Commentary

Road map towards resilience

Road map towards resilience

If you are reading this in 2020, it would be difficult not to acknowledge that we are living in truly extraordinary times. But, if this has crossed your path as research in some future study and the year 2020 is from a bygone era, then our current reality may well seem relatively uncomplicated in the same way that we might look back on history, even 10 years prior, with a fondness for its relative straightforwardness…

Road map towards resilience

A SUMMARY OF FACTORS SHAPING THE BASIS FOR 2021 COMMUNICATION PLANNING

INTRODUCTION

If you are reading this in 2020, it would be difficult not to acknowledge that we are living in truly extraordinary times. But, if this has crossed your path as research in some future study and the year 2020 is from a bygone era, then our current reality may well seem relatively uncomplicated in the same way that we might look back on history, even 10 years prior, with a fondness for its relative straightforwardness.

The truth is that the pace of change has never been faster, the leap in technological advances and the power of the internet never greater; and the very real prospect that at some point the DNA of your future colleagues may well be AI rather than XY seems to strengthen its grip on society and gain more and more momentum.

These are a mere sample of the types of factors that today’s leaders are expected to anticipate and react to in order to steer their organisations onto safe and fertile ground. So much so that questions on the future uses and threats of technology, strategic communications, governance and risk issues are all increasingly dominating board room agendas.

How organisations place these factors into context with their own communications and messaging is of paramount importance as plans are drawn up for 2021. So, as we look towards the last quarter of 2020 what are some of the key signposts that leaders must factor into future planning?

COVID-19

The threat is far from over and governments in the region will continue to face difficult decisions between prioritising public health and economic wellbeing with many trying to balance the needs of both. Despite most countries coming out of full lockdown, restrictions remain in place with significant direct and indirect costs to the public purse. Policy makers and leaders will be preoccupied long into 2021 and possibly beyond with the quest of rebounding economically and ensuring future growth amidst the threat of further peaks in Covid-19 cases. Governments will continue to outspend their previous budgets in the areas of public health, pandemic responses and specific Covid-19 management units as a means of defence and protection from the virus and hoping it eventually enables fast-tracked economic recovery. At the time of writing a vaccine remains an elusive silver bullet.

Fiscal tightening & planning

Governments across the region have adapted their fiscal policies to bolster their national economies but also consolidate spending as a result of sharp declines in revenue. The road to economic recovery is expected to be a long one alongside oil prices that are significantly lower than the breakeven many governments in the region require to keep them in the black.

Despite unprecedented cuts by OPEC+ countries to compensate for short-term demand shock, lockdowns and a broader, global economic downturn, the oil price outlook remains stubbornly weak. A recent Reuters poll amongst economists forecasted an average price of $36/barrel this year, down from $64 in 2019 and rising to only $59 by 2024, well below breakeven prices for all regional producers.

Economic diversification

Fiscal tightening as a result re-emphasise the need for many countries to accelerate their economic diversification programmes. This is considered as existential to de-risk their economies and wean them off dependency on oil revenue, provide job opportunities for their citizens and secure future stability. However, some economists posit that the various ‘vision’ plans produced in the region in recent years, defining a path towards economic diversification and localisation, are now defunct as governments have to deal with more immediate pressures.

Linked to this is the potential doubling down on “ization” policies, with some countries, such as Kuwait, actively cancelling expat visas. Oman too has a highly motivated labour policy to engage nationals, but other countries, such as the UAE, probably need to maintain a balance to better ensure resilience in domestic real estate (residential and commercial), education, retail and services sectors.

Regional relations

Notwithstanding recent announcement of the normalisation of relations between Israel and the UAE as well as Bahrain, the broader MENA region has rarely seen so many asymmetric threats and morphing of ideological and policy alignments.

Whilst the former are arguably the most significant foreign policy developments in generations – politically, religiously and culturally – it has the potential to seed comparable changes in bilateral relations across the region. Whilst the initial momentum on both sides in initiating formal relations belies the complexity of the path forward, 2021 will be pivotal in determining just how the relationship evolves and its wider impact on regional alliances and stability.

