Operating in the Middle East poses many challenges and opportunities in how we communicate. PR in a post-September-11 environment and the strategies we implement have changed dramatically.Global brands are under threat now more than ever in the Middle East. Socioeconomic, geopolitical, and cultural trends have caused political issues to migrate into consumer issues. Consumers are using their political viewpoints to drive consumer decisions - the most powerful weapon today in the Middle East. The calls for a boycott of American brands and increased anti-American sentiment have all impacted how we communicate. Today, we need to help our clients' brands work harder and communicate more cautiously to gain and maintain the trust of consumers. The call for boycott activity, which was been triggered by the Intifada, the second war in Iraq, and the war on terrorism in general, is being stimulated by emotions not rational in the minds of local consumers. Positioning brands against an emotional machine puts companies in a difficult predicament. It's not easy for an organization to tell its consumers that their feelings are wrong. Emotions are clouding their judgment, and are having a negative effect on business. Consumers choose to boycott for different reasons. Some consumers are trying to promote local brands and local products, while others are boycotting to fulfill an emotional need and display a sense of Arab unity. The reality is that the boycott impacts local businesses and hurts local employees. But the lessons learned for how to manage during a boycott carry far beyond the boycott itself. The companies that implement localization strategies for their brands survive with little to no impact on their corporate reputation or their brands. A strong brand is the key to protecting corporate reputation against the anti-American threat - the strongest brands take on the nationality of the local market in the minds of consumers. They act local and place emphasis on their development of jobs and transfer of technology, and are active in the communities in which they operate. They don't just preach about corporate social responsibility; they live it. They are also able to guard against the local public- and private-sector companies that try to capitalize on anti-American sentiment by controlling the dialogue to promote their local roots and heritage. The situation in Iraq is causing an indirect negative impact on global brands. While there is not an active boycott taking place now, the more unstable the situation is in Iraq, the less confidence Arabs have in anything American. A recent internet poll in the region showed that peace and prosperity is directly linked to positive perceptions and purchasing power. While building brand equity and protecting market share are important to multinationals, consumers are concerned with the daily news on expanding democracy and domestic security. Our PR strategies have to support these communications requirements. PR campaigns in the region have to implement many strategies to keep ahead and ensure that the loudest voices are heard. We have three principles we adopt when giving clients advice about developing campaigns. First, develop distinctive campaigns to avoid "me too" strategies. The campaigns have to be tied directly to the brand values and relate to the organization's heritage. Second, the campaigns we deploy have to be credible. This means we have to incorporate social strategy into our mainstream operations - it can't be reactionary or trendy. The goal isn't to get quick, "aren't we nice" hits, but to build the long-term corporate reputation and seed its local roots over time. Lastly, our campaigns have to be sustainable. By embedding social strategy into our mainstream operations, we are building the trust bank over the long term so we can sustain an efficient balance within our marketplace when a crisis hits. The boycott may be over for now, but can return at any time. On an ongoing basis companies need to avoid political messages, reach out to opinion leaders and stakeholders, and most importantly, monitor consumer sentiment. Having the right plan in place and being sensitive to the local culture is not specific to the Middle East, but now more than ever, it means the difference between a strong reputation and a tarnished one. Maha Abouelenein is managing director of Promoseven Weber Shandwick Public Relations in Cairo, Egypt.
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