Because of the rapid advancement of digital communications, no industry is safe from adoption and adaptation. The PR industry’s evolution, in some ways, looks like that of many other industries, whereas, in others, it’s forging its own path. As overused as the words are quickly becoming, engagement and integration are the two points of change that members of the region’s PR industry seem to be focused on.
Brian Lott, chairman of the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA), explains the current landscape: “It’s still an industry that is growing. By that, I mean the need for smart public relations is greater than ever.” Regionally, PR is changing and it seems to be experiencing growing pains. “We’re in an era where we keep reinventing the wheel. I think the only way for the PR industry to remain a credible source of promotion is to adapt to current times,” says Zelda Hyman, founder and managing director of PR and video production company, Emblem. Clients are attempting to understand the importance of this industry, while PR agencies are working to add 360° value by providing the digital engagement factor that consumers demand.
What’s the verdict?
Presently, some industry experts argue that PR is thriving at the cost of other communications industries. Dipesh Depala, managing partner at PR firm, The Qode, says, “Business is definitely growing, in the sense that brands have smaller budgets – if any at all – for advertising and they are looking for a more affordable and effective way of reaching their target audiences. In this respect, it’s been quite good for PR.” The industry is also experiencing growth as a result of the influx of global brands, explains Ajit Ramaswami, managing director at LeoComm PR Middle East: “A greater number of global businesses are setting up regional headquarters – especially here in Dubai – creating tremendous opportunities for the PR industry to grow exponentially over the next few years.”
Digital has changed the face of all industries – especially in the past five years – and has added much to a PR specialist’s job. PR is no longer just about press releases; with new digital channels popping up almost daily, the industry has had to learn how to get its message out through different platforms, formats and devices. Regionally, however, the industry is still catching up. Depala elaborates: “The regional PR industry is evolving in that it is finally embracing digital and online communication.”
The population of the GCC is very young and, therefore, very digitally savvy. Mobile penetration rates are growing rapidly and brands are trying to get on the bandwagon to meet their consumers on their handheld devices. Digital PR, marketing, advertising, etc., are critical strategies for almost all brands. Ramaswami says, “Digital is driving the way in which we tell our stories, which are becoming increasingly picture- and video-driven and cater to different audiences across a variety of platforms. For example, we have just six seconds to entice an audience on Vine and 15 on Instagram.”
Emblem, the new kid on the block, is carving out its place in the market with a niche concept: video press releases. Hyman explains that Emblem’s video content could even land in more than one budget line: “Some clients see the value of using our video content for a separate digital strategy; so, something that was originally created for PR is now relevant to a digital strategy. It’s a two-birds-with-one-stone kind of thing,” she says.
Not so fast
Industry experts do not wish to dismiss the old dog so quickly, even with the rise of new tricks – they maintain that the fundamentals of PR are still critical to its practice. Ramaswami explains how one fundamental still holds true: “The press release is a vital communication tool and will continue to be a potent instrument in the dissemination of news – for all mediums. The idea will determine the channel of communication and not the other way around.” Meanwhile, Ashraf Shakah, managing director of Ketchum RAAD, says, “I don’t like clichés, but content is the king here. A platform is a platform; it’s a dynamic way to take content from one place to another.” He adds, “it is still content, in fact, that people are consuming, regardless of where they’re choosing to do it.”
MEPRA’s Lott maintains that the dissemination of information is still the purpose of PR; however, it’s just done in a different way today. He says, “PR is no longer only about a press release. It’s about knowing how people feel about the intended message and engaging with them. This is the shift that PR is currently undergoing.” Yet, he makes it a point to mention that there is a good and a bad way of going about this. MEPRA’s latest training initiative, The Academy, was recently launched and it is going back to basics: “It’s not about the latest whiz-bang thing. For us, it’s [important] to stay focused on the fundamentals and training – [it] is about good writing, good speaking, being thoughtful about what you’re saying, authenticity and transparency,” he says.
A social experiment
Across the board, social media is considered an entirely beneficial addition to the art of PR. While some might argue that crisis management has never been more difficult than when it’s up against the rapid social media blaze, this addition has given the PR industry a new way to add value to its clients. Giving a real-life example to explain the growing importance of social media and how the PR industry is utilizing it, Lott says, “The whole essence of what PR is – communicating with your stakeholders – the core or principal of that will never change, but now, you could argue that a tweet from Richard Branson is more important than anything else Virgin will do across its product line.”
