fbpx
FeaturedPeoplePR

The growth of an industry: MEPRA celebrates its 20th anniversary

As the Middle East Public Relations Association celebrates its 20th anniversary, those who have chaired the industry body talk about its inception, challenges and growth.

By Sofia Serrano

 

 

The germination of MEPRA

By Jack Pearce, founder, Matrix Public Relations

MEPRA Founder & Chair 2003-2005 & 2007-2008

When I tried to set up my own PR firm in Dubai in 1998, I initially did what most PR firms did, which was to set up under the aegis of an advertising agency’s trade licence – in my case a well-known multinational. However, about a year later my former employers, seeing me as an increasing threat to their business, complained to the Department of Economic Development, who duly summoned me for a reprimand. I had done consulting work for them in the past, so rather than admonishing me, they talked me through setting up my own consultancy. This required me to fly back to the UK and getting a letter from the Foreign Office certifying I had a university degree.

My degree was as a Bachelor of Education, so I was able to set up as an educational consultancy, a category that was recognised as a legitimate profession in the DED’s booklet listing all such recognised economic activities. However, there was no category for public relations. I explained to the patient bureaucrat that we did for private sector companies exactly what the Department of Commerce and Tourism Marketing did for the Dubai government.

Eventually, we came up with a compromise: a consultancy that specialised in education, research, marketing and advertising.

When I had joined Gulf Hill and Knowlton (GHK) a decade earlier there were only two PR firms in the Gulf region, GHK and Bain Communication, but by 2000 the industry was growing at a tremendous speed and it kept bugging me that we still didn’t exist as a recognised economic activity. I thought, perhaps if the PR industry banded together as an association, we could bring some influence to bear on the government. With the added advantage that we could define it by its new definition as ‘reputation management’ rather than as ‘publicists’ and numerous other pejorative epithets.

My dining room table sat eight, so I invited the managers of the seven other PR firms I considered the most reputable to come around for dinner and to discuss the idea of a regional association that adhered to best ethical practices with the long-term hope that we could influence the relevant authorities. We eight became the founding members, including my old friends Sadri Barrage as chairman (we thought it would be best if the chairman was Arab), myself as vice-chair and Tony Lewis as secretary. One year later we exceeded 20 members.

Fond memories.

Are you saying the right thing to the right people in the right place? Join us at the next Campaign Online Briefing: Cross-Platform Marketing – How to do It Right. Our experts will help you put together a content strategy that works across all the right media.

 


MEPRA Chair 2001 – 2003 & 2005 – 2007

Sadri Barrage

Senior Advisor – Communications, Expo 2020 Dubai

How has the PR/communications landscape evolved in the past 20 years?

From less than five PR agencies back in the early 80s, the PR industry has witnessed tremendous growth across the Middle East region with most top international networks well established in our region and a steady increase of between 20 and 30 per cent in billings year-on-year.

What are the milestones you have seen in the PR community during these two decades?

Increased professionalism and more students choosing PR as a career. Today the media scene has evolved, and the PR industry has adapted accordingly.

What was your title when you were chair of MEPRA? What is your current title?

I was honoured to be elected by my colleagues as founder chair of MEPRA when I was managing partner of Headline PR (four offices, with 50 practitioners across the Middle East) today I am also honoured to work as senior advisor – communications at Expo 2020 Dubai.

What did you learn from your time heading MEPRA?

We are only able to address issues common to the industry by working together in order to find possible solutions.

What were the biggest challenges when heading MEPRA? Have these been resolved? What are the challenges now?

Our initial mission at MEPRA was to increase professionalism by meeting international standards and abiding to a strict code of conduct, attract youth to the PR industry (Arabs in particular) and get governments across the Middle East to recognise PR as a separate economic activity.

Unfortunately, PR is still not recognised as a separate economic activity in most countries across the Middle East. In my view, PR spend is still negligible compared to advertising spend and the industry is set for further growth once we agree on common measuring tools that are internationally recognised, similar to gross rating points (GRPs) in the advertising industry.


MEPRA Chair 2008-2009

David Robinson

President & CEO, Hill+Knowlton, Australia, Middle East, Africa, South and Central Asia

A tribute by Mazen Nahawi,
MEPRA Treasurer, CEO of CARMA and SOCIALEYEZ

A few words will not do justice to Dave Robison, the late president and CEO of Hill & Knowlton, former chair at MEPRA and a beloved friend to me and countless others.

