In the face of adversities, these Qatari companies flourish.
“TELL YOUR OWN STORY, BEFORE SOMEONE ELSE TELLS IT,” SAYS JONATHAN MACPHERSON, REGIONAL COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR OF HILL+KNOWLTON STRATEGIES, IN AN INTERVIEW WITH QATARTODAY. THE MOTTO BEHIND A PUBLIC RELATIONS CAMPAIGN COULDN'T BE CLEARER.
Based in Dubai for the last 18 years, Macpherson isn't new to this part of the world or the business prophecies in the field of public relations. His journey into this field began with assisting the set-up of an events production company in 1994 in London and later expanding offices to Sydney, Australia. Moving into public relations wasn't a difficult transition from events production. “I was very much on the corporate event side. The two disciplines are interrelated and complement each other; they are both about how to communicate your message to a key audience. Fundamentally, events production and public relations follow the same rules and there's a lot of crossover.”
By definition, public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their public. Public relations, often a misconstrued concept, has changed the face of many organisations. “The term ‘public relations' is often used in place of media relations, which is the practice of engaging media as a channel to communicate a company's, a government's or indeed an individual's story to the public. What is less understood are the other disciplines that sit under public relations and the value these can bring to organisations in particular. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of understanding of the depth and breadth of public relations disciplines and the value they bring to an organisation in good times and bad,” says Macpherson.
Having good external relations with the public is as important as having amicable internal relations with your own employees. They are the face of the organisation and the attitude they carry on a daily basis reflects on the company as well.
“It's extremely important for organisations to have a robust internal communications strategy. During times of a challenging business environment, it becomes a critical part of the strategic management process. Employees are an organisation's most valuable asset and the way they are engaged by a company has a tremendous bearing on the performance of the company. Studies have suggested that effective employee communication is a leading indicator of financial performance and a driver of employee engagement. Companies that are highly effective communicators have shown higher total returns to shareholders compared with firms that are the least effective communicators.”
PR concepts and the underlying principles remain the same, be it Europe, Australia or the Middle East. Differences can be seen in the corporate structures and business regulations. Over the last 30 years, the field of PR has been rapidly moulding itself to include the changing environment and what the clients want. The current trend has been to include what the customer wants. With vast information available online, the public now puts the question of why should we use certain products and services. “One of the most interesting elements of business today is that audiences are questioning and challenging brands and companies a great deal more than they have in the past. The public has greater access to information, and this is fueling a demand for more transparency. For companies, it is no longer purely about what you do and how well you do it; the public is beginning to question why and how a brand does what it does; what Hill+Knowlton refers to as ‘purpose',” says Macpherson.
Technology and Innovation
“There is a difference in the way businesses are structured or shaped. But in essence, what we do has changed in the last 10 years. Technology and its continuous innovations will change the way we do things but doesn't change the underlying reasons behind the way we do it. If we go back almost 30 years, the fax machine
caused a technological revolution for the PR industry. Mobile phones becoming more common 25 years ago had an impact on the industry; digital photography similarly changed the industry; more recently, the emergence of online channels and smart phones has changed the way we communicate,” adds Macpherson as an example.
Using advanced technology and the emerging online channels isn't new but still a nascent trend in the GCC. It needs early adopters to set the trend for others to follow. “When you are dealing with a society that has emerged as it has in the Middle East, cultural nuances and a familial structure play an important role that will change over time, but for now, you have to use what's available to you when communicating with a large audience such as this. Whether or not technology and the many mediums available are adopted by the government, is very different across the Middle East,” he says.
What Qatar is doing in terms of its e-governance initiatives is definitely a good move forward, says Macpherson. “However, the speed that they are moving at, is not for me to comment on. But they are open to looking at ways they can improve and communicate with their audiences.”
He feels that there is also a need to continue to educate and invest in Qataris as they will be the ones to change the way government and organisations communicate in future. "We need to engage and excite them about the sector and show them what a great career it can be.”
Everything from fashion to retail to the hospitality industry relies heavily on this growing medium for publicity and visibility today. And PR agencies have a huge role to play in maintaining the reputation of a company. “There is a greater need for transparency today than there was 15 years ago. It's not just about the end result, but about how technology will be used and also convincing educated stakeholders about the need for investment,” he says.
Scrutiny and criticism vs development
Even though Qatar doesn't believe in extreme publicity, it definitely is open to the world in terms of scrutiny and judgment. There is a lot of criticism that comes with hosting international events such as the FIFA World Cup and other big sporting events. “Since it won the bid to host the FIFA tournament, Qatar has been subject to increasing criticism in international media; some of it has been unfair and sensationalist, and some of it has been objective and constructive. This is no different to media scrutiny of other host nations of large events – Beijing faced intense scrutiny and criticism in the run up to hosting the Olympics; similarly, Brazil with the World Cup and Olympics this year. It should be no surprise that there will be an intense focus on Qatar and its preparedness for the tournament. The ‘crunch point' will be 2018, when the FIFA World Cup Final is in Russia. All eyes will turn to Qatar and it will face increasing scrutiny through to its hosting of the tournament”.
Only time will tell whether Qatar is ready to face the heat. We asked Macpherson how Qatar, as a nation can handle this situation without causing harm to its own reputation. “I'd say its three things: have a robust, proactive strategy to tell your story; Monitor what's being said and by whom' and assess the influence it has on audiences that matter to Qatar. Be open to criticism that's objective and constructive and react quickly to correct inaccuracies. What is important for Qatar is to be open and to listen objectively. Take the emotion out of what's being said and examine the underlying themes. Is it accurate and is it something Qatar needs to consider addressing in a meaningful way? If it is and it changes policy, then make sure that's communicated strongly throughout the communities that need to hear it,” he answers.
With a challenging economic environment prevailing in the Middle East, is it still wise to invest in the field of PR and hire a consultancy to maintain communication across segments? “Yes – if they have something of value to say to their stakeholders. Companies that continue to spend or increase spending through difficult market conditions fare better if they have something of value, something newsworthy to say to their audience.”
The marketing department is the most penalised when recession hits as this is where the company earns its bread and butter. “Marketing budgets are often the first to face scrutiny when there are economic challenges. A key business strategy during a challenging economic climate is innovation. Companies need to invest in developing products or services that can help their customers to be more efficient or gain more business. The marketing discipline is an essential element in this. Once a product or service is developed, the company needs to tell people about it. Difficult market conditions can still create opportunities – how a company reacts and innovates to stand out from its peers is the difference and it needs to communicate this to the public.”
There are companies that are forced to reorganise or restructure to weather the market conditions; it's important they communicate this internally and externally in the right way to maintain the company or brand reputation. “What's important for an organisation is to be clear and transparent about why it is undertaking such an operation. It needs to have a robust and proactive communication strategy to reassure customers and partners about its ability to continue to work with them. Similarly, it is extremely important to have a campaign strategy to engage employees about changes to the organisation. Those that will be affected by changes, need to be carefully taken through what is about to happen and be treated with respect and compassion. Those that remain in the organisation need to be reassured and continually engaged to ensure they understand the importance of their role and its contribution to the organisation. As the economy recovers and organisations grow and look to employ talent, what will be remembered is their reputation during challenging times.”
There is a need to educate and invest in Qataris as they will be the ones to change the way government and organisations communicate in future.