By Damian Reilly
Asda'a's Sunil John explains if the PR message has changed after the crash.
Sunil John founded public relations firm Asda'a Burson-Marsteller a decade ago. While the Gulf boomed, his was the firm that managed the image of many of the private and public companies making the party swing. After the crash, has the message changed?
We only speak the language of ideas," says one of the signs hanging on the walls of the Asda'a Burson-Marsteller headquarters in Dubai. "We think out of the bubble," says another, in reception. In the boardroom there's one that says: "It's creative if it works."
There are many, particularly in journalism, who would tell you these non-speak slogans sum up the whole public relations industry. The words form sentences, but they are meaningless. Public relations, the argument goes, is merely the art of obfuscation made lucrative: PR's - gate-keepers to news-making personalities and companies - stand in the way of truth and muddy the waters until nobody knows what is going on.
Is that fair? Sunil John, CEO and founder of Asda'a - one of the Gulf's biggest PR firms, with clients ranging from Emaar to Etisalat to Damas to Microsoft - smiles patiently.
"I think journalism has a very one-sided view of things... When you are a journalist, your mindset is, ‘how can I get to the bottom of this?'" he says.
"The PR mindset is to bring about a commonality of interest. We're in business. So you have your client's interests, and the stakeholders' interests, and they are not just shareholders and customers and government and regulators, but also the community. There is a value add in what we do."
John has been in the UAE for the last fifteen years. Ten years ago he set up Asda'a, with Joseph Ghossoub, president of MENACOM Group. The company which means ‘echoes' in Arabic, started with six people in one office. Today, Asda'a, now part owned by Burson-Marsteller, has eleven offices throughout the region and over 130 employees.
And he is proud of the work he has done. Far from seeing his industry as a force for spin, he believes that in the Gulf it has done more than any form of media to increase corporate and political transparency.
"What is not really understood here is that the role of PR companies is not just about being a barrier and making stories go away - we have very quietly but very effectively played a role with the government sector, with family companies, with listed companies, to make them understand the need to communicate openly... I think that is the role that is least appreciated. I think we play a much bigger role (in transparency) than even the media."
The king of PR, in Britain at least, is a man called Max Clifford. He says the biggest part of his job is not helping clients get their names into the papers, but keeping them out. Such is his relationship with editors and media proprietors, it is believed his most valuable work happens when he makes scandalous stories go away. Do John and Asda'a make stories disappear, too?
He smiles again and shakes his head. "Nobody has the power to make a real story go away. They can probably do it for a little while, but then it will blow up, if it is a real story... We cannot put a lid on a story. We don't work in that space. If one of our clients wants us to do that sort of thing, then we can walk away."
Perhaps there is no need to make bad stories disappear in the Gulf. After all, John will concede that even without the presence of PR machines, "the media in the UAE operates within a censorship environment." That said, in the same breath, he claims media transparency is increasing. He tells the story of a female journalist challenging Dubai Ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum about censorship at the official opening of the emirate's Media City:
"He laughed and said ‘maybe we can attempt to do that and not let the story come out, but there is the whole worldwide media and it will come out anyway, so it doesn't work for us and that is why we have Media City, and that is the purpose of freedom of expression.' And to some extent I certainly think that percolates down."You can't have it both ways, surely? The media is either censored or it isn't. Which is it? John talks about self censorship - the fraught practice whereby media outlets tie themselves in knots trying to second guess the authorities, perhaps unnecessarily - and allocates some blame there.
He says: "I think the fact is that in the UAE the media can operate in pretty much a free environment... I mean you can criticise probably any company listed on the stock market. You can pretty much write about non-delivery on certain things. Nobody is stopping you doing that.
The fact that that happens in an environment of self-censorship, that you don't cross the line on certain things, is a mark of the openness and wisdom of the rulers of this country." So that is that sorted out then.
Public relations in the Gulf is a distant relation to public relations in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe and America. When corporate crisis occurs in the West, public relations executives rush to put out their version of events.
In the Gulf, the opposite seems the case. When Etisalat was found to be asking customers to upload spyware patches onto their BlackBerry devices - software that would potentially allow a third party to have access to their emails - the company responded to the ensuing media furore with a deafening silence. With no way to push the story on, journalists eventually gave up, and it went away.
Remembering the incident, John leans back in his chair and looks pained. Suddenly the issue of censorship doesn't seem so far away.
He says: "At the time when that happened, so-called PR gurus who sit on the sidelines and watch the scene pontificated and said we needed to rush and give the exact nature of the problem and things like that. But there are larger issues that are beyond the control of a certain client that does not allow communication to happen.
So what can you do about it? It is easy to pontificate from the sidelines, but when you are in the middle of it, what can you do? Everyone knows the basics: when crisis hits get out there and be completely forthright and tell the truth and that is the best way to resolve an issue. These basics are pretty clear. I don't even blame my client, not at all. But there are certain things that one can't say."
John attributes much of the success of his firm to the hard work put in in the early days to win public sector contracts. This was the trick, he says, that many of his rivals missed. Not that it was easy - he smiles as he talks about the hard process of explaining to public bodies unused to communicating why it was so important that they did.
"We went into areas which were very difficult. Imagine going into a ministry and working for them, talking to people who never understood communication. The first thing they would ask you is "why do we need to do this? We never did this for thirty years." It was hard and tedious and drawn out. You had to have the perseverance to see the bigger picture at the end. So it has been difficult and there are times when we have failed, but we have had many more successes."
He says that this work with the public sector coincided with a government drive to make the people they were serving more aware of what they were doing for them. For example, it was only six years ago that Asda'a was contracted to work for government-owned Etisalat, then the only telco provider in the UAE; one, by the sounds of it, with deeply entrenched ways of going about business.
"Etisalat was a monopoly and you had to work with a management that was used to dictating terms to consumers and their customers. There has been a total mindset change. We did a churn within the company, because they were used to setting terms. Etisalat today is dramatically different to six years ago," he says.
John is keenly aware of the Arab way of doing business; he talks of the profound reluctance with which companies in the Middle East reveal bad news, "a peculiarity of this region" - seeing it as a massive loss of face - although he explains humourously that the global financial crisis has gone some way to lessening this reluctance. When everyone's news is bad, there is less shame in admitting you've made a loss.
He talks keenly, too, about the importance of building trust with a client in the Gulf.
"It takes a long time to move from an ordinary relationship to a trusting relationship here, but once you have got there you are in it for life. So the investment and the perseverance pay off. The only way we get business at Asda'a is through referrals."
Asda'a Burson-Marsteller is now part of the prestigious WPP global conglomerate of companies - a tangible recognition of John's success. If he can consolidate the achievements of the past decade while remaining at the vanguard of the rapidly evolving Gulf media scene - no small task - there is no reason the next decade cannot be as successful. Where there's money there's messages. Who better to spread them?
Have we not already seen this article before?!
"Where there's money there's messages. Who better to spread them?" Hmmm, how about the people, happy customers, happy consumers? happy workers ? .... now there's an novel idea ! Their opinions are generally much more accurate than the typical overpaid spin doctors. A spin doctor attempts to make a silk purse out of a pigs ear but a customer just wants/expects good service at a good price comparable to other services/products on the market and if he/she does'nt get it then they will tell you the truth. Good Brands are built on delivering consistant value of service or product over a long period of time. It's easy to get loads of new customers by promising them the earth but unless you can "deliver" on your promises then you have little chance of keeping them as customers in the long-term. It takes a long time to earn trust but it takes moments to lose it. Stop Spinning & Start Winning ! :)