Dave’s greatest accomplishment was pushing PR and communications to the forefront of strategic thinking in the MENA region. He put our profession, when delivered with quality, culture sensitivity and data-led insights, at the centre of planning for many of the region’s best companies and government entities.

He articulated this vision at MEPRA as well, helping elevate the association by establishing a form of engagement with members which created a new sense of ambition and purpose among us, while having fun and working together, even when competing.

Dave was a big man and left a big legacy which endures until today: authentic character and world-class competence which made our industry, and the world, a better place.


MEPRA Chair 2010-2011

Guy Taylor

Managing Partner, Taqarabu

How has the PR/communications landscape evolved in the past
20 years?

The easy answer is ‘digital’, but this is just a channel, albeit one that moves at pace and often at the exclusion of considered thought and quality output. How people get news and their appetite for visual content are probably the most significant developments.

From an industry perspective, ‘PR’ has improved and is treated with greater respect. However, so long as it’s still represented by a two-letter acronym and not the broader context of strategically important communications, its perception will be incompatible with its value.

What are the milestones you have seen in the PR community during these two decades?

The often volatile geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is used to change, and media has reflected and accelerated this process. The milestones of our industry reflect the environment in which we operate. In an increasingly joined-up world, the gaps between these milestones narrow. Plotting a timeline from the first Middle Eastern newspapers in the 19th century to the present day reflects an exponential curve over the past 20-30 years, from satellite TV to the internet. Communications is constantly evolving and, unlike the wheel, always being reinvented.

What was your title when you were chair of MEPRA? What is your current title?

Then, CEO, Grayling ME/APAC. Now, managing partner Taqarabu.

What did you learn from your time heading MEPRA?

To separate good intentions from positive action; to get a job done efficiently, ask a busy woman or man.

What were the biggest challenges when heading MEPRA? Have these been resolved? What are the challenges now?

The key challenges were, and probably still remain, building value for members and maintaining revenue streams. MEPRA is not a one-trick pony based upon its Awards, but regional guardians of an increasingly important industry. Inspiring an interest in communications, nurturing talent and influencing standards remain central to its duty of care.


MEPRA Chair 2011-2012

Tim Harrison

Founder, Tim Harrison Communications

How has the PR/communications landscape evolved in the past 20 years?

This is best answered with a story. In 2005, I issued a press release of a company’s annual results in PDF format. My office received a call from a national daily newspaper journalist asking if we could re-send it in Word format so he could cut and paste it straight into the business section.

15 years later, the region’s shares are held by global investors, covered by international media, and scrutinised by global analysts. The Gulf is a global player, and with that role comes scrutiny and responsibility.

What are the milestones you have seen in the PR community during these two decades?

First, the creation of a professional, qualified and dedicated population of GCC national PR professionals. Second, the spread of best practice communications to every country in the region. MEPRA can claim some of the credit for this.

What was your title when you were chair of MEPRA? What is your current title?

Regional head of communications, HSBC. Now, founder, Tim Harrison Communications.

What did you learn from your time heading MEPRA?

Communications can be a real force for social good. A trade association can enable and amplify that potential.

What were the biggest challenges when heading MEPRA? Have these been resolved? What are the challenges now?

Maintaining robust finances and broadening MEPRA’s reach. Yes, these have been achieved.

Today’s biggest challenge is for the communications industry to play its part in the radical change underway in the region’s economies.


MEPRA Chair 2012-2013

Sconaid McGeachin

Senior Vice-President, Communications, Expo 2020 Dubai

How has the PR/communications landscape evolved in the past 20 years?

To name but a few, the growth in social media and influencers and the integration of social channels within communications plans; the need for speed in communicating across all channels with communications now 24/7; the importance of data and analytics to understand the audience and the increased sophistication of measurement (and hopefully the end of the advertising value equivalency – AVEs).

What are the milestones you have seen in the PR community during these two decades?

Development and growth of the PR sector across the region; increase in experienced talent (local and expat); increased reliance on PR advisory work at board level; greater emphasis on creative campaigns that are recognised by winning global awards, highlighting the calibre of the work created in the MENA region; the importance of the MENA region to international agencies and the increase in excellent specialist boutiques and PR freelancers.

What was your title when you were chair of MEPRA? What is your current title?

