Public Relations in the Arab World: Why it matters and how it should be done
Just two decades ago, PR (public relations) was still a nascent practice in the Middle East and was used primarily to boost events management and product promotions. A lot of advertising agencies offered PR services for free for their client upkeep. In-house PR departments were largely unheard of even in international businesses, with marketing executives taking on most of the PR chores.
A watershed moment for the industry was the global financial crisis of 2008. Most organizations operating in the region were totally unprepared for the fallout and impact on their image and realized that advertisements and old marketing tools could simply not keep up with the magnitude of damage control needed. The handful of genuine PR practitioners around took the opportunity to weave their magic and show that they possessed the services and skill set to help corporations ride out the recession and other PR challenges. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, PR is regarded as a critical component of any organization that does serious business in the Arab World. A recent comprehensive study on the Middle East’s Public Relations industry reveals a field that has dramatically expanded, improved and evolved, with PR agencies and practitioners sharing a bright outlook on the work they do, the audiences they accommodate, and their ability to inject innovation into service delivery.
In an age of unparalleled connectivity, and in a region boasting one of the world’s highest internet penetration rates, the smallest negative news or miscommunicated message can quickly spread and turn into a company’s worst public relations nightmare. Fortunately, we now have a healthy population of agencies here with the ability to deliver sophisticated services in tune with the region’s modern PR needs.
The tremendous popularity of social media has also been a big plus for the growth of PR in the Arab World. Our line of work is a natural fit for the demands of interactive engagement with customers, bloggers, tweeters, and the general online public. PR is the perfect facilitator of mutual communication between organizations and their public audiences.
One of the major lessons we learned from the 2008 crisis, though, is not to be complacent. Doing PR business amidst a ripe market does not guarantee success; doing PR business RIGHT, will. So here are some pointers on how to practice PR in the Arab World to achieve optimal results:
- Mind the language. Practitioners should adopt the habit of developing messages in Arabic from the onset. Messages can get blurred or even lost in the process of translation. Developing ideas in Arabic and then putting them to pen and paper in English, for example, results in sentences that are too lengthy, inappropriately punctuated, and complex. The challenges of translation apply as well when shifting from other languages to Arabic.
- Link up with local influencers. Business is a relationship-intensive activity in the Middle East, which is why it would be wise to connect with respected local Arab political, religious, tribal and social figures. These influencers can be crucial to changing mindsets and delivering messages clearly and effectively. Non-Arab practitioners should take care to show utmost respect, though, and never make their partners feel that they are just being used as a means to an end.
- Harness Social Media. Over half of the MENA population are tech-savvy youths with extensive access to social media, mobile apps, and online videos. Use the region’s top social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to actively engage its biggest audience.
- Talk from the Heart. Arab culture is innately emotional and expressive. Media interviews and the likes involving large audiences should thus be conducted with gusto. It is common to see Arab families huddled as a group close to a television, intensely reacting to the screen conversation. Earn the public’s trust by making sure participants in television interviews are genuinely invested and care.
- Gain management’s respect. Despite the significant inroads made by PR across the region, many managers and CEOs still consider the practice a means to gain publicity, manipulate perceptions and spread propaganda. Make PR matter to them and emphasize the discipline’s role as a key business enabler.
The degree to which PR will continue its positive impact on the Arab World depends on the way it is applied. A lot of challenges and misinterpretations surrounding this rapidly growing field can be effectively addressed by simply keeping in mind where it is being practiced, and how it should be done.
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