x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Advice to PR - forget unctuous emails, meet me one-on-one

The black arts of the public relations business have always baffled me, and nowhere more than in the UAE, writes Frank Kane. How can it be improved?

An hour or five in the company of Tim Harrison of HSBC was never wasted. EPA
An hour or five in the company of Tim Harrison of HSBC was never wasted. EPA

The black arts of the public relations business have always baffled me, and nowhere more than in the UAE.

Friends in PR have often said the key to handling the tricky relationship between clients and the media is to "know your market", and of course this makes sense, especially from the media side.

I will always appreciate an approach from a spin doctor who has a genuine message to get across and who is willing to do his or her homework on me. Half an hour in Dubai's Bahri Bar will get you an awful lot further than a phone call out of the blue.

Or an email attaching a press release and informing me that "earliest and prominent appearance in your esteemed publication" would be much appreciated, before thanking me in advance for my "ongoing support and consideration". Delete.

It's the local PR firms that are most to blame for this practice, and I'm sure there are some cultural considerations at the root of it. Western firms are a bit more savvy, at least in dealing with the English-language media, but I sometimes get the impression they would actually quite enjoy a system that got their press releases in print untouched, uncorroborated and unedited.

These thoughts came to me as I read about one of the PR howlers of the decade - the "clumsy smear" attempted by a firm working for Facebook against their deadly enemy Google. Apparently the firm (I won't name them because the allegations are as yet unproved and they have quite a big presence in the region) sent out information intended to make Google look bad … but did it via a general email to all and sundry in the US media.

The predictable result was that the spinner was blackened, rather than the intended target, Google, as the perpetrator of "dirty tricks".

Maybe the "know your market" rule should be replaced by "know your friends as well as your enemy".

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Talking of PR men, it saddens me to report that one of the region's spin doctors par excellence, Tim Harrison of HSBC, has quit these climes and headed back to the gloom of the United Kingdom.

Tim has got some grand job in Canary Wharf in London's eastern financial district - supreme head of global corporate synergetic banking and finance or some such title. It's HSBC's gain but the UAE's loss.

An hour or five in Tim's company was never wasted. As well as a global view on the banking scene, spiced up with gossipy snippets about the big swingers in that ego-heavy profession, you also got a rundown on who was doing what to whom in Dubai, a tour d'horizon of the English Premier League, and a good idea as to which nag was going to win the 7 o'clock at Meydan.

In one way, though, I'm glad he has finally gone. His departure has been planned for the past six months or so, with the result that every meeting turned into another gruelling farewell gathering. It will take my health, and my wallet, some time to recover.

But I wish him and his charming family the very best of luck back in the Smoke. I am sure our paths will cross again, if not our swords.

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Latest "Heard in the elevator at Goldman Sachs", the Twitter site de rigueur for all banking gossip: "Those who can, do. Those who can't work at Morgan Stanley."

The site really is a hoot, but much of it's content is unpublishable in a family newspaper such as The National. I wonder if there is a market for something similar in Dubai? Surely the denizens of the DIFC would love to overhear the salacious gossip of their peers and competitors as filtered through a reliable source like a broadsheet journalist.

I kick it off with a genuine conversation heard in a lift at Emaar Square. A tall blonde woman, expensively dressed in a black Armani business suit: "We booked out the whole of first class, but he wanted a private jet, so we just had to get it."

fkane@thenational.ae