PR industry could be '20 times' its size, says executive

Annelle Sheline
9 Min Read

CAIRO: Dave Robinson, the Middle East CEO of public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, alighted briefly in Egypt last week before returning to his travel rounds.

Hill and Knowlton opened their first Middle East office in Bahrain in 1985, making them the oldest public relations firm in the region, and the firm recently won three best practice awards from the Middle East Public Relations Association.

Daily News Egypt sat down with Robinson to discuss the impact of the financial crisis on public relations strategies, whether Dubai World should have better publicized their financial troubles, and got some of the golden rules for effective communication.

Daily News Egypt: What are the key challenges for public relations in the Middle East?

Dave Robinson: The biggest challenge is always to demonstrate the measurable value of public relations. In the Middle East, clients tend to be very focused on public relations as just media relations. They look at it in terms of ‘how much does my clippings book weigh?’ Instead they should look for strategic communications.

That is, changing opinions through the use of reasoned logic and facts. The difficult aspect is measuring your effect. The ultimate measure is market research. There are three kinds of measurable output: pure productivity, that is, the number of press conferences and releases, etc.

The second is outcome. Did we get press coverage in high quality media with well-placed information that contained our key messages?

The third is outgrowth. Did we manage to modify opinions?

Any projections for the domestic public relations market in Egypt?

The public relations industry in Cairo could be 20 times the size it is. I predict a tipping point at some point. The great thing about Egypt is the amount of potential talent. In our company we’re brought Egyptians to work in the Gulf, with more developed and sophisticated markets. But they always want to come back Egypt, it’s like a Bungee jump.

There’s a pulse you can feel in the streets here. Egyptians are a very warm hearted, fun loving people. They have more of a sense of national character, a multi-faceted identity.

What are the specific challenges of doing public relations in Egypt?

A challenge for the regional industry as a whole is to continue to professionalize. In Egypt this is a young industry, so there is not the talent base to choose from. Also, this is not a client environment where people are used to using public relations. The professionalization process includes the development of practices, which agencies can adopt and adapt from methodologies used abroad.

Great this is a regional power house: there are a million new people every 10 months, generating a large consumer market.

Egyptian professionals can expand their portfolio by developing themselves as a hub of expertise for Northeast Africa. Africa is the last, great undiscovered market for business.

Of course, it comes with a health warning: bureaucracy, political stability, legal frameworks. The BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India, China] have been generating 7 to 10 percent GDP growth for the past 10 years. You go to these places and you can’t move for the consultants, law firms, IT firms, everyone is there. They are old news, ’emerged’ emerging markets

Parts of the Gulf are close to that stage also, not withstanding the crisis. The markets are highly saturated, competitive, with lots of foreign investment. Africa will be that way next.

Which strategies can African countries and companies use to attract investment?

The first trick of communication is not to speak but to listen. You listen by conducting market research; you have to do your homework by analyzing data.

Contextualize data with hands-on experience in those places where you want to do business. Ask questions to prompt information to listen to. Whether looking for western or eastern investors, the first stumbling block is actually understanding what people want. Western investors have different expectations and desires than eastern. And you have to define your messages by who your competitors are.

If you are targeting Chinese banks, know who else is targeting them and what they have to offer.

The Middle East has gotten a lot of bad public relations over climate change and petroleum production. Any advice?

For either a corporate or a national image, there are always good things and things that are less good, like human beings.

The golden rule of communications is when you have bad news, acknowledge it. Clarify to make sure the correct information is out there, and explain what you’ll do about it. Always provide context.

Look at Abu Dhabi. They have the second largest oil reserves in the world, and they are currently pro rata the biggest investor in green energy. Look at MASDAR.

What can Dubai do to improve its image since the default of Dubai World?

Well, for the record, Dubai World hasn’t defaulted. December 14 is the bond date. They gave various announcements that sparked a global uproar that the world is falling in, and then everyone realized, ‘Hey, what’s a few billion today when there are trillion dollar stimulus packages knocking around?’

Still, they could have helped themselves in terms of communicating better. It’s premature to write off Dubai from a financial perspective.

Talking to friends in finance, they are relaxed about the Dubai situation. In terms of financial obligations, they know the Middle East needs Dubai, and Abu Dhabi can’t see Dubai perish. Finally, at the end of the day Dubai is still a small economy, a fraction of the size of Egypt’s. It’s like me being broke versus Naguib Sawiris being broke. He could sort out my financial problems from his sock drawer.

On the other hand, Dubai is influential because it’s a conduit, so while it has disproportionate influence, it’s dangerous to over-blow its importance.

How are you advising companies on their post-crisis communications strategies?

Realism the new dynamism. In boom times it’s all ‘future’ and ‘vision’. In a crisis it’s about pragmatism and realism. I’ve advised clients to communicate more often. When the overriding sentiment is fear, confusion and anxiety, the best thing to do is to talk to people, to listen to their queries and concerns.

The worst thing is to clam up, because people get suspicious, and suspicions are often wrong or exaggerated. It’s especially important to communicate to your staff. Employees need to know what’s going on, since it’s their livelihoods at stake. And employees are the primary conduits with the public.

Also talk to regulators. Keep them informed so they don’t undertake knee-jerk legislation that makes the situation more difficult. Things move faster in a crisis.

John Hill, our founder, said, “If you say it, you know what you’re taking about. If someone else says it, they’ll get it wrong.

Think about the number of journalists who suddenly became financial experts during the crisis. Why would a journalist know more than an economist or a CEO about business? But businesspeople didn’t want to talk because they didn’t know what to say.

It’s perfectly ok to say, ‘I don’t know. This is what I’m doing to find out.’ This is much more reassuring than nothing.

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