The practice of public relations (PR) in the Arab world has come a long way from its early incarnation 20 years ago as a cheap promotional tool (product-oriented press releases and occasional events management) offered by advertising agencies (often for free) to keep their clients happy.
Twenty years ago, in-house PR departments were almost non-existent, even in global enterprises operating in the region, and very few companies even employed a public relations officer. PR activity was invariably the domain of marketing executives.
Today, the practice and profession of public relations is at long last beginning to be taken seriously in the region. Why has it taken so long?
For one thing, agencies operating in the region very often lived down to client expectations, content to provide press release and event management services and nothing more. Another reason was that the industry has long been dominated by global companies run by non-Arabs with little or no emphasis on building a sustained and nuanced understanding of local customs, cultures, dialects, etc. Among most agencies, there has been virtually no attempt to build an indigenous, Arab professional public relations workforce.
Ironically, the turning point for the PR industry in the region was the financial crisis of 2008. After a prolonged commercial and real estate boom, corporations found themselves ill-prepared for the bad publicity and public blowback of the unanticipated crash and realised they couldn’t advertise their way out of whatever difficulties they may have had. They had to explain themselves.
Suddenly, crisis communication, issues management, reputation management, corporate positioning, key messaging and building strategic communication programmes to protect organisations and build their brands became a more essential part of corporate communication. The PR agencies that had the capacity to provide these more sophisticated services flourished during the recession.
Add to this the rise of social media, which has radically transformed the communication landscape, demanding interactive engagement with customers, bloggers, tweeps, and the general online public. Social media is the natural province of public relations because it demands mutual communication between an organisation and its publics.
There is no doubt that social media is trending across our regional industry. The digital space is the current and future frontline for business communicators. There is a lot of buzz in our industry about digital communication; the mandate is there but no amount of technology or code-writing capability will work without incisive understanding of the audiences we are communicating with.
We need to build a seasoned, accomplished workforce of disciplined Arab professionals who combine a highly developed practical knowledge of public relations in its fullest sense with an intimate understanding of regional environments. Knowledge transfers are the key and there is a growing demand for training throughout the region, across multiple business disciplines, including PR.
However, most training is presented in English. Although English is essential for business communication today, Arabic is the native language.
The most influential media in the region are Arabic. Government communication in most Arab countries are in Arabic. The general public overwhelmingly speak, read and write Arabic, not English. When well-trained and experienced Arabic-speaking professionals take leadership of the region’s public relations profession, the practice of public relations in the Arab world will truly come of age.
— The writer is the managing director at Traccs UAE and vice-president at Network Affairs.