David Baker, Action Global Communications - Keeping up with growth

Qatar's economy continues to expand, offering potential for savvy communications agencies.

David Baker
David Baker

Dubai continues to grab the global media spotlight for a variety of reasons, but while the economic crisis put the brakes on what was a very rapid growth period for the UAE PR industry, the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been quietly motoring on.

If there is a lesson the regional PR industry has learned from the economic crisis, it is not to put all your eggs in one basket. We knew that before, so I suppose it is a question of how many eggs you have and what constitutes an egg.

Action's 'eggs' are clients, effective communications channels and its network of offices. It has focused on engaging the digital media landscape, one that is vastly different from traditional media and requires expertise in order to communicate effectively.

Since the turn of the century, our strategy as an emerging independent agency has been to focus on other GCC growth markets such as Bahrain and Qatar - work that is bearing fruit today. Qatar, while not totally immune to the effects of recession, now boasts a large number of international PR firms with highly qualified and experienced staff offering a full range of PR services. This is a far cry from a few years ago. In 2009, Action's Doha office was our best performing and most profitable.

The global media spotlight on Dubai has diverted attention from the fact that Qatar's economy was projected to grow 10.3 per cent in 2009 despite the global financial turmoil, making it the world's fastest-growing economy, according to a study by Samba Financial Group.

Action's business was built on the back of multinational companies investing in Qatar, from airlines to defence companies, but increasingly we have seen many family-owned businesses, many dating back to the first oil boom in the 1960s and 70s, which have grown into huge conglomerates.

The original founders are now transferring power to a new generation of family members or even establishing boards of external directors. They are now calling the shots and adopting increasingly Western-style management, including PR. In 2009, local Qatari firms made up 25 per cent of our client base and a larger percentage of fee income.

If this growth is to continue, we must ensure we continue to educate the market about the range of PR services and the value they each can bring. Understanding PR has been the bane of the Middle East PR professional's life for as long as most of us can remember. As a founder member of MEPRA, Action is endeavouring to change the role of agencies from 'press release factories' into consultancies.

Until recently, there was no real need for investor relations because all major businesses were either government or family owned. But over the past few years (up until the start of 2009), the number of IPOs has been growing. Once we come out of recession, we can expect the growth to gather pace again.

Moreover, some of these local/family companies that are now publicly listed have experienced investigative media for the first time. They are reporting 'mistakes' and 'mismanagement'.

As Pandora's box is opened, communications and the role of agencies need to change in line with the improved corporate governance required to comply with the stock market regulatory authorities, both locally and internationally. Finally, crisis or no crisis, PR effectiveness measurement must change. Only by regular and effective measurement can an agency properly implement a comms plan.

PR is not yet recognised as the only marketing communications practice to reach all milestones on the customer journey, from awareness to understanding to intent to action/advocacy. Measurement is the key to proving it.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

Which media has proved the most accurate/comprehensive in reporting the effects of recession in the Middle East?

Financial Times – it takes a comprehensive, balanced and measured view, rather than one that is self-censored or an hysterical rant. Reuters, of course! It has gone all out. We would be lost without its daily briefings. On a local scale, The Gulf has been pretty good about ‘straight reporting’. We have also found discussions between journalists on social media, such as Twitter, forums and blogs, to be really interesting, as you can see and participate in arguments being thrashed out between peers, on such subjects.

Has the development of internal communications in the region progressed or regressed during the past 12 months? Why?

Unfortunately, it has certainly not progressed. We have seen some shocking examples of lack of internal communications in a time of crisis, or worse; internal communications tactics intent on misleading stakeholders. We would like to see more action: internal communications strategies that are committed to engaging genuinely with stakeholders, and led by strategies - not just tactics.

Tell us about an organisation that has enhanced its reputation this year by remaining open in its communications.

Government bodies are often criticised for not engaging with their publics, especially in the online world, especially in the Middle East. And when it comes to public and media complaints, public transport is Public Enemy Number One. So, with that in mind, the Roads and Transport Authority of Dubai deserves attention for its effective communications, which includes some tricky online social media. In this environment, the RTA has been open, responsive and engaging - fundamentals of effective online communication. In Qatar, two come to mind, both in the construction/infrastructure development arena - Barwa and Qatari Diar.

- David Baker is general manager of Action Global Communications.

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