Every year the race for the UK's PRWeek Best New Agency Award is testament to how the UK nurtures its PR professionals. Not so across the Middle East, where the PR industry is failing to engage and nurture local talent. As a consequence, it is failing to engineer a sustainable workforce for the future.
The reasons are complex and deep-rooted. Roughly 80 per cent of white-collar workforces in the UAE are expats. In the PR industry this figure is skewed towards Western expats who come and go. The mature, well-established advertising industry differs. It is viewed as an exciting career and is heavily populated by Arab nationals who often remain in the region for their entire careers.
The average PR consultancy in the region features an entirely Western leadership team; country managers and acount teams will be Western, complemented by a smattering of Arabs. Inherent in this equation are a number of problems. Arabs are headhunted by their own clients with an almost comic regularity because they are prized for their Arabic language skills. It is not unusual for an Arab PR practitioner to have ten jobs in ten years.
Too often, these local people are tasked almost exclusively with focusing on media relations and writing in their own language. Surrounded by world-class, transient Western expertise, these potential Arab leaders of the future often fail to fulfil their potential.
Agencies are not the villains. They face economic factors that make training difficult and risky. Their salaries cannot keep up with rampant inflation; young people in places such as the UAE and Qatar need large pay rises just to survive. So agencies either raise salaries to keep them but lose margins, or they lose talent and risk losing clients. Only government organisations pay enough to keep up with inflation. So why would an agency invest in young local people who are almost certainly going to be headhunted within a year?
Hiring expats presents other pressures. They need to be sponsored, which costs money. New expats have to pay six or 12 months' rent upfront - a cost the employer usually bears. In almost every respect, a well-trained, Arabic-speaking local would be cheaper and preferable, but is not available.
On a practical level this makes it hard for PR consultancies to plan. More worrying is the fact that individuals are not thinking properly about their futures. They chase money through necessity. This region lacks the intense, tangible sense of individual enterprise that we see in mature markets. There are not nearly the same number of ambitious young start-ups or boutiques we see in the West. The industry is almost entirely driven by a revolving door of senior Western practitioners working on behalf of global PR firms.
PR leaders of the future will not be Arabs unless they focus on building their skills, commit to a firm and take it upon themselves to build the PR industry in a way that is relevant to the Arab world.
None of these matters can be solved easily, but a starting point could be for the industry and its representative body, Middle East Public Relations Association, to put in place recognised systems and schemes, proactively engaging the next generation in training and advancement. Agencies must do everything they can to engender loyalty, provide training, a genuine investment in each individual's future and tangible long-term financial rewards.
The Arab population will embrace this industry if it can see practical benefits to loyalty and the opportunity to learn from some of the world's best practitioners who, for now, are right on their doorstep.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
- Which Middle East media outlet do you most respect?
- What would improve the practice of PR in the region?
Proper training and a steady, low rate of inflation so that salaries can settle.
- Which Middle East brand will have global recognition in five years?
The recently opened Atlantis complex at the end of the Jumeirah Palm.
- Where in the Middle East do you go to relax?
Either Gold Class within the Cinestar cinema chain or the Ritz Carlton spa resort on Jumeirah Beach, Dubai, for an Indian head massage.