What’s it like to step into a PR chief’s shoes?

By Lucy O’Brien, General Manager and Partner, FleishmanHillard UAE

The public relations industry in the Middle East is quite different from what it was years ago. As someone who has been in the industry for 20 years, five of which have been in the Middle East, I have seen this gradual evolution firsthand. Where once quantity in coverage reigned, the industry’s collective focus has now shifted to measurement and meaningful engagement with targeted stakeholders.

I for one find this change very encouraging. The fact is that companies need sound public relations counsel more than ever. In an age of rampant social media consumption and rapid information dissemination, large corporations have never been more exposed. These days, all it takes is an activist citizen with a smartphone to tarnish an established firm’s reputation – even more reason for companies to engage the services of established communications consultancies.

In short, it is a time of great transition for PR professionals in the region. Now, more than ever, the expectations are greater, the stakes higher.

Within the region at large, there is a prevalent assumption that the job of PR practitioners is to burnish corporate reputations. However, as the head of a leading agency in the region, I do not see this as the case. While we do strive to present our clients in the best possible light, our commitment to ethics and responsible business practices ensures that we are completely transparent with the public.

Synergy is the key

A personal mantra that I – and my wider team – live by is an emphasis on authenticity and transparency. The meaning of this is two-fold: as professionals in our field, we do not take work that is not compliant with our culture of authenticity and transparency. It also means that we do not expect anything less than the very best in terms of work delivered for our clients.

We constantly push each other to exceed expectations, and this is one of the reasons we have come to be known as one of the world’s leading communications consultancies. Our work manifests itself in the numerous industry accolades we have received over the years – something that our clients keep track of as well.

What we must bear in mind is the fact that at a time when every brand is clamouring to be seen and heard in an increasingly saturated media landscape, synergy is the key to long-term success. Client and agency alike must realize that they need each other to achieve their respective objectives; only through mutual understanding can this come about.

Building relationships

One of my key responsibilities is optimum resource allocation and ensuring that every account has the requisite staffing in place. This alone forms the foundational strength of a relationship between agency and client, and paves the way forward for long-term success.

However, if not managed carefully, it can also potentially become an area of friction. While amiable relationships between both parties are welcome, we try our best to emphasize balance when it comes to everyday communications. It is only natural that clients tend to gravitate towards talented PR practitioners and place their trust in them; if anything, this reflects well on the agency and is a credit to the employee/s in question.

However, while our underlying aim is to foster positive working relationships with our clients and deliver the best results for them, each account has different needs and no two are the same. Many a time, certain accounts – even longstanding ones – will require a change in direction and a reevaluation in staffing requirements.

While more experienced PR practitioners will be expected to be involved in regional or global assignments, times like these should be considered growth opportunities for junior members of the team; transitional periods give them the chance to step up and take on more challenging responsibilities, learning lessons along the way and picking up new skills in the process.

Meet the media

If you have been a resident of the region long enough, you will eventually realize that the culture of PR, especially here in the Middle East, is heavily focused on media relations. Any PR professional in the region will attest to the challenge of media coverage firsthand, especially when clients do not have compelling messaging in play.

Navigating the media landscape can be quite tricky and requires the right talent to be in place. All too often, friction between clients and agencies flares up around the question of coverage results, with clients expecting vast numbers of clippings when a certain news announcement is made. They often believe that the agency’s relationships with the media alone will help in generating coverage – a notion that is completely untrue, and a misrepresentation of what PR is and how we work.

While we do build good relationships with media, which definitely helps in starting conversations and opening doors, we are always careful not to cross a line that would compromise that professional relationship with a journalist. When you become acquainted with a journalist and interact with them frequently, it is only natural that you will become familiar with the kind of content they are looking for. A recurring challenge is plainly telling the client this: coverage has to be earned and is not something to be taken for granted. This means investing a substantial amount of time in formulating a communications strategy, building a compelling story, understanding what makes news and what the media are looking for in a story.

As mentioned before, in the wake of social media and ubiquitous connectivity, a crisis can occur anytime, anywhere – and it usually doesn’t take long for it to spiral out of control. Just skim through the headlines in any newspaper these days and you will see that this is true. It is always surprising for us to see how many companies do not have robust crisis plans in place, or even thought through the required processes and protocols, should the worst happen. The key lies in responding in time, anticipating events, containing the crisis and being absolutely transparent in communications with the public and affected stakeholders. We often find ourselves advising clients that are facing difficult issues – even crises – which need to be handled carefully in order to minimize reputational damage.

In such a situation, it is also often very surprising to see how, time and again, clients facing a crisis and public criticism are reluctant to stand up and be honest with the public about the issues they are facing and the steps they are taking to resolve an issue. Failure to be open and communicate transparently ends up reflecting badly on a brand.

Taking these points into consideration, I consider it a privilege to lead a team that have proven to be capable of actively engaging with clients and tackling these issues productively on numerous occasions – in a way that is sustainable for the business and doesn’t hamper our relationships with either clients or the media. While there certainly are challenges for a PR practitioner in the region, they make our day-to-day work even more exciting – and rewarding when we take them head-on and come out on top.

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