Brand Dubai is in full flow at a trade event. More than ever before, the city and the country are forming part of the narrative. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Last week, I moderated the opening panel of PRovoke MENA, which came with a quite interesting title: “From national heroes to global brands: Why the Middle East has emerged as a PR powerhouse”.

The transformational story of the region’s public relations industry was told by communication leaders from four UAE companies that are playing an expanded role on the global stage.

The brands they represent are truly global in nature: Emirates – the world’s fastest growing airline with a fleet of 270 aircraft and flying to 159 destinations; Mubadala, a company with over 50 businesses and investments in over 50 countries; ADNOC, one of the world’s energy majors producing over 3 million barrels of oil per day; and Dubai Holding, a diversified company operating in 10 countries and which plays a defining role in positioning Dubai internationally.

Along with a number of companies from the region, such as Saudi Aramco, the Public Investment Fund and SABIC, these brands have played a significant role in growing the PR industry despite the impact of recessions, which have hurt the communications industry at large. From a $500 million industry less than a decade ago, the region’s PR witnessed a surge in value driven by these global brands, and help continue to grow the industry from $1 billion to more than double in the coming decade.

Not built on happy coincidences

When you look back, this growth is no mere coincidence. The PR industry came into its own with the explosive growth of the internet in the late 1990s, and by playing a crucial role in addressing the “Millennium Bug” scare as we entered the 21st century.

As the internet transformed with more social media platforms, the natural strengths of PR – content development and story-telling – became key attributes that enabled it to thrive in a digital-first, always-on, 24x7 media environment. The global financial crisis of 2008 accentuated the role of PR as a critical function not only to build reputations but also to protect them.

One of the panelists, Huda Buhumaid, Chief Marketing Officer of Dubai Holding, recalled the vicious attacks on Dubai by the international media, which, she said, strengthened the city’s resolve to narrate its growth story with more conviction. While there are bound to be challenges, companies hold in good faith their resolve to address reputational crisis and criticism.

As the internet transformed with more social media platforms, the natural strengths of PR – content development and story-telling – became key attributes

- Sunil John of Asda'a bcw

Firm up the connections

Boutros Boutros, Divisional Senior Vice-President - Corporate Communications, Marketing and Brand at Emirates, said such story-telling is backed by an elaborate communications machinery. Emirates, for example, works with 85 PR agencies, 100 advertising firms, and 30 digital and events management companies globally, which contribute to making it such a marketing engine of Dubai.

As the region prepares for global events such as Expo 2020 Dubai, the G20 Summit in Saudi Arabia and the World Bank IMF meetings in Morocco in 2021, which put the Middle East at the centre of the world, inspiring story-telling will continue to be at the heart of communications.

As Umayma Abubakar, Director of Internal Corporate Relations of Mubadala, said, the story of Mubadala is as much about it as the UAE too - a young country that has several accomplishments to its credit. The nation’s economic diversification, and its advances in women’s rights and technology deployment form a key plank of the narratives of its national champion companies now.

Making the point

Bringing such shifts in narratives takes courage, observed Omar Zaafrani, Senior Vice-President, Group Communications and Corporate Social Responsibility at ADNOC. At a time when the oil and gas industry is stigmatised, he said it is important to put on record the importance of its products to the world’s economy, while asserting the organisation’s responsibility to sustainability, not as an afterthought, but as part of the organisational DNA.

What shines through from the experiences of these national heroes is that their stories are not just about their organisations... but also about the nation and more. And as natural storytellers, the PR industry will be on call to build these narratives - and growing alongside the region and its national hero companies.

- Sunil John is President – Middle East at Asda’a bcw.