Then, CEO, Hill+Knowlton Strategies – Middle East, India, Africa and Turkey. Now, senior vice-president communications, Expo 2020 Dubai.

What did you learn from your time heading MEPRA?

Collaboration is key. It was excellent to have such collaborative support from fellow board members (who were often competitors) who came together to drive change in our sector.  We could only achieve results with the amazing drive of the executive directors of MEPRA – in my time, Carine, and latterly Sabrina, who worked tirelessly and passionately. They have been integral to the success of MEPRA over these 20 years.

What were the biggest challenges when heading MEPRA? Have these been resolved? What are the challenges now?

Speed of decision-making for any committee-based organisation is a challenge. True representation across MENA remains a challenge with the UAE remaining dominant – greater focus is needed on other markets, particularly Saudi and Egypt. Retaining top talent within MENA – whether they be local or expat, we need them to stay in MENA and help develop the PR sector further.


MEPRA Chair 2014-2015

Nicola Gregson

Consultant

How has the PR/communications landscape evolved in the past 20 years?

PR has become much more strategic and moved from a ‘poor relation’ to advertising to a respected voice for driving integrated communications. Specifically, over the last 18 months, PR has led on many Covid-19-related topics.

What are the milestones you have seen in the PR community during these two decades?

15 years ago, in the UAE and wider region, anyone and everyone was opening a ‘high street’ PR offering and ripping off companies with crazy launches and spending. Independent PR agencies with true credentials and the international agencies cut through all this and helped set global PR benchmarks for the MENA region.

What was your title when you were chair of MEPRA? What is your current title?

When I took up the MEPRA chair I was managing director of Ketchum Raad – MENA.
I left the region four years ago and now have a dual role. I still consult and take on PR projects but have established and own an amazing cafe-bistro in the UK. I’m now owner/operator/marketing and I opened the business without even sorting out my branding.

What did you learn from your time heading MEPRA?

What an amazing multicultural, powerful journey we are all on with people from phenomenal backgrounds; what can be achieved in the MENA region would be difficult to achieve anywhere else due to the brands and opportunities.

What were the biggest challenges when heading MEPRA? Have these been resolved? What are the challenges now?

I used to get CVs from people who still thought PR equals ‘press release’. MEPRA has done an amazing job of bringing passionate people together to raise the regional and global communications bar. I’m very proud to have been among such talented peers.


MEPRA Chair 2015-2017

Brian Lott

Chief Communications Officer,
Mubadala Investment Company

How has the PR/communications landscape evolved in the past 20 years?

We’ve seen a significant shift to digital, obviously, placing it at the heart of all enterprise communications.  That has accelerated the pace of interaction with stakeholders in a way that we couldn’t have really imagined in 2001.  It’s also ‘personalised’ communications in a way that makes everyone both accessible to, and responsible for, various methods of communication (written, video, audio). New skills are required, and more sophisticated ways of managing and measuring communications.  Yet at the heart of this evolution, the key principles of truth, authenticity and narrative are more important than ever, which is reassuring.

What are the milestones you have seen in the PR community during these two decades?

I think the public relations profession is being taken more seriously than ever, and by the C-suite, as evidenced in the greater numbers of executive-level chief communications officers around the world.  We are seen as the central nervous system of an organisation, at a time when communication has become pervasive, and that’s exciting.

What was your title when you were chair of MEPRA? What is your current title?

I was executive director of communications for Mubadala when I was chair of MEPRA; now I’m Mubadala’s chief communications officer.

What did you learn from your time heading MEPRA?

There is a growing sophistication of our profession in this region.  Both long-standing entities, think of Saudi Aramco, ADNOC, DP World or Investcorp, as well as new start-ups and sovereign entities – say, Careem, Noon and ADQ – have embraced the need for experienced, well-structured communications teams to serve their business.  And as the new leadership of MEPRA exemplifies, the abundance of Emirati communications talent has grown and expanded significantly.

What were the biggest challenges when heading MEPRA? Have these been resolved? What are the challenges now?

The biggest challenges remain, how to evolve and grow the profession in a region where communications as a discipline is relatively (by global standards) new. How do we develop talent and grow our own best practices here, to share with the world?  How do we continue to work with our academic partners, to expand opportunities for new graduates?  We have amazing organisations and case studies to share with our colleagues in the West and East – something I am passionate about and will continue to share.


