In Middle East (or GCC/Persian Gulf), challenging your employer and being seen to argue against what they have told you to do or say, is not for the faint-hearted.
If that employer is of royal descent, you can forget about it; and, depending where in Middle East you are, you may even end up in prison for daring (if you’re lucky, that is).
Walking with high heels on the marbled floor of a large reception room, whose windows look far into the surrounding desert, can be quite startling for someone standing in a corner, deeply engulfed in contemplating the dunes before his eyes.
He’s a Sheikh I’ve come to know quite well, a distant relative of one of the GCC’s rulers.
I’m not allowed to approach him or touch him, unless he does it first.
I am one of the few foreign women allowed to come into his palatial home without wearing an abaya (a long-sleeved large dress below the ankles).
But out of respect for him, I do wear a headscarf – it costs me nothing to do so while it gets me a lot to wear it.
We met several times in the past and, while he’s a very well-educated man, he finds it hard to allow his “public image advisors” to express their views openly.
However, to build capacity and strengthen a Gulf country’s PR staff’s skills and knowledge pool takes much more than sending them on research trips to Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard, and significantly much more than bringing “Western experts” to help.
I’ve met colleagues in GCC who are spectacularly bright and who would certainly make many of us take stock and reconsider our “brightness”.
But there is something very special that I can do, which they cannot: I’m allowed (very “respectfully”, of course) to say that something is not good enough, or to push back (with moderation) or to argue against a proposed approach.
One of the most talked-about issues in our profession is on how to get that seat at the management table. The debate is often framed against the backdrop of countries where public relations is a professional, well-understood function. But we rarely look at how public relations is perceived in emerging markets, and what we can do to step up the competencies of practitioners based there.
As Alex Malouf, the Past Chair of IABC EMENA and current board member of Global Alliance so well said above, I also believe that there comes a time when we need to think about what we stand for, what we can do to change perceptions but, most of all, about how we can help each other.
There are very few similarities in the way we “do” or “activate” something across cultures, geographies and religions.
However, there are many similarities in the way we can really support our peers across the geopolitical and cultural spectrum across the world and make them feel confident enough to allow themselves to push their own real and perceived limits and limitations.
I asked Alex what it is exactly that each of us can do to help:
What I’m encouraging colleagues in Europe, Northern America and Asia to do is to look at how they can pass on their experiences to their fellow professionals in places such as the Middle East, Asia and Africa, so that those of us based here can best understand how we can transform the function from one that is perceived to be all about doing to one which is more strategy and advisory.
We are not going to change self-doubt, misperceptions or decades-old stereotypes overnight, not in Asia, Africa and certainly not in the Middle East.
But if we all try to support each other, openly discuss what best practice looks like and why Public Relations can be much more strategic than just simply functional, then we can empower our colleagues from these regions to say: “hey, I can do it, too”.
Middle East and Africa (as many of you know) are very special “places” to me – their potential, with the right level of acculturation, is enormous for both international businesses and governments, as well as for our little world of Public Relations.
Alex Malouf and his IABC EMENA colleagues are trying hard to change perceptions of what our community thinks that they can do, versus what they could really do. Their EMENAComm event in Bahrain in February 2019 is a significant step forward towards making that change that I was speaking about earlier.
Bringing world-class practitioners together to show communicators in the Gulf and other parts of the emerging world how they can step up their craft, be recognised for everything that they can give to their organisations and stakeholders, and be proud that they work in Public Relations is PURPOSE 1.0.
Let’s help our colleagues reach it.