In building their modern national brands since the 1990s, it was the UAE and then Qatar that became centers for the international public relations industry. Most Western advisory firms today maintain a presence in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and, to a lesser extent, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman. In light of reform prospects, Saudi Arabia’s push for repositioning on the public stage is comparably recent, yet without staying behind in terms of employing global consultancies’ know-how. In short, the interplay between clients and communications consultants across all member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is similar.
Perhaps the lowest common denominator of all tactical PR work is the use of news or press releases. Their quantity is also a reoccurring point of discourse between Gulf clients and their Western advisors, who by default will assess a release’s merit along their own metrics of news value, clear call to action, and usefulness for communications objectives. Little bothers them more than news overkill and the decline of quality in favor of quantity.
In the GCC, these PR products on the one hand remain essential for national newspapers, and on the other serve critical communications needs for intra-organizational readers.
Despite their metronomic distribution and place at the head of a global communications industry, journalists around the world are turning their backs on press releases. Not yet so however in the GCC, where these PR products on the one hand remain essential for national newspapers, and on the other serve critical communications needs for intra-organizational readers, as well as audiences in the local community. It is this latter, culturally rooted aspect, where Gulf clients and their consultants still need to form a better mutual understanding.
It of course remains imperative that international PR advisors in the Gulf come with a solid appreciation of the particular environment they operate in. Their audiences are, quite simply, not the same as in London, Brussels, or Washington. At the same time, GCC organizations, particularly those aiming to be seen on a global stage, should maintain an openness to alternative advice that looks beyond the traditional press release, and often provides much more effective means of communications in support of strategic objectives.
Regardless, in what promises to be a pivotal decade for the region, press releases might eventually find themselves superfluous thereby forcing a rethink of the region’s communications departments per se.
A Dying Art?
It’s difficult to quantify how many press releases are still sent out on a daily basis globally, although a figure in the high thousands likely provides a starting point. What’s not in doubt is that the advent of digital services has amplified frequency and volume of distribution. Whereas newsrooms once received hundreds of releases via fax daily, today’s scenario sees a manifold figure falling into editors’ inboxes at breakneck speed.
Research suggests that as a little as 3 percent of journalists worldwide rely on news releases, while 27 percent use Twitter as their primary news source.
The internet at the same time has changed how journalists develop stories, with many feeding off the real-time nature of digital media, not to mention facts and figures provided by infographics. Research suggests that as a little as 3 percent of journalists worldwide rely on news releases, while 27 percent use Twitter as their primary news source. It’s also been speculated that the average open rate for releases received via email could be as low as 18 percent.
And then there’s the GCC, where PR agencies continue to churn out large numbers of press releases for clients to pitch to regional print and online media. Communications practitioners in the Gulf suggest these materials inform anywhere between 50-90 percent of local news coverage, with original content largely confined to the comments and lifestyle sections. International news is dominated by syndicated materials from Reuters, AFP, AP and other news agencies.
In Defense of the Press Release
In some respects, the GCC’s seemingly insatiable appetite for press releases is not surprising. The concept of a more diverse national press did not take off until the 1960s, with a plethora of English language publications such as Qatar’s Gulf Times or the United Arab Emirates’ Gulf News. The region also saw the emergence of academic journalism and media qualifications, such as those offered by Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University, Northwestern University in Qatar, and others.
When compared to other parts of the world, the Gulf’s media landscape remains a work-in-progress. Despite gradual professionalization, journalist roles in some countries still do not require recognized, formal qualifications. Comparably low salaries so far tend to put young, local populations off from entering the profession, with expatriate journalists taking up the slack. News releases not only help them develop content but also assist publishers’ efforts to traverse specific contexts.
Public and private sector organizations know that the best way to secure local coverage is to develop content resonating with government initiatives.
Irrespective of the emergence of a more varied press, the GCC’s newspapers rarely stray from portraying their home countries in a positive light or publishing “good news” stories. Public and private sector organizations also know that the best way to secure local coverage is to develop content resonating with government initiatives, most notably their national development visions.
In a region characterized by diplomatic tensions and the growing use of social media to disrupt and disinform local populations, press releases are valued for their accuracy, feel-good potential, and statement of facts. Many are written to a high standard in line with journalistic best practice. In doing so, locally-developed releases leave little, if any, room for appropriation for more questionable purposes. Thus, there’s little wonder as to why they are the workhorses of the GCC’s newsrooms.
That said, the region’s appetite for press releases and syndicated content may diminish over the years ahead. The GCC’s national visions are similar in their commitment to technological investment, diversified economies, and greater employment opportunities for nationals. From the opening of science and technology parks to declining expat populations, these initiatives are starting to bear fruit. Kuwait, for instance, is determined to reduce its expat workforce to 30 percent of its population.
It would nevertheless be short-sighted to assume that entire local populations are motivated to pursue careers in burgeoning technology sectors. Furthermore, drives for greater parity between public and private sector salaries could make previously unattractive professions such as journalism more viable. The benefits of local journalists working for the GCC’s newspapers are obvious: affinities with local cultures and identities; greater appreciation of national priorities; a deeper understanding of the importance of balanced content.
Drives for greater parity between public and private sector salaries could make previously unattractive professions such as journalism more viable.
If local journalists can work comfortably within these parameters then more dynamic approaches to reporting could follow. Doing so will address concerns that the GCC’s academic programs tend to gloss over the unstoppable rise of social media and digital content. It might also help newspapers claw back some of the influence lost over the past few decades to regional broadcasters. To this end, it’s difficult to see where something as rigid and formulaic as a press release would still fit into such a brave new media landscape.
The internet is awash with “how to” guides for getting more out of a product widely regarded as being in its death throes. Organizations across the GCC have responded by adapting press releases into online content, factoring them into social media, and deploying other tactics. Yet the more local publishers immerse themselves in modern approaches to newsgathering, the less value they are likely to see in a PR practice that traces its origins to the early 20th century. The GCC’s determination to move its economies, knowledge bases, and people forward could provide one of the final nails in the press release’s coffin.
Co-author: Khristo Ayad is a public diplomacy analyst and strategic communications consultant based in Doha. He focuses on the Gulf Cooperation Council’s states and has worked across government and private sectors in Qatar and the UAE. Ayad holds an MA in Diplomatic Studies from the University of Leicester. @KhristoAyad