The rapid growth of public relations firms in the United Arab Emirates is not necessarily a good thing.
Pulling out the PR weeds
The public relations industry in the Gulf has sprouted rapidly in the past few years, entwining itself in the fast-growing economies of the region. But the swift proliferation is not necessarily a healthy development. Companies seeking PR representation have more options - but also more to be wary of. "In a way any carpetbagger, if they can bag a licence in some related area, they can call themselves a PR agency," says Jack Pearce, the chairman of Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA), and the managing director and founder of Matrix Public Relations.
There are more than 100 firms operating in the Gulf, with combined annual billings of more than US$120 million (Dh441m), up from just two agencies 20 years ago, according to Mr Pearce. About 25 new agencies open for business every year, he says. Mr Pearce, a 27-year veteran of PR and the media in the Gulf, says that the UAE Government does not even recognise public relations as a stand-alone industry, let alone impose regulations on it.
"In the UAE there is no economic category that is called 'public relations' so you can't go down to the Dubai economic department for instance and say 'I want to set up a PR firm' because they look through their list of categories and say 'no, we don't have PR firm as a category here'," Mr Pearce says. "They say, 'well what's the nearest thing to it'?" Hence Mr Pearce's own company, Matrix Public Relations, is licensed to operate in the UAE as an educational consultancy, an advertising consultancy and a research consultancy; three categories which he says "sort of cover the broad area of stuff that we do".
This means that reliable statistics about the PR field are hard to come by, including the exact number of agencies in the UAE and wider Gulf. The lack of regulations and the desire to raise the standard of PR in the region spawned the creation of MEPRA in 2002. The non-profit association, which is based in Dubai, has an extensive code of practice that mirrors internationally recognised standards. It has 25 agency members split between those categorised as full members (five-plus years of operation in the region) and associate members, those with more than one year of experience in the region. MEPRA also plans to introduce academic and student membership categories and plans to embark on a membership drive in October.
The association appointed Rebecca Hill to the newly created post of executive director in May. A former New York-based vice president of marketing and communications for the information and media segment of the McGraw-Hill companies, she has 20 years of experience in communication. Mr Pearce has charged her with increasing membership and organising a PR conference and awards programme to be held next year. She also plans to build a network of MEPRA chapters throughout the region.
Mr Pearce says that the membership applications of several PR agencies, which he declined to name, have been turned down and that one member, Gambate, was expelled about a year ago for breaching MEPRA's code of conduct by the non-payment of some bills. "This organisation, which is self-regulating, at least provides a modicum of assurance that [a company] is going to get professional services from these members, as opposed to carpetbaggers," he says.
But weeding out the charlatans and enforcing a code of practice is not an easy task in a country that does not even recognise PR as an industry. Mr Pearce says that he hoped to see a change in the Government's receptiveness to amending its trade licensing protocols, establishing regulations for the PR sector or some means to enforce them. "I would like to see the authorities taking more notice of the organisations that call themselves PR firms, of what actual credentials they bring to the table," he says. "I'd like to see a greater regulation, to ensure the calibre of people calling themselves PR consultants is actually authenticated."
But, until that happens, MEPRA has stepped in to try to fill the void. The association established forums more than a year ago for its members and their clients to air their grievances, and has acted as an intermediary on two occasions to amicably resolve payment disputes brought by the disgruntled clients of PR agencies. "We're seeing the light," says Sawsan Ghanem, the managing director of Active Public Relations and Marketing Communications Consultancy, a member of MEPRA.
"The individual PR agencies are making noise to MEPRA, to other colleagues in the industry. Having a forum is very important to discuss issues," she says. Industry professionals are grappling with several key issues: the struggle to find and retain talented staff in a high-inflation environment and fostering the notion that professional PR is about more than just issuing mundane press releases. The proliferation of fakes in the trade is a symptom of both issues. The inability to find talented staff or to pay them appropriately enables the entry of less qualified, less experienced and less expensive people into the field. "Finding bright people who are passionate about PR, who take it as a serious industry and who know it's not just about schmoozing ... is difficult. It's a constant uphill battle," says Ms Ghanem, who, along with her partner, Louay al Samarrai, established Active PR in Dubai five years ago.
The agency was recently named the "Best PR Company" by the CNBC Arabian Property Awards 2008 for the campaign it created for the property developer IRIS. Ms Ghanem says that many agencies are becoming increasingly aware that PR is about more than press releases and "shoving communications down the media's throat". "We can't just send them [the media] a barrage of press releases and pitches and mass mailers. It doesn't work any more," she says. "More agencies need to take a step back and think about what they're trying to achieve with the media and how to approach them, rather than 'Oh my God I have to get X amount of coverage' for my client because he or she is putting the pressure on me. That's not the objective."
But media coverage is still considered a key determinant of whether a PR campaign is deemed successful. Mohamed Elzubeir, the managing director of Mediastow, a Dubai-based media monitoring consultancy, believes too that media coverage should be "a very, very small aspect" of a PR campaign. But the "vast majority" of PR agencies are wasting their clients' money by relying on press clippings as evidence of a successful campaign, he said. "They say 'Here, we issued the press release and these papers carried it. Success'. That doesn't do anything. It means nothing, and that's where PR is failing its clients," says Mr Elzubeir.
The most recent study by Mediastow was conducted last year and indicated that of the 200 in-house PR managers surveyed, 83 per cent of respondents said they did not know how to measure the effectiveness of their work. Rather than stopping at the press clippings, PR agencies should conduct public surveys to see if the "press coverage correlates with what the public has taken home", Mr Elzubeir says, as well as provide their clients with information about press coverage of their competitors.
"Companies should demand proof that the PR campaign has achieved their goals," he says. "It could range from establishing brand awareness to directly affecting the bottom line. All these objectives can be quantified and then measured against the PR activities." Instead, Mr Elzubeir says, "it's a new industry so a lot of people get away with a lot of things". Ms Ghanem is more forgiving, though she acknowledges that the lack of a uniform set of professional standards in the industry makes her job more difficult.
"We have to remove all these bad misconceptions that a client may have had in the past and we have to work double as hard," she says. The PR industry in the Gulf is still a young market, she says, and as such it is unfair to compare it to other, more mature markets in the West. It is also evolving, she says, adding that there is a growing emphasis on professional training and practices. "With MEPRA appointing a new director, the code of conduct, ethics and standards are going to be more enforced among PR agencies in the region," she says. "That's a good thing. That's a very good thing."