Over three days in March, Public Relations as an industry came of age in the Middle East.
Held in Dubai between March 13-15th, the 20th Public Relations Word Congress was a landmark event, and not only because this was the first time this prestigious summit was held in the region. The relevance of the Congress’s theme, From the Arab Street to Wall Street, Communications in the Age of Dialogue, addressed the emergence of globalised protest and the rise of social media as a communications phenomenon; realities as valid in today’s Middle East as they are in the US or Europe.
In total, more than 500 industry professionals from 28 countries attended the Congress, to participate in presentations, panel debates and workshops delivered by over 35 world-class speakers from the worlds of PR, the media, politics and business. The whole event was backed by an impressive list of sponsors, including Saudi Aramco, SABIC, Qatar Petroleum and Etisalat, that rank among the biggest companies not just in the region, but in the world.
Organised by the Gulf Chapter of the International Public Relations Association (IPRA), the event demonstrated clearly and unequivocally that Middle East today is no longer at the periphery of global communications, but is a place that boasts a vibrant, dynamic industry that more than holds its own internationally.
And, in a closing ceremony that reinforced the 20th Congress host city’s position at the heart of this industry, the Congress concluded with the reading of the “Dubai Declaration”, a short, concise roadmap outlining the way ahead for PR Practitioners the world over.
Informed by the debates and presentations over the three days of the Congress, The Dubai Declaration rests on four key pillars, which I would like to explain in a little detail.
The first pillar encourages us to foster the development of a culture of dialogue among stakeholders. The mutual exchange of ideas and the promotion of dialogue among all stakeholders, including but not limited to clients, media and civil society, will encourage open and transparent communications, which will in turn support the development of shared interests and the greater good of society.
The second pillar at first glance seems obvious. It calls on the industry to recognise and utilise digital communications in a responsible and effective way. By this, we mean we must all look beyond the traditional, top-down communications that have been encouraged by traditional channels, and embrace the new era of dialogue that the digital era has created.
New technologies foster the free flow of information – including promoting connectedness among and between peoples, cultures and nations. Only by truly understanding the advantages – and limitations – of these new channels, can the Public Relations industry use these tools effectively and responsibility. By doing so, Public Relations needs to ensure its place at the forefront of modern communications.
The third pillar is one that is particularly relevant for the industry in the Middle East. The industry must strive to contribute to the development of young professionals and to the profession. This means that we must support the education and career development of Public Relations students and young professionals – as well as those from related fields, such as social sciences, economics, healthcare and technology – and ensure that the profession is seen as an attractive career path by the very highest caliber of student.
The final pillar relates to the uncomfortable truth that the today’s world is one of mistrust. We live in an era where public trust in companies, governments, the media, and even our own industry, has been eroded. Effective public relations will be essential to rebuilding that trust. That’s why this critical pillar of the declaration relates to our own house: we must observe and uphold the IPRA Code of Conduct. The IPRA code sets out the ethical and professional standards to which all PR practitioners should adhere to. Our clients entrust their reputations to us; only by observing the highest standards ourselves, can we ensure that trust is not misplaced.
For myself, a highlight of the Congress was a presentation by Harold Burson, the founder chairman of Burson-Marsteller and an inspiration to me. At 91, Mr Burson is one the few figures today who can genuinely claim to be an industry pioneer. He concluded his presentation with the pronouncement that, for the PR industry, “the best years are yet to come”.
It is my belief that by adopting the principles of the Dubai Declaration, the industry will go a long way to making that prediction a reality.
(This piece also appeared in Campaign Middle East magazine dated April 1, 2012)