Wajih Halawa, Fleishman-Hillard - Walking through the fire

The global recession has delivered valuable lessons in addition to cutbacks and downsizing.

Wajih Halawa
Wajih Halawa

If you are reading this, then you may have endured what has been a year of tremendous change. The region's economy has shifted faster than anyone could have imagined, and the PR landscape has followed suit. If you believe the doomsayers, then it is all over already. Empty offices stand as testaments to agencies once poised to become regional, even global, integrated communications giants. The few that did survive have been relegated to reduced office space or none at all as some professionals work from home to rein in costs.

But if that is the case, then why are so many of us still here? If anything good has come of the global recession, it is that PR professionals have faced some of the toughest challenges imaginable. From stock market crashes to bankruptcies, corruption to angry investors, and redundancies to stagnant growth prospects, these are just the types of situations for which PR professionals have long advocated planning. Not on the agenda, obviously, was for all these things to happen at the same time.

Doom and gloom notwithstanding, 2009 has offered a generous heap of lessons for the PR and comms industry. For starters, it helps no one to pretend all is well when the sky is falling, or that a global crisis with unknown ramifications will have no impact on our own region. We have seen excessive speculation and overconfidence retreat into deafening silence, and sharp denials giving way to 'maybe' and 'hopeful'. The moral: don't jump the gun and say something that may be misinterpreted later.

Second, it has become evident that many organisations have inconsistent communications, saying one thing to the media and another to customers and employees. Aside from causing mistrust and ill will, this has cost several organisations their reputations and marginalised the media in the process. Proper planning, clear messaging, responsibility in the face of turmoil, and grace under fire are the traits of an organisation that knows how to communicate regardless of circumstances.

Tough times mean tighter budgets. While many agencies and PR departments have suffered cutbacks, creative communicators have learned how to elevate PR into the upper echelon of marketing comms through online PR and social media. It took a global recession of epic proportions to convince large numbers of clients that online PR does have more to offer than meets the eye, often at more competitive costs. The economic meltdown intersected with a newfound maturity in electronic social media that has created an unprecedented vehicle for targeting, interaction and measurement.

What remains to be seen is how people will react to organisations that vanished with the downturn and have either started creeping back, or are waiting to make a grand entrance once the good times are back. Will the media listen to them again? Will people give them their trust? Will governments regulate them? Will anyone care?

The truth is that these times could prove to be the most rewarding. Good PR agencies and comms specialists who have counselled their clients truthfully with clear insight and dedicated planning should now be seeing the fruits of their labour. These organisations are capably handling their affairs, communicating clearly with their audiences, and showing that they are truly beyond the hype of the boom days.

This approach will solidify trust and show the public that an organisation is honest, compassionate and in it for the long haul. Of course, this is true only if longevity is a genuine goal. Practitioners often explain to clients that PR can help tell their story to the world. That may be spot on, but your client must have a story to tell in the first place.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

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

It's hard to designate one specific form, but online news portals with strong reputations and verifiable sources have made a real difference in reporting on the recession. That said, it's important to consider a wide range of media from different sources in order to form a more complete picture of the facts.

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

We have seen many organisations seize the opportunity to revamp their internal communications, with particular emphasis on government agencies. Nevertheless, there is still a great deal of progress that is needed to achieve transparency and promote positive organisational behaviour and culture. Most importantly, this engagement has to take place starting with the top management of any organisation.

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

With all eyes on Abu Dhabi as it bucks the current trend and emerges as a regional centre of economic activity, Masdar has taken a leading role and set the agenda for promoting sustainable development. With the future vision of Masdar City as its goal and guide, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company has launched schemes such as the World Future Energy Summit and the Zayed Future Energy Prize, supported by the Masdar Institute of Science of Technology, tied together by Masdar's carbon management programme, and communicated to the world through an impressive array of activities, partnerships and developments.

Masdar's approach has resulted in worldwide acclaim for Abu Dhabi's efforts, and its enhanced reputation has culminated in the success of its efforts to promote Abu Dhabi as the headquarters for the International Renewable Energy Agency.

- Wajih Halawa is an account director at Fleishman-Hillard Middle East.

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