MENA PR industry can spring to the double
(As appeared in the National on July 31, 2011)

Sunil John forecasts the size of the public relations (PR) industry in the Middle East and North Africa to double over the next 10 years, to US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn). The chief executive of ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller, one of the largest PR firms in the region, talks about how recent events such as the Arab Spring and News Corp phone hacking scandal are changing this fast-growing industry.

How would you define the role of PR in the wake of the Arab Spring?

The current trends are more towards peer-to-peer communications. The top-down leadership model that worked for decades, at least for the past 100 years in this region, is now challenged. The importance of dialogue becomes critical for these governments. That's where public relations will play a key role. And I see that reflecting in the growth of the profession.

You say the PR industry is worth about $500 million now. What kind of growth do you expect?

I see within the next decade that doubling to $1 billion. That includes agency revenue, work done by in-house departments in the government and corporate sectors.

That's a sharp increase. Would you attribute that purely to the Arab Spring?

I think the growth would have happened, but I think the Arab Spring provides the momentum and impetus.

You have recently been elected to the board of the International Public Relations Association. What issues will you be raising there?

My agenda is to make sure that work that is being done in the Middle East is recognised. I think we are at a point in our history of the region where open communications becomes extremely important, given the socio-political changes that are happening. The map is changing in the Middle East, and I think communications is playing a key role.

How do you think Rupert Murdoch and News Corp have handled the PR around the phone hacking scandal?

I think News Corp has in many ways handled the problem in a smart way. Otherwise the repercussions would be even more serious. They've been able to mitigate some of the issues by taking a humble approach, and doing humble things like saying "we're sorry". I think they're listening to good advice.

That's a surprising response. A lot of people have said it has been a PR disaster. What would your advice be for News Corp going forward?

My strategy would be to separate ownership and management … it's the only way ahead.

Why is that separation important in the media business?

Sometimes I think the balance has tilted in favour of business interests much too much in the last decade or so.