Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dubai's Media Gambit

Dubai has announced that it is merging some of its media handling assets, like Brand Dubai, the Dubai Press Club etc, all into a new form and structure. This perhaps does, in one important sense, clear up the confusions of what each media unit did on their own. More importantly, till the last quarter of 2009 the general perception was that Dubai did handle the media better than most in the region. However, in my opinion their handling of the Dubai World debt issues was appalling and fell way off the mark, more so very uncharacteristically of the way Dubai handled other issues in the media. Indeed, the press in general does have the propensity to move people, companies and countries from 'darlings' to 'devils' in nano seconds and not even worry about the accolades they showered a few months back are now being replaced by journalist jibes.

Dealing with the media is an art, and in the ever proliferating world of media platforms, it requires speed of action and clarity of position on the subjects that crop up. Keeping silent at times is a virtue, but keeping silent in a crisis is a crime that the media punishes with the ferocity of lion going for the kill. Once having decided to speak, and needing to speak, it is important that the message is consistent, coherent and has clarity. Crisis management techniques are fundamental to this process of handling the media, one cannot just believe one has the gift of the gab. Yes the gift of the gab and a good presence can impress once, twice and perhaps if lucky a third time, then when it begins to wear thin the facade begins to peel away and the media then look for substance.

This substances comes from a proper media strategy and the use of think tanks to postulate the responses that can and should come up through the evolution of a crisis. "What if" scenarios are discussed at length, and often with people from the outside. There is no point in listening to an employee ramble on about how great everything is, because frankly the media does not buy that each time; one needs to have a broad input into the process. Twenty years back when I was dealing with an internationally explosive story, which stayed in the media for a good two years, I always made sure I met the critics more often than I met the supporters. In 1992 I was asked by a leading financial paper if the bank I ran had a problem, and I answered ofcourse we have a huge problem, and then explained to him how I believe as the CEO of the bank we will navigate through it. I guess the sting of his story was gone because he expected me to 'deny' there was a problem.

What Dubai is doing is in essence a good thing and a fresh start in handling things better with the media. It will need thought on many aspects of this process and I do believe they should, even at the national level, consider encouraging a think tank to be formed and to listen to them. I am no media expert and while have written extensively for 25 years on the region I still find it fascinating how in a crisis everyone gets paralysis, almost as if one wonders what is going on. I also believe we who are living and working in the Arab world have to stop saying the world press is unfair with us. This is life! We have elected to be part of the global system and benefit from globalization and with it comes the mentality of 'trial by press'.

Yes the international press has been harsh on the current debt crisis issue, and I have spoken against them, but I also believe we have to present our point of view, take responsibility for where we messed up or were not on the ball, and then move on with the strategy we have carefully framed. We must also cultivate our well wishers even if at times given the nature of journalism they will be critical of things. Perfection is terrible it cannot have children so why be sensitive to a few paragraphs that do not compliment what we have done.

The feeling I have is that while on paper this media management consolidation is a good thing and it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds in the manner in which a strategy is formulated and then rolled out. I am not a huge fan of big splash advertisement campaigns, they only make the media buying company rich, but rather believe in channels of media that are encouraged into a dialogue, like a forum in the media format itself that brings focus to the issues and has healthy debates. I think this is a good gambit that Dubai has played and it will now be important to see its results. As a first step it would help if they started a weekly media breakfast briefing, which should be off the record, and then bring in also people who comment and focus on the issues on the region and engage in healthy discussions with them.

Media management is about networks, cultivating them, nurturing them and honoring them in the long term. The biggest mistake to make is to think the media needs us, no we need the media, and this is why the pen remains more powerful than the sword.

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