Our interview to Sconaid McGeachin, chair of MEPRA, takes us to the Middle East, where PR is a young industry undergoing rapid change.
This month, our interview takes us to the Middle East where public relations is a young industry undergoing rapid change, with professional development a high priority.
What are the main features of PR professionals in the Middle East? How does that specific background influence their way of dealing with communication and of relating to the international community taking into consideration the cultural differences?
The PR industry in the Middle East is growing quickly with many students opting to study PR and Communications either within the region or abroad but the industry as a whole is still relatively young. Over the last 5-10 years many of the young Arab PR professionals have not only studied abroad but worked internationally and they are now returning to the region with strong experience and helping to develop the industry further.
Within the PR agency sector it is common to have a mixture of expats and Arab staff – at Hill+Knowlton Strategies across the Middle East we have 29 different nationalities, speaking 19 languages with 68% Arab. Organisations want access to international PR know-how and experience but combined with local knowledge and insight and it is unusual not to have a combination of the two within an in-house department or on an agency account team. Expats can really develop their career in the region as the opportunities are so varied but they need to be able to work in a multi-cultural environment and develop an understanding of what will work in each of the ME markets – whilst many clients will run their communications across the region this will be executed very differently in each market in the same way that a European market would be tailored differently between the UK, France and Italy for example. For local talent, there are great opportunities to learn with exposure to international best practice combined with a fast paced growth market.
You are the Chair of MEPRA and you are a woman. Taking into consideration the specific cultural and religious context that characterizes the Middle East, what is the role of women in the PR industry in your region?
I’m certainly not unique! There are plenty of women in the PR industry in the Middle East and there are no barriers at all. Many people outside of the ME make assumptions about the region. I have worked in various countries across Europe before moving to Dubai four years ago and can tell you that there are plenty of opportunities for women in the industry here – more than maybe in some other markets! Having travelled and worked extensively across the Middle East region I have met with many female PR professionals both expat and local – at MEPRA one of our two Vice Chairs is an Emirati lady, Huda Buhamaid who is the Head of Communications for Dubai Holding. She has worked for international organizations such as Citibank UAE at senior roles with regional assignments."
How has the profession in the Middle East responded to the deep changes that the communication industry has been undergoing over the last years?
Like many markets, the financial crisis in 2008 was a wake-up call. Many organisations did not have crisis plans in place and limited, if any, internal communications programmes. The market had been moving so quickly that communications tended to be very short term, focusing on the next campaign or new initiative. In addition, whilst many embraced social media personally, there were also limited social media programmes in place.
The last three years has seen a major change with the role of communications, both external and internal, being taken much more seriously at C-Suite level, much greater long term planning and stakeholder engagement, as well integrated communications programmes that include social media.
What are the main areas of development PR in the Middle East?
The main areas of development centre on growing and developing the PR profession and ensuring that international best practice is incorporated in the areas of measurement standards and ethics. These areas are a particular focus for us at MEPRA with board members focused on training and professional development, ethics and measurement.
At the beginning of March you held a remarkable event, the 2nd Middle East PR Conference. What are the main insights and conclusions that emerged in this occasion?
The conference brought practitioners, scholars, educators and students together and this year we focused on setting communication standards in the Middle East, especially regarding the issues of ethics, measurement and education. Through research presentations and panel discussions, the PR community in the Middle East addressed these issues. The conference revealed the community is ready to discuss the issues of bribes, enforcing ethical behaviour, code of ethics, the future of PR agencies and practicing bilingual PR.
For example, one delegate said:
"In turn, I would like to thank you, MEPRA and Zayed University for giving me the opportunity to be part of this event and meeting you all.
I enjoyed listening to the presentations and discussing the industry issues that we deal with on a daily basis."
FYI: Below is the link to my MEPRA presentation:
Back to the Future
Yesterday's Values, Tomorrow's Media
(The evolving model of communication agencies and content in the digital era)
Stay Ethical, Stay true to your Content.
Another participant wrote a column
“Here's my column in Dubai's Gulf News about the ethics discussion: http://gulfnews.com/opinions/columnists/journalists-should-never-compromise-on-integrity-1.991869"
And another one
"Thank you so much for your email, and for the event in general. It was fruitful for me specially the second day and the discussion related to education and training"
Your mission involves “encouraging and promoting the public relations profession within the Middle East region”. What are the main initiatives and services you provide?
Training is a major focus of our activities to ensure that we’re training up practitioners at all levels both in-house and on the agency side covering subjects from social media to writing, visits to publications houses etc. We also partner and support other communication bodies so that MEPRA members obtain a discount to attend industry events such as the Internal Communications Forum.
This year we will have our 4th annual awards – the awards are open to anyone in the PR industry who wishes to enter and is a way to showcase the best examples of work across the region in different categories. We are currently preparing case studies from last year’s winning entries which are being shared with ME universities so that they have local best practice examples as well as global ones.
On the website you give hints about universities offering courses in communication and PR modules. What is your relationship with academia? Do you have special initiatives/courses dedicated to PR students?
Communications / PR students represent this region's profession in the future especially National students. What they know and are being taught have a direct correlation on how our profession evolves, how it is perceived, its value and effectiveness. With many National students entering the public sector, it is in MEPRA's interests and that of its membership to nurture and help develop these students, who will in a short time be clients to many of MEPRA's agency members. Non National students are also key as they feed the pipeline of potential recruits for the private sector, armed with local knowledge and insights - critical in communications. To enable our profession to build and strengthen over the long term we need to engage with all stakeholders, and that includes students and academia, as everyone has a stake in the game!
On the website you promote a 1-day boot camp on Strategic Corporate Communication which will be entirely held in Arabic. Is the use of Arabic widespread in the PR industry in the Middle Eastern countries?
Obviously Arabic is the official language for most countries in the Middle East region and whilst many PR professionals are bi-lingual, we wanted to ensure we were training people in their own local language for key courses as it’s much easier to learn in your first language. In terms of the media, approximately 75% of the media across the ME are in Arabic and so being able to express yourself and write in Arabic is clearly very important. Well trained Arabic PR professionals are in high demand if they can deliver strategic communications counsel in both Arabic and English.
If we think about the Syrian crisis, we immediately realize how important is for a non-democratic system of government to control communication. In your opinion, what is the role communication and social media can play in those Middle Eastern countries where freedom and respect for human rights are still severely limited?
I think it is dangerous to homogenise the region too much or to patronise the sophistication of national administrations. Just like every other region in the world, the Middle East has a diverse range of government, political and social structures. The challenges faced by PR professionals here are not really too different from those experienced throughout every continent. It is important, for truly credible PR professionals, to have an ethical awareness of the most extreme situations, like Syria, but that aside the issues really are consistent with those encountered on a daily basis elsewhere.
With regards to social media in the last two years we have definitely seen an increase in businesses across the Middle East region embracing social media as one of their communication tools and looking for integrated PR and social media campaigns but again this is a trend witnessed on a global basis and is not unique to the ME.