Image masters needed in the Middle East

The Life: Looking for a new job in the fast-growing public relations sector in the Middle East? Here are the skills that the world's top PR executives say you need.

"We don't want people who are obsessed with technology, because they'll forget the message is more important than the distribution system," says the Chime Communications chairman, Lord Bell, above, at the Public Relations World Congress in Dubai. Christopher Pike / The National
Powered by automated translation

Wanted: professionals who are tech-savvy and excellent communicators - and have thick enough skin that they can withstand being called such things as "spin doctor".

Public relations experts are in high demand but short supplyin the Gulf. Their work, globally, pulled in more than US$9 billion (Dh33bn) of revenue for PR agencies last year, and the Middle East and North Africa region is experiencing the world's fastest growth in this sector, says Sunil John, the chief executive of ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller in Dubai.

The business here is projected to double, from $500 million last year to $1bn over the next decade, he says.

"We think that is a huge opportunity," says Mr John, who is also chairman of the Public Relations World Congress, which was held in Dubai this month.

"The big question mark is: are PR agencies well-equipped to be able to handle that job?" Mr John says. "In our own opinion, not fully, because there is a serious lack of talent."

To help to address this issue, about 130 students from the Gulf attended this year's PR congress thanks to sponsorship by Etisalat in the UAE, Mobily in Saudi Arabia and Qatar Petroleum. Some of these students are expected to work as communications or marketing professionals in government offices or private enterprises, including PR agencies.

But not everyone who shows interest in this field will ultimately make the cut.

PR experts who spoke at the conference were asked about the kinds of candidates they seek when hiring. Some emphasised the importance of knowing how to use social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Others disagreed with a tech-focused approach.

"We don't want people who are obsessed with technology, because they'll forget the message is more important than the distribution system," said Lord Bell, the chairman of Chime Communications, which oversees the PR company Bell Pottinger.

Experts also differed on whether practitioners should have areas of specialisation within public relations.

Daniel Tisch, who chairs the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, argued that having a "bird's-eye view" of an organisation is crucial in assessing business risks and opportunities.

"While I think it is wise to develop a speciality, we shouldn't lose the importance of general skills," he said.

Mr Tisch's ideal candidate can read a financial statement, understand public policy or the regulatory environment and find a trending topic on Twitter.

Prema Sagar, the founding president of the Public Relations Consultants Association of India, noted that many clients are seeking professionals with specialised knowledge about the clients' particular domains - such as telecommunications or corporate social responsibility.

"People want experts in a particular subject," said Ms Sagar.

Still, she said that even specialists must be able to communicate across various media, including print, television and social media.

A sense of humour, it seems, can also help.

Shortly after Lord Bell was introduced to speak at the conference he said: "I am privileged to be described as the original spin doctor." Later, on what seemed to be a slightly more serious note, he advised job seekers to watch the TV series Mad Men to get a sense of his industry's history.

"It's still just as mad," Lord Bell said. "It's just not as fun any more."

twitter: Follow and share our breaking business news. Follow us