Some clients are still hesitant to exist on social media platforms and have a voice on them, explains Ziad Hasbani, regional CEO at Weber Shandwick MENA: “They have this old mentality – ‘we will be criticized’. Clients shouldn’t look at this from a risk perspective, but rather, [from] an opportunity perspective, use that platform to balance the debate and clarify certain facts.”
What’s more, social media has given brands the invaluable opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with their buyers. As the saying goes, you can’t put a price on that – but, in this case, brands can and certainly have. Further highlighting how hugely beneficial social media has been for the PR industry, Hasbani continues: “Social media has become mainstream. That benefits the PR industry, because it puts us in a situation where we have to focus on what we do best by definition and that is creating engaging and shareable content.”
Dollars and sense
The practice of social media strategy by PR professionals has added a new budget line to PR funds; at the most basic level, it’s a new skill for which agencies can charge their clients. But, with the changing landscape, are they still willing to pay up or is it a hard sell? Putting it simply, Lott says, “I just don’t think anyone in the public sphere can afford not to invest in public relations. The amount of conversation that can happen very quickly if you’re unprepared can be devastating to a reputation. The sheer amount of conversation going on, the levels of scrutiny and attention [are] much bigger, so companies have to be proactive.”
The consensus from the industry is that, by and large, clients are ready and willing to pay for PR, especially digital strategy and crisis management. Lott, however, believes PR isn’t getting its fair share of credit: “People don’t understand it well enough. Even the term ‘public relations’ means different things to different people,” he says. “It certainly gets some credit, but not enough. However, that will change as people understand it better and as it becomes more professional here,” he adds. Emphasizing that clients are willing to pay, but aren’t doing it blindly, Hyman explains that the PR industry is being questioned mainly because of the issue of measurability. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the conversion can be attributed directly to the PR effort, but digital is making this a more realistic future.
PR agencies are constantly being asked to provide real-time engagement on social media platforms but, like many other touchpoints, it requires a very real level of strategy. From a top-level perspective, the determination should be made if and only if the shoe fits. Shakah says, “We need to work as a newsroom, but we need to be storytellers as well. When you combine both, you can be successful, but if you do it just for the sake of doing it, you won’t be elevated. You won’t have a breakthrough element.”
Due to the integration taking place across communications sectors, it’s no longer clear who does what. For example, who should handle a social media crisis – a PR agency or a digital one? It should come as no surprise that PR agencies would, of course, be the first to volunteer their services. Lott says, “At its best, PR is meant to convey the behavior and character of any entity.” Meaning, PR works to understand the persona of any brand, therefore making it the most qualified brand representative, especially during a crisis. Crisis management is a combination of art and science but, while the industry does want real-time engagement, that doesn’t mean the crisis plan of action needs to happen in real time.
“Ninety percent of a crisis can be anticipated by listening to your audience. You can feel the buildup; rapid response is very important and then you go into your recovery plan,” Hasbani adds. Unwilling to call Weber Shandwick a PR agency – he prefers the term ‘communications agency’ – he claims they are heading toward integration and suggests that the rest of the industry should follow suit because, according to some experts, clients care less about nomenclature and more about one-stop shopping.
The whole truth
In the world of social media, transparency is on the lips of every PR professional and for good reason. Considering today’s constantly connected consumer, a client can never be too careful and, when a crisis erupts, PR agencies preach the truth. Social media has created an environment where the good, the bad and the ugly can and will certainly spread like wildfire, but once they do, the best reaction would be to tell the truth and hope for mercy.
Lott revels in this new world: “Transparency and engagement are raising the PR industry’s level of quality as well as the level of demand,” he says. “If you’re a transparent company, I think stakeholders, consumers and employees will understand that, sometimes, entities aren’t perfect and mistakes happen. If you simply come out and say, ‘We didn’t do this the way we wanted to and things didn’t turn out the way we intended’, people have a reservoir of forgiveness that’s pretty deep, as long as you’re being honest and straightforward.”
Keep it simple
Since most consumers are on social media, it makes sense that brands should be too – but, if they aren’t prepared for a social media presence, there’s no sense jumping the gun. “The risk is [in] doing it wrong,” Hasbani says. “The choice is not very difficult; just don’t do it yet. Take the time to get prepared. Once you know the rules of engagement, it’s a huge opportunity.”
Preparing for social media engagement does not have to be daunting. “As crazy as it is, people are really looking across all those bits of evidence for the one consistent story…that piece of authenticity,” Lott says. He adds that agencies often think they need a
different piece of content or strategy for each platform, but, “they really just need to keep it simple and keep it real.”