However, this is far from being the only game in town with a number of Gulf Arab countries engaged in foreign policy initiatives as far afield as Greece, Turkey and Libya, to mention just three. Pending anxieties associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah add to the complexity of regional relations, all of which place added pressure on the very future of the GCC bloc, many of whose members celebrate 50 years of independence in 2021.

Security & stability

In a complex neighbourhood, national security and regional stability are constant pre-occupations for regional leadership. Regional tensions frequently seem in a state of heightened risk and various current geopolitical situations are conspiring to compound that reality as new pacts emerge in the region between Qatar, Turkey and Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt on the other with states such as Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain playing far less prominent roles.

A key variable for regional stability in 2021 will depend on U.S. presidential elections as well as future mediation efforts on matters such as the dispute of territorial rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, an issue that as we write continues to flare primarily between Turkey and Greece, but with various naval powers amassing assets in the region, ready to protect their own or allies’ strategic interests.

Trump or Biden?

Governments across the region, particularly the GCC, always pay close attention to U.S. elections such is the influence the U.S. has on regional geopolitics and stability. This year will be no different and in fact may be even more acute given the clearly divergent views of both presidential candidates on policy matters that are highly strategic for many governments in the region such as policy towards Iran, renewable energy, domestic U.S. oil production and impact on oil prices as well as matters of national and regional security.

Conclusion

Corporate communications plans need to navigate subject matters that can be leveraged but, at the same time, diplomatically. The stakes are high when it comes to building a narrative that is plausible and seen as complementary towards evolving national agendas – being ahead of the news flow will better inform the development of commercial plans.

The pace at which organisations have had to deal with geopolitical events will only intensify. Establishing the right framework to assimilate insights quickly, discern what is relevant and react appropriately is the result of the right preparation, accurate analysis and good advice.

Finally, it is important to remember that crisis moments can be the driving force behind positive change, historic innovations and significant technological advances. Organisations that have embraced these external factors will be better equipped and more resilient in 2021 – a happier new year!

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From smoke & mirrors to Zoom in 500,000 years

From smoke & mirrors to Zoom in 500,000 years

From the evolution of mankind, the earliest forms of communication were recorded at around 500,000BCE, including making sounds, talking, drawing, dancing, acting, and using signals, fire and drums. Today we’re using Zoom and multiple apps to plug the gap in what these early conventions had on offer. However, the quality and value of communication remains the often over-looked critical lifeline to our humanity.

From smoke & mirrors to Zoom in 500,000 years

Demystifying the case for quality corporate communication

From the evolution of mankind, the earliest forms of communication were recorded at around 500,000BCE, including making sounds, talking, drawing, dancing, acting, and using signals, fire and drums. Today we’re using Zoom and multiple apps to plug the gap in what these early conventions had on offer. However, the quality and value of communication remains the often over-looked critical lifeline to our humanity.

It is the main driver of progress or indeed regression on any level – from one-on-one relationships with others to how governments communicate to populations and amongst each other, all is won or lost on communications. It is little wonder then that millions of people around the world dedicate their professional pursuits to the art of communication – from academics and linguists to life coaches, counsellors and strategic communications advisors – all playing their part to promote effectiveness in this critical feature of all our lives.

Nothing highlights the important role that communication plays more than the Covid-19 pandemic, requiring levels of coordination and communication not usually required during peacetime. And although it is arguably too early to evaluate the successes and failures of the global response, the half-term scorecard certainly demonstrates that effective communications are key to a good grade.

A closer look at case studies from the corporate world demonstrate just how critical it is to communicate effectively with your stakeholders, especially through a crisis. Just think about the damage that poor communications have done to companies like BP during the Deepwater Horizon disaster and Boeing with the 737 Max; alternatively, think about the positive impact of effective communications during a crisis – think New Zealand and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern or Airbnb, whose CEO is known for his authentic tone and transparent approach.

We need to look no further on the impact of communication proficiency during this period than at recent polling concerning the UK government and their handling of the pandemic response. The YouGov poll (released May 17th) showed that 49% of respondents thought that the government was “doing badly”, versus a 72% approval rating on March 23rd.  The poll suggested that people wanted more detailed and clearer guidance regarding the current phase of the UK’s exit from lockdown strategy.

