x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Transparency drive strains media, PR relations

Analysis New protocol is placing strain on relationship between journalists and PR professionals.

Public relations in the UAE is changing as firms are expected to be more transparent while avoiding the damage of bad press. In some cases, the change is straining the relationship between journalists and PR professionals that evolved during the country's boom years, according to Samer Renno, the chief executive of Renno Communications in Dubai.

"There is animosity and there shouldn't be," Mr Renno said. He recommended a conference between PR professionals and journalists to help them understand each other's shifting needs brought on by the financial crisis. "Don't wait until the last few minutes before a deadline," Mr Renno offered, as an example. "We used to accommodate that but we have had to reduce that." Companies have become more cautious about the information they release to the press, Mr Renno said, but this has, in many cases, brought PR professionals and journalists closer together. "It is evident that some decision makers in times of crisis don't want to communicate, which makes it difficult for the journalist to approach them and get anything from them," he said.

"Where the PR practitioner comes in handy is to utilise the relationship between media on the one hand, and their client, or spokesperson, on the other hand, and try to provide the reporter with the necessary information that he or she requires. So it should be more close-knit now that there are good stories and bad stories on the market." A conference would also help explain why his company often asks for questions from journalists before approaching the decision makers, Mr Renno said.

"I would want to safeguard the needs of my clients," he said. "I understand the journalist's side. They're frustrated. But I don't see a problem with providing questions." Mamoon Sbeih, the managing director of JiWin Public Relations in Dubai, said submitted questions help convince some clients to grant interviews they might not otherwise approve in such a difficult business climate. "Some clients ask for questions to understand what the story is, because right now, there are so many kinds of stories being written about companies," Mr Sbeih said. "Maybe having the questions will have us help explain to the client what is the context of the story. The purpose is to facilitate, not to block. People are much more sensitive to what comes out in the media now than before."

Dave Robinson, the chief executive of Hill and Knowlton for the Middle East and Africa, said his company tried to advise clients against expecting submitted questions. "We usually advise our clients that, actually, the journalist has the right to make up the questions on the spot, or not share them with the client," Mr Robinson said. "That's part of the rules of engagement." But he said some clients demanded them. Most of the time, though, he works on preparing clients to talk to the press in an era in which more transparency is demanded.

"For lots of businesses and government organisations, this is the first time in living memory that we have faced such a colossally large global recession with such a colossally large effect on this region," Mr Robinson said. "So that means we are learning new behaviours." Ziad Hasbani, the managing director of Weber Shandwick in Dubai, believes the new trend toward caution has a positive side. "While there was a tendency previously to communicate any development, companies now are in touch with the media when they have something of value to share," Mr Hasbani said.

"Exaggerations are minimised since there is a higher likelihood of media inclined to investigate such claims. The end result is we can perhaps look forward to a better level of news coverage." In some cases, clients are pulling back from such interviews, said Sunil John, the chief executive of Asda'a Burson-Marsteller. "There are certain people who went around town positioning themselves and it hasn't really worked to their benefit, so there's a certain element of pulling back on that," Mr John said. "But that's a certain set of people." More generally, companies, including small businesses which formerly never engaged with the press, are recognising the crisis has brought greater expectations of transparency, he said.

"Without a doubt demands are higher," Mr John said. "People want to have more informed opinion about the marketplace and companies need to be able to speak more openly." Kate Delahunty, the managing director for the Middle East of Capital MS&L, said most of her clients have understood this message. "There's been a noticeable change since the start of the crisis," Ms Delahunty said. "Before, when times were good, people didn't feel the need to provide much disclosure. But since then I think there has been a greater willingness to provide information.

"There has been a real focus on investor relations since the crisis began, and a greater understanding that to improve investor confidence, companies need to disclose more." khagey@thenational.ae