Ziad Hasbani, Weber Shandwick: When opportunity knocks

As media opportunities become ever more dynamic, communications must move with the times.

Ziad Hasbani, Weber Shandwick: When opportunity knocks

The media landscape in the Middle East is far more sophisticated than it was a decade ago. Outlets have proliferated, journalistic standards are improving and the credibility of editorial coverage has risen.

However, this new, more plural, more demanding environment also presents heightened challenges. For organisations to achieve cut-through and stand out ahead of their rivals in an ever more crowded marketplace, they must get their communications right.

As media in our region increasingly look for stories behind the facts and figures, organisations must convey information and opinions in a way that delivers a positive influence on profile and reputation. Over a comparatively short period, we as a PR business have become more creative and diversified. Media relations techniques have evolved; we now place more emphasis on 'packaging' and presenting our clients' information so that it has specific appeal to the journalists we are targeting.

The context is very different to that of a few years ago. In the 1990s, the media industry was in its infancy, except in Lebanon and Egypt, where many publications were privately owned and thus more liberal. Editors had little leeway to be creative or publish opinionated or controversial topics. Content was heavily regulated or censored and most of the media in the region were state owned.

Dubai Media City, a tax-free zone established to encourage media development, has been successful. Many regio-nal and international publishing houses have taken advantage of this opportunity and the publishing market has witnessed explosive growth. Specialist and trade publications emerged, focusing on areas such as finance, technology, oil and gas, sports, watches and jewellery and many other niche sectors.

Overall, the press has become more professional and opinionated in reporting on stories that matter. The Times and FT have launched editions here, and the region has attracted a considerable number of senior journalists from more mature media markets such as the US, France and the UK. Groups such as Saudi Arabia's MBC, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, CNBC Arabia, Dubai One and Lebanon's LBC channel have brought satellite TV with good-quality content to the region.

Then there is the web revolution, with an estimated 42 million internet users across the Middle East. With penetration rising by more than 1,000 per cent over the past eight years, the region enjoys one of the fastest growth rates in the world. Journalism and comms must encompass this exciting medium.

Online news portals such as AME Info, ArabianBusiness.com and Zawya have grown massively in reach and influence. Arabic social media channels such as Shoof, Maktoob and Ikbis have also emerged, giving the region's 'netizens' wider choice. As ordinary consumers voice opinions online about issues, products and services, they act as citizen journalists and advocates for the causes and opinions they believe in - whether positive or negative. Consequently, the digital arena in the Middle East is becoming a strong, credible and powerful communications platform through which to connect with audiences. The numbers speak for themselves: 65 per cent of Arab youth say the internet is their primary source of information, while 84 per cent say they base their buying decisions on information they see online.

For this reason we have launched a digital practice to cater for the whole Middle East region and hired two digital practitioners with extensive online experience in Europe. By adding specialised digital expertise to our broader communications offer, we are providing clients with the cutting-edge platform to communicate efficiently with stakeholders and build their reputations in this increasingly dynamic region.


- Which Middle East brand will have global recognition in five years?

Jumeirah International, Dubai's luxury hospitality group, is uniquely positioned in the domestic market, with iconic landmark hotels such as Emirates Towers, Burj Al Arab and Bab Al Shams. Jumeirah has set a high benchmark in the region for service and has a good international development strategy, embracing smart acquisitions of prime hotels in the UK and US.

- Where in the Middle East do you go to relax?

I was born and raised in Beirut, which is a fast-paced city, so when I have time to unwind I go to the mountains of Lebanon.

Ziad Hasbani is managing director of Weber Shandwick, Middle East & North Africa.

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