As many countries try to return to some semblance of (a new) normal, what key changes has this crisis brought to the field of communications, the advice its practitioners give and how organisations should adapt to these changes? Here are some examples which should shape how companies, organisations and governments plan for their futures.

  1. Reputation is your most valuable commodity: this experience has further solidified the importance of reputation. Building and managing reputation is a journey; you can lose it in a second, particularly if you haven’t put in the hard yards to build reputational equity before.
  2. Pre-digital age tactical PR is consigned to history: it is no longer fit for purpose. Your stakeholders are more active, aware and enlightened than ever. They all have a direct impact on your reputation thanks to the smart phone, digital age. Sweeping issues under the rug is no longer a panacea for even the smallest problem. Strategic communications, good governance and change management will help you mitigate and manage risk while building long term value.
  3. Strategic communications earned its position as a critical function of the C-suite and a permanent fixture on the Board’s agenda: it should be an essential function in the business model and strategic direction of any organisation. It is on the front line as a steward of reputation.
  4. Communications therefore contributes to and permeates all aspects of an organisation: from setting the tone of leadership’s engagement with employees to defining community relations and all in between.
  5. You must define your purpose, it must form part of your business model and go beyond the singular focus of shareholders: it will define your culture, your reputation and thus your long-term opportunities and success.
  6. Earning the trust of your full stakeholder universe is key to your future success and building long-term value: strategic communications is a critical driver of this effort.
  7. Organisations need to navigate to the best but plan for the worst: they MUST audit their crisis capabilities and develop tested contingency plans for how they will act and communicate during a crisis.
  8. Trust will be earned or lost based on your communications capabilities: without trust, you have no license to operate.

The demands placed on organisations to communicate and the way in which they communicate has altered dramatically in recent decades. The digital age has sharpened scrutiny and an awakening of consciousness has demanded greater authenticity and transparency. As these changes have gripped professional life, communications as an advisory service has matured away from notions of transactional, tactical PR to a far more strategic, meaningful form of critical counsel. It is time for organisations of all types and sizes to embrace the importance of strategic communications as a vital component of risk management, a significant driver of momentum and growth. Disregard this at your peril for good communications is at the core of our very being and key to progress.

In its never-ending search to provide clients with targeted, best in class expertise and counsel, THC launched a strategic advisory practise to support clients through complex decision making and execution, managing crises and building long term value. Strategic communications counsel sits at the heart of this practice. For more information, please contact Ben.Castree@thc.xyz

Communications through a period of global crisis

Communications through a period of global crisis

It is widely accepted that media consumption trends increase dramatically during times of crises in parallel with the demand for the latest, up to date information. In fact, a recent report by Neilson suggests that TV ratings in the US have already increased by 60 percent, live streaming of content by 61 per cent and, in Spain, Netflix is up by 54 per cent. Gaming is also set to make a leap in the coming few weeks, as global consumer spending is set to exceed USD120bn…

Communications through a period of global crisis

GRABBING ATTENTION V. ADDING TO DISTRACTION

It is widely accepted that media consumption trends increase dramatically during times of crises in parallel with the demand for the latest, up to date information. In fact, a recent report by Neilson suggests that TV ratings in the US have already increased by 60 per cent, live streaming of content by 61 per cent and, in Spain, Netflix is up by 54 per cent. Gaming is also set to make a leap in the coming few weeks, as global consumer spending is set to exceed USD120bn.

In the Gulf area, online proliferation is reaching new heights, as the region boasts some of the highest levels of social media penetration in the world and a young tech savvy population. Instagram and Twitter feeds are extremely active, with over 60 per cent of GCC nationals citing social media channels as a primary source of news, and over 67 per cent getting their news from the internet.

Against this background, our ability to compare multiple sources of news and question policies shaped by others has never been greater. But how much of this deluge of content is actually helpful, or just poorly conceived reactions of bandwagon PR?

