Mazen Nahawi, Media Watch: Golden opportunity for PR

The value of PR in the Middle East is predicted to hit $500m in billings by 2015 and $1bn by 2020.

Public relations is a young industry worldwide, and more so in the Middle East. In 1987, the Middle East PR Association (MEPRA) valued it at barely US$1m.

The regional PR market is now valued at more than $80m and is expected to surpass $100m by year-end. The average growth rate has held steady at 25 to 30 per cent every year since the 1990s and, with the exception of wartime and world economic decline, it will probably remain so for the next 15 years.

Much of this growth will result from three key drivers and four industry segments. The primary driver is economic growth. Average GDP growth for the year will exceed five per cent in 2009 (compared with, say, 1.7 per cent in the UK). Foreign investment has gone from zero in the 1990s to $54bn in 2007. The influx of global business to the region is real, and so is its spending on PR.

Those concerned about global recession should bear in mind that one of Abu Dhabi's wealth funds maintains $1tr in liquid assets. Regional capitals are not far behind - so the Middle East will feel only a mild, and short, impact from the global downturn.

PR ranks are being boosted by the arrival of trained practitioners from around the world. Their efforts are now data-driven, thanks to good media distribution, monitoring and evaluation services. Work done by MEPRA and the International PR Association (IPRA) means they work in an environment supported by codes of ethics, quality standards and training programmes.

The bottom-line impact is clear: five years ago a client could expect a PR campaign for a $3,000 monthly retainer. Today, big-ticket agencies are serving at least 20 government and multinationals billed at more than $1m per year, and hundreds of additional clients retained at $10,000 per month. Smaller and mid-level agencies are also expecting retainers of at least $5,000.

Part of the increasing value clients place on PR is due to the recent popularity of social networking in the Middle East. The largest newspaper, Asharq Alawsat, has a circulation of 250,000 copies. But Maktoob.com has 12.5 million unique visitors per month. Social networking and citizen journalism are underlining the fact that advertising cannot communicate credible messages to the public the way PR does, and the industry is cashing in quickly.

In terms of client sectors, 2008 was a landmark year for public affairs. Most governments adopted formal PR programmes. Expect this market to double every two years for the next ten years - every ministry, department and police force now has a PR mandate and there aren't enough agencies to cope.

Family-owned conglomerates already have some PR, but as the founders get older, the younger inheritors will be competing for power and influence. Many family groups will be broken up into smaller units, each jostling to establish its own identity - they are rich, determined and value reputation.

Multinationals won't have trouble finding an agency to adapt a media relations effort into Arabic or Persian - but they will find it hard to engage a broad audience on Maktoob.com. Multinationals based out of Dubai will rapidly expand digital PR budgets and the winners will be those who speak the language and understand local culture.

The regional sport industry is now half-way down the road to transforming all sports, especially football, into professional competitions. More than 300 clubs funded by government guarantees and wealthy businessmen will need PR to give them an identity to drive organisational success, and attract top players and sponsorships.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

- Which media outlet do you most respect?

Al Jazeera TV - the Arabic channel, not the English one. No single media outlet has done as much to challenge thought and innovation.

- Which Middle East brand will have global recognition in five years?

Several up-and-coming brands are already on the verge of global recognition - regional logistics powerhouses Aramex and Agility, and the world's largest renewable energy firm Masdar.

- Where in the Middle East do you go to relax?

The Jordanian countryside - home to the best equestrian tradition on earth.

Mazen Nahawi is managing director of Media Watch Middle East.

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