Friends with benefits
Another aspect of PR that requires careful forethought is the choice of a particular individual who can provide positive influence for a brand. These personages are called by many names – celebrity endorsers, influencers, brand ambassadors, friends of the brand – but, in the end, what it boils down to is selecting an individual to get the word out. There are obvious benefits to choosing an influencer, especially a well-known one, but brands also need to ensure that the celebrity is one that the everyday consumer can relate to.
Ramaswami says, “We view influencers as partners who help us drive the PR message across a segment of society, both effectively and in a believable fashion.” However, the sensitivity of this strategy lies in choosing a representative whose life is somehow seamlessly integrated into the brand. The consumer has to believe that the influencer actually buys what they’re selling. “In this region, there is a feeling that companies are jumping on the bandwagon without really understanding who they are engaging and exactly who they will be reaching with a particular influencer,” Depala says. “That is still very raw and not very well studied but, because of a false sense of urgency to be current, they rush into working with entities that may not really be the most beneficial.” But, according to Shakah, this too will keep reinventing itself, so that the level of engagement is more genuine each time.
However, selected influencers – celebrities or not – should not necessarily be considered the most important spokesperson of the brand, maintains Hasbani: “Consumers will take complete ownership of brands. They will facilitate dialogues around brands; they will tell the brand’s stories rather than [them] coming from the marketing department.” Currently, this type of external influence is taking over the regional PR industry, but only time will tell whether it will have any true value or if it’s just a phase.
One thing the regional creative industry understands all too well is luxury. The MENA region is renowned for its high-priced fashion and automobiles, among other things. On social media though, it’s a bit of a delicate dance, because widespread, immediate information propagation does not exactly scream exclusivity.
“Digital works perfectly well, but it can’t be all over the place; it can be a targeted and exclusive conversation,” says Shakah. When it comes to digital engagement for luxury, personalization is key. Brands need to be speaking to their consumers as if they know them.
PR may not be the first industry that comes to mind when considering communications strategies for luxury products, but it could be argued that it should be. It was with the intention of bringing this critical role of PR in the luxury market to the spotlight that Mediaquest, Communicate’s parent company, topped off 2015’s arab luxury world conference with a series of PR awards (see box on page 40 for the list of awards).
Regional agencies are focused on going digital and fusing their efforts to ensure that their clients do not have to look far for a comprehensive communications plan. Hasbani says: “Clients of tomorrow want smart communicators who know what they’re doing, who know the industry, its trends, its issues, its potential.” Confirming this theory of the future, Hyman adds, “Lots of brands are looking for integrated agencies that can handle the content creation, the PR and the social media, because there’s a general sense of understanding of where the brand wants to go. So, they all work in harmony or holistically.”
Like most industries, though, everyone is not convinced that full integration is the way of the future. Boutique agencies are prime examples of agencies that are zooming in, rather than out, to provide specific PR efforts and experts believe these agencies to be a critical piece of the puzzle. Ramaswami says, “There is always space for both [large as well as boutique agencies] to coexist and, if your proposition is value-driven rather than volume-driven, you will not feel the pinch – regardless of your size.” The future will certainly not see an all-or-nothing shift, but experts indicate that the trend is to provide a roof under which clients can come in for 360° communications.
Feelings are mixed about what really lies ahead for PR, but the prevalence of digital has made online engagement a near-must for clients who want to stay in the game. Whether it is through influencers, real-time communications or crisis response, meeting consumers one-on-one seems to be the key to future success.
The regional industry is still learning how to properly engage with its audience on these platforms and, as more continue to pop up, the learning curve is only geting steeper. Lott says, “The PR industry is dealing with this chaotic demand by consumers to get a lot of information about one particular topic across all the different devices and channels. It’s going to be a continued phase of experimentation over the next five years.”
Depala predicts that relatable and inspirational personalities will become even more popular, helping to drive engagement and awareness about brands. He says, “The concept of effective PR will also become more about clever creativity, which is what the industry in the region craves.” Lott, meanwhile, believes that the potential for fractured information dissemination is greater than ever and, as such, the industry must work to consistently tell stories across the channels in a coherent, simple, but engaging way.
In terms of access, even though digital has made engaging with consumers much more straightforward, the formula for how to reach them is growing more complex because of the rapid increase of new platforms. The regional PR industry has its work cut out for it, but social engagement is the name of the game.