Eurocom Worldwide interviewed Nidal Abou Zaki, founder and Managing Director of Orient Planet Group in Dubai, about the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on the PR industry in the Middle East. Orient Planet Group is an award-winning, integrated communications agency and Eurocom Worldwide's member in the Arabian Gulf, Levant, and North Africa.
Euocom Worldwide: Nidal, how would you describe the current situation at Orient Planet's headquarters in Dubai?
Nidal Abou Zaki: The spread of COVID-19 has truly made an impact on how we go about in our day-to-day activities – from the way we work and conduct our business to leading our personal lives – things are definitely different and will surely remain this way even after this crisis has passed. This will probably become "the new normal".
Much of Dubai's key drivers to growth – trade, transportation, tourism, retail and real estate – have come to a temporary halt as the aftermath of the lockdown in most parts of the world. The repercussions are quite visible, which can be seen in businesses slowing down or even closing. Such is the impact that even the highly anticipated Expo 2020 in Dubai has been moved to next year.
Some experts say it would be a downsized future. However, in my experience, having witnessed Dubai’s resilience in the past during global economic downturns, the emirate’s confidence has been known worldwide. It may be as vulnerable as other cities that have been trying to deal with the impacts of COVID-19, but the government has been very proactive.
Financial and business experts are anticipating that the emirate will be able to weather the storm but will only be able to do so by adjusting and redeveloping its strategy and economic model.
Euocom Worldwide: Would you say that the situation is similar to other Arab countries or does it differ from country to country?
Nidal Abou Zaki: As earlier pointed out, COVID-19 has adversely affected all industry verticals in the world. There is no doubt that this crisis has disrupted lives, livelihoods, communities, and businesses on a global scale and all Arab countries are definitely affected. A recent survey conducted by the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA) shows that at least 60 per cent of their respondents have cast a negative outlook for the remaining months of this year. Meanwhile, performance indicators for Q1 and Q2 of 2020 have already reflected the impact in terms of temporary hiring freezes to salary reductions and redundancies.
However, industry professionals are not ready to give up yet and are instead, calling on everyone to come together and minimize the impact and disruption by adapting to this new future.
Euocom Worldwide: How extensive is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Orient Planet’s business in the Middle East so far?
Nidal Abou Zaki: From an industry perspective, it is still uncertain. The MEPRA survey that was earlier mentioned describes it as a challenging time, highlighted by redundancies and a drop in clientele. However, Orient Planet remains confident that we will emerge to become a better and more capable organization to face new challenges. This sense of confidence can be attributed to our strength and belief in continuing to serve our clients in every possible way, which is what we are trying to do now. We continue to innovate and communicate with them despite the challenges. It is now more than ever that we have to keep ourselves open to supporting them.
We should keep ourselves well informed about what is happening around us – take this information and utilize it to adapt to the changes and we will surely be able to survive the crisis.
Euocom Worldwide: What are the key challenges that you experienced while servicing clients during the crisis and in what way have your clients‘ needs changed?
Nidal Abou Zaki: A large number of clients are dealing with the crisis by imposing a freeze on their marketing spending to ensure cash fluidity during the crisis. Financial experts have pointed out that this course of action might well take us to a full year before we can say that business is back to normal.
However, recent market figures have shown that some companies are returning after dealing with the initial impact caused by the emergence of COVID-19. Industry experts are hopeful that full confidence is likely to return in the next few weeks and months but this should be accompanied by a keenness towards restructuring and adapting to the new normal.
Euocom Worldwide: Have you amended your service portfolio accordingly and what have been the most successful campaigns so far?
Nidal Abou Zaki: COVID-19 has definitely left an impact on the communications industry – leaving quite an effect on social media, PR, brand marketing and advertising. The emergence of the virus has prompted companies like Orient Planet to explore new ways where we can add value to our clients and introduce new services. In order to help our clients in coping with the challenges brought about by the virus, we have shifted towards offering more digitally-based PR and social media solutions. Examples of these can be seen in the implementation of an awareness campaign that we conceptualized, the "Be responsible" initiative and by also working closely with the Ministry of Economy for their consumer protection campaign.
