Setting the Standard: PR in Dubai

By James Holmes, Managing Director, Limelight PR Middle East

I have been working in Dubai for three years and even in that time, I have seen the ‘4th estate’ improve dramatically. The opening of The National has introduced world class journalism into the region and digital content is being taken seriously by financial markets around the world.

Even the closing of Emirates Business 24/7 print edition has been blamed on an increase in competition.

And so it’s only natural that the public relations industry improves as a result. Just as the recession highlighted the vulnerable, so any agency that relies on the replication of a release will flounder in a media market that is demanding higher standards.

I am therefore surprised when I hear, on an all too often basis, that the standard of public relations in the UAE is way below average, especially compared to more developed markets. Ironically statements that come from many ex-pats who have indeed trained in developed countries and now practice in Dubai!

But bearing in mind the advertising industry has a similar reputational issue and is much older; such commentators cannot expect standards in public relations to improve over night and ahead of the media. We are a young industry in the Middle East that is making faster progress than anywhere else but we can only improve as fast as clients will allow and in alignment with progression of the media.

Think of it as a cycle. As the media becomes more investigative (or dare i say it, objective), so the corporations will recognise public relations as a core business function. As a result, the PR agencies in the Middle East will begin to focus on quality – not quantity in order to prove their worth.

What this means, is more strategic PR. Understanding the objective and goals of a campaign and measuring against them – not the advertising equivalent.

The cycle then goes full circle. PR agencies will have to offer a more frank and honest consultancy to clients. They need to be able to explain that the appointment of a janitor for the store cupboard is not news and resist demands to distribute the release to every man and his dog. This will then help contribute to the standard of content (especially online) and build better relationships with journalists.

As it stands however, there are too many variables that prohibit a PR consultant from fulfilling their capabilities, and whilst I applaud MEPRA and its remit, advice needs to be directed towards procurement, towards clients, and those who don’t understand public relations but have to work with PR agencies, because these are the parties stunting the sector’s standards.


Actions speak louder


Your image is influenced by your actions as much as what you say. There’s no better example of this than Google’s announcement that it may withdraw from China if it is unable to run an un-restricted operation in the future.

The company’s decision in 2006 to agree to the Chinese Government’s terms and conditions for operating in the country; screening sensitive information from the service, caused many commentators to question the credibility of Google’s “do no evil” corporate mantra.

It signalled that even the world’s search superpower and presumed exponent of a newer, better, more moral form of capitalism would bow to the harsh realities of doing business in China. 

If Google wanted a big slice of the action in the world’s fastest, biggest, potentially most lucrative emerging market, it had to play by rules dictated by a single party state with cold war values, just like everybody else.

Even if Google’s decision to possibly withdraw from China was not quite as difficult a decision as has been presented, there’s no doubt it’s a big one – which will have on-going repercussions.

One of those will certainly be to Google’s own public perception. It may be that on balance Google’s brand is more valuable to it than the Chinese market, but I certainly like Google a bit more today.

In contrast I don’t like First Capital Connect and the service it has failed to provide over the last month or so due to a very British combination of strike action and snow. If you live on the route, you won’t need me to explain this; if you don’t, see this.

A very different business to Google, but the same principle applies; the company’s actions (or in actions) are very much affecting its public image.

A grass roots campaign against the company is growing fast amongst London’s commuters to the extent that First Capital Connect has spawned an alter ego: First Crapital Connect.

This sort of thing is right up there in the worst nightmares of any consumer brand.

First Capital Connect has it a bit easier in the short term than say a drinks brand; they have a virtual monopoly over the route which services the City area connecting south London and north London, up to Bedford.

So in the short term there isn’t perhaps the urgency to act. In the long term however, the rail company has their franchise to worry about.

Winning back the trust of customers in this case will be tough. But it might be do-able. First Capital Connect could redeem itself, if it does the right thing/s.