It is impossible, not to communicate; a principle that applies to individuals, organizations, companies and governments alike. The nature of communication unfolds independent from misconceptions and, if left to take its course without taking control, an organically grown narrative will define how an entity or topic is perceived.
In other words, if you don’t tell your story, someone else will, providing a fertile ground for misapprehension, rumours and in the most unfortunate case, tainted reputation.
Public perception eventually is the result of what you say, what you do and what others say about you over a certain period of time. The more complex, sophisticated, new or controversial a context is, the more challenging, and at the same time, decisive it is, what and how an organization communicates – how it makes sense and shares sense with its audiences.
While building a positive footprint and awareness can take years, reputational damage can develop very rapidly and negativity can be testing to reverse. It is this sensitive space of an entity’s relationship to its stakeholders, where strategic communications, or public relations work has its place.
An imperative, below-the-line activity
Still often misunderstood and not differentiated precisely enough from above-the-line disciplines like classical marketing or advertising, communication in fact remains an imperative, below-the-line activity and central management area that critically impacts every aspect of an organization’s appearance and image.
The approach cannot be two-dimensional. Audiences do not only entail, what is sometimes too loosely called “the general public”, but a whole range of very varied stakeholders internally and externally. These publics do not necessarily directly interact with the communicating organization, its services or products. Along with the media, they can be clients, consumers, investors, employees, potential employees, business partners, suppliers, regulators, possible advocates, critics and other influencers at home and abroad. For all of them there is a need for information.
Carefully crafted, concise and especially consistently perpetuated messages facilitate the exchange with these different stakeholder groups within the channels and tactical activities that reach them best. This may be media engagements, social media platforms, events, business-to-business, client, or government communications, to name a few.
Disseminating news releases has its place, but it is surely not enough to build long-term credibility and trust. Communications must be stakeholder-led and strictly follow through a confident strategic idea and a clearly defined narrative. Outreach has to be compelling and particularly relevant to an audience over a longer period of time.
In a client-consultant relationship, these parameters and the absolutely imperative planning stages regularly have to be developed in close collaboration with each other. Tactical implementation requires a common understanding of strategy and plans, a true partnership and discipline. Solid PR work is hard work.
On top, the array of public relations channels has become broader and companies are more than ever exposed to the court of public opinion. Social media has become a crucial component for corporate reputation and crisis management. Companies, organizations, but also every individual now are media owners in their own right. Everyone has the means to produce, own and distribute content that can transmit messages, opinions and also bias very fast. With external voices growing in importance, it is vital that these channels are marshalled effectively.
This need for depth presents a challenge. Perhaps as a result of an ongoing tendency to more and more integrated creative marketing and communications, making sense for a range of purely commercial brands, the more thoughtful and strategic approach to public relations and public affairs is not necessarily in front of mind anymore.
Clients products of their agencies or vice versa?
Against the backdrop of budget pressures and the call for fast measurable ROIs, this may be an understandable, but dicey development. One could argue over whether clients that employ communications services are the product of their agencies or whether agencies are the product of their clients.
In any case, for entities that interact with the public, locally, regionally or internationally, for complex topics that require an explanation to audiences at home and overseas, genuinely strategic communications work remains indispensable.
Periods of change or economic slow-down don’t change that, on the contrary. It is in times of apparent uncertainty when the need for transparency is greatest and when an organization’s management of its communications will be seen the most.
Publicity may not yet be seen as priority, but the conversation has already begun. Qatar has been moving on an equally impressive as well as determined path to become one of the most important hubs for business, diplomacy, education, sports and culture in the Middle East. The FIFA World Cup taking place in 6 years is only the most prominent of many signposts for this forward-facing perspective.
With rapid growth comes rapid change, curiosity, excitement, but also critical questions from the inside and outside. These sentiments shouldn’t be ignored, but responded to with openness and calm. Out of a communications perspective in fact, all of this is presenting a tremendous opportunity with potential for long-term positive impact.
It is important for Qatari entities and foreign companies operating in Qatar to be prepared, to align and structure their communications to the next level. It is no longer enough to be creative in advertising and only reactive in communications.
This will initially require turning inwards, defining strategic objectives, narratives and organizational points of view on individually relevant topics.
Public perception is measurable. Stakeholders that matter can be mapped out. Misunderstandings can be addressed. A communications function is much more than a press-office with bilingual editorial skills and media relations.
There’s an arsenal of opportunities to utilize the discipline in more depth and with more sophistication. It is in everybody’s interest to build up solid capacities and expertise, to educate on how information flows, how perception is shaped and how it influences behavior. Dialogue and the exchange of knowledge are key.
Khristo Ayad is a senior advisor at Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Doha, a global strategic communications consultancy with a history of 30 years in the region and more than 10 years in Qatar. He has over 15 years of experience in strategic communications, public affairs, media and marketing across multiple sectors with government, semi-government and non-profit organizations. Ayad is also a co-founder of A|L Management and Legal Consultancy which focuses on Qatar, the UAE, Germany and the CIS. He is a regular speaker at international events with a particular emphasis on the business environment in Qatar. He is also a guest lecturer for public relations and business communications at Synergy University, Dubai Campus.