The rise of reputation management in the UAE

Public relations in the United Arab Emirates is tarnished by functional transactions between client and agency. This needs to change, says Simon Buerk, MD of Blue Rubicon in the UAE.

Dubai: reputation management on the rise
Dubai: reputation management on the rise

Drivers of the endless stream of cars hurtling along the 14-lane Sheikh Zayed Road cannot miss it. A billboard 100 metres long and the height of a five-storey building shouts the slogan: "Whoever said winning isn’t everything doesn’t know Dubai."

The billboard celebrates Dubai’s successful bid at the end of last year to host Expo 2020. The message from here to the world: Dubai is back.

Last week the federal government – Dubai is one of seven Emirates in the United Arab Emirates – outlined ambitious targets to take the country to 2021, the 50th anniversary of its founding.

The goal is nothing short of making the UAE the capital of economy, tourism and trade for a global region of two billion people. GDP per capita is set to rise by 65 per cent. And who can doubt it will happen – the economy today is 231 times the size it was at the formation of the union.

There are heady years ahead in the UAE, but not too heady. From the 2008 crash, which particularly affected Dubai, a stronger economy has emerged.

Public relations has an image problem in the Gulf. Almost every organisation has ‘public relation officers’, and many contract ‘public relation officer companies’. Unfortunately, their job is standing in line at government offices to process bureaucratic transactions.

For years much of the real public relations industry could flourish by doing little better. Of course, there was always a spectrum and great work done, but many clients required agencies simply to draft press releases and place articles. Sometimes lucrative, it was rarely interesting work. Client/agency relationships were transactional. Client churn was high and consultancy was not required.

Today Dubai and Abu Dhabi are ever more cosmopolitan hubs, in a globally interconnected world. The UAE’s economic growth has seen its corporate champions become global titans.

Some 80 per cent of Fortune 500 companies have a base here, including all of the top 10, and that means the UAE public relations industry is starting to look very different; the old way of doing things is being challenged. Dubai has become an alpha-global city and those in the communications industry are demanding the standards to match.

More clients want consultancies that can use research and insight to develop communications campaigns that work. That means campaigns that help clients achieve their business objectives, rather than polishing reputation like a trophy. More clients want professionals who can analyse what their stakeholders think, and create compelling narratives to change perceptions.

I believe in the UAE we are starting to see the rise of the reputation management consultancy, at the expense of the public relations agency. For the industry here, that can only be a good thing.

Simon Buerk is MD of Blue Rubicon, United Arab Emirates. He has lived and worked in the Gulf since 2005.

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