
How do you see governmental communications evolving? Is digital becoming more important in the mix?
Yes, absolutely. A lot of what we have been doing has taken a fresh perspective on governmental communications. It shows the ambition that runs through our leadership and I am honoured to play my part in delivering our country’s meaningful messages to, and engaging with local, regional, and global audiences. By developing strategic plans to maximize the reach and impact of governmental initiatives and projects using data-led, creative, and innovative thinking, we enhance the UAE’s reputation as an incubator for pioneering developmental, humanitarian, and cultural projects. While we work on nation building, nation branding, and public diplomacy initiatives, ultimately our ambition is to inspire people at home and abroad. Instead of being cold and rational, our communication approach is much warmer, human, and emotional. This is how we build rapport, trust, and engagement, moving people in more ways than one to think and act differently.
Most recently, the digital campaigns around the launch of the Emirates’ Hope probe to Mars, specifically the “Mars Shot” and the “First Arabic Countdown,” have drawn massive global attention to our country. Three Mars Shot winners were announced on August 5 for dreaming big and aiming to make a difference in their communities. Thanks to its global appeal and the participation of Kevin Hart, the campaign went a long way in making people’s dreams come true, illustrating our Nation Brand promise of “Impossible Is Possible” and reflecting what the UAE is all about. The “First Arabic Countdown,” a campaign kickstarted by a manifesto film that garnered more than 15 million views across different social platforms in just eight days, made the feat even more real, giving it a voice. The counting down of the iconic ten seconds before the Hope Probe’s lift-off in Arabic gave the world a chance to appreciate the magnitude of the first Arab interplanetary mission. The film alone generated more than 15,000 mentions and more than 400 million impressions on Twitter. The whole operation had a reach of more than 35 million across different platforms, with a phenomenal engagement rate of 25% on Facebook/Instagram. This again demonstrates how our human approach to strategic communications makes a huge difference. Our message is much more inspirational this way.
Large-scale engagement can be transformational with digital communications. At the beginning of the year, we concluded a global voting scheme to select a logo for the Emirates Nation Brand, drawing over ten million votes from 185 countries in ten days. For every vote, we planted a tree around the world, bringing the total to ten million trees planted in Asia in a bid to safeguard biodiversity, protect the environment, and empower vulnerable communities affected by climate change. The initiative was in line with the UAE’s role as a beacon of hope in the world, reflecting the country’s humanitarian contributions as an integral part of its identity. The voting campaign attracted an overwhelming 500 million social media views and a substantial level of participation to finally pick “Seven Lines” logo. This campaign, and all the ones that allow the Emirates to shine globally, are very dear to me.
It’s particularly gratifying to see this collective hard work pay off. Seeing the goals met, people’s lives improving, smiles replacing tears… It makes it all worth it. Some campaigns are more long term but we know we’re on the right path. We’re making a positive difference to many and improving our collective future.
What are the essential marketing/communications strategies and objectives set for your office?
Government communications are often dry and unappealing, and therefore ineffective. Accordingly, people do not show interest or engage. This is why our strategy is to be much more human and relatable, inspiring, motivating, and inviting people to join us in exciting and laudable initiatives. Not only do they pay more attention, but they also participate more – a first essential step towards them revisiting their opinions or perceptions.
The architecture of our digital communication strategies depends on every project, but there are basic principles. We always start by identifying a challenge or setting an objective. Then comes researching and analysing the reasons behind the challenges they present, which leads us to determine the role of communication and how to deploy it. In any case, a digital communication plan has to have the required impact and the scale to achieve our goal. We then move to the creative part, when we develop out-of-the-box ideas to achieve a greater impact. Through discussions and brainstorming sessions, we start to connect the dots and form the bigger picture.
We’re typically after two basic objectives: reach and engagement, on top of which come additional and specific goals or KPIs for each project. Another essential is creativity. The Well of Hope, the Mars Shot and the World’s Tallest Donation Box are clearly very different activities but all have, at their heart, the same creative spark. Idea development does not come within a day, it’s a process. And creativity has to be at the core of it.
Just consider what we did for the “10 Million Meals” campaign of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Social Solidarity Fund Against Covid-19. The goal was to provide food assistance to families and individuals impacted by the pandemic. Together with Burj Khalifa, we created “The World’s Tallest Donation Box.” To drive donations to buy meals for low-income individuals and families during the Holy Month of Ramadan, we created an innovative operation, selling the iconic skyscraper’s 1.2 million lights. Priced at 10 AED ($3), each light provided one meal. Every single one was bought by donors from around the world, contributing 1.2 million meals to the overall goal of ten million. Lit up by all these donations, the building glistened as a comforting beacon of humanity, solidarity, generosity, and hope when they were needed the most. What makes this achievement all the more impressive is that we managed this operation in under three weeks, thanks to the tireless efforts of the team and our partners.
What are your guidelines for effective governmental communications?
The first aspect that we’re working on is consistency, which means aligning several entities and departments. The creation of a new UAE Government Media Office is a major development in this regard. It will oversee all media communications for the UAE nationally and internationally. The creation of our Nation Brand, which acts as a compass and a beacon, is another facet of this.
The second is that we are driven by our audiences and their specific needs. The government is united in its mission to provide the best customer experience possible and clear, relevant, and accessible communications play a key role in this. Therefore, we place people at the center of our strategies and policies, developing and distributing tailored messages that relate to our various target groups. This means avoiding complex, ambiguous, and generic messaging. Simple, clear, and relevant works best.
