By Dima Hamedeh

International public relations agencies have expanded their presence in the UAE in the past two years to establish direct offices and forge permanent partnerships with local agencies, given the potential of a growing market that is still in the process of comprehending the full length of communications practice as an essential element to business and to the country’s image.

Burj Khalifa
Burj Khalifa

While Dubai led the development and growth of this sector, Abu Dhabi has also emerged with a strong focus on communications, mainly public relations, attracting more agencies to set up their offices in the capital, such as Fleishman Hillard. Previously present through partner agencies in the UAE and the region, the mother company decided to establish a direct presence around 18 months ago, just at the outbreak of the global economic crisis.

Similar to other public relations agencies, Fleishman Hillard benefited from the growing need for communications combined with corporate understanding of that need, and registered growth since the inception of their news office.

Kevin Bell, Executive Vice-President and Regional President, UK, Middle East and Africa, said the company has at least doubled its staff count in the past year and has witnessed positive growth that is expected to continue in 2010. Speaking to Emirates Business, Bell said the main challenge of working in a market such as the UAE was the need to catch up with the fast pace of the business, “where everything seems to be in a hurry, and everyone is in a race to achieve the best”.

Why did you decide to be present in the region as Fleishman Hillard as opposed to being represented by your local partner agency in the UAE?

We have been in the region for the past 18 months. The reason we decided to be on our own in this market is that it represents a vibrant environment. It is a brilliant time to be here and people in this market need help in terms of communications.

We have already worked with clients in this region and we have realised that they expect the level of advice they get in London to be here this market. One interesting thing about the UAE is that it is very keen on being part of the global economy, and it is already happening, and what we are trying to show that despite the crisis and the negative coverage that Dubai has received as a result of it, this emirate is alive and kicking. In fact, it is doing very well. In addition, I believe, it is a very interesting time for us to be in this market, especially that talent is now much easier to find.

But judging from the networks set by several international agencies through partnerships with existing local agencies, isn’t it a more cost-effective strategy than setting up your own office?

We are here because our clients asked us to be here. They have asked us to be here because they required the international expertise we provide… in addition, it is much easier to have our own people here. In our company we often send people across different markets, have them learn new things and offer their experiences from other markets as well.

Has your optimism been translated into any recent wins?

We haven’t had any wins yet this year. However, we had a very good year in 2009, and we are expecting to do very well this year as well. We have worked with several clients, including the private and public sectors. We also worked with clients in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Our growth has been significant, although I cannot disclose the figures, but I’d like to see double-digit growth. We are expanding and we now have more than double the staff we had when we started 18 months ago.

You were one of the agencies that worked on the Burj Khalifa launch. How do you see the challenge of communicating the change of the name from Burj Dubai from a public relations and branding perspective?

Our client was a design company from Chicago that has done some work for Burj Khalifa. They have requested that our local team handle their communications during the launch in Dubai.

As far as the brand is concerned, I am cannot speak for Emaar, however, my only message to them is: Walk tall and be proud. Burj Khalifa is and has been a great achievement. As far as Dubai is concerned, I think there should be a seamless flow of communication, talk to the world, and I think this will help solve any problem.

Fleishman Hillard started its offices in Abu Dhabi, while others usually start in Dubai. What is the reason and do you intend to have a permanent office in Dubai?

We are in Abu Dhabi and Dubai where our clients are. Abu Dhabi has a lot of potential, and has good strategic communication based on the 2030 strategy plan with the aim of placing Abu Dhabi on the map and we are helping them do that. Abu Dhabi and the UAE in general have excellent education strategies that can put the Western governments to shame. People we work with in the government are very well-educated, articulate, open to discussion and good at strategic thinking. The challenge is to keep up with the very fast pace of development. Meanwhile, Dubai has a great potential in various segments such as technology and health.

What is your strategy for 2010?

Our focus in the near future will be to expand more into technology and health sectors and public affairs, which we are already doing and most importantly digital and mobile PR. We are also planning to expand in the region mainly in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in addition to Egypt.

Most agencies are moving towards setting up digital practices, yet there is a general complaint regarding the lack of talent. What is your strategy in that perspective?

We are not setting a separate department for digital. We do have people who understand digital in London and the US. We always tend to have a “cross fertilisation” among our offices. We send our team members across the world to exchange knowledge with other team members in different markets. We are keen on training local talent and sending them through the same journey, and we are planning to do something about it that will be revealed in due time.