From a small selection of bespoke agencies just a decade and a half ago, to hundreds of specialist communication agencies offering a diverse range of public relations, communications and integrated digital solutions today, the industry has come a long way in a staggeringly short space of time.

Today, the industry continues to move towards more advanced communication services that are on a par with global counterparts and trends. This incredible growth is largely driven by an increase in awareness among stakeholders of the important role communication can and must play in organisations.

This is a new era for the region, as it undergoes rapid transformation, seeking to reduce its dependence on the traditional oil economy and become a leading digital economy. So, how has this impacted the public relations industry and what are some of the key trends we’re seeing within the sector in the Middle East?

A bigger seat in the boardroom

Over the past number of years, there has been a noticeable shift in the perception of public relations in the region at boardroom level. While once perceived as an optional communications or marketing tool, it is now increasingly being viewed as a critical management function by forward-thinking organisations. In this age of unparalleled digital disruption, businesses are recognising that an important constant in maintaining a relationship with target audiences and achieving business objectives is the implementation of an intelligent, agile PR strategy.

Businesses are recognising that brands and corporate reputation are inextricably linked and that an intelligent PR strategy can have a massive impact on its bottom line and long-term competitive advantage, when prioritised as a business-critical function. This is something we always communicate to our clients from the get-go – and our experience is that those organisations that prioritise PR as a strategic function tend to see the biggest benefits from a business-wide perspective.

Intelligent insights leads the way

The Middle East media – much like any other region – thrives on local information and data. However, the public relations function has moved beyond simply the distribution of news and creation of content, to a focus on research-led strategies, creating campaigns built on clear insights and PR inputs, rather than simply outputs.

In this age of short attention spans and explosion of information, it’s up to marketers and PR teams to curate narratives and scalable ideas to get covered. Within the region, particularly in the UAE, we’re increasingly seeing research science being merged with creative concepts to build ideas that have the potential for earned stories which address things that people care most about. By igniting conversations through intelligent, actionable insights, we can help build trust for brands, create a connection with our key stakeholders and manage reputations.

Digital is King

With 60% of the population aged 30 or younger, the penetration of digital and social media in the Middle East is one of the highest in the world. This has had a resounding impact on the region, including a massive shift from traditional media to digital and social media platforms. While Pan-Arab publications remain buoyant, overall print titles have dwindled considerably and digital has become one of the fastest-growing sectors in the Middle East.

By and large, consumers in the region are becoming increasingly brand agnostic, instead largely driven by convenience, experience and status. Digital and social media channels have therefore become essential for businesses and brands looking to connect, rather than simply publish – and storytelling is key to connecting.

The ability to deliver messages to targeted audiences in an impactful, informative and swift manner, and leverage these across multiple platforms and touchpoints, has allowed businesses to gain unparalleled access to their target audience.

The rise of the influencer

As social media users continue to become increasingly active online, engaging in conversations about everything from brands and services to businesses and politics, social influencers have become an effective tool in creating this connection with audiences for brands.

Research has shown that people are much more likely to buy into a cause or join a social movement than buy into a product or brand, so the concept of employing a third-party influencer to encourage or engage with a brand’s target audience makes sense – when the correct candidates are chosen. Within this region especially, the most important factor is no longer number of followers they have, but rather whether their values and cultural insights are aligned with those of the business they will represent, and how they interact with their followers to drive the most authentic engagement.

In 2018, the UAE introduced new laws to regulate the industry including the need for influencers to apply for trade licences. The measure, taken to ensure higher standards and more transparency within the industry in line with global best practice, is a further reflection of how intertwined the role of ‘influencer’ has become within the industry in the region.

So, what does it all mean?

Developments in the Middle East communications industry have been hugely encouraging. As one of the most innovative regions in the world with forward-thinking visions and huge ambitions, the GCC in particular, has mastered the art of marketing to project a successful and appealing image on the global stage.

As the region continues to move into one of the most exciting eras in its modern history, the most successful businesses will recognise PR for the important role it can play in driving business strategy. Ambitions here are big – and we as PR professionals have an important role to play in helping to achieve these.

Jasmine O’Brien, Account Director