Like brands, we embrace consumer behaviors and preferences; so, we’ve made the same move towards digital platforms. This doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned traditional media, as we take a holistic view in our communications planning and rely on their respective strengths to achieve our goals. They complement one another. But the balance is changing and digital is increasingly the default setting. Our goal is to reach, enlighten, and engage our audiences with our messages, using the relevant touchpoints, innovation, and creativity to break through clutter and apathy. To do this, we’ve assembled a team that is agile and responsive, adapting to the needs of each mission.
Communicating effectively requires listening more and talking less. Governments have traditionally focused on talking to share information but today, it’s more about engagement and dialogue. Our communications have to be two-way and stimulate participation from the public. Hence, social media plays a major role. We will see more and more of this, which is good because it breaks the distance between government entities and citizens.
[Increasingly], we rely on content marketing, using themes and narratives to create meaning for the public by clustering various distinct elements of information into a coherent story. Storytelling is a major trend in government communications. “Impossible Is Possible” is an example of this.
Lastly, we focus on results and performance. This requires setting and communicating measurable goals with all parties, sharing learnings, successes and best practices, and implementing systems and processes to identify, track, and report on selected metrics.
How important is it for a public organization/government entity to have high-quality, creative communications?
Governments have learned that they don’t need to follow rigid and standardized rules in their communications, especially when this creates a gap with their people.
People have become over-solicited and their attention is at a premium. To cut through, get the message across, and engage, governments need to do a lot better than before. They need to earn that attention and justify that engagement. Instead of [being] cold and mechanical, public sector bodies need to be more human, relatable, and empathetic. For this, a strategy that addresses human beings with an emotional message, rather than a rational one, is ideal.
For us, it is all about creativity because it’s the start of a virtuous circle in which effectiveness comes next. We focus on developing strong ideas because they require less effort in media. The core tenet of each campaign or project has to resonate in people’s minds and touch their hearts, regardless of where they come from. It has to be universal, simple and meaningful to be able to speak to everybody. It has to be so deep and impactful that anyone across the world can relate to the point of wanting to interact with it.
The “Well of Hope” initiative is a great example of this. The initiative challenged people to ‘raise’ virtual water with a real pumping device. The amount pumped was later matched with water provided to people in need. Not only did the concept inspire people from all backgrounds to give and spread hope through small acts, but it also raised public awareness about water scarcity. The initiative highlighted the difficulties facing disadvantaged communities in accessing clean water. Through the “Well of Hope,” individuals and employees of public and private entities collectively ‘pumped’ over 275,000 litres of water. They also pledged to drill 150 wells in 34 countries for the benefit of more than one million people worldwide.
What challenges and limitations do you face in this kind of work?
The lack of talent in the market is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry at the moment. The modern work environment is extremely dynamic and you need to be agile, flexible, and able to think on your feet to thrive in this rapidly evolving [landscape]. The optimal mix of knowledge-based, creative, personal, and functional skills is very rare and hard to find. To alleviate the issue, we identify members who can work well together, in harmony, because they’re aligned and share the same vision, and form a team. We empower them and resource them. This is really working for us.
Another challenge is time. We often have to come up with an idea and build the concept and execution plan in a short amount of time. Today’s digital world requires resilience, creativity, and adaptability to quickly develop projects that cater to the changing times. These are the skills of the future.
Governments around the world have had some difficulties in communicating with their populations. It’s often been about telling people to act or think in a certain way, do something specific – it’s been very top-down. At best, their messages are not [generating] interest and attention or, worse, are treated with caution. The job is therefore to instil trust by putting people’s interests first.
What we’re trying to do is to find the right tone, balancing authority with empathy, to engage and inform people in equal measures – to turn apathy into excitement. To do this, we have to be respectful, relevant, clear, and honest, as well as inspirational and even sometimes fun and exciting. It’s a fine balance and you need the right people to find it.
How did the Covid-19 crisis impact your work and what strategy was then put in place to address it?
Between mid-March and mid-June/early July, government employees, like their private sector counterparts, have largely operated from home to contain the spread of the virus. This was essential also to prevent the economy from grinding to a halt. While some governments and businesses worldwide have experienced productivity loss as a result, we actually found some productivity gains through the experience. The UAE’s technology infrastructure certainly helped. The UAE Government has long focused on the digitization of its services and its operations. So, from a technical standpoint, we were largely ready to make the move to work from home. The next hurdles were the human dimension and the processes we had to put in place. The team and business partners were astounding. In terms of motivation, speed, creativity, availability, and performance, Covid-19 was not a stumbling block – quite the opposite, it seems.
I mean, look at the results; the number and scale of the campaigns we launched and managed during the lockdown, the results they generated, the impact they’ve had, and how high the UAE flag is flying in the minds of people around the world. The community campaigns we launched, both for national and international audiences, have made a tangible difference at a critical time and will continue to do so. We’re about transforming lives for the better.
What’s important here is that we’ve humanized government communications, both in terms of objectives and execution, long before Covid-19 struck so when it did, we already had the right tone in place to remain consistent in our strategy.
It’s in challenging times that we get our best chances to shine and the Covid-19 pandemic is certainly that. We’ve got to be positive and resilient, imaginative and resourceful, determined and driven. Sometimes, good isn’t good enough. What truly makes the difference is when you go for great, especially in these times. This could be on Earth, with the World’s Tallest Donation Box or the Well of Hope, or it could be in space, like the First Arabic Countdown to launch the Emirates’ mission to Mars. Either way, why stop at the Moon when you can aim for Mars? Aim higher and you’ll achieve greater. This mantra has served me well so far and never better than now.