Another key area that have gained our clients’ attention at this time is the importance of putting in place a crisis communication strategy, which has become more necessary during this time. Over the years, Orient Planet takes pride in its ability to develop tailor made PR and Reputation Management action plans for its diverse list of clients. Our deep understanding of the industry combined with our familiarity of our clients has given us the confidence to help them with issues brought about by the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I have been saying this constantly – it is a whole new world that we are dealing with. As PR professionals, we have to ask ourselves, how do we market and publicize in a media environment that has also been impacted by COVID-19? I think the answer to this question lies in our ability to understand the evolving needs and requirements of our clients and figuring out how we can best communicate their messages to their target audience.
Euocom Worldwide: Has your level of cooperation with other partner agencies and networks significantly changed during the crisis, i.e. common initiatives to defeat the crisis?
Nidal Abou Zaki: If there is one good thing to come out of this global situation, it is the idea that companies within industries have all realized the urgency and need to work closely together. As what has been pointed out earlier, many organizations and companies from all points of the globe have come together with the chief objective of minimizing the impact made by COVID-19, including the need to limit the disruptions across various economies and supply chains.
This is very evident in the PR industry as well. An example of this new found cooperation and unity among fellow companies can be seen in the recent initiative being introduced by the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), which launched a free consultation service that has been created to help companies manage through the pandemic crisis. This is a commendable project as it seeks to aid PR companies, especially those in leadership positions, as it comes to terms with some of the most difficult industry decisions in the coming weeks.
Euocom Worldwide: What is the most important lesson you have learned in managing your team and servicing your clients since the beginning of the pandemic?
Nidal Abou Zaki: Despite being taken by surprise by the sudden emergence of COVID-19, Orient Planet was able to take some of the lessons it has learned from experience and knowledge gained during the previous outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
In fact, having been able to witness and see the effects and impact of these two earlier outbreaks has helped the company in creating processes that best prepared us for crises. These steps include:
- Assess internal processes and determine who needs to work from home amidst the situation.
- Address how to maintain business continuity.
- Create and implement crisis management strategies.
- Verify contact list of internal and external stakeholders.
- Assess how to continue providing service to clients even if there are travel and mobility restrictions in place.
- Identify how to avoid employee exposure to the health threat.
- Create a system of communication between management and employees.
- Monitor and be aware of advisories from international health organizations like WHO.
- Implement internal awareness campaigns to educate and inform employees about the health situation.
- Run possible drills and mock exercises on how to address the threat at hand.
Euocom Worldwide: Do you think that there will be any positive outcome for the PR industry in the Middle East through the COVID-19 crisis?
Nidal Abou Zaki: The PR industry continues to remain positive even in the midst of this global pandemic. This is evident in the PRCA's latest Business Confidence Tracker research, which shows that the international PR community remains confident of the industry's future. Officials of the international PR body have lauded the global PR industry for its courage and confidence to face the enormous challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. All in all, I firmly believe that the industry's resilience and flexibility will be key components in the move to overcome this crisis.
I believe this crisis has taught significant lessons for many organizations to be prepared and get their communications strategies in place, especially in creating and implementing crisis communication action plans. Based on our experiences, companies have come to realize the value of effective communication and ensuring that a game plan is ready in any eventuality. Business continuity approaches to tackling the situation and all other measures being implemented by an organization all require effective and timely communications planning and approach. More companies are aware now of all these essential aspects of the business, and thereby valuing the PR industry’s efforts to support them.
Euocom Worldwide: Nidal, thank you for sharing these valuable insights with us!
If you are looking for PR, Social Media and digital marketing support in the Arabian Gulf, Levant, and North Africa please get in touch with Nidal Abou Zaki, Managing Director of Orient Planet Group: Nidal@orientplanet.com