The MENA Power List 2021: PR will thrive in the new ‘earned-plus’ era, By ASDA’A BCW’s Sunil John

By Sunil John, President – MENA, BCW and Founder of ASDA’A BCW.

years in role: 21 | Other roles: Member, Global Board of BCW; leads ASDA’A BCW’s wholly-owned subsidiaries – Proof Communications, PSB Middle East and GCI Health Middle East; Member, Dubai International Chamber Advisory Board.

These are exciting times for the public relations sector. Despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, continued economic uncertainty around the world and the fallout of persistent regional conflicts, demand for PR services in the Middle East and North Africa is proving extremely resilient. And the real differentiator of the region’s most successful PR companies is, I believe, their new ‘earned-plus’ mindset.

Let me explain. The reputation of the PR sector is anchored in our ability to earn clients the endorsement of media and other influential stakeholders. That will, and should, never change. However, the market is evolving at breakneck speed and our paymasters are rightly demanding something more, hence the approach of earned-plus. Donna Imperato, CEO of BCW Global, first talked of this concept in an interview with PRWeek in April this year.

Earned-plus is multi-layered: It is earned-plus data – which refers to the additional strategic value generated from data analytics. It is earned-plus digital – denoting the importance of integrated, multi-channel campaigns in influencing customer behaviour. And it is earned-plus performance – shorthand for the amplification gained through targeted paid promotion across multiple media platforms.

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Earned-plus is a creative, integrated and digital-first philosophy, which builds on our industry’s proven ability to add value to the C-suite at the highest levels of business and government. It promises sustained commercial growth, behoving the PR industry to adopt a multiple-agency service model. But how can our sector, including both agencies and in-house communicators, apply this new earned-plus mindset? Here are some suggestions:

1. Don’t forget the basics

Firstly, PR has always been about storytelling. As the late Harold Burson, the father of modern PR, observed “We are being paid to tell our clients’ side of the story. We are in the business of changing and moulding attitudes, and we aren’t successful unless we move the needle.” That fundamental insight is as relevant today as it was before the advent of online and social media. However, in the earned-plus era, we need compelling content strategies that are increasingly platform-agnostic. Newspaper journalists were once our primary ‘content creators’; today, our storytelling must appeal to social media experts, podcast creators and digital natives, and be adaptable to their particular channels. As Harold rightly explained, the core of our business, the message, will never change. But today we must repurpose it to the fragmented, always-on media environment that serves an ever-growing and increasingly distracted audience.

2. Put digital first to cut through the clutter

The mandate of PR has expanded as clients have pivoted towards digital communications. With social media engagement growing, traditional media shrinking and audiences becoming ever more digitally-savvy, data analytics and evidence-based research are central to successful strategising. To cut through the clutter, place digital at the heart of your thinking.

3. Build subject expertise

PR agencies must understand the fast-changing business landscape of their clients to build relevant narratives that resonate with specialised audiences. While crisis management and internal communications were crucial during the pandemic, now clients demand advice and counsel on sustainability, purpose, behavioural science, and health and wellbeing. All of these need subject-matter experts. 

4. Deliver measurable impact

With multiple conversation channels and new ways of customer engagement emerging, clients demand 360-degree measurement tools. These days, the impact of PR campaigns is not only judged by share of voice but also by ‘share of heart’. Accordingly, PR firms must invest in additional performance indicators to build a compelling earned-plus offer. These include omnichannel analysis, qualitative and quantitative attitudinal research, reputation dashboards, competitor benchmarks and real-time tracking.

5. Make it simpler, not simple

Notwithstanding the sweeping changes brought about by digitisation, the primary task of PR remains moving people. And the best, and indeed only, way to do this is to make our communications simple. As Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, once said, we must work hard to make our thinking clean and simple – because when we do, we can move mountains.

Professional highlight of the year

Shaping our agency to be truly integrated, creative and digital-first, which contributed to strong double-digit growth in 2021. Personally, I am honoured to have been named by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice-President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, as a member of the Advisory Board of the Dubai International Chamber.

Rapid fire

What are you working on?
The 2021 edition of our annual ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, to launch on October 12.

What are you worrying about?
Talent, talent, talent.

What are you smiling at?
Friends, and its enduring ability to make you smile even after 20 years.

What are you reading?
The Anarchy by William Darlymple, the shocking story of plunder by the East India Company.

What are you watching?
Succession – what a comedic drama with shades of the Murdochs.

What are you eating?
Mostly a combination of salads and Japanese food at Rōhen in The Arts
Club Dubai.

What are you listening to?
The Weeknd (and looking forward to his live performance soon in New York at the Anghami Nasdaq listing).

What are you playing?
The wonderous game of public relations.

What’s your hobby?
Happy to have none.

What’s your good habit?
Staying true to my values of fairness and equal opportunity.

What’s your bad habit?
Being too much of a perfectionist.

Who are you learning from?
My daughter Sasha and my son Philip.