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Rocking the #UAE PR boat

Sarah Mohamed_New

The status quo is no longer an option for a public relations industry missing real research and sufficient regulation and hindered by a yes-man culture, writes Sarah Mohamed 

I am still relatively new to PR but it didn’t take me very long to become concerned with the way the industry operates. It surprises me that people with a lot more experience, who have been doing this a lot longer than I have, just accept the status quo. Perhaps the competitive nature of the industry and the desire to win accounts at any cost is what has driven this complacency? Everyone knows what’s wrong and everyone has an idea how to fix it but nobody wants to rock the boat.

We stepped forward with the idea of creating a forum for change and, before we knew it, we had over 50 agencies standing behind us. The PR Pressure conferences were born.

It was wonderful to see how happy people were to finally get the opportunity to ‘vent’ at our first conference, to see so many different agencies in one room learning from one another. What was especially pleasing was to see the walls come down; what started as a room full of different agencies, all with different agendas, quickly became a room full of like-minded people with the common goal of improving the way we handle PR in the region. The discussions were only the first step, now we need to use what we’ve learned to help improve the PR landscape. This, of course, is easier said than done. So, how do we go about it?

The PR industry in the Middle East is in desperate need of real research, tailored to the region and carried out by professional, experienced researchers. We need to stop looking at global PR trends and relying on the advertising and digital industries. We need to focus on what’s applicable here and now. This pragmatic approach could help agencies determine how much to charge, who to hire, what practices to adopt and even which clients to target.

Regulation, in my opinion, has also become essential. If a freelancer wants to get a licence in the UAE, they need to provide a CV and a letter of recommendation. On the other hand, the infamous #UAEPR Twitter thread is testament to the lack of such requirements when setting up a new agency. It also clearly demonstrates the consequences of hiring under-qualified people. While there are a few associations that can help regulate the industry, they really need to strengthen their influence, widen their reach and allow agencies to trust that they will remain objective in their judgements.

For PR to change, the associated industries must change with it. This means competent, capable and ethical journalists who value the integrity of the story above all else. This, in turn, would drive demand for higher calibre PR professionals. It also means educating clients and demolishing the yes-man culture. An agency should be able to confidently demonstrate its expertise and the value it adds. It certainly shouldn’t be afraid to tell the client when they’re wrong. Educated clients would leave less room for the bad seeds of the industry, encouraging only the fittest agencies to survive and, let’s face it, they are a lot easier to work for.

Above all else, the most important thing I think we need to learn is how to streamline our work. Many agencies tend to expect each employee to become a jack-of-all-trades which, as we know, means they’re a master of none. Your average browbeaten PR executive brainstorms campaign ideas, creates content, manages social media pages, handles media relations, compiles reports and so much more. With an incredibly saturated market, agencies need to specialise and invest in appropriate talent.

I have not put forward any new ideas here; I’ve simply voiced the concerns we all share. Our industry is growing at a pace that many agencies cannot keep up with because of the weak foundations on which we’ve built it. We cannot continue without a plan for sustainable growth and a way to educate and regulate. I am somewhat apprehensive about the amount of work I have given my team through PR Pressure, but I’m also very excited to see what the industry can do to create a better future for PR in the region.

 Sarah Mohamed is director of Secret PR