By Ray Eglington, MEPRA Executive Board Member & Group Managing Director at Four Communications Group
Is it time to say goodbye to public relations? Not in terms of what we do or aim to achieve, I hasten to add, but has it become time to use a better term to describe our industry?
Public relations here in the Middle East has changed a lot in the last ten years.
The core of what the sector tries to achieve has remained constant: the active management of reputation, encouraging organizations to act correctly, communicate transparently, and engage effectively; but the ways we do that have changed dramatically in that time, though.
I saw this clearly when I reviewed the results of the latest survey of MEPRA members.
What was once a heavily media relations-led sector (we can all remember the briefs that specified ‘press releases per month’ as a KPI), has emerged as the multi-faceted, multi-channel discipline it always should have been. Our members spend more time on data and analytics than on media relations; their biggest area of focus is social media (no surprise there); and they spend significant time on branding, creative and video.
I say "always should have been" because public relations should do what it says on the tin: managing the relations between an organization and its public(s), whatever the best way is to achieve that.
The reality was that, in the eyes of many, public relations became synonymous with media relations and many of the other techniques to communicate with audience groups were grabbed by others in the marketing and communications mix.
Three things have changed that.
First, it has become a truly strategic tool for organizations. People have now become properly focused on what communications can achieve, how it can contribute to business objectives. The way it does that is irrelevant. That is not to say the ‘cost per press release’ briefs have totally disappeared but they are becoming ever rarer. Today, the norm is the brief that specifies the communications objective or, better, the business objective and leaves the solution to the strategic insight and creative excellence of the practitioners concerned.
The second driver is of course technology. Social media, mobile Internet & data, and smartphones have clearly revolutionized what we all do as individuals, and how we interact with organizations, particularly here in the region. It is sobering to think that a decade ago, average penetration of the then most prolific social media channel across the Arab world, Facebook, was less than 6%. Today, many nations are at close to 100% levels (never mind all the other channels).
Third, we have seen an explosion in talent, both homegrown and professionals from all across the world choosing to make the Middle East their base. The media zones in the UAE have been an important catalyst but, as we know from the growing MEPRA membership, there are centers of excellence across the region. Our latest Young Communicator of the Year was an incredibly impressive young Saudi, H&K’s Omar Batterjee, and every year our awards see increasing numbers of great campaigns from all across the Middle East.
The sterling work done by the universities offering communications courses and degrees has also helped. At Four, our graduate recruitment program used to bring people from our London operation; for years now, we have also recruited locally, with some real superstars climbing through our ranks.
So our industry has seen major changes and most MEPRA members – agencies, in-house teams, and individuals – now see their roles as wider than ever before. Perhaps that is why so few of them consider themselves in public relations – despite the PR in the MEPRA name. Less than a fifth describe what they do as public relations, preferring communications or marketing communications as more accurate terms.
Which brings me to my original question. Is public relations a term that still works for this sector here in MENA? Or is it too limiting when our people now do so much more than the traditional disciplines associated with that term? (I mentioned a few earlier but the list of activities conducted by MEPRA members is so much longer – from sustainability consulting to media planning & buying, from investor relations to podcast and documentary production, from advocacy advertising to environmental reporting… and on, and on.)
Under Taryam Al Subaihi as chair, MEPRA is now taking a timely review of the way we describe what we do, how we position our offer to members and the services we provide; in fact, all of the core elements of the MEPRA brand. It is always good to do that from a position of strength – even with the challenges of 2020, we saw continued growth in membership and activity.
So we’d love to hear your views – from all across the industry and indeed, the wider creative services sector: is it time to say goodbye to public relations? And if so, what should replace it? Join our debate!