startup sto­ries

In the face of ad­ver­si­ties, these Qatari com­pa­nies flour­ish.

Qatar Today - - FRONT PAGE - BY KEERTANA KODURU

“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.

Back­track­ing re­ces­sion

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.

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