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The art of clear communication

Promoseven PR and Weber Shandwick are deepening their relationship. ITP.net talks to John W Leslie, chairman, Weber Shandwick Worldwide on this and a wide range of issues.

Weber Shandwick already has an interest in Promoseven PR through parent company IPG’s 30% stake in Promoseven Inc., and the two have decided to take the relationship further. From the end of September, Promoseven PR will formally become Promoseven/Weber Shandwick.

John ‘Jack’ W Leslie, chairman, Weber Shandwick Worldwide, says that the move is a way of reminding clients locally and globally that the company is present in the market. “This is not an affiliate [agreement] like we have all around the world, where we have no equity,” Leslie told Arabian Business magazine. “We have a very specific interest in this that goes beyond a normal affiliate relationship.”

In a wide ranging interview with Leslie, Arabian Business discussed Weber Shandwick’s regional strategy, the threat that spin poses to the PR industry, and how the Arab World and USA can communicate better with each other.

Is this [the change of name by Promoseven PR] a foot in the water for a full entry into this market by Weber Shandwick?

That’s sometimes how these things work but it wasn’t designed for that. It was designed because IPG, our holding company, felt that it wanted to be associated with the premier network in the Middle East, primarily because of [McCann] Erickson [also owned by IPG.] McCann is the premier advertising agency in the world. Clients like Coca-Cola and others wanted us to have the best network we could have in the Middle East.

Clients often ask me ‘Do you have equity in the companies that you’re working with?’, because with affiliates, you don’t have very much leverage, so clients like to see this partnership because there is a commitment to them as a client. When you hear the word affiliate, nine times out of ten there’s no equity participation and in most cases there’s no exclusivity.

Some people say PR is becoming all about spin. Do you share this concern that the line between clear communication and spinning is disappearing and how would you deal with that?

It’s a huge problem. One of the values we teach when we train our people is act ethically. The reason… is that there’s an unfortunate reputation in our business for twisting and manipulating the truth. My opinion is that we’ve reached a point where the media has now proliferated enough and is sophisticated enough that you just can’t do that.

At the end of the day, you will be found. I have an expression that I use with my people, ‘What can be known will be known.’ The only way to change the reputation of our industry is through our own behaviour and our own behaviour should be to advise our clients how to communicate and how to communicate truthfully and clearly in crises. I don’t think in twenty five years of doing this that I’ve varied from this advice.

How are the Arab world and the Arab people perceived in the US right now?

I was asked this question in Cairo and one of the first things I said was that Americans are extraordinarily xenophobic. The whole concept of foreign affairs is pretty foreign to them.

September 11 opened their eyes. We’re seeing research, particularly amongst college students, that shows us there is a much greater interest in foreign affairs and what is going on outside the United States.

So the first answer is that they don’t know very much. It’s not that there’s a high level of hatred for Arabs and Muslims, there’s a lot of ignorance.

I was asked to testify to Congress right after September 11 on this issue and I strongly believe that the best way to deal with this is not government to government, but to open up dialogue between moderate American voices and moderate Arab & Muslim voices. A lot of the channels for that were cut off after collapse of the Soviet Union.

How can this part of the world present itself better?

I think that the Arab world needs to engage more with the United States… on a whole series of levels. I’m not talking just businesspeople, I’m talking media professionals, teachers, lawyers, students, religious figures.

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