The Middle East’s top comms professionals are deeply concerned about the triple economic threat presented by the Covid-19 recession, falling tourism revenues and a depressed oil price, according to PRWeek’s Middle East Power Book 2020 published today.
“COVID-19; falling oil prices; economic recession; and negative market sentiment. It's a deadly cocktail,” Asda'a BCW Middle East president, Sunil John tells PRWeek.
The hugely experienced agency boss rates his current level of optimism as “2.5 out of 5”. He says, “I see a dip in the next two years and a gradual recovery over the following three.”
And PR bosses are concerned the downturn will create a talent shortage in a region, which has long struggled to find, train develop enough comms professionals.
Omar Qirem, CEO Edelman Middle East says the biggest threat is “not growing and focusing on the abundance of talent in region.”
Sophie Toh, founder of the Toh agency, agrees, “There's a risk that the industry will stagnate in terms of quality and talent.
Mazen Nahawi, group CEO of Carma, also fears “political and economic disruption that shrink trading activity and push away talent from the region.”
Alex Malouf, corporate comms director MEA for Schneider Electric, says he believes the biggest challenges are “reputational risks, brought about by people who don't understand that you build reputations ethically and by doing the right thing, rather than saying the right thing.”
And, Malouf adds, “an inability to keep up with how technology is changing how we communicate; with new digital platforms and fewer media outlets.”
Indeed, many see the region’s ability to grasp digital comms as key to its future.
“How do we digitise the PR industry?” asks Khaled Ismail, VP corporate comms, Tetra Pak. “In some cases, PR is still doing the same PR as it was in 1995.”
Mohammed Abuazzah, executive director, strategic marketing, Ministry of Investment Saudi Arabia (MISA) similarly questions how well comms agencies
are addressing digital trends: “People are still looking at it as a propaganda business with no context and agility,” he says
“It's all about the talent being hired at senior level who are wired to think and act digitally,” argues Bashar Alkadhi, CEO for Hill + Knowlton, METIA.
But there are strong elements of optimism from the Power Book respondents.
Salem AlNuaimi, head of comms, Abu Dhabi Media says, “I am quite optimistic about the growth of PR and marketing in the Middle East, especially given the current COVID-19 situation, where reputation management and crisis communications are of utmost importance.”
Jonty Summers, MD of Hanover Middle East and MEPRA chair, agrees but urges comms practitioners to develop faster. “PR and marketing are working together a bit more. But, generally, marketing teams in the region still seem to take the lead in developing campaigns with cohesive stories and experiences across multiple platforms. Comms is still frequently siloed and hasn't moved much beyond the earned-media element.”
PRWeek asked the Middle East Power Book leaders who they thought had handled their reputations best, and most poorly, over the past 12 months.
The clear winner was Jacinta Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister. Other governments were also praised for their response to the C-19 crisis, such as Angela Merkel’s Germany.
On the other hand, the US and British governments were criticised for their crisis management and comms around Brexit and C-19. “Brand Trump, no words…” says Loretta Ahmed, CEO, Houbara Communications, summing up the feelings of many.
In terms of corporations, Boeing was universally slammed for its reputational management around serious safety issues affecting its aircraft.
What did our comms professionals believe would be the biggest change as result of Covid-19? The overwhelming response was changing patterns of work, with new attitudes towards offices and working from home instead.
Ziad Hasbani, Weber Shandwick’s regional CEO, says: “Logistically, we will rethink how much office space and travelling we really need, as our remote working experience was quite successful. We will focus even more on employee engagement, wellbeing, resilience and value proposition.
Ray Eglington, group MD of Four Communications, says, “There are the obvious things, like how we use offices. But the bigger issues for our profession will be around how groups and societies communicate when there is this long-term shift away from face-to-face interaction.”
Remote working will have the biggest impact on people and organisations post-COVID-19,” believes Camilla d’Abo, MD of APCO Worldwide Dubai, “The most important will be increased efficiency. This will be manifested in ways such as reducing the amount of wasted time on business travel, smaller office spaces and replacing events with webinars.”
Omar Zaarfrani, senior VP group comms for ADNOC and recent recipient of the PRWeek Global PR Professional (in-house) award, looks forward to “a greater sense of altruism” as a result:
“The pandemic has brought people, teams, organisations and our industry closer together than ever. It will create a more connected, accessible and collaborative society as we share best practices, break down barriers and help one another overcome challenges.”
Click here to subscribe to the FREE Middle East comms bulletin to receive dedicated news, features and comment from the region straight to your inbox. Make sure you register for the site to access more than one story per month.
To submit a news, comment, case study or analysis idea for the Middle East bulletin, email Arvind.Hickman@haymarket.com