PR activity here 'poor cousin' of advertising

As companies and brands turn to PR exercises for their image building, industry leaders question "how many of these agencies are practicing an effective PR exercise as an integral discipline to other marketing communications vehicles?"

Firas Saleem, Director, Virtue PR & Marketing Communications, UAE, in an interview with Emirates Business, defines the challenges faced by the PR industry and the expectations of clients and consumers.

How do you think the PR industry is progressing in the Middle East with the number of PR agencies rapidly increasing in the region and plenty of advertising agencies providing PR services?

With more than 90 PR agencies in the UAE, I think the picture is somehow vague and the sailing is really rocky. The question that arises here is that how many of these agencies are practicing an effective PR exercise as an integral discipline to other marketing communications vehicles? Also, another key point is that advertising agencies should admit that they can't deliver PR as a minor activity in their marketing campaigns. We don't recommend marketing budgets that horrifyingly buy all sorts of bells and whistles. The key factors are transparency, credibility, responsibility, measurability and, most significantly, quality and professionalism.

While there is a huge demand for strategic corporate communications counsel, the majority of the PR agencies are still offering shallow tactics. This is hindering the industry's growth. PR should no longer act as the poor cousin of advertising.

Majority of agencies, in the meantime, are executors of creative ideas readymade by advertising counterparts.

PR consultancies should walk in tandem with advertising peers and they should take a front seat at the table of strategic planning, brainstorming, developing and conceptualising creative ideas because PR is about creativity in creating, managing and maintaining sustainable and lucrative ties.

Is it true that 10 per cent of the agencies are capturing 90 per cent of the market share? What are the issues and practices that are relevant to the regional communications environment?

A PR agency should be more of a family doctor than a general practitioner. Quality is what drives the competition. I think a handful of consultancies account for more than 70 per cent of the consultancy fee income in the region. The recipe is simple: quality, quality and quality. Quality is the key to excel in the PR industry. Alarmingly, the bulk of the PR agencies are hiring amateurs with little PR knowledge and no industry education.

Agencies are not developing staff for the future of their business, which means they are definitely losing the war to win new talents.

Adding insult to injury, they also lack practical training required to drive their clients' PR machine. These agencies should know that they are harming the industry by lowering its standards.

Acceptable practices don't have much room in the fastest growing communications sectors of the Arab World. Clients – be it publicly-listed companies, multi-nationals, industry bodies and associations/co-operatives and privately-owned companies – are looking at best practices based on solid yet proven fundamentals. With a growing number of regional businesses integrating PR into their corporate strategy, industry standards should be enforced as a matter of urgency.

The PR agency should be more of a family doctor than a general practitioner.

The clients themselves should know their client's business as much as PR firms do in order to be able to develop and implement an effective PR strategy.

Research should take a front seat in the PR practice while planning plays a crucial role in achieving pre-determined results. Under such circumstances, how do you distinguish and define Virtue PR and Marketing Communications from other PR consultancies?

What distinguishes Virtue is delivery of creative and disciplined solutions that meet clients' needs.

Agencies claim that they take influence into advocacy when devising a communications programme; however, the majority of them are copying international strategies with a successful local execution at best and a failing one at worst.

Through our adherence to the highest market standards, we at Virtue have proudly managed powerful campaigns that were creatively designed to shape purchasing behaviour and influence thought patterns.

What are the dynamics moving the PR industry?

In such a vibrant economic climate, analysing the underlying dynamics driving the PR industry was never more challenging.

It is becoming more focused on brand experience that differentiates a brand against the competitive trait. It is more integrated into other marketing disciplines for positioning a product or developing a communications strategy.

Also, consistent targeted PR programmes for multiple audiences and diversity of messages across audiences are the key challenges of the industry in-line with the proliferation of brands in the Middle East.

Is PR only limited to media coverage?

Most of the PR agencies aim at gaining more media exposure to their clients; this media exposure should be smartly linked with pre-set business outcomes.

Organisations from both private and public sectors in the region have recognised the power of public relations in strengthening brand equity and enhancing corporate reputation.

PR involves creating, maintaining and enhancing long-term relationships with stakeholders. Clients in the region recognise that their stakeholders have become too demanding.

These facts make it imperative to PR practitioners to start providing integrated solutions directly tailored to match their clients' PR requirements.

How you link PR into reputation management and how PR results differ from a firm to another?

Reputation is no longer "lovely to have". It is sadly ironical that organisations dedicate budgets to manage each and every asset and they underestimate their most valuable and fragile one – their reputation.

Businesses with no PR machine or minimal one-off PR activities are losing the battle to compete with peers that are garnering an increasingly bigger market share. Businesses should implement effective PR techniques, should they wish to effectively compete in their areas of specialisation.

How will PR agencies survive?

Planning is imperative before developing a PR programme. Account management is important to compete by effectively managing resources to make sure that all components of any PR programme are properly utilised. Transparent reporting system is a must.


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