Recent crisis mismanagement blunders like Arabtec’s might suggest otherwise, but Brian Lott, executive director, group communications at Mubadala, and Nicola Gregson, vice chair of MEPRA (Middle East Public Relations Association) – Gregson is also managing director at Ketchum Raad Middle East – believe the regional PR industry is keeping pace with the changing times. Gregson came to the region eight years ago from London, where companies were more prepared in reputation management. “Four to six years ago, some clients [in the region were reluctant] to sign off on a Q&A sheet. Now, you have minutes to respond [to a crisis] on social media. Clients know that,” she explains.
In fact, Gregson asserts that most of the public relation agencies in the region are already operating on international standards, with Dubai playing host to the regional headquarters of the world’s biggest PR networks. “You possibly do have a number of smaller independent agencies that haven’t had that international exposure,” she adds. The challenge, says Lott, lay in PR here making the leap from being a very regionally focused industry, to a very global one; even more so with the likes of the Expo2020 setting unprecedented scale of PR work, communication channel sophistication and stakeholder outreach. Granted, “the whole PR industry in this region is still new compared with Europe, the US or even some parts of Asia. We’re seeing a trend toward more sophisticated interaction with the media, much more reliance on digital, much more creativity and thought put into advertising and stakeholder outreach in the last five years. And that is a significant change from where the PR industry was in 1995 twenty years ago,” says Lott, adding that in the region, few universities, like Zayed University, have started putting more emphasis on PR academia. “In some organizations, particularly in the UAE, you have someone defined as a PRO (public relations officer). That’s not PR.”
As such, Lott’s and Gregson’s efforts on the MEPRA board over the last few years remained largely focused on expanding the membership beyond agencies to include corporate members, as well as individual professionals and students – with whom it’s been connecting through a series of roadshows and events. “We almost doubled the organization since 2012 and included members in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan.” Of course, the association’s mandate is not only to grow membership over the next years, but also cement its position as a regulatory and industrial body for PR in the region, having recently revised its code of ethics, practice and conduct for industry peers. “It’s going to be reissued to all our members. Regulations have been simplified. If anyone has a problem with a MEPRA member – be it agency or corporate – the board of MEPRA will address the situation with that member agency,” explains Gregson.
MEPRA’s renewed focus entails some facelifting procedures to its brand, “because in the PR industry, we’re talking about content and digital, working paid, shared and owned media. But our own website and image weren’t necessarily reflecting that. We’ve made the decision that the MEPRA website and look and feel need a shakeup, so when we have the MEPRA Awards in November, we’ll be launching the whole new look and feel for the association,” says Gregson, adding that the revamped website – part of which will be in Arabic – will serve as a resource bank for PR professionals across the region.