Whilst we are in the midst of a global pandemic (the consequences and human cost of which are virtually incalculable due to so many uncertainties), the communications and behaviour of companies becomes a legacy on which future judgments will be made, impacting on trust and reputations. Don’t underestimate the memories of stakeholders and consumers, whose opinions and buying decisions will make or break your future.

Choosing the right time and approach

How many emails have you received from vendors explaining that your health and wellbeing are their priority? Believe that and – regretfully – you’re probably being somewhat optimistic.

The real issue here is understanding when to communicate, with whom and what shape this should take. Plausibility and relevance are key components in making communications authentic, informing judgment to differentiate between the avalanche of knee jerk inertia, versus genuine concern and empathy towards what we understand are unprecedented circumstances.

Understanding where your messaging fits into this process, the conversations you can have and those that you simply should be prepared for as and when appropriate, fall into a formula of preparedness that seamlessly clicks into life.

The key issue here is being prepared to communicate and manage multiple scenarios, rather than feeling compelled to do so because others are. Decisions need to be measured against a metric of criteria such as relevance, strategic value and audience.

Social distancing v. community engagement

On the assumption that social distancing will be a feature of business life for some months to come, and arguably will have a long-lasting impact on office behaviour, we need to really interrogate how we communicate and behave. Over many years, companies have aspired to become beacons of corporate governance and social responsibility, without being challenged for much in the way of evidence to demonstrate proof of concept. This extends beyond talking the talk, to actually walking it. IE substance.

Much of this was played out through owned channels and digital platforms which now more than ever, in the absence of much in the way of human contact, need to work harder. Today and for the foreseeable future, media channels will not only be your gateway to market, but critical in delivering an experience which informs and fosters a positive response.

Quality content is therefore paramount, but equally so is the critical need to communicate with colleagues to ensure that – even if they are working from home – they feel part of the plan and committed to the longer term picture. Painting that and making it a masterpiece is the test of true leadership.

Internal communications must therefore not be neglected – communicating the plan that includes thinking of your duty of care for them is of paramount importance. Ongoing updates and coordinated messages are also important. Above all else, show leadership and ensure that management are active voices during a crisis.

As we look down the road to potentially weeks and months of working from home, how do organisations ensure that they are communicating effectively and equipping them to perform during these testing times?

This is about more than just having the right technology in place and it is more than just ensuring a business as usual approach. Email alone is not enough and sustaining the daily course of business will require managers to dig deeper in how they communicate with their teams to get the best out of them. Structure and frequent engagement are important ingredients!

Key leanings – more than 101

Hindsight might be the gift of many experts, but few would of predicted that the world could have been brought to its knees because of an aggressive virus. We’re programmed for economic catastrophes, natural disasters and especially familiar with the impact of conflicts here in the Middle East. But never in living memory has something initially perceived as so benign gripped the world in a vice of fear and uncertainty.

Markets have crashed, oil down to US$30 a barrel and billions being ploughed into economic stimulus packages around the world. In the UK, up to 80 per cent of salaries are being underwritten by the British Government in a move which is unprecedented in modern UK history.

Although it is impossible to predict every scenario an organisation might need to respond to, there is a lot that can be done to ensure survival when faced with a crisis: preparation, preparation, preparation (and don’t forget training!) To be caught completely off guard will only lower your organisation’s  chances of success in navigating a crisis. Some key questions to ask yourselves:

– Have you mapped your critical stakeholders who you will need to communicate with?

– Do you have positioning statements per stakeholder/per crises?

– Have you stress-tested the organisation’s response to various scenarios?

– How are you organised internally to manage a crisis? Who forms your crisis team? How is it structured?  How is it built for a rapid response?

– Who is your spokesperson? Are they media trained?

– Have you developed good media relationships?

No two crises are the same, but some general rules apply in terms of approach: speak clearly, speak calmly and authentically. Be human. This applies whether your response is written or verbal. Be prepared to move quickly – aim to be criticized for over-reacting and overestimating the gravity of a situation rather than the opposite. Above all else, go to the crisis and face it head on – organisations that go to ground and don’t appropriately communicate risk their own survival.

