New force on the scene in Middle East

Frank Kane, Jun 29, 2011 

It has been a while since I dipped into the wacky world of Middle East public relations, but some momentous events have taken place in the past six months, and at last the spin doctors are responding.

I don't mean the on-off relationship between the UK's Bell Pottinger and the government of Bahrain. At about the time forces moved into Bahrain, the firm said its activities in the troubled kingdom were being scaled back for the time being.

Recently, I notice an increase in the number of Bell Pottinger e-mailed statements on behalf of one Bahraini government department or another, so you would have to assume it's all back on for the company, based in London.

What I mean is the exciting news - so far only whispered about in PR circles and the specialist press - that a new force is on the scene in the Middle East. And quite a pedigree it has, too.

The financial crisis didn't seem to put off too many of the big international firms from the region. In fact, I can recall offhand at least three launches that have taken place since the summer of 2008.

But this is the first I know of to have been prompted directly by the historic events of the Arab Spring. Hillingdon Cresswell already has offices in London and Amman, and is looking out for the right premises (and clients, of course) in the UAE.

The duo behind the new company consists of Chris McShane, long-time press adviser to the former British prime minister Tony Blair, and Ghalia Alul, who ran strategic communications for the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation and Queen Rania of Jordan.

“A new force is on the scene in the Middle East.  And quite a pedigree it has, too.”

They have pulled together a team of experienced consultants from the UK and Middle East as the core of the new operation.

A couple of members of the line-up are former Blair advisers, while there is also a gaggle of experienced hands from PR, marketing and communications.

That all adds up to quite a lot of political firepower, so it's no surprise that Hillingdon Cresswell's potential clients are governments and government-related enterprises. And not just for a bit of one-off spin doctoring.

"Our motto is 'building capacity, not dependency', so we really want to help governments and others set up their own communications structures," Ms Alul says.

Mr McShane elaborates: "We see ourselves almost as management consultants specialising in communications.

We don't think the best way is to hire an expensive foreign firm and then wait to be told what to do. It's far better if they [the clients] do it themselves, with good advice."

It's good to have a new voice on the PR scene.

Tony Blair's former advisers launch Hillingdon Cresswell to target Middle East

David Singleton and Matt Cartmell, PR Week UK, 27 April 2011, 12:00am

Consultancy launch comes as Qatar Foundation embarks on multi-million pound pitch.
A trio of former advisers to Tony Blair are throwing their weight behind a new comms consultancy that will target governments and other large organisations in the Arab world. 

Hillingdon Cresswell is being set up by Chris McShane, a former long-serving comms adviser to Blair, and Ghalia Alul, until recently director of comms for the government of Jordan.

On board as associates are John McTernan, who served as Blair's director of political operations, and Tanya Joseph, who served as a senior press adviser to the former PM in Downing Street. A further six associates from the Middle East and North America are also signed up.
The new agency will be headquartered in Oman, but will also have a base in London. McShane told PRWeek it would focus on helping organisations in the Arab world establish their own home-grown comms capacity. He said: 'The current model of comms is unsustainable in this changing political climate - particularly in the Middle East.'

Alul said: 'Times are changing fast for governments in the Middle East. Countries need to embrace new and convincing ways of communicating with their people, or have that change forced upon them. Governments need to build their own internal capacity to sustain a consistent dialogue with their people.'

The news comes as a massive state-funded charitable organisation in the Middle East launches a multi-million pound pitch process to appoint three global agencies.

As revealed on (26 April), The Qatar Foundation, which currently uses Bell Pottinger, has put three major PR briefs out to pitch. The foundation is a state-run organisation that funds numerous universities, research institutes and community development projects in Qatar.


Chris McShane was comms adviser to Blair for more than seven years. He recently established media monitoring firm NewsFirst

Tanya Joseph spent four years in No 10 as a press adviser to Blair. She went on to work for Grayling and The Communications Group

John McTernan was director of political operations under Blair. He is now a columnist for The Daily Telegraph.

Long live Mr Splashy Pants 

A sense of humour in campaigns can be a powerful weapon

Sushilakum Amar, Friday 20 May 2011

Humour. Cynical humour. Dark humour. Celebratory humour. For some organisations in the voluntary sector, working with the most vulnerable beneficiaries and heart-breaking causes, it is the lifeline-in-common that keeps us going.

So why not give ourselves permission to use it more when communicating with audiences? In the face of cuts and general side-lining why can't we turn our frustration and conviction into turn-the-tables humour?

