Focus On...Bahrain

Tiny Bahrain is aiming to restore its reputation as the Middle East's financial centre.

Bahrain
Bahrain

The smallest and poorest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations, Bahrain's mature media market makes it relatively unusual in the region.

‘Its small size belies the strength of its homegrown media, which has ben traditionally more vocal, especially the Arabic media,' says Asda'a Burson-Marsteller CEO Sunil John.

The country, adds John, is arguably the most democratic of its peers, ‘with several societies actively championing for human rights and reforms'.

Accordingly, socio-economic issues have dominated the news agenda in recent months. Labour market reforms saw the country allow expatriate workers to switch jobs without employer consent, provoking immediate calls for similar regulations across the GCC.

The country's Economic Vision 2030 also played an important role, with several government organisations attempting to meet the plan's reform objectives. ‘This story is very important for the future of Bahrain and will continue to be a focus in the coming years,' says Hill & Knowlton Middle East, Africa and Turkey CEO Dave Robinson.

More surprisingly, perhaps, Michael Jackson's death also sparked considerable coverage in Bahrain - because of the singer's earlier adoption of the country as his home.

The lowdown

Bahrain is described by Robinson as a ‘relatively mature market for media relations'. The country dwindling oil revenues make the financial sector particularly important, with this sector accounting for a major portion of its PR activity.

Indeed, Bahrain has taken concrete steps to challenge the perception that Dubai is the region's primary financial centre. Last year, it appointed Bell Pottinger to handle a seven-figure global FDI brief.

The impact of social activism, adds John, poses a ‘unique set of challenges' for the PR industry. ‘In a country of just one million people, with over 517,000 non-Bahrainis, the influence of media is far-reaching and dynamic.'

Influence

Despite its small population, Bahrain boasts a well-populated media environment, with Arabic offerings, in particular, targeting niche segments. ‘This has led to a fragmented media industry where sheer numbers of publications outweigh their reach,' says John.

Key newspapers include Arabic dailies Akhbar Al-Khaleej, Al-Ayam and Al-Wasat. The leading English newspaper is the tabloid Gulf Daily News.

Bahrain's broadcast market is led by the state-owned Bahrain TV & Radio which, says Robinson, is currently undertaking a large-scale review of operations to improve programming. Morning radio shows, such as Sabah Al Khair ya Bahrain, are particularly popular. 

According to a recent YouGov report, Bahrain ranks second in the Middle East in terms of internet penetration. ‘The country has active bloggers, with some blogs being controversial,' says John.

The most vocal of these is probably Mahmood's Den, a pioneering commentator on society and politics. Online community forums such as bahrainforums.com are also popular.

‘The significant challenge is in identifying the common ground in messaging for a disparate audience,' says John. ‘The speed of dissemination of information in the small country also demands swift turnaround and faster reaction time.'

Bellwether brands

Robinson points to telco brands as Batelco and Zain as important local players, alongside the country's Economic Development Board. Key consumer brands also include the Bahrain Grand Prix and Gulf Air.

The importance of the financial sector means that banks are particularly active, although exposure to troubled Saudi conglomerate Al Ghosaibi Group has created a significant reputation challenge.

Important b2b brands include investment intermediary Investcorp, Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company (GPIC), and Aluminium Bahrain (Alba).

Agencies

The country has a specific trade body: the Bahrain Public Relations Association, which launched in 2006. 

The country's longest-running agency is Middle East heavyweight Hill & Knowlton. Other key multinational agencies include Bell Pottinger, Asda'a Burson-Marsteller, Promoseven, Weber Shandwick and Memac Ogilvy.

Unsurprisingly, financial PR firms are well accounted for. FD has an office in the country, while Brunswick, Finsbury and Citigate all service the market from Dubai and Abu Dhabi. 

‘Many firms try to cover Bahrain on a very limited staff with senior fly-ins,' says Robinson. ‘The problem with this approach is that the senior consultants don't have genuine market knowledge and relationships.'

Politics

Public affairs remains nascent in Bahrain. ‘Lobbying, however, does not exist in the same sense as it does in say the US because there is very little structured external influence in the legislative process,' says Robinson.

Government relations, however, is critical, given the importance of public sector spending to the economy. ‘Government ministers, for example, regularly meet with representatives of the private sector,' adds Robinson.

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