Postcard from Qatar

The PR scene in Qatar has changed rapidly since the Gulf state came under global scrutiny after it was awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup, says James Caffall, MD of Forbes Associates.

Amid the din of 50 nationalities constructing a capital city out of nothing in no time, I have learned that building reputation demands different skills and attributes in different places.

Qatar is the ideal place to witness that principle in action. You need a multicultural and multilingual team focused on understanding and meeting local market needs. These needs are considerable because Qatar’s small community of movers and shakers presents a range of client types across sectors. Here, to build a client’s reputation effectively, you need deep local knowledge, strong Arabic skills and a detailed understanding of relationships that underpin political and social structures.

Even so, the most exquisitely tailored campaign ceases to fit when the market changes shape – and during a short time period, Qatar’s PR market has changed significantly. Looking at these changes offers insights into three main themes.

Firstly, Qatar is increasingly prominent on the global stage. The FIFA World Cup 2022 bid is the best known of several winning bids by Qatar in recent years to host international sporting events; in politics, Qatar has played a powerful role in the development of the Arab Spring; in art, headline purchases are backed up by exhibitions and canny positioning of new museums and galleries; in business, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund continues to acquire valuable assets, especially in London.

This increasing prominence means our clients have global audiences and global reputations. We’ve dramatically increased the amount of international media relations we handle as a consequence.

The World Cup spotlight has subjected Qatar to critical headlines for alleged worker abuse, and has resulted in the government adopting measures to ensure contractors abide by minimum standards. Policy has been supplemented by comms, and two leading UK public affairs agencies provide counsel and support today; the feeling in Doha is the situation is under control. The Qatari bid for the World Cup was clear about using the tournament as a catalyst for change in Qatar and the region, and global media can claim that it has made the biggest impact.

Secondly, the leadership in Qatar understands the value and role of PR; and Qatari leadership has invested heavily in media, among which the Al Jazeera network is the best-known example. The immediate result is international PR networks have recognised the conditions and are competing for attention with home-grown PR.

Predictably, this competition has raised general standards, and this is good for everyone. It helps local agencies highlight niche skills and local knowledge. So there is now more of a crowd to stand out from.

Thirdly, Qatar invests heavily in education. From a PR perspective, an interesting outcome of this approach is the establishment of Northwestern University in Qatar (NUQ), which offers great undergraduate degrees in journalism and communication.

NUQ is generating a formidable talent bench of Qatari graduates who are already having an impact on the local market. In ten years, when the same graduates reach senior management, the future will look even brighter.

In short, in PR, when you’re fully immersed locally you can swim with the currents, and when you’re swimming with the current, things tend more often to go your way.

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