PR Revolution? Views from Qatar.

PR Revolution? Views from Qatar.

Article by Khristo Ayad

For his book The Global PR Revolution, which explores today’s international public relations landscape, Maxim Behar interviewed communications practitioners in 65 countries. His questions focused on the scale of the profession's development in each market, the implications changes have had, and may have in the future. I received Maxim’s questionnaire in September 2017 in Sofia and wrote my answers on the flight back to Doha. Handpicked quotes from 100 interviews found their way into the book. With its release this October, here some more of my original thoughts out of a Qatar perspective.

How has the PR profession in Qatar changed over the past five years?

The volume of classical media in Qatar is thin, particularly in terms of specialized trade titles. This, on the one hand, is a reflection of a small market, hence already small readership, on the other, it is a consequence of the very high growth rates in terms of social media use and consumption across the entire region. 

PR consultants have in the past been pitching content also to trade publications in the UAE, where they have been more available and provide a level of international reach. The ongoing diplomatic rift makes it thinkable, that at least a few such outlets may be coming up in Qatar.

Similar to the situation elsewhere in the world, elevated sales pressure on print media can be felt for quite some time now. This has caused media relations to be guided less exclusively by journalistic deliberations, but also by who advertises and who does not.

Digital media is overtaking -not to say, has overtaken- classical media in terms of visibility and relevance in the mainstream, as well as in niche areas. This is particularly true for young people in the Gulf, among which news consumption and two-way engagement is predominantly happening on social media in the meantime. For the Arab world, engagement on such platforms may be especially compelling by default. Communication here is perceived as fun, free, most current, direct, unfiltered and if wanted, anonymous.

Corporate and government sectors see this reality and are recalibrating their work towards more digital expertise, content, outreach and strategy. Where procurement and HR are slow, the composition of communications teams in 2017 still reflected the needs as defined five or ten years earlier, but steps have been taken to respond to the changed requirements since.

The definition of best practice communication and strategy in the digital age is testing clients and consultancies alike. Much of the knowledge now wanted is still evolving, just like the platforms, it is needed for. Experienced or trained resources are scarce and often emerging from learning-by-doing in the past ten years. Degrees or specialized training are still being improved and underpinned with more empirical values. Succinct, targeted, digital media monitoring and trend analysis will play an even bigger role, making a large part of the craft.

In short, a challenge over the past five years has been to obtain the right people, solid knowledge and insights on both, client and agency side. To be able to navigate the security settings of a Facebook account cannot be enough for candidates to be deemed digital media experts. This is still too often the case, yet is exponentially shifting with the next generation of talent coming into the field, especially so in the Gulf.

Likewise, a trend towards more and more integrated marketing and communications work has continued. Along with budgets being a reason, strategic PR is too often not utilized for what it is, but regularly seen as on the same above-the-line level as branding, advertising and so on. As a consequence, PR work is regularly sold and exercised as purely tactical. Strategic consultancies become press-release, and now, social media content factories.

Do you consider the changes as revolutionary?

Yes, the rise of digital communication constitutes a revolutionary change. This should be observed carefully though. While there are many advantages and ground-breaking aspects in this, perhaps like with any revolution, there also are risks, which need to be addressed as the digital era unfolds. Having said that, the fact that everyone now is a media owner in his or her own right, easily, without significant cost, globally and without delay, is opening a myriad of possibilities for PR practitioners and audiences alike. This in principle unfiltered two-way exchange should result in better, more tailored content, greater productivity, better understanding, better products, better services, and better governance.

Is the PR profession now easier or more difficult?

Neither, nor. It is changing. 

Digital communication is happening in real-time across the globe. Shelf-life is reduced to a Snapchat image and there is nothing older than the information seen an hour ago. Everybody consumes, more or less consciously, information tailored to him or her. The bigger picture gets diluted or even lost. Facts are less important, perceptions are more split than ever. The rise of social media has also caused the credibility of all information to be questioned more, which rightfully puts communications professionals at the center of an ethics debate.

Today, PR executives must be proficient with these channels and blindly navigate how they are assembled most effectively. They need to know how digital communication is initiated, how it behaves and how it can be steered as per their objectives and quality standards.

What are your predictions for the PR business in the next five years?

There will be more integrated creative marketing and PR work, especially for commercially oriented clients with sales targets. Consultants need to be more skilled across disciplines. However, the cyberspace will also be subject to more discourse and depth going forward. Data analysis, monitoring, but also policy and technology considerations will be imperative aspects of planned communications. This implies that specific niche expertise will remain crucial, not only for government organizations whose objectives are different from selling a product. To change behaviors, raise awareness or build advocacy, strategic communications and public affairs will remain to be the called-for below-the-line activities.