Crises will be unavoidable in the life of any organisation. They may be of their own making, or outside of their control as we are seeing with COVID-19. What is in their control is the preparation and planning required to ensure an effective response. A business’s very survival may well depend on it.

Some concluding thoughts…

It is so often in moments of crisis that leaders and organisations truly prove their value (or lack thereof) to their stakeholders. Valuable organisations are ones that demonstrate good governance; and good governance allows for effective risk management and crisis response and an ability to effectively communicate your thoughts, actions and next steps in a crisis.

At a time when effective communication is paramount, choosing to go to ground when expectations of you are otherwise, can be detrimental to confidence, trust and value of your brand. Employers, consumers and other stakeholders will not quickly forget this. There is no better time for a brand and its leader to demonstrate leadership and accountability and solid governance DNA.

Like good governance, effective crisis preparedness and response is only as good as it is tested. Ongoing evaluation, preparation and training form the ultimate insurance policy to mitigate crisis risk.

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STEM: The Next Generation

STEM: The Next Generation

In 2015, the UAE announced its Mars Probe mission, which will send the Arab world’s first spacecraft to the red planet in a scientific exploration mission that will land in 2021. In 2017, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan unveiled the “Mars 2117 Project” which aims at its final stage to establish the first inhabitable human settlement in Mars by 2117…

STEM: The Next Generation

(This post is part of a wider Horizon Scanning piece. To get full access, please register here or call +971 4 425 7967.)

In 2015, the UAE announced its Mars Probe mission, which will send the Arab world’s first spacecraft to the red planet in a scientific exploration mission that will land in 2021. In 2017, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan unveiled the “Mars 2117 Project” which aims at its final stage to establish the first inhabitable human settlement in Mars by 2117. This ambitious project was launched on the sideline of the 5th World Government Summit, and set to be developed and executed in partnership with major international scientific research institutions.

“The Mars 2117 Project is a long-term project, where our first objective is to develop our educational system so our sons will be able to lead scientific research across the various sectors,” Sheikh Mohamed said. “The objective of the research is to contribute in facilitating people lives on earth as well, mainly in the domains of transportation, energy and food”. In the same month, and on March 11th, during the inaugural Mohammed bin Zayed Majlis for Future Generations, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed told a group of over 3,000 UAE youth that the future relies on their skills. “The future of the UAE will not come through oil”.

The forum started when Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, stood up to warn that the era of comfortable” government jobs was coming to an end. “You are no longer competing amongst yourselves, but with the greatest minds around the world,” he told the audience.

The message is clear. Emiratis are encouraged to move away from government jobs, and – more importantly- move away from business and finance courses in their studies (seen as preparation for a government job). They are encouraged to pursue science, technology and mathematics. Sheikh Mohammed particularly singled out engineering: “We cannot have enough of it,” he said.

The UAE leadership is so concerned about educating the new generation, and willing to pour vast quantities of resources into education. It stems from a belief that a diverse, globally focused knowledge economy is the best security, even in a turbulent region.

This trend and future STEM focus is not unique to the UAE, it is a global trend.

A recent FT [Financial Times] article by Rana Forhoor noted that for future jobs, whatever they study, students must graduate with basic science, technology, engineering and maths skills.

The UAE’s space programme aims to inspire innovation and spur further diversification of the country’s economy. The mission to Mars hopes to promote a focus on STEM education and attract more nationals to specialise in these fields.

It aims to inspire thousands of Emiratis to pursue careers in the space industry and related STEM fields. Robert Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society, said the government was encouraging Emiratis to “become a pioneer and an explorer of new worlds. The 40-year-old men and women who built the computer industry in the US in the 1990s were the little 10 & 12-year-old boys in the 1960s who were inspired to enter science by our Apollo programme.”

This is an excerpt from a Horizon Scanning entry titled “Mission to Mars is More About Stem Education Than A Star Trek”. To get full access, please register here or call +971 4 425 7967.

