The key players: DPW, P&O and PR

Cem Arikoler argues that Dubai Ports World underestimated the public relations backlash its P&O bid would bring about.

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By  Cem Arikoler Published  March 5, 2006

|~||~||~|Cem Arikoler argues that Dubai Ports World underestimated the public relations backlash its P&O bid would bring about. The global and unpredictable nature of the competitive environment in which today’s Dubai entities wish to operate is now accepted as a given. Leading and managing successfully in this environment requires the ability of these entities to play so called ‘Chinese Baseball’ — a game in which the rules remain the same as they do in American baseball with one exception. Whenever the ball is in the air, anyone may pick up any base and move it — anywhere. In such an environment traditional marketing just doesn’t work. A new marketing era is emerging and recent marketing fiascos on both national and regional levels are proof of it. You can’t just provide the money and own what you want when there are so many emotions in the air. This underestimation not only affected the P&O venture of DPW, it also created a crisis which will last for a long time. Every politician in these port cities will use and abuse DPW’s takeover. So what went wrong? As we all experienced a few years back, the PR industry got a big boost by a new phenomenon called “The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR”. However, this overused and abused statement no more than underlines the importance of non-commercial communication in the marketing mix. Advertising is still the favourite marketing tool because of its quick ‘impact creation’ abilities. However, it is true that a marketing plan which only includes advertising guarantees a definitive failure in the long term. Governmental entities discovered PR in these very same times. They started hiring PR consultants right and left and Dubai’s number of PR agencies jumped from 15 to 200+, according to figures from the economic department. Ministries, departments and semi-governmental entities were a new market for a hungry PR industry. Promises were made and never met as the majority of these entities fired their PR agents. Why? Because understanding the imperatives of stakeholders and special interest groups in the public domain is of increasing importance and you cannot have this dynamic created by press releases. That’s where DP may have underestimated and overlooked a very common practice of public affairs — acquisition & regulatory communications. Many such ventures face heavy regulatory, political and social obstacles in their new continents and will continue to face even more severe reactions. These have affected not only DPW, but also Emirates Airlines in Australia and New Zealand (the restriction of air space), as well as Dubal in the EU (double taxation) and many more. However, knowing how to influence these imperatives, and design such communications to pro actively affect change, is a well sought-after commodity. If countries like China, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine can play their globalisation game well, what is missing in Dubai? According to an unofficial survey conducted both in Dubai and European Parliament by Promax and its European affiliates, Dubai’s firms and government do not always appreciate these dynamics. They sometimes think that having an interview at the BBC and Financial Times works best when it may not. At the end it is about reputation building and how to position them in these target audiences’ minds. I believe recent US resistance to DPW comes from wrongly implemented communication strategies. Turkey is a very important example of this. For many years, The Republic of Turkey paid Hill & Knowlton millions of dollars to ensure that their country would become a part of the EU. However, in 2001, the government fired the agency due to a lack of results. Every press appearance was backfiring on Turkey. Not that H&K were not doing their work — on the contrary, Turkey was always on the agenda. It was only when Turkey’s new government realised that it wasn’t a PR company that they needed, but something else, that they hired a small public affairs company which in turn helped Turkey within three months of contractual relations to pass through the EU parliament as a candidate country. It even had parliament members voting with banners writing Evet in Turkish, which means yes. Even the Greens, which were heavily against Turkey due to human rights violations, became the biggest defenders of the country. It is not that PR doesn’t work, but that it has its own role and limitations, just like advertising. It is time Dubai and the rest of the GCC learnt what public affairs is and what it can do for them. Cem Arikoler is a director of public affairs company Promax. ||**||

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