The Middle East is back - bigger, better and smarter - and so is PR in the region

From an outside perspective, the Middle East PR industry has had a roller-coaster decade.

The original boom years of Dubai, seen by some as the world’s first PR-led city, were followed by a shuddering crash as the global financial crisis hit, followed again by rapid growth across the region as oil prices rocketed.

Under that narrative, the sector should be in another meltdown, after 18 months of plummeting oil prices and uncertainty caused by regional conflicts.

Happily, the industry itself doesn’t seem to agree. Released yesterday, the 2016 Middle East Public Relations (MEPRA) Benchmark report, Bigger, Better, Smarter, showed a high level of optimism.

I wasn’t surprised to see that across most aspects of work, our respondents - more than 130 heads of agencies and in-house departments - expected to see growth and improvement in 2016.

They expect to do more social media, more integrated comms, more influencer engagement and so on – across 21 of 22 elements.

The only one they expect to decline is media relations, perhaps catching up to trends in the wider world - and indeed there are further signs of a maturing market, one in which the appetite for comms is at a markedly different level from when I arrived here ten years ago.

PR in the region is now more likely to report to the CEO or other C-suite executives.

It is more likely to have a strategic impact, delivering programmes that support core business goals.

And it is more likely to be able to demonstrate a return on investment.

Those are issues I’ve felt strongly about for some time – but it was pleasing to see all of those validated in the report, shared by executives representing more than 1,600 PR staff across 14 markets.

If there was one glaring red flag in the research it was the way that people – supposedly our industry’s greatest asset – are treated.

The industry’s lowest marks are in regard to finding and keeping staff, particularly when it comes to graduate recruitment and to identifying local talent. Given the high numbers of expats in the workforces of the Gulf markets, where much of the industry is at its strongest, this too is perhaps no huge surprise.

However, if we are to make the step from ‘maturing’ to ‘mature’, then we all need to take note. We can’t hope for future stars if we are not welcoming talent now.

The lazy view is to simply deny there is that local talent. I was guilty of this at one time. But since hiring our first local graduate in July 2014 - we’d been hiring expat grads through our London scheme since 2006 - our agency has welcomed another four in the past couple of years.

Other agencies – as well as in-house practitioners – are seeing marked success in recruiting and promoting local talent. It’s a significant shift from years ago, but our study shows we need to continue to focus on retaining that talent.

The last decade has obviously been more nuanced for the PR industry than other sectors. Yes, there have been ups and downs, but these are blips on a pretty consistent upward line. Bigger, Better, Smarter does show an industry that is growing, even in the days of low oil prices.

PRWeek’s new league table for the Middle East, published earlier this month, is another sign of that market maturity. If we can now sort out that simple matter of finding and retaining the best talent, we’ll really have it made.

Ray Eglington is group managing director of Four Communications Group, and a member of the board of MEPRA 

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