x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Family businesses in Gulf urged to be less secretive

Business leaders in the Gulf are calling on their peers to embrace more open communication and public relations strategies. Here is why.

Dr Abdulrahman al Zamil, left, Abdullah Ali Almajdouie, centre, and Sultan al Bazie talk strategy for family-owned businesses.
Dr Abdulrahman al Zamil, left, Abdullah Ali Almajdouie, centre, and Sultan al Bazie talk strategy for family-owned businesses.

Family-owned businesses in the Gulf often prefer to keep their plans and operations private, with the result that they are often not well understood by outsiders.

That can be problematic in times of crisis or when a company has an exciting development to share with the public.

This topic was much debated at the second annual International Public Relations Association conference, which was held in Abu Dhabi last week.

"The majority of the businesses in the Gulf are dominated by family businesses," said Sunil John, the chief executive of ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller, a public relations agency in Dubai. Yet, he added, "this sector is probably infamous for not being very open".

Easy enough for someone in PR to say, but many business leaders from the region agree they could do better in communicating with the public. Here are some ways to achieve that:

Find someone to speak on behalf of the company

Often, family businesses say they avoid employing a spokesman, spokeswoman or PR agency because they don't want to tip off competitors about key business strategies or new activities.

"They are conservatives regarding the sharing of information with othe r companies," said Abdullah Ali Almajdouie, the president of Almajdouie Group, which is based in Saudi Arabia and has associate offices in the Middle East and North Africa region, Europe and North America.

Still, Mr Almajdouie said, a spokesman can be beneficial in dealing with the media and helping to raise general public awareness about a company, and the good ones would never give away more information than they should.

Prepare a succession strategy

It is not uncommon for disputes to erupt after the unexpected death of a family business founder. But what is meant to be a private affair about who is taking over can play out publicly.

"Family conflicts in the media give a negative image and [can] lead to the collapse of such companies," said Sultan al Bazie, the chief executive of the media consultancy Attariq Communications and the executive vice president of the Gulf chapter of the International Public Relations Association.

That is just one reason family businesses should implement a robust succession plan that includes a public relations component, experts say. "They should have a communication strategy in order to be organised, to preserve the [company's] value and reputation and status," Mr al Bazie said. "What we notice most of the time is that the communications message is not clear," he added.

Engage with the public

The most common mistake businesses make with their communications strategy is thinking of it as a "one-way street", said Mr John. This can hurt the bottom line, particularly when companies issue press releases about products or services but fail to allow customers to provide feedback about either.

"PR goes beyond press releases," said Dr Abdulrahman al Zamil, the chairman of Zamil Industrial Investment Company in Saudi Arabia.

He argued that more businesses in the region should engage with customers on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

While having a presence on such sites means relinquishing a lot of control over what consumers might say, companies can still steer their staff to respond in a way that is appropriate for their brand.

"Get a policy in place," Mr John said.