Region’s PR industry must reskill for the new opportunity in ESG communications: #PRovokeMENA Summit

The fourth annual PRovoke MENA Summit ‘A New Middle East Narrative: A Manifesto for Change in PR,’ was moderated by Sunil John, president – Middle East of BCW and founder of ASDA’A BCW, explored the need for the PR industry to adapt to a profoundly changed media and economic landscape.

The Public Relations industry in the Middle East must reskill and upgrade its competencies to embrace the fast-growing trend of environmental, social and governance (ESG) communications, observed the opening panel discussion of the fourth annual PRovoke MENA Summit.

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Under the theme, ‘A New Middle East Narrative: A Manifesto for Change in PR,’ the discussion, moderated by Sunil John, President – Middle East of BCW and founder of ASDA’A BCW, explored the need for the PR industry to adapt and thrive in a profoundly changed media and economic landscape. On the panel were Rania Rostom, chief communications officer, GE International Markets; Mazen Nahawi, the founder & CEO of CARMA; and Vasuki Shastry, an ESG and public affairs expert, and former global head of public affairs and sustainability at Standard Chartered.

The discussion centred on three imperatives shaping the new Middle East narrative: the new era of peace following the normalisation of ties between the UAE and Bahrain with Israel, the increased focus of regional governments and businesses on adapting to climate change, and the massive investments by state-owned entities in domestic infrastructure and economic diversification.

“The dramatic changes of the past year make it important for the PR industry to rethink its business and operating models,” said Sunil John. “What matters is not just how quickly we evolve and how we reskill, but also how relevant our work will be for our clients and the media. Our research and hands-on experience of over 20 years in the region tells us that the Middle East is entering a new phase of regional growth and optimism, and our role as PR practitioners must be to set a new communications agenda.”

“It is time to integrate an organisation’s social purpose with its operations, which is a profound communications challenge and opportunity for PR,” said Vasuki Shastry. “Companies that can articulate their purpose and back it up with their actions, will take the lead. ESG communications presents a huge opportunity for PR experts to completely reengineer brands. What will make a difference is the ability to articulate purpose and back this up with facts, which will benefit both brand and share premium.”

“The bold vision for change by regional governments to move from an oil to knowledge-based economy has built the path for a strong innovation ecosystem in the Middle East,” said Rania Rostom. “GE’s Global Innovation Barometer, conducted in the midst of the pandemic, revealed that Saudi Arabia and UAE are seen by global business as innovation-conducive economies, which speaks volumes about the progress the region has made. There is a lot more to be done, in today’s fast-changing landscape, and we can only do it by working together.”

Discussing the importance of trust in communications, Mazen Nahawi said the impact of PR is measured is “less about advertising value equivalency (AVE) and other vanity matrices but about trust: do people believe what we say and how are they engaging. The focus today is to measure the impact of campaigns based on data, and whether it leads to driving conversations at the highest levels.”

The panelists observed that the fair representation of the Middle East in international media can be transformed by the region’s digital-savvy youth, with most major companies recruiting millennials, who are a force for change. “We’ve got a richer canvas to work off,” said Rania. “We need inclusion of more voices into our narrative. More diverse and local voices from the ground up so we can build this collective momentum. It’s a time for openness.”

Concluding the session, Sunil said: “A new era of hope and opportunity is emerging on the horizon, despite the unprecedented challenges of the past 12 months. And it is incumbent upon the PR industry to help convey that message through a new manifesto for change in PR.”

ASDA’A BCW is the Platinum Sponsor of the PRovoke MENA Summit, led by PRovoke founder/chair Paul Holmes and CEO/editor-in-chief Arun Sudhaman.