'Ordinary people now tell the story for you' - Seven Media on Middle East PR's U-turn

PR in the Middle East has seen a "U-turn" in recent years whereby agencies now tailor their strategy for the everyday social media consumer - rather than pitch to traditional newsmakers, says the director of one of the region's biggest homegrown communications firms.

Local understanding: Seven Media co-founders Gregg Fray (left) and Matt Slater
Local understanding: Seven Media co-founders Gregg Fray (left) and Matt Slater

Gregg Fray, director and co-founder of Seven Media, says that while in the past PR firms would focus on getting content in newspapers and on TV channels, thanks to the power of social media "ordinary people now tell the story for you" - especially in the Middle East, which has among the largest consumers of online content in the world.

"So if you create sharable content cool enough, it is going to be talked about on everyone’s Instagram, for example, and everyone these days has, minimum, between 200 and 1,000 followers," says Fray. "So, if you know exactly what type of content to put right under the noses of the right people, then it is real-world activation. It is about creating content that first leads to people seeing something that they interact within the real world.

"Then they talk about it and then create their own their own social media content - and we build brilliant professional content around what these people talking about. Then, if you do all of those things right, the big institutional media follow.

"So, you used to tell your story to the media so they could tell it to the people, now we get the people to help say it to the media."

An ex-journalist, Fray says the old-rule of telling and selling stories still applies to the world of PR.

"In journalism, there is the saying: how would you tell it to your friend in the pub? So what is your top line, and why is it interesting to you? Now, it is about taking that approach with slightly different content and creating content people want to talk about.

"So that means every kind of campaign has to be bespoke and be based around create sharable content that gets people talking."

Fray says this is why Seven Media has never been about "just issuing a press release" and four-and-a-half years ago began employing in-house videographers to create "cool", bespoke digital content to run alongside traditional communication tools.

"Now, more than ever, it is about giving clients the whole ‘bouquet’ of multimedia content. Every story or activation we do has to have a dynamic social media package for all channels, to give to people in communities of interest, to give to influencers, to have dynamic multimedia content that they can share.

"Add this has great photography, sound slides, picture galleries and different bespoke written features ready to give to journalists in different types of publications in different countries across the Middle East, which is parochial in nature, then you have hit everyone; the person on the ground right up to the tv networks or the big newspapers."

Fray met Seven Media co-founder and joint director, Matt Slater, on the beat as former crime reporters in the UK. Their paths crossed again when they both moved to the Middle East to help launch The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi.

After two years on the paper, the duo hatched a plan to set up their own PR firm after seeing the hundreds of press releases and communication bulletins sent to their inboxes. The majority of the correspondence, says Fray, was not up to scratch.

"What we were being sent was often pretty rubbish," says Fray, who ran the newsdesk for two years. "We very much at the time, and still do, bought into the story narrative of Abu Dhabi and the renaissance of the region. At the time, there was not much of a voice that told the story.

"What I found was, in those two years, that unlike the UK, which is a more established market, every single news story or feature story that we did was pretty much self-starting, not born out of communications with content-focused PR companies.

"Nobody seemed to have been able to tap into what made people tick and what makes a news story relevant. In the UK, there was an abundance of great wires and PR agencies who fed you stories. Nobody was doing that; what I would call a solid, creative-focused content driver. So that was what we set out to do."

As editors covering both the news and sports section of the paper, Fray says he and Slater were in a strong position when it came to their contact network and having their nose on the news agenda of the region.

"At the time, there were a lot of international companies putting their footprint on this part of the map; they were parachuting, say, ten staff members from America. But we felt we qualified, having cut our teeth in the traditional media sense, to fill the gap that was there."

Seven Media was launched in 2010 - on April’s Fools Day. It was a ‘clean date’ rather than any company foresight, laughs Fray.

The company launch followed the economic crisis of 2008/2009, and the oil-rich Gulf country was not unsusceptible to the global aftershocks. Fray said, while many raised an eyebrow of setting up a company at a time where businesses were reigning in marketing budgets, the economic downturn had also seen many communications firms shut up shop - which meant Seven Media launched at a time when the Emirates was more of a barren PR market than the current competitive conditions of today.

The first year, admits Fray, was a "learning exercise", but early on Seven Media managed to sign a contract with Abu Dhabi Media. The government contract - and Seven Media’s success in other early campaigns - meant other clients followed.

From a team of just four people nine years ago, Seven Media now has 75 staff members, based across its Abu Dhabi head office and in Dubai, as well as office bases across the GCC, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and in the UK.

In the Middle East, they have more than 100 clients across sport, leisure and entertainment, automotive, government, destination, hospitality, healthcare and banking, with names including Yas Marina Circuit, F1, Al Jazira Football Club, the Meraas Leisure and Entertainment portfolio, BMW, Rolls Royce, United Nations, Mubadala, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) Dubai Tourism, Tourism Thailand and Sky News Arabia being among their client roster.

The success of Seven Media’s digital and videography campaigns meant Fray and Slater recently launched Seven Media's spin-off, Seven Studios, which has a ten-strong dedicated team including animators, cinematographers and graphic artists, and now solely focuses on creating stand-alone video content for clients.

Fray says Seven Media has succeeded, where many others have failed, as it gets the importance of local cultural knowledge, over the PR shops who "parachute in" experts with ten years' global expertise and who "almost have to break themselves down and build themselves back up again."

"Otherwise, they fall into the trap of trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. PR, how it works in the UK, or America, or India, doesn’t work here. This region is very different; the lifestyle choices, the way people think, the way they consume content.

"You can not have an off-the-shelf PR campaign. You have to have local understanding, and people fail to realise that."

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