Public relations companies based in Dubai are increasingly looking towards Africa for new opportunities amid political unrest in parts of the Middle East.
Grayling Middle East is planning to open two new offices in Africa including one in Angola as the company seeks to expand its reach abroad.
“It is such a fascinating market. There is real interest in entrepreneurialism in Africa,” said Loretta Ahmed, the chief executive at Grayling Middle East. “Smartphone penetration is incredible. Google is all over Africa in terms of supporting this [entrepreneurial] spirit and that is a great springboard into the market, giving businesses in Africa access to the wider world.”
Dubai’s Asda’a Burson-Marsteller recently opened an office in Kenya to take advantage of the continent’s booming economy, which grew by 5 per cent last year.
“There is a growing middle class across Africa and the continent is booming,” said the Sunil John, chief executive at Asda’a. “There are many opportunities for PR and we are catering to them with our affiliate offices and from here in Dubai.”
The local agency Dabo & Co has also seen the growth in business but has no plans to establish a presence in the continent just yet.
“Many commentators quite rightly say the 21st century will be Africa’s century. We work with Nokia and Coca-Cola who are seeing tremendous growth in Africa and the reality is the UAE is an incredibly important business hub to facilitate this growth,” said Jason Leavy, the managing director at Dabo & Co.
Besides the opportunities in Africa, the growth in the digital sector is rapidly changing the regional PR landscape.
“What’s happened is the digital revolution has come along and changed everything. The communications business is no more and is becoming more of a technology business,” said Ms Ahmed.
“Everything has become about technology. It is the world’s enabler and for those growing up today it is normal. It is the older generation that needs to get it and think about it more because it’s not so intuitive,” she added.
PR agencies are now having to focus on creating content for a variety of different channels, be it smartphones, tablets or television.
“Everything is changing, even those who historically didn’t believe in digital have had to accept this is the way the world is turning. Some can view it as a challenge and ignore it and some see it as opportunities and are reaping the benefits,” said Mr Leavy.
This digital revolution also has a darker side for businesses. Facebook and Twitter have become outlets for customer complaints, highlighting issues and problems that were previously the privy of customer relations departments.
“We are the ones dealing with crises. They break on Twitter and Facebook. It has elevated PR at the management level, a lot of CEOs are worried about it. Some are on Twitter and have to be careful with what they say, but still have to communicate company values,” said Ms Ahmed.
It only takes one wrong tweet to devalue a company. During the Egyptian uprising in 2011, the billionaire Naguib Sawiris posted a picture of a covered up Mickey and Minnie Mouse with the caption explaining that this is what the Disney characters would look like if the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. As a result, many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted his telecommunications company Mobinil, which the company blamed for losses over the following quarter.
“We are seeing a lot of clients wanting to be crisis ready, from hacking of Twitter feed, product recall or some kind of disaster. We regularly work with crisis scenarios, that is part of our offer we’re doing a lot of here,” said Ms Ahmed.
The global PR industry is worth US$11 billion according to the Homes Report 2013, growing by 8 per cent since last year. In the Middle East, the total value of the industry is estimated at $500-600 million.
Global digital advertising spend last year exceeded $100bn, while the Arab region only managed to spend $175m in 2011, just 4 per cent of the total advertising spend. But this is set to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 35 per cent from 2011 to 2015 to reach 10 per cent of total advertising spend by 2015, according to Deloitte.