It’s skills, not jobs

It’s skills, not jobs

The challenge in the GCC regarding nationals’ employment has never been an issue of availability of jobs. In fact, in most countries there are more jobs than national job seekers (by far). However, when it comes to employment, the large majority of GCC nationals work in the public sector. Put simply, they prefer public sector jobs usually because of higher pay, less working hours, and much higher job security…

It’s skills, not jobs

(This post is part of a wider Horizon Scanning piece. To get full access, please register here or call +971 4 425 7967.)

The challenge in the GCC regarding nationals’ employment has never been an issue of availability of jobs. In fact, in most countries there are more jobs than national job seekers (by far). However, when it comes to employment, the large majority of GCC nationals work in the public sector. Put simply, they prefer public sector jobs usually because of higher pay, less working hours, and much higher job security.

Although jobs are opening in the private sector, the majority of competitive private sector positions are going to expatriates. The figure below shows how challenging this issue is. Not only are jobs available, more will be created in the coming decade. In the past few decades, GCC countries have looked to diversify their economies, relying less on oil and growing other industries. These policies so far have been marginally successful. Albeit starting from a low base, the growth of non-hydrocarbon sectors has matched those of other oil exporting countries with advanced economies2. The sectors that contributed the most were manufacturing, construction, transportation, and the financial sector.

In this context, the GCC Governments have released various national strategies; UAE 2021, Qatar 2030, Saudi 2030, and so on. Aggregating these strategies, we have narrowed down a list of sectors that contain the biggest potential for future growth in the GCC. First, because of the commitment from the governments to leverage these sectors moving forward and secondly, because of historical government capital expenditure evidence:

  • Energy and Petrochemicals
  • Manufacturing
  • Financial Services
  • Travel, Tourism, and Hospitality
  • Trade and Logistics
  • Technology, Media and Communications (TMC)

As the GCC economies grow, more jobs will be opening up across these six sectors and high skilled work will be increasingly in demand. A McKinsey 2012 report estimates individuals with skills in engineering, research and development, product design and marketing will be the most in-demand in industry sectors like manufacturing, energy, and TMC.

This is an excerpt from a Horizon Scanning entry titled “The Problem Is Skills, Not Jobs: Nationalization in the GCC”. To get full access, please register here or call +971 4 425 7967.

The GCC in 2017

The GCC in 2017

Since the Arab uprisings began in 2010, all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have been preoccupied with internal economic and social issues and reform. They have also been more visibly engage in projecting power beyond their borders. However, when Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and to a lesser extent Oman projected power abroad, they are driven by their own domestic challenges rather than by a Gulf consensus. Consequently, GCC countries have adopted contradictory projects in most Arab countries such as…

The GCC in 2017

Since the Arab uprisings began in 2010, all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have been preoccupied with internal economic and social issues and reform. They have also been more visibly engage in projecting power beyond their borders. However, when Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and to a lesser extent Oman projected power abroad, they are driven by their own domestic challenges rather than by a Gulf consensus. Consequently, GCC countries have adopted contradictory projects in most Arab countries such as…

2016’s Most Defining Moments for Inclusive Growth

2016’s Most Defining Moments for Inclusive Growth

The Center’s senior fellows reflect on the events of 2016 that will leave an enduring mark on inclusion and economic growth. The US Election, Brexit and the populist wave 2016, like no other year in recent memory, brought to the surface the reality that far too many people are being left behind in the global economy. The U.S. presidential election, the Brexit vote, and the shifting winds on trade…

By 2030, what will regional governance look like?

By 2030, what will regional governance look like?

Throughout history, regional governance was based on nation states working together for their mutual security and prosperity. But the world is changing fast. Dr Yasar Jarrar, Visiting Fellow, Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, United Arab Emirates, and senior partner, THC (Dubai) and a member of the Global Future Council on Regional Governance….

The Middle East feels Trumped

The Middle East feels Trumped

With many of its media, analysts and public figures predicting and endorsing a US presidential victory for Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, the win by Republican candidate Donald Trump shocked Arab countries.

Brexit and GCC: Opportunities ahead

Brexit and GCC: Opportunities ahead

When the UK announced its intention to leave the EU, many questions were raised in the region about the potential impact this will have – especially in light of the strong, and historic, relations between the GCC and UK. More specifically, GCC governments, businesses, and investors outlined three major concerns