Text body - interviews
Jolyon Kimble: Communication in the Middle East Ė well, the first thing Iíd say is that you canít impose the west and south temper on the Middle East Ė it has its own culture, it has its own institutions, and those are very different to the way that the West operates. I think if you look at the announcement by Dubai that it was possibly about to default on its Islamic bond, that was announced the day before the Eid al-Adha holiday, it meant that there were 4 days after that announcement to create a vacuum into which the press brought all the speculation they wished to do. Now, in the west you probably wouldnít do that, but in the Arabic world there is still a sense that they would rather not confront the truth on these matters and perhaps rather not go too hard into the detail and be transparent in their communications. They would rather put out a statement than hope for the best. In the meantime the slings and arrows from all the journalists tend to hit home, Iím afraid. So, at the moment the issue is: taking western best practice and also ensuring that you can blend that with the Islamic way of communicating.
There are some things that I think are particularly difficult to embed in Islamic communications. One of them is Full Disclosure. If you are trying to confront an issue and you are trying to speak honestly about what that issue has grown into and what seeds it grew up from, if you are trying to reassure investors, for one, that you know how are handling this and you can explain why something has happened, itís very difficult to ensure that your client, perhaps in the Gulf region, is fully on board with that. Itís not really that they wonít accept the principles of western best practice; itís more about the actual practice of theirs, so itís less about the theory and more about actually convincing them that if they follow what you advise, they will be better off in the long run. But itís a learning process Ė for all of us, and itís a learning process for the people in the Middle East.
I think that these best practice principles are transferable. The Middle East has come a long way in a very short time. For instance, they didnít really have a societal development that comes with industrial revolutions. So, in a short period of time they are going from a culture that was based on tribalism, in many ways, and not democratic transparencies, and they are trying to share information and that in the Gulf is not something that really has a history. It was more that there were a few people in charge and they did what they needed to do. Now, if you are trying to engage with state codes, and you are trying to get a message out to all your audiences, there is a reluctance to do that, because it takes bravery to do it. It takes a lot of guts toÖ to put yourself out there and say ďThis is the reason why this is happeningĒ. And if you are not used to doing that, then itís a big leap offaith.
Well Iíve been going there (Kuwait) since about 2005, but Iíve only been based in there for 18 months, but Iíve also worked in Jordan, in Lebanon, and across the Gulf. There are differences. The Levant is different from the Gulf; the UAE is different from Kuwait. Itís not something that you can treat as one subject matter.
Basically itís all about opportunity. We had the opportunity to work with a Kuwait National petroleum Company, we also have a number of other clients in Kuwait Ė large families, who require our advice on many different issues Ė be they legal issues, presentation issues, financial issues. In order to handle those clients, I really have to be there, because if you are based in London, your client service suffers. And also Iím doing a 3-year program at KMPC, a 3-year CSR program and strategic media program. And that means I have to embed myself within the team and run a series of other teams, focusing on different aspects of creating a true world-class CSR program. To do that, I really have to lead from the front, and be there amongst them.
I mean there isnít the communication set-up there, it is not so primitive that there is a need for a great Watershed moment. Itís more about a process of evolution where you get to know the client and they get to understand why you are telling them what to do and you are doing it with the best rule in the world because you want them to benefit from your advice.
It takes a while for you to, sort of, get to the comfort zone, whereby you are giving the advice that you think they want to hear and you are giving it in the way that you think they want to hear. So, itís a dialogue, and itís a relationship. You have to get through that period. And after that itís just a question of being disciplined in your project management and making sure that you take it to every new stage, so you can show that you are delivering to your client.
I think you have to respect the fact that you canít make progress incrementally, you have to be patient, and you have to ensure that when you do it, you allow mistakes to be made, so that you can then point to these mistakes and say ďHere is how you could have improved it.Ē If you get exasperated or if you say ďwell this is not how I would have done itĒ, that doesnít realty take you anywhere. There is no magic bullet Ė itís just all about trying to understand your client and trying to understand the process that you have embarked on is one that you have to control with them. The only difference really is the fact that you are dealing with a society that is largely tribal or else is based on a rather small power based at the top which may not have broad understanding beneath it. This is the case in Saudi Arabia and, perhaps, in Jordan, and you are dealing with institutions that donít behave in the same way, perhaps, as western institutions behave.You have to find a way through that, and itís all about the sophistication of your state code of management, really.
Question: On the one hand, there is communication which is worse, which is information, which is actuallyÖ nothing, I mean it is not material, and on the other hand you have oil.
Jolyon Kimble:† This is a very good question! The fact is that if you are an oil company in a place like Kuwait, you are interested in pipeline diameters and you are interested in pounds and pence, or dinars, rather. You are interested in large engineering infrastructure, and you are interested in the mechanics of getting the oil to the ultimate client. You are not really interested in CSR and the environment, and possibly not interested in community relations so much as your paramount concern which is: turn a profit. Now that is changing. In the past Iíd say that used to be true, but the management inKMPC are different Ė they are more in life, and they see that if you really want to produce oil, even though what you are doing is producing oil, though go back into the state revenues and ensure that everybody has a good quality of life, you have to make a direct connection between what you do and improving the life of the community, cause that gives you the license to operate, that gives you permission to build another refinery, next to areas where people might not want you to build it. That gives you the opportunity to state your case that you are reducing the sulfa pots per million and you are doing it not for economic advantage but for environmental dividend. What we are trying to do is craft those messages and the basis for that is producing a world-class CSR report. So what we are looking to do is produce a credible report that the leadership can point to and show that they have a major concern for the people of Kuwait.
Question: Communication isÖ?
Jolyon Kimble: Two words to it Ė competitive advantag!
Communicationís really changing the real world. Obamaís soaring rhetoric changed the world because brought the first black president in the USA to power. I would say that a lot of people would say that I was empty rhetoric now on the basis that administration is in trouble. I would say any good comms done around a crisis to limit the impact of that crisis is probably some of the hardest comms work. There were many instances of good crisis communications that Iíve seen worked on and many instances of bad crisis communications. If you get it right it can save a company, if you get it wrong, that can doom a company.
Question: But do you think a forum like that should be a tradition and why.
Jolyon Kimble: I think it should, for many reasons. I think we really need to justify ourselves as communicators, especially in a time when there is not huge amount of money to go around. And we have to ensure that what we deliver is not just a nebulous idea of advice and council, but is measurable outcomes, deliverables, milestones, outputs: I think we have to be our own project managers and I think that we have to say to a client Ė this is what we will deliver by when, when, when... And we have to become more like any other industry or discipline, like accountants or like lawyers Ė thatís what we have to do.
So yes, I think it should be, it should happen more, and it should have a higher profile. I think it should happen immediately after WEF in Davos, and I think it's got a great future!