Media reporting of the Middle East might lead one to conclude that this is a region in turmoil. The war in Iraq, sporadic terrorist attacks in countries such as Saudi Arabia, the bitter, unresolved conflict over Palestine - taken together they undoubtedly convey a negative image that could make you think this is a part of the world offering few opportunities for PR businesses.
To draw such a conclusion would be wrong, however. The region is both vast and disparate, comprising 22 countries and over 300 million people.
United by a common language and culture, the Arab world is nevertheless divided by huge economic chasms. The Gulf nations enjoy income on a par with Europe, while the likes of Yemen and Egypt report poverty levels barely higher than sub-Saharan Africa.
'Women in Morocco face some of the highest illiteracy levels in the world, and yet the UAE is positioning itself as a knowledge village and a technology hub,' says Burson-Marsteller affiliate ASDA'A PR Middle East managing director Sunil John. 'The refugee camps of Jordan and Palestine stand in stark contrast to the grandiose construction projects of the Gulf, where superlatives abound - highest tower in the world, biggest man-made island - and budgets are rich.'
Hill & Knowlton Middle East regional director Jim Donaldson points out how the standing of PR in the region differs greatly to the rest of the world. 'The Middle East has been chugging along nicely and growing across the board for the past five to ten years,' he says.
Also in marked contrast with much of the rest of the world, IT PR continues to boom. Moreover, there is as much demand from local companies as from multinationals.
'Consumer PR is growing rapidly, but healthcare and corporate PR are still lagging behind considerably,' says Impact Porter Novelli managing director Pierre Azzam.
With PR evolving rapidly, adds Azzam, particularly in the more developed markets such as the UAE, the region has witnessed small local companies 'jumping on the bandwagon' by opening up local PR agencies. Unfortunately, he argues, this has led to 'copycat' strategies delivered without the knowledge, experience or pedigree of established global or regional operators.
As a result, quality, pricing and end results fluctuate wildly.
In an effort to raise standards and adopt a PR code of practice, the Middle East PR Association (MEPRA) was formed in June 2001. It aims to develop further understanding and appreciation of the industry and provide professional education and development opportunities.
MEPRA now has more than 20 PR firms as members, mostly based in Dubai - which has positioned itself as the media hub for the Arab world. Media relations is by far the most popular form of PR in the region. However, there are still issues relating to media transparency in certain territories, where editorial is tied heavily into advertising.
Azzam argues there is still a widespread inability among clients to see the benefits of a sustained strategic PR campaign. Other areas he considers relatively neglected include corporate comms, research, issues and crisis management, public affairs and internal communications.
Conversely, Donaldson pinpoints growing demand for internal comms. For example, H&K has been advising Saudi petrochemical giant Sabic on a staff communication programme.
H&K has six offices across the region - the newest, in Amman, Jordan, opened earlier this year - and employs 60 staff in the Middle East. Interestingly, ten of these are on secondment to clients. Arguably, this points to a dearth of in-house talent in the region.
Inevitably, there was a slowdown in communications activity during the war in Iraq. Since victory was declared, agencies report a return to normal levels of activity.
There are, of course, specific issues for US multinational clients operating in the region. 'In the marketplace there have, for the last 18 months to two years, been a number of boycott calls against US companies and some email virus attacks against them. We have some clients that we are advising on community relations programmes to make sure they are more connected to the community they are serving,' says Donaldson.
South Africa remains Africa's largest PR market. Most of the world's biggest PR networks are represented here through affiliate relationships, although a handful have equity stakes in South African PR companies.
Increasingly, PR in South Africa is no longer seen as an 'add-on', but as a strategic tool to be employed and integrated into other business activities at planning stage. Some management consultancies and advertising agencies are attempting to offer PR/reputation management/ strategic communications services.
'Over the past few years there has been a trend towards niche PR, where clients demand their PR teams are experts in particular areas, such as healthcare or IT,' says GCI South Africa managing director Robyn de Villiers.
'The limited success of this trend is largely because the market is simply not big enough to be very narrowly specialised, other than perhaps in the case of investor relations. Increasingly, though, the PR industry is gaining credibility.'
New corporate governance legislation (the King Report) means companies will have to work harder at communicating with stakeholders. A growth in corporate social responsibility communications is placing greater emphasis on the so-called 'triple bottom line'. IT/internet and healthcare are also identified as potential growth areas by de Villiers.
Investor relations remains in its infancy in South Africa, according to Ketchum affiliate Beachhead Media & Investor Relations CEO Bruce Hetherington, and is largely the domain of the chief executive and the financial director.
But he believes it is starting to emerge as a stand-alone discipline.
'However, the current trend in seeking support is for listed companies to employ the services of an ex-analyst or fund manager in-house to complement their interaction with investment markets,' he explains.
Outside South Africa, PR is still at a formative stage in sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of Nigeria and Kenya. Intriguingly, on 25 June 2003, Hill & Knowlton announced it had signed an exclusive affiliation agreement with a 20-strong Nigerian agency, JSP Corporate Communications.
Clients at the Lagos-based agency include Coca-Cola and FedEx.
'South Africa does tend to dominate sub-Saharan Africa and is the key market,' says Weber Shandwick head of issues management and international affairs Marcus Smith. 'But we have been involved in a pan-continental campaign for Coca-Cola, launching a CSR vehicle for them, which had the support of the King of Swaziland.'
ISRAEL OPTIMISM IN A TIME OF CHANGE
During the late 1990s the Israeli economy, in particular the hi-tech sector, boomed, but the picture has now been dramatically changed by security concerns.
'Agencies that were heavily tech client-based have suffered greatly,' says Gitam Porter Novelli managing director Orna Gourell.
Budgets tend to be smaller than in the US and UK, with monthly retainers roughly US$2,000-3,000 per month. According to Rimon Cohen/Weber Shandwick CEO Roni Rimon several clients are seeking to reduce the cost of their retainers at a time when they have been shedding staff.
Several established PR firms have also sought local and foreign partnerships.
'Whereas in the past, PR firms tended to specialise in areas of expertise, economic slowdown, growing customer needs and the mergers and consolidations process have meant agencies expanded their capabilities,' says Fleisher Communications and PR CEO Amiram Fleisher.
Corporate image, community relations and healthcare are widely regarded as having strong potential. Although the IT market has suffered, some see possibilities in telecoms PR, related to areas such as wireless networking, 3G infrastructure and voiceover internet.
There are also opportunities in crisis and issues management and Rimon points to recent assignments involving his agency such as work for Burger King International.
Not surprisingly, GCI affiliate Stern Ariely director Pupi Ariely says tourism PR has been hard-hit. Nevertheless, many are hopeful the road map for the region will eventually bring greater stability and peace.