Tim Walmsley, Impact Porter Novelli - The most important lesson

If nothing else, 2009 has taught the Middle East communications industry to value people.

Tim Walmsley
Tim Walmsley

The end of 2009 should be welcomed with open arms. From a purely human point of view, it represents a respite. Our lesson from the past 18 months of pain is that people matter most. This is a truism. But sometimes we have to learn the truth of a truism. And sometimes we have to learn it the hard way.

People matter in the major government institutions Impact Porter Novelli supports. As they move from vision to execution, they live and become the change. New organisations will not succeed without new behaviours. Gradually, these are taking root, but the rate of transformation is challenged by people issues.

It is all about getting the right people on board, keeping them on board and creating a disciplined environment in which they can succeed. Our support role in capability development and training is unsexy, slow and sometimes painful, but it is also beginning to yield enduring outcomes. Conditions are becoming more favourable for the medium-term partnerships needed to create and roll out practical communications skills-building programmes.

Externally, people's opinions matter for the issues now firmly in the public domain. The list is consequential: national identity; nuclear power; government services delivery, from independent economic data to waste management; an education and economic system to support the oversupply of labour in the Arab world; sustainability of everything from aluminium to dates; and the health of nations.

Communities are interrogating - and in some instances defying - policies. Governments play a major role in the Gulf as they pursue ambitious reform agendas. But they will also have to achieve smallness, engaging with supporters and opposition alike, enfranchising the individual citizen as they give communities a helping hand.

People matter for major client consumer brands - not just as consumers, but as critics or cheerleaders. Happily. 2009 has seen the death of 'awareness' as the single most-cited comms objective by fmcg brand managers. Awareness was synonymous with push marketing backed up by big-buck ads.

As budgets dwindled, brand managers operated in a world beyond awareness, thinking constructively about influencing audiences and modelling consideration, preference, advocacy and understanding. This is where people's attitudes and beliefs matter, where intelligent influence, sourced socially, is the determining factor.

Throughout 2009 Porter Novelli has experimented globally with multiple intelligent influence techniques. We brought together the network on Twitter (on the Obama inauguration, for example) to see how to map, shape and guide social dynamics. Based on this knowledge we designed social dimensions into initiatives as varied as a Unicef programme for Pampers, the nomination process for Abu Dhabi awards (for contributions to community and social welfare), and green blogging around the forthcoming global Copenhagen environment summit. The results: integrated programmes with metrics well over target.

Dialogue in this region has become powerful enough to start toppling old guard marketing thinking: surely a reason for optimism for the public relations sector in 2010 and beyond?

For us, 2009 has been about holding on to core teams as well as bringing in new senior people who can raise our game, especially in Abu Dhabi. At times our resolve has been sorely tested. We have been practising what we preach - particularly in terms of transparency.

The payoff is we have kept our shape, our teams, our heads up, our sense of humour and our mojo. Bring on 2010.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

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

In the Arabic media, stars for accuracy and comprehensiveness go to Al Arabiya, CNBC Arabiya and Al Roya and Al-Iktisadya. On economics, the English-language media are dominated by the Financial Times and the BBC Middle East Business Report. We also have respect for Arab News in Saudi. Twitter roared into the frame, with management changes at The National being narrowcast from the newsroom meeting, and more recently, when the Sharjah airport crash citizen reporting beat professional channels hands down.

- Tim Walmsley is regional director of Impact Porter Novelli.

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