Barack Obama's correspondents' dinner Speech is a side-splitting case in point – real head-on stuff to an audience by no means united in its adoration of his presidency.

Facing a table full of Fox News critics – not to mention Donald Trump – Obama soared with a blend of self-deprecation, full-on attack and a whole load of cultural references everyone there had in common. He turned what could have been a defensive speech into a jubilant attack on his "birther" critics. He looked like he was having the time of his life and his audience lapped it up. Well, perhaps not Donald, so much.

Charities and the voluntary sector already have the moral high ground; it's ours, we earned it – but we don't always need to be quite so po-faced about it. Unleavened pathos can be alienating; make your audience feel guilty or helpless and they are more likely to switch off.

Make them smile and they are correspondingly more likely to psychologically lean forward, nod in recognition and buy in. And talk about it to others. Obama's speech went viral within the hour – why can't the voluntary sector strive more for water cooler moments like this?

In 2007, Greenpeace gave us a great example. Whales being hunted down is disheartening stuff, unlikely to raise a smile unless you're the owner of a high-end Tokyo sushi restaurant. So they launched a competition to name one of the migrating whales; a competition that was promptly hijacked by someone who found a way to multiply register the nomination Mr Splashy Pants thousands of times over. Which wasn't quite what they had in mind.

As Chris McShane, head of politics and business for Greenpeace at the time points out, circumventing subversion presents opportunities as well as challenges;

"It turned out to be a gift. Did we really want another 'Orca'? Mr Splashy Pants made the campaign funny, engaging and just puerile enough to capture the imagination of both current supporters and potential ones - largely the under sevens.

"Instead of getting uptight, Greenpeace embraced the suggestion. Our designer, Toby Cotton, even turned round a range of Mr Splashy merchandise. People that might have turned off at saving 'Moby Dick' got behind preserving Mr Splashy Pants with glee. Humour can engage where earnest debate fails."

And sometimes what works with your intended audience won't always get the go-ahead from regulators or even potential supporters – you may need to take a calculated risk.

The (literally) explosive "No pressure" ad by 10:10 aroused sufficient ire amongst climate change deniers and the more conventional that 10:10 pulled it within days. But not before it had been forwarded to thousands and posted on their Facebook pages. Whether it qualified as a success or a failure as a campaign ended up being very much in the eye of the beholder.

And, when it comes to the onward march of social media, why not consciously inject a bit of humour into your charity's blogs? The sector's very own Sir Robin Bogg illustrates how lampooning some of the public policies threatening it exposes weak thinking more effectively than any number of 600-page reports could do.

Some rules, however, are non-negotiable.

* Research your audience – references-in-common work; those in splendid isolation don't.

* Don't patronise your beneficiaries – use anecdotes that reflect them fondly.

* Attack is fine – but try doing it rhetorically – again, check out how Obama nailed that in his speech.

* Self-deprecation is a great stepping stone to satirising others.

* And – please Sir Robin – don't swear.

It's time we rediscovered the use of humour in the voluntary sector. Perhaps it's even a responsibility. Because we have to face the fact that, statistically, Mr Splashy Pants probably didn't make it. Don't let him have died in vain.

Sush Amar was speechwriter at the Charity Commission for 6 years before becoming Hilary Benn's speechwriter at Defra in 2009. She is now a freelance writer and communications adviser.

Public Affairs Soap Box - Unity of message and purpose can only really come from the centre

Chris McShane, director, Hillingdon Cresswell

Much has written about the way Downing Street works. The most recent attack came in Charles Moore's Telegraph article expressing bewilderment at the way Cameron's No 10 operates. He fears the team in Downing Street has gone too far in rejecting co-ordinating systems established under previous PMs.

The irony of Moore's criticisms will not be lost on Tony Blair or anyone who worked for him at No 10. Moore was one of the legion of media critics who attacked the Blair style of government for anything from spin to outright presidentialism.

However, the Blair structure, by and large, worked. It worked, not because it was Blairite or somehow deviously political, but because the PM, civil servants and advisers worked together for many years developing structures that made a complex government work in a modern media age.

This Government has rightly been keen to encourage decentralisation, but knows unity of message and purpose can only really come from the centre.

All governments face this same dilemma - how to free up good ministers, while protecting yourself from those most likely to cause you trouble. In the end, most successful governments come to the same conclusion. A certain amount of central direction is the right route.


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