Firms question fate of Lebanon amid conflict

DUBAI: With the conflict in the Middle East showing no signs of letting up, PR agencies are contemplating what the backlash will be for the industry within the region. Of particular interest is Lebanon, which many communications professionals described as a burgeoning market, despite its small geographical size.

DUBAI: With the conflict in the Middle East showing no signs of letting up, PR agencies are contemplating what the backlash will be for the industry within the region. Of particular interest is Lebanon, which many communications professionals described as a burgeoning market, despite its small geographical size.

"Lebanon has been growing rapidly over the past couple of years," said Carrington Malin, MD of Dubai-based Spot On PR, the Middle East network partner of Brodeur Pleon Worldwide. "Despite the numerous setbacks the economy has had over the past couple of years, it has grown substantially to the point where it's commercially of interest to a lot of companies. Certainly there's been more agency and marketing work there during the last year than in the past. So it's quite a shock to have it all come tumbling down."

Peter Davies, COO of Promoseven/Weber Shandwick's, the firm's partner in the Mideast, concurred.

"Everywhere else in the Middle East is experiencing a very significant boom in expenditures in PR, privatization, IPOs, and property and financial services," Davies said. "There's growth in population and growth in marketing communications spending, and the current events are not negatively affecting business in the rest of the region."

But much of that is on hold now that the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict has ensnared the surrounding area.

Sunil John, Dubai-based MD at ASDAA, an Edelman affiliate, said that its Beirut office was closed and most of its 10 Beirut employees were working from home.

"We are in touch with them on continuous basis, but it's pretty much a closed situation for us," John said.

ASDAA, whose regional multinational clients like GE, American Express, and Microsoft are mostly served in that market, has put nearly all client-facing activities on hold.

Davies expressed that the crisis' impact transcends the immediate conflict zones because there are many Lebanese workers in every country in the region.

"They are the best people in advertising, PR, and media in the Middle East," Davies said, referring to the Lebanese nationals in those industries. "They are uniquely qualified in that they have a long history of creativity [and] excellence in marketing communications, and they're also trilingual. They often speak Arabic, English, and French."

Hania Tabet, PR director of Ketchum Middle East, said her office, based in Dubai, is limiting the flow of stories it's pitching to journalists and media outlets.

"When it comes to business stories and news, we are being more sensitive and not sending them to the Lebanese media at this stage," she said. "For regional events that involve Lebanon as a market, we're either reconsidering timing or putting it on hold to be a little more sensitive to what's happening. It's not the right time."

But Malin said that because the Middle East media and marketing environment is used to sudden changes in circumstances, Spot On PR was still pitching stories to journalists based in neighboring countries after ensuring messages were still valid.

"When something like this happens, standard practice is to check the programs you have in place and to look at your media relations programs and just make sure that you are still based in reality," Malin explained, while also considering the urgency of such pitches.

"A lot of the media we deal with are also Lebanese nationals," he added, "so clearly we don't have an agency executive calling up a Lebanese journalist trying to pitch him on a story when he's much more interested on whether his family is still in good health."

Malin, who believes it will take a long time before things get back to normal in the country, said communicators will soon be faced with some integral questions about how the conflict has affected business infrastructure.

"Media in the Middle East have started to count the [conflict's] cost to Middle East businesses," Malin said. "So there will be a lot of companies around the region that will need to assess what the impact has been and then work out how they best communicate that to customers, shareholders, and media. That's going to be something communicators are going to need to look at relatively quickly."

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