Mapping the territory: Navigating the new communications frontier

Expat Brits are flocking to the Middle East as the region's rulers and companies start to realise the benefits of PR. But potential recruits should be aware of the challenges, warns Claire Murphy.

The year 2001 was a turning point for the fledgling Middle East PR industry. It saw the opening of Media City in Dubai, an area that now houses the majority of the emirate's PR agencies, as well as magazines, newspapers and broadcasters. In 2002, the United Arab Emirates government also dropped the requirement that a UAE national must own at least 50 per cent of any business in the emirate.

The net result has been a swelling in the number of agencies operating across the region and a change in the nature of PR. Five years ago, many in-house PROs were largely 'glorified secretaries', according to one agency chief, organising visas for visiting executives. PR duties within agencies amounted to little more than creating press releases, which would then be cut and pasted into print by journalists who would rarely question the contents.

Changing landscape

Although Middle East PR is still dominated by media relations, changes in the media landscape are prompting PROs to alter their approach. Many agency CEOs cite last year's launch of The National newspaper as a watershed, introducing more analytical reporting.

A relaxation in the licences needed to launch magazines and newspapers has led to an explosion in titles, some of which last only a few months. However, there are limits to this media liberalisation, as certain websites are still blocked to web users within the region.

Nick Leighton, CEO of NettResults and a ten-year veteran of the region, says the biggest difficulty for most PR agencies is the limited pool of appropriately skilled local staff, although this is starting to ease. But Westerners still make up an estimated 80 per cent of the region's PR fraternity and many of them are picking up roles that reflect the kind of change happening in the region.

Nicole Utzinger, now director of comms training EMEA for Waggener Edstrom, acted as comms 'coach' for the CEO of Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) from 2004 to 2006. She witnessed huge growth in business activity across Dubai and an attendant realisation by UAE's senior corporate executives that they needed to communicate more effectively. 'They realised that in order to engage in the wider world they would have to deal with a more challenging media,' she says.

This attitude helped Utzinger set up an internal comms strategy at the DIFC - still a rarity in the region. 'The idea of the divisional managers giving the staff updates and allowing questions was quite ground-breaking,' she recalls.

PR opportunities

Ross Bethell, a Canadian who moved to London to work in comms in 2000, arrived in Dubai in January this year. As associate director of Bell Pottinger, he has been working on internal comms projects. One of his main clients is investment fund Mubadala - and he has been helping some of the companies in which it invests to understand the opportunities generated by a PR strategy.

'It's an incredible place to work,' says Bethell. 'In the UK I was selling in press releases. Here I'm working on strategies with senior government people.'

Career opportunities might be plentiful, but there are plenty of challenges. 'People think tax-free salaries mean you can go home rich,' says Mark Lunn, managing director of corporate comms at Dubai International Capital (DIC). 'But you can't underestimate the cost of accommodation.'

The rental cost of Lunn's apartment soared by 30 per cent in the three months between his first trip to Dubai in March and his start date at DIC, due to the limited stock of suitable housing for expats. Many have to pay six months to a year's rent up front to secure a home. The housing shortage is worsening now that Dubai's rulers are more strictly enforcing a rule that allows only one family or one single person to live in each villa.

Recruiters advise PROs heading for the Gulf not to expect their income to be much higher than the UK once higher housing costs are deducted, although in-house roles can be better paid. But even if the Middle East is no longer the route to riches it once was, expats still relish being part of one of the world's fastest growing markets.

'When I first left the UK, friends asked me why I would want to move here,' says Lunn. 'Then the credit crunch happened. They don't ask any more.'

TIPS FOR NEWCOMERS

It's hot, sunny, and amazing for water-sports and parties. But people also work exceptionally hard. You'll need an entrepreneurial attitude.

Nobody can work here without their 'qualification' being authenticated. Your degree must be attested by a lawyer, and then stamped by both the FCO and the UAE Embassy in London. Do this early - it takes time.

If you have a job offer, double check with your employer and the relevant immigration department what the latest status is for employment and visit visas. These change regularly.

Check that your new employer is happy to pay for your accommodation upfront - they will normally do this and then deduct a monthly amount from your salary.

Source: PRJS

 

MAJOR AGENCIES IN THE MIDDLE EAST

BEIRUT (LEBANON)
Action Global Comms
Asda'a Burson-Marsteller
Cohn & Wolfe
Impact Porter Novelli
Memac Ogilvy PR
Promax

DAMASCUS (SYRIA)
Action Global Comms
Promax

BAGHDAD (IRAQ)
Action Global Comms

KUWAIT CITY (KUWAIT)
Action Global Comms
Asda'a Burson-Marsteller
Hill & Knowlton
Ogilvy PR
TRACCS
Weber Shandwick

DUBAI (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES)
ACE Worldwide
Action Impact
Active PR
Adfactors PR
Amber PR
AMC Dubai
Asda'a Burson-Marsteller
Bell Pottinger
BPG PR
Brunswick
Capital MS&L
Cohn & Wolfe
Four Comms
Golin Harris
Headline PR
Hill & Knowlton
Impact Porter Novelli
JiWin
Matrix Consultancy
MCS/Action
Memac Ogilvy PR
Momentum
NettResults
O2 Marketing Comms
Orient Planet
Promax
Rawaj International
Reputation Inc
Spot On PR
Strategic Comms Group
TBWA/RAAD PR
Total Communications
TRACCS
Weber Shandwick

MANAMA (BAHRAIN)
Action Global Comms
Asda'a Burson-Marsteller
Bell Pottinger
FD
Ogilvy PR
Promax
TRACCS
Hill & Knowlton
Weber Shandwick

MUSCAT (OMAN)
Action Global Comms
ADINC PR
Al Omaneya
Asda'a Burson-Marsteller
Buzzword
Momentum PR
TRACCS
Weber Shandwick

ABU DHABI (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES)
Action Impact
Asda'a Burson-Marsteller
Bell Pottinger
Edelman
Four Comms
Gavin Anderson
Hill & Knowlton
Impact Porter Novelli
M&N Communications
NettResults
Rawaj International
Weber Shandwick

DOHA (QATAR)
Action Global Comms
Asda'a Burson-Marsteller
Bell Pottinger
Citigate Dewe Rogerson
Cohn & Wolfe
Hill & Knowlton
TRACCS
Weber Shandwick

RIYADH (SAUDI ARABIA)
Action Global Comms
Asda'a Burson-Marsteller
Buchanan Comms
GCI
Hill & Knowlton
Impact Porter Novelli
Ogilvy PR
Momentum
MPR
NettResults
Promax
TRACCS
Weber Shandwick

JEDDAH (SAUDI ARABIA)
Asda'a Burson-Marsteller
Cohn & Wolfe
Headline PR
Hill & Knowlton
Impact Porter Novelli
NettResults
Ogilvy PR
TRACCS
Weber Shandwick

CAIRO (EGYPT)
Action Global Comms
Asda'a Burson-Marsteller
Cohn & Wolfe
Hill & Knowlton
MS&L
Ogilvy PR
Promax
TRACCS
Weber Shandwick

AMMAN (JORDAN)
Action Global Comms
Asda'a Burson-Marsteller
Bidaya Corporate Comms
Memac Ogilvy PR
Promax
TRACCS

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