MEPRA Chair 2017-2019

Ray Eglington

Group Managing Director & Founding Partner,
Four Communications.

How has the PR/communications landscape evolved in the past 20 years?

Bigger, better, smarter!  The discipline has really matured in this region, developing into a core strategic tool for many entities.  When you combine that with the vision and ambition of many Middle Eastern nations, it is a truly compelling mix.

What are the milestones you have seen in the PR community during these two decades?

One of the best has been this, MEPRA has become a really important forum for our industry – of the region, for the region.

What was your title when you were chair of MEPRA? What is your current title?

Then and now, group managing director & founding partner, Four Communications.

What did you learn from your time heading MEPRA?

Just what a brilliant, diverse, constructive group of practitioners we have in the industry here.  It is generally a really positive dynamic.

What were the biggest challenges when heading MEPRA? Have these been resolved? What are the challenges now?

I’ve always thought MEPRA’s biggest strength is that it is ‘of the region, for the region’ and I was keen to find ways for more of the region’s best practitioners to get involved.  So, we established new more inclusive board structures, we had a real push to encourage in-house and government communicators to join and we welcomed the first Gulf nationals onto those boards. That inclusive approach has been continued under subsequent chairs and the mix of MEPRA’s leadership and boards of all levels today is the strongest ever, I believe.


MEPRA Chair 2019-2021

Jonty Summers

Managing Director, Hanover Middle East

How has the PR/communications landscape evolved in the past 20 years?

In the 13 years, I’ve lived in the region, it’s become much broader and deeper, moving from a low-level function pushing out media announcements and organising events to one where executives are significantly more involved around the decision-making table, stewarding brands, engaging broad communities of stakeholders, and championing social issues.

What are the milestones you have seen in the PR community during these two decades?

A recent milestone would be the significant shift in the importance of internal communications due to Covid-19. It’s been a cornerstone for most organisations during the pandemic with most people working from home. The approach of 10 years ago – an annual town hall and an occasional note from the CEO – would have never stood up with employees last year. Leaders increasingly acknowledge that employees are primary ambassadors for their organisations and have embraced internal communications much more.

What was your title when you were chair of MEPRA? What is your current title?

I was and I am still managing director of Hanover Middle East.

What did you learn from your time heading MEPRA?

That in times of uncertainty you can take strength from your community. We are fortunate in the public relations community to be surrounded by people with wonderful qualities that were, and continue to be, a source of strength and inspiration.

What were the biggest challenges when heading MEPRA? Have these been resolved? What are the challenges now?

In 2020 Covid-19 side-slammed the world. As a not-for-profit, MEPRA relies on memberships, events and sponsorships for income. In 2020 we couldn’t hold any physical events and significantly reduced prices on our virtual programme to ensure members could participate. That hit cash flow hard, but we created a range of member programmes that delivered real value to the PR community. I was greatly heartened by the support we received from members and from the board.


Current MEPRA Chair 2021-2023

Taryam Al Subaihi

Director of Corporate Communications, EWEC

How has the PR/communications landscape evolved in the past 20 years?

The biggest fundamental change in the PR landscape has been the evolution from the traditional approach to the present-day integration where digital is at the forefront of everything that we do.

What are the milestones you have seen in the PR community during the past two decades?

Key milestones for me would be:

1. Decline of print and the rise of digital media (as much as it hurts me to say, as a print journalist);

2. Introduction of social media;

3. The importance of bite-size video content;

4. Closer integration with PR and marketing to form a wider spectrum of communications.

What is your job title?

Currently, I am heading MEPRA and my title is director of corporate communications at EWEC.

What have you learned so far from your time heading MEPRA?

As the MEPRA chair, my time thus far has been nothing but rewarding. As a regional authoritative body, MEPRA seeks to grow and develop the communications industry in the region – something that I personally have always been very interested in. My time as chair has given me a unique in-depth view of MEPRA’s numerous collaborative workshops and training platforms, which I quickly learned are truly making a difference in the Middle East communications industry, and at a rate that I had only hoped for as a communication professional in the UAE.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced so far while heading MEPRA?

As the current MEPRA chair, the biggest challenges I have faced thus far are the ones on the road to MEPRA achieving its targets for this year, which I admit are ambitious, but very achievable largely due to the noble efforts of our board and MEPRA members.

I have the utmost confidence that all our challenges will be managed and addressed as a team at MEPRA.

Comments