PR industry fights for recognition

MEPRA chairman and Headline managing director Sadri Barrage talks tough on the way public relations is seen in the UAE.

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By  Tim Addington Published  May 29, 2005

|~|Barrage,-Sadri_m.jpg|~|MEPRA chairman and Headline managing director Sadri Barrage talks tough on the way public relations is seen in the UAE.|~|Sadri Barrage is gearing up for a fight, and while falling short of declaring outright war, the chairman of the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA) is certainly in combative mood. “There is an Arabic saying: ‘The start of a big war is to take one step’,” he says. Barrage, the charismatic face of the region’s public relations industry body, is on a mission to educate the Middle East about the finer points of PR, and more importantly, to get it recognised by the government of the UAE as a discipline in its own right. “Public relations as an industry is not recognised in the UAE, not even in Dubai, which is the champion of PR in the region. We don’t exist,” storms Barrage. The greying 47-year-old, who is also managing director of Headline Public Relations, the agency he started in 1991, is referring to the fact that any PR agency operating outside of the Dubai Media City (DMC) free zone is categorised as being part of the advertising industry by government bean-counters, rather than an economic entity in its own right. “We will never rest, we will continue pursuing this, particularly in the UAE, because the UAE understands fully what PR is. The irony is that Dubai is one of the best examples of what true PR is. Just look at how it has positioned itself in recent years. Dubai shows how PR can work,” he says. “At least give us recognition as a separate economic entity. PR is a different animal, please do not call us advertisers,” Barrage adds. Despite countless meetings with officials from the Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry and Dubai Municipalities’ Economic Department, MEPRA, which is registered at DMC, has not advanced in its quest since it was established back in December 2000. Sitting behind his cluttered desk, taking numerous drags from his Marlboro Light cigarettes and surrounded by the trendy orange and yellow painted walls of his Dubai office, Barrage comes across as a man who is passionate — the word he later uses to describe himself — about the world of PR. The Lebanese father of three arrived in the UAE from his homeland in 1983 after completing a degree in marketing and becoming a journalist for Sport Auto, an Arabic motoring magazine that is still around today. Quickly rising through the ranks, Barrage launched Al Faez (The Winner) in 1985, a general interest sports magazine, which broke boundaries in how unusual sports were reported in the region. However, the magazine folded, with Barrage describing it as being “too avant-guard” for its time. Pulling out old copies from a cabinet behind his desk, Barrage remains proud of his work and is still wounded by its demise. But it is PR that now fires up the bespectacled spin-doctor. Since establishing Headline almost 15 years ago, the company has opened offices in Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Its 12-strong team in Dubai work on such household names as Dell, Burger King, Nestle and Honda. In an industry dominated by western and sub-continental expatriates, Barrage claims he is one of few Arabs who have reached a high level in PR. He goes onto to suggest that this is one of the reasons why people in other parts of the world fail to understand Arabs. “Public relations has not been in our culture. If we were good at PR then the West would not have this misconception about the Middle East or Islam,” he says. “ We have not been communicating or portraying ourselves to the rest of the world properly,” Barrage adds. As you would expect from the PR industry’s current figurehead, Barrage paints the Middle East market in a positive light, claiming that although it is still in its infancy in the region there is room for growth, in particular for small and specialist agency start-ups. “I have seen a lot of what I call cowboys come into PR in the Middle East and then leave,” he says. “But we have a lot of true professionals in this industry now who are striving to raise standards even further. There is room for more, but I think we will see the emergence of more sector specific agencies similar to those in Europe and the US.” While the industry is undoubtedly growing, Barrage criticises clients that still regard PR as an “add-on” to their communication strategy, rather than a necessary marketing tool. He estimates that just one percent of a company’s advertising spend goes on PR, and fees earned by the 60 or so consultancies operating in the Middle East are a meagre US$35-US$40 million annually. When talking about the relationship between public relations and the Middle East’s media, a favourite debating point among regional agencies, Barrage sparks up another cigarette and becomes even more animated. “Look, there is a lot of talk that PR and the media are on a collision course. This is not true. We are like a married couple that is not allowed to divorce. Yes we have our differences from time to time, but the media need us and we need them. It is simple,” he says. It is a busy time for Barrage. As well as continuing to grow his own business, he is also overseeing an active period for MEPRA. The fight for government recognition continues, and it has recently announced a new corporate membership scheme, through which the likes of Etisalat will be invited to join. A series of educational seminars on subjects such as CSR have also been launched. “As an industry we have a lot to be proud about. There is still much to do and I am looking forward to the challenge of getting this industry the respect it rightly deserves,” he says. However, Badri is careful not to portray MEPRA as an elite entity, aimed only at the biggest players in the region’s PR industry. He is also keen to stress that the organisation has its own code of conduct that is rigorously enforced. “We are not an exclusive club,” Barrage says. “Whenever we hear of a new PR agency in the region, we invite them to join. We want to be as inclusive as possible, to make sure our eyes and ears are everywhere. Our strength lies in our members, and if we are to be effective, then we need as many of them with us as possible.”||**||

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