At the end of last year Hill+Knowlton Strategies celebrated a quarter of a century of business in the UAE. Such an anniversary made me think about the business and industry here – where it has come from, where it is now and where we go from here. It was certainly a moment to reflect.
And I’ve had some interesting discussions with my colleague Viv Lines – today our global vice chairman and chairman of Asia Pacific – as he was the one to launch our Dubai operation back in 1989.
The UAE – and the wider Gulf – have been beset with change over recent decades. It’s evident everywhere you go – whether you’re looking at the skyline of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Manama, or Kuwait City. And with these economic and physical on-the-ground changes, the communications industry has flourished alongside, as governments, corporations and individuals have acted to message their ambitions to their public and the wider world too. While still a relatively young industry here, the insight, impact and creativity of the Middle East PR and communications industry has flourished and continues to thrive.
So what does today’s communications reality in the Middle East look like? What does it involve and what must businesses here be doing to stay ahead of the game?
The communications landscape here is a hyper-connected one. Obviously, the world today in general is a hyper-connected place, but countries across the Middle East, and particularly those in the Gulf, are in fact some of the most “connected” locations in the world. Whether it be the local or expat populations in these countries, most people in the likes of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain tote a work phone and a personal device, in addition to a tablet and laptop. It is a very gadget-driven society with people constantly consuming content on the move. There is a hunger for information and dialogue.
This rise – and rise – of technology has brought dramatic changes in the way companies should and indeed need to communicate. New tools and services have entered the communications arena, broadening the audiences we can reach and communicate with – and introducing more of a two-way conversation as well. These new tools, if used right, have the power to give communication strategies ever greater impact in today’s fast-paced and knowledge hungry world. We are most definitely in a decade where communications are flourishing as never before.
This new digital age requires an always-on communications approach that creates a daily drumbeat of engaging content that lives in a wide range of carefully selected channels and platforms. We live in a world that is more connected that ever before and this increased and increasing dialogue means it is more vital than ever to communicate – and understand how all the communication pieces fit together too.
So all the new communication tools and services – in addition to the more traditional methods – must fit together to form a carefully integrated approach. Otherwise, all your efforts can actually end up doing more harm than good for you and your brand. You need strong messages across all tools, co-ordination and consistency, and a message that is imbued with authenticity and a genuine voice. In today’s business environment, being genuine and authentic is what matters and what stakeholders, employees and customers demand.
And for all these platforms, too, insight – or wisdom – is really where it all begins. The most successful communications strategies are those driven by strong insights that come from experience, data and relationships – something that 25 years on the ground here has given my team for sure. Everything must be grounded in insight and know-how to really add value and ensure you stand out.
And you also need to be innovative. You can’t rest on those laurels but always need to be thinking of new ways to most effectively get the messages across. Creativity is called upon to deliver an innovative approach to our work, with the ultimate aim of having a real business impact for our clients. And to be creative, we have to care about what the public wants and finds most important, not just the context of branding our products. It is vital to understand what triggers conversations between our audiences and then evaluate how best to be a part of these – and in a value-adding way.
At the end of the day, creativity is about a good engaging story, which has heart and soul. And through the channels we use as PR and communication specialists, we have the power to create meaningful and memorable dialogues and tell stories that touch people’s lives. For our clients, we must find a relevant and compelling narrative that clearly defines their story, and then be the storytellers for them. The emotive traditions of storytelling enable us to communicate more effectively and meaningfully with our public.
Tell me a fact and I’ll learn; tell me a truth and I’ll believe; or tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever. And, as the place where the art of storytelling originated, I believe the Middle East is like nowhere else in its love of stories too. Storytelling holds a particularly important place in Arab culture; the method by which people told each other who they are, where they come from, what they believe in and how they’re different from one another.
Storytelling began as a functional tool to inform, educate and remember, with stories passed on from generation to generation. And here in the Middle East, today, the art of the oral narrative is as alive as ever. But the stories are just being transmitted through the platforms of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, rather than from the mouths of actual storytellers.
Like the countries and markets it transcends, the communications reality of the Middle East today is one full of opportunity and further promise as the talent pool in the region grows. But to ensure our communications have a real and lasting business impact for the businesses we work for, they need to be carefully thought through and tailored and the factors of hyper-connectivity, integration, insight, authenticity, creativity and storytelling must be part of the planning process. The need for consistent and credible business communications that are aligned with a business or brand’s overall strategy has never been stronger.
And those organizations that are saying and doing the right thing – and being integrated, insightful, authentic, and creative in their storytelling – are better positioned to win the hearts and minds of their public to shape the future.