Sunil John, President – Middle East of BCW and Founder of ASDA’A BCW, shares his takeaways from this year's PRovoke MENA Summit.
In my outlook for the communications industry in 2021, I observed that the industry’s prospects will be underpinned by a growing confidence in the new geo-political order that the region witnesses today.
The new Middle East narrative is shaped by the three imperatives: One, the much-awaited peace dividend from the Abraham Accords signed by the UAE and Bahrain with Israel. Two, the increased focus of regional governments and businesses on adapting to climate change. Three, the massive investments by state-owned entities in domestic infrastructure and economic diversification.
This served as the backdrop of the opening panel discussion of the fourth annual PRovoke MENA Summit that I moderated last week. On the panel were Rania Rostom, Chief Communications Officer, GE International Markets; Mazen Nahawi, the Founder & CEO of CARMA; and Vasuki Shastry, an ESG and public affairs expert, and former Global Head of Public Affairs and Sustainability at Standard Chartered.
The takeaway was the need for the region to reskill, retool and upgrade the competencies of the PR industry for the new Middle East narrative, especially with a focus on environment, social and governance (ESG) communications.
The need for an impactful ESG communications agenda is obvious: As one of the biggest sources of the world’s hydrocarbons, the Middle East will continue play an essential role in enabling an orderly transition to a low-carbon global economy of the future. At the same time, it is set to be a global renewable energy player, already home to many of the world’s largest and most sophisticated clean energy projects.
The region can be expected to have a strong voice at the table during the COP 26 climate meetings in Glasgow in November, which are preparing to welcome the return to the global climate movement of the United States, empowered by President Joe Biden’s Green New Deal.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are already emerging as sustainable investment hubs, and both government and the private sector in the Middle East are actively embracing ESG considerations in their investment and business decision-making. This is crucial in highlighting organizational purpose and social commitment, both fundamental to building trust in governments and the corporate sector.
Within this context, the three panelists agreed that the region is witnessing “a huge shift”. Rania Rostom said that governments are taking on a bold vision for change, moving away from an oil-dependent economy to a more diversified, resilient, sustainable and knowledge-based economy.
Drawing on her experience in leading GE’s communications, she said the region’s innovation enabling environment recognized by global business executives in the GE Global Innovation Barometer, “is a sign of the progress we have made. What we are seeing is greater inclusion of more diverse and local voices into the [regional] narrative. We need diverse and local voices from the ground up so we can build this collective momentum.”
Underlining this, Vasuki Shastri observed that companies that can articulate their purpose and back it up with their actions will take the lead [in the new reality]. "ESG communications presents a huge opportunity for PR experts to completely reengineer brands with honesty and authenticity at its core. What will make a difference is the ability to articulate purpose and back this up with facts, which will benefit both brand and share premium," added Shastri.
Mazen Nahawi reiterated the importance of trust in communications and how measuring the impact of PR has changed from advertising value equivalency (AVE) and other vanity measures to being about trust: do people believe what we say and how are they engaging? The focus today is to measure the impact of campaigns based on data, and whether it leads to driving conversations at the highest levels and planned outcomes.
As a consultancy rooted in the Middle East, ASDA’A BCW has closely documented the narratives that have shaped the region over the past two decades. One of the most important of these concerns the region’s over 200 million-strong youth population, its largest demographic, whose hopes, attitudes and aspirations have been carefully mapped in our Arab Youth Survey annually since 2008. Our 12th annual edition of the survey in 2020, in many ways, reflect the sentiments that the panelists shared, especially on the need to build trust in youth about good governance.
While the Middle East is living through perhaps the most uncertain period of the past 30 years, our research and hands-on experience tells us that the three prevailing narratives of peace, climate action and future-focused domestic investment herald a new phase of regional growth and optimism. It is incumbent upon the PR sector to help convey that message through a new manifesto for change by retooling and upgrading the industry’s competencies.