If the masters of public relations are known as the spin doctors, then a growing number of the PR offices opening in the UAE lately would more accurately be described as "spin specialists". Several niche PR agencies, offering communications services in a single sector or aimed at a particular ethnic group, have sprung up since the economic crisis hit; despite the recession's drag on the industry globally.
The most recent is Performance PR, a sport and automotive public relations specialist based in London that launched its first office in the Middle East this week, in Dubai Media City. "We've got all the big agencies and this is the logical step forward, where you will get targeted public relations companies that give you an expert view on a specific area," says Noel Ebdon, the managing director of Performance PR Middle East.
"What do I know about toothpaste? But when it comes to automotive and sport, that's our area." Mr Ebdon sees the advent of such a specialised company, which handles regional clients such as Fast Rent A Car, ProTech and Alex Renner Motors, as evidence of greater maturity in the automotive and PR industries in the region. "The automotive industry has matured massively in the last five years," he says.
"Before, all you were getting was new brands coming out. Now all the brands are here but what you are also getting now is the support network for the automotive industry." Mr Ebdon has watched all the large, international public relations companies set up in the region in the boom years, but only recently noticed firms putting out flags for a single specialty. Art Los Banos, who last month launched his own PR and events firm in Dubai aimed at the Filipino market, says the business logic of specialisation is obvious.
"The advantage for me is that I'm the only one offering this service in the PR industry, specialising in the Filipino market," Mr Los Banos says. "The number two advantage of being a Filipino is that there are so many Filipino reporters and journalists, and even Filipino staff who work in media companies, so it is very easy for me to get inside or get in touch with the relevant editors or the relevant journalists through this Filipino network."
He often used this network in his previous jobs at general PR firms such as Venture Communications and Trans Arabian Creative Communications, but it was only recently that he found an Emirati partner and decided to go into business as the director of IMC PR and Events. Daisy Omissi, the managing director of Papillon Communications, decided to open a boutique PR agency focusing on fashion, art and lifestyle in Dubai last September. At the time, Ms Omissi recalls, the financial crisis seemed like the West's problem, not the Middle East's.
But even as it swept through the region, she managed to hold on to clients such as the Carbon 12 art gallery and Studio 8 boutique, which recently provided clothes for Paris Hilton. "It hasn't touched us really," Ms Omissi says. "We are growing every month." But she would not want to get much bigger, she says, as that would sacrifice the advantages of being small and specific. "You get very personal service," Ms Omissi says. "You know exactly who it is who is picking up the phone.
"We only work with brand we really believe in and we have personal relationships with, almost like friendships, because we only have a certain number of clients. "We probably wouldn't want to grow much bigger." These companies are bucking the gloomy global trend for the PR industry, which saw some of its biggest players such as WPP Group and Omnicom Group report drops in revenue in their PR businesses for the first quarter compared with the same period last year.
WPP, which owns major PR brands such as Burson Marsteller and Hill and Knowlton, said revenue at its PR agencies dropped 6.1 per cent in the first quarter, while Omnicom's PR revenue dropped 10.5 per cent in the same period. A study of 200 US companies conducted in January by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Strategic Communications and Public Relations Centre found they had reduced their PR budgets by 11 per cent.
While PR has not been hit as badly as advertising in the Middle East, companies have had to shed staff and cut costs in the first quarter of this year. So the recent growth in the industry, especially among firms with a financial specialty such as the UK-based Finsbury and M: Communications, which both opened operations in the UAE in the first half of this year, has raised eyebrows. "I think generally in public relations there are more players turning up on the scene, which is quite surprising actually, given that we are in a downturn," says Kate Delahunty, the managing director for Middle East of Capital MS&L, a financial and corporate communications consultancy that has had an office in Dubai for several years.
"But it's more on the financial side, rather than the corporate side." But Simon Moyse, Finsbury's chief executive for the Middle East, says the disruptive effects of the financial crisis has created opportunities for firms such as his. "Companies are increasingly looking for strategic communications advice given the effects of the global economic crisis, which have radically changed the business environment," Mr Moyse says.
"I think that presents opportunities for the specialised end of the public relations market." Nicholas Lunt, who recently moved to the UAE to serve as the Gulf managing director for M: Communications, says the new office is an essential part of his company's global expansion plans. "If you've got aspirations to be the world's leading financial communications business, you've got to be here," Mr Lunt says. "That's clear."