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Communicate Levant | Advertising, marketing, public relations and media in the Arab world and beyond

Communicate Levant | Advertising, marketing, public relations and media in the Arab world and beyond

Staying afloat: the regional PR industry’s current path


Staying afloat: the regional PR industry’s current path

MEPRA (Middle East Public Relations Association), is a membership organization that promotes and fosters quality public relations standards throughout the region. Founded in 2001, MEPRA now consists of more than 350 volunteer members. After five years of membership, Brian Lott was selected this February to be the current chair. He lets us in on some public relations how-tos, what-not-to-dos, and more.

What is MEPRA doing to enhance the regional PR industry?

It’s evolving from an agency dominated association to one that’s more balanced between agencies, corporations, governments and academia. Getting a degree in PR is fairly new, but people are realizing that PR is a good field here. We’ve had a significant increase in corporate and academic members over the last two to three years and are presently looking to get more government members. MEPRA is also growing beyond the UAE, with chapters in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain; we would like to add Lebanon this year. The sophisticated agency relationships are becoming more and more regional and are operating throughout the Middle East, so we want to ensure they have a voice. MEPRA’s current focus is on crisis management and social and digital development.

How is PR here in the region different?

In particular, it has to be culturally appropriate, which is something that advertising and PR campaigns don’t pay enough attention to. Even within the Middle East, there are huge differences between countries, so if you take a blanket regional approach, it’s not going to be particularly successful.

Big companies are going to have very different sales models in each of these countries and different issues that they’re going to face from a reputation standpoint. The Middle East is such a unique part of the world and user behavior and media consumption are very different, which is where agencies play an incredibly valuable role in helping their clients navigate some of the issues that are important here.

What is the most effective PR strategy for dealing with crises?

Our core values are based around truth and transparency. Making no comment and hoping the issue will go away is not an option. This may have worked 20 years ago, but not today. Part of our outreach effort is particularly toward students and young professionals, teaching them to keep transparency in mind when they’re addressing crises. One challenge that these new industry members face is that not every organization is ready for that change. They have the role of counseling the businesses to make their brand more open, transparent, and better understood by the public. In the past, brands could use paid advertising to distract people. The public is much more sophisticated today, with respect to PR, and there is a demand for authenticity and dialogue. Monolithic brands that do not want to engage in dialogue with their stakeholders are going to suffer as a result. Do any examples come to mind? Look at the way Abu Dhabi’s government responded to the tragedy of the American woman who was stabbed. It wasted no time in mobilizing the security forces, expressing immediate concern and empathy and going as far as releasing the video. The video provided an added degree of reassurance because people could not just hear, but also literally see what the security forces in the UAE were doing to address the situation. It was open about the investigation, communicating with stakeholders and reassuring people that it was taking this issue very seriously.

When a brand has a social media agency and a PR agency that are separate entities, how should they delegate the crisis response effort?

We are seeing the trend of a much closer alignment between entities; social and creative are now sitting within the PR team. They are becoming more and more integrated for one simple reason: because consumption behavior is now totally integrated. Part of MEPRA’s effort over the past year has brought together agencies and corporations to collaborate on how each responds to a crisis. With a true crisis situation, or even a brand outreach situation, a lot of that content will be driven through social, so there can’t be the separation that used to exist, there needs to be complete integration. When brands are in a stage of expectation, whether it’s a crisis situation or a product launch, the social channels become filled with rich and important content that people want to see. Look at the iWatch [Apple Watch] launch: very few people were visiting to get the latest information, they were looking at content that is shareable. The content being shared has to be high in quality, relevant and timely. We are starting a MEPRA training academy in the next few months, which will bring regional experts together to focus on response efforts, because every entity – corporate, agency, government – is dealing with the phenomenon of immediacy.

Does it make sense for PR firms to focus a majority of their energy on social?

It does make sense because if you consider consumption behavior over the last five years, there has been a huge increase in people who get their information via mobile and social. The age of writing a press release and seeing it in a newspaper the next day has not gone away completely, but the nature of the press release has changed. Now, it’s not about breaking news, it’s about content, and information that is shareable and integrated with online sources.

Has social media been more beneficial or detrimental to PR?

I think it’s both. One benefit of social media is the ability to disseminate information quickly to huge numbers of people, spurring them to action. Think of the fire that happened in Dubai a few weeks ago. Social media allowed people to react to an emergency situation; it was used as a channel of good to inform people, to help them find shelter and to mobilize others for support. The detriment is that a lot of the judgment and filter that went into the previous process, which gave agencies more time before people saw, read and consumed information, has been lost. Now, it is left up to each individual to be the filter. People receive breaking news and they won’t have a context for it, so they might not be able to properly judge whether the information is important or not. There’s also an abuse of the platforms for nefarious purposes.

What has been most fundamental change to the PR industry?

There has been more emphasis placed on supplying factual and relevant information than on trying to make the information interesting. Now, people will find something interesting if it is based in fact and it is authentic. Currently, people have the ability, at their fingertips, to determine if content is spun or not. The stereotypical image of PR, fooling people to sell an idea, is becoming less and less important. It is a very profound and positive shift, and probably the most beneficial result of the Internet age. People have more access to the truth and, as a result, the industry has had to shift from selling with a spin to persuading consumers with the truth.

How has the industry made a conscious effort to change the negative perception of PR?

People think that the public is cynical; but I think the current audience is more open to accepting situations even if they are problematic.

If an entity has done something wrong, people are more forgiving if the company admits it and tells the truth. The public, because they are so informed, become cynical when they see something that is patently false and it’s not being admitted. There’s a resistance, and an immediate reaction when people feel they are being misled.

What does the future of PR look like?

It’s one of the most exciting times to be in the industry. There are tectonic shifts happening from the way messages were communicated in the past. These changes are causing huge amounts of tension between people trying to run businesses and those running agencies to support those businesses, all in an effort to keep up with new trends. Each shift is hard to teach academically because of how quickly things undergo change.

Younger people are just better equipped, having grown up with change, to come into the industry and make a huge difference, and that’s exciting. But regardless of which platform an agency is working on, having a successful PR strategy is not all about impressions, visibility or hits; it is more about affecting the conversation consumers will have.

Sometimes, that means that the strategy should be to wait and say something smarter, more informed and more educated; rather than simply rushing to judgment on issues that are really important because the world is getting more and more complex.

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