Watch now: A discussion on the essential role of PR in a post-pandemic world, in partnership with ASDA’A BCW
- Sunil John, president - Middle East of BCW and founder, ASDA’A BCW
- Brian Lott, chief communications officer, Mubadala
- Ramiro Prudencio, partner & global director of communications, McKinsey & Co
- Simeon Kerr, Gulf correspondent, Financial Times
It's been a chaotic 18 months. But comms leaders in the Middle East are optimistic the region is on the up, powered by a newly-revitalised comms sector.
As the world starts its pandemic recovery process, there is an urgent need for high quality communications.
In the Middle East, there is a sense that the region is on the edge of transformative change as government and business navigate sweeping adaptations in politics, economics and the environment.
So, with the publication of PRWeek's third annual Power Book for the region, PRWeek brought together four leaders to chew over 2020’s seismic changes and debate PR’s future in the region and beyond.
Sunil John, president – Middle East of BCW and founder of ASDA’A BCW (the Power Book partner) chaired the discussion, alongside Brian Lott, chief communications officer, Mubadala; Ramiro Prudencio, partner & global director of communications, McKinsey & Co; Simeon Kerr, Gulf correspondent at Financial Times, Dubai.
John set the context: “The pandemic has permanently transformed the business of communications and media across the world”. Internal comms and links with governments have come under a particular spotlight and PR people have had to scramble to adapt to an extremely fast-moving news environment.
Most comms teams will have regarded themselves as reasonably well-schooled in crisis PR preparations, but the pandemic took them into a territory few could have prepared for.
Prudencio added: “There was no playbook for this crisis”.
What most organisations realised quickly was that stakeholders, particularly staff, were looking to business leaders to provide some sense of stability.
“When everything was changing so fast, our employees were looking to us to be that source of guidance,” said Lott. “On a practical level this meant being able to update them about regulations, particularly in terms of travel, but also on vaccines and whether to come into the office. On a more emotional level it settles the nerves to hear reassurance from a trusted employer that we're going to get through this. We could give them that sense of optimism that was needed.”
Giving clarity over restrictions was particularly helpful in the region as each government’s rules differed greatly. For businesses like Mubadala, which has a healthcare division, the role became even more complex; they were feeding through test data back to government.
Comms teams swiftly adopted whatever technology worked to get the job done, video-conferencing being the obvious primary method. Prudencio describes this as “15 years of digitalisation happening in 15 months”, with the pandemic serving to accelerate changes that were only just on the rise at the beginning of 2020.
Similarly, Prudencio sees the large-scale focus on internal comms as a key area for comms teams now planning: “It's an important opportunity to build trust, both within and outside the organisation.”
Business leaders have had to become ever-more flexible as they support staff under new and particular pressures: working remotely, home-schooling and more. He also sees a focus on mental health as employers and employees continue to “rebalance” their relationship.
Both Lott and John see this change to a more flexibly-managed, partially home-based, workforce as one that is here to stay. “This has big implications for how we communicate with our employees,” John said.
The general craving for effective leadership has also had an impact on the media. Lott believes that the heightened need for reliable information meant a renewed premium on quality news sources and so people may be more willing to subscribe: “Social media has served to amplify credible news outlets, as people have tried to share what they have heard about restrictions changing or vaccine news.”
The panellists believe that earned media will continue, however, to be a central weapon in the PR armoury – in fact the potential extra investment in content may require a parallel expansion in comms teams.
At McKinsey, Prudencio's team now includes data analysts and creatives as well as the more traditional ex-journalist staffers. “The environment is richer, the conversations are more interesting – and the challenges are greater.”
One area where the media-comms conversations are more interesting is the sense that the Middle East is on the cusp of serious growth. John said this is partly due to big events such as the World Cup, Expo and the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE. But these will happen against a backdrop of developing peace in the region.
Lott also believes that the UAE has done a good job of embracing its role in a world that makes less use of hydrocarbons: “There will be an economic shift towards those countries that are aware of their role in climate change.”
However, the process of integrating a more ethical element into commercial decision-making continues to challenge governments and businesses in the region, believes Kerr. A clear example of this was when Qatar finally introduced a minimum wage - but only after sustained international pressure, as preparations for the World Cup had put working conditions under the spotlight.
“These big events in the region will help define development and economic diversification in the Gulf," said Kerr. "At the same time, communicators will have to be careful to deal with ESG issues that have global resonance”.
So as the region's comms teams look ahead to a brighter horizon, it is with the acknowledgement that their more central role will bring a more complex workload.
Thank you to ASDA’A BCW for sponsoring the PRWeek Power Book Middle East and this panel discussion.