Putting the spin on PR in the UAE
The UAE, as a growing country with a forward thinking vision, has well understood the importance of PR and marketing to project a successful and appealing image to the world, say local industry professionals
The UAE, particularly Dubai, is home to dozens of public relations companies, ranging from small "boutique" agencies to branches of large, well-known companies affiliated with global brands.
But few members of the general public are aware of their work and what attracts people, both locally and from abroad, to work for them. According to the Middle East Public Relations Association (Mepra), there are over 100 PR companies in the UAE. The companies collectively employ hundreds of people -many of them young recent graduates or professionals.
PR professionals have a large variety of tasks, but essentially, they are tasked with growing, guiding and managing the public perception of their clients, which can range from schools and government institutions to globally-known brands.
To do so, they must work closely with the members of the media, find advocates - and more recently, social media 'influencers' - write press releases, do research, plan events, and sometimes manage crises faced by their clients. Additionally, many are expected to pitch and develop "thought leadership" articles and contribute to editorial opportunities on the part of their clients.
Ray Eglington, chair of the Middle East PR Association, noted that the PR business is all about reputation at the end of the day. "For the best and biggest companies, that can be measured in billions of dollars," he said. "Just think in your own life how much more likely you are to choose to work for a company you respect, or fly an airline you trust, or buy a car from a brand with a reputation for reliability."
"There are two sides to the best public relations. We help our clients to be understood, explaining what they are doing and why. So we need to be great storytellers," he added. "The other part of the job is to be advocates for the public on the inside. We need to understand what our clients' stakeholders think, so our clients can respond and make changes in their actions if they are needed."
Why become a PR?
Despite the ultra-competitive marketplace and often-rigorous demands of the job, many people continue to flock to the UAE's PR industry. "PR in the UAE has great scope. While it involves direct interaction with the media and influencers, it also provides access to the latest trends and developments shaping the country," said Nausheen Shamsher, a freelance PR consultant.
"Despite the changes that have affected the economic scene all over the world, one thing remained solid. The need to communicate, network, be exposed and stay in the public eye," added Carmen Audino, a PR and events manager at Mice International."
Audino added that, in her opinion, PR is a perfect job for Dubai and the UAE. "I think that is it absolutely undeniable when it comes to the UAE, a growing country with a forward thinking vision that has well understood the importance of PR and marketing to project a successful and appealing image to the world," she said.
What do companies look for?
Ziad Hasbani, CEO of Weber Shandwick MENA, said that a good PR must be able to juggle a number of tasks. "To name a few skills, in the past a successful PR professional used to be a good writer, a good planner, and a good relationship builder with journalists, clients and the community," he said. "Our industry has changed, and a successful PR practitioner is now a passionate and creative strategist." Among the new skills that PRs are expected to manage, Hasbani said, is the reading and interpretation of data, the creation of various types of content that engages audience - not just writing - as well as have enough expertise on a particular sector to articulate his or her opinion on specific issues.
Alisa D'Souza, the owner of ALISA PR said that the key to success is "human skills".
"We are in the people business, so my first question is 'are you emotionally intelligent to handle people?'. If you can handle people's expectations, I think that's your number one skill set," she said. "Apart from this, qualities I look for are business mindedness, flexibility, strong writers, 'sponges' who aren't afraid to learn, news junkies and the thick-skinned."
The rise of the freelancer
Despite the many potential employers, some PR professionals have decided to go it alone, attracted by the flexibility of independent employment. Spanish national Lara Nunez, an Abu Dhabi-based independent PR, said: "It's not a decision that is taken at the beginning. But after five years, I felt professionally confident to take on my own clients. While employment at a larger firm offers a bigger network and professional development, it also leaves one beholden to the needs of the company and its clients." She saw an opportunity to provide special attention to her clients, even if it meant working with fewer of them. "I have much fewer clients than before, but they are like my family."
Where does the industry go from here?
Weber Shandwick's Ziad Hasbani said that the UAE's PR market has "strong fundamentals" for growth. "However, what will drive an accelerated growth within our industry is the ability to transform its offerings to clients," he said.
"This can come through continued integration across all communications disciplines, or through adopting new technologies to help clients understand and connect better with audiences, or by driving new types of campaigns such as purpose-driven engagement campaigns, live campaigns and so on."
Alisa D'Souza noted that, in her opinion, "there is a piece of the pie for everyone in the UAE PR industry.
"With so many PR agencies in the market, it definitely does create tough competition," she said. "It's now the survival of the fittest."
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