The Power Letters: Sunil John in Gulf Business

(By Sunil John as appeared in Gulf Business, Issue 8,  December 2011)

If public relations is the art of reputation management, then it seems clear that the industry needs to take its own PR a lot more seriously. Like the proverbial cobbler’s children who go without shoes, public relations firms – worldwide and especially here in the Middle East –ignore the fact that their profession’s own reputation is generally on par with that of ambulance-chasing lawyers and used-car salesmen.

Worldwide, the PR industry employs about 60,000 people, generating around US$9 billion in annual fee revenues. At a time when related sectors like advertising and media-buying are suffering a global crunch, our business remains robust.

Yet we remain our own worst client. Seen as either subservient to media, or as masters of the dark art of spin, we need to address with seriousness of purpose our fundamental image problem. Our own future depends on it, especially here in the Middle East.

PR is relatively new to the Arab world. Yet, by 2009, barely a decade after the profession first became institutionalized here, total fee revenues reached approximately US$150 million. Today, the overall value of the industry, including work done by in-house communications departments, stands at about US$500 million. If current trends continue, there is every reason to believe that the industry will be worth US$1 billion annually within a decade.

That may sound like a fantastic growth curve, and in many ways it is. But we could grow even more rapidly if we more clearly communicated what we actually do, as well as the tangible value it provides the clients we serve.

ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, the firm I lead, recognised early the importance of managing the image of our industry, and of our own company. That is why, for example, we have been investing in conducting the annual ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey since 2008. The largest study of its kind of the region’s largest demographic, this survey is our contribution to the important, ongoing dialogue about the future of the Arab world.

This serious piece of thought leadership is also a positioning tool for us, which is intended to make clear to decision-makers our differentiating strength: evidence-based communications. Indeed, our focus is on providing consultancy, helping public and private-sector firms manage perceptions, internally and externally, so they can achieve their goals.

I believe that our efforts are bearing fruit, and that we can see this in the evolving composition of our clients. A decade ago, about three-quarters of our clients were multinationals seeking to raise their profile in the Middle East, while the remaining 25 per cent were local firms keen to communicate their success.

Ten years later, those numbers have been reversed: currently, 73 per cent of our revenues are generated from work for local clients (like Emaar, Etisalat and Emirates NBD), with the balance 27 per cent coming from consultancy for global firms (including Ford, Accenture, General Electric and Total of France).

This trend, towards localization, is an important indicator of the health of the regional PR sector, which shows that locally-based firms increasingly appreciate the value such consultancy can provide them. In the wake of the Arab Spring, at a time communication has never been more critical to both regional governments and companies, this ongoing shift should accelerate even further.

Perhaps this is a sign, after all, that our industry is finally on the verge of gaining the respect it deserves – and that, as the one-time cobbler’s children, we will be able to stride confidently into the future.