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Category: BLOG

Sunil John: CEOs should take a stand on relevant social issues but authenticity is key

If ever an industry was to have earned a reputation for conservatism and playing it safe when it comes to communications, it would be oil and gas. That goes double for the oil giants in the Middle East, whose operations are tied so inextricably with the economies and governments of the countries in which they operate.

So, it came as a complete surprise to me that one of the few articulate corporate voices to emerge after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and the subsequent boycott of Saudi Arabia’s flagship Future Investment Initiative by dozens of international companies in October last year, was that of Amin Nasser, the CEO of Saudi Aramco.

He appeared live on CNN to express his regret over the killing, and to say that he believed the Kingdom was fully aware of the gravitas of the situation, and was investigating the case.

It struck me that this single appearance has changed the communications landscape in the Middle East, where most business leaders suffer from ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and are afraid to speak out in fear of being cut down to size by peers or, more likely, governments. Here was a businessman unafraid to speak out on an issue on everyone’s lips, but which every regional CEO wanted to avoid at all costs.

It sparked an article I wrote at the beginning of the year, where I argued that, in this day and age, CEOs in the Middle East have a duty to stick their heads above the parapet, and a subsequent industry panel session I hosted on this issue: Should CEOs, and the companies and brands they represent, take a stand on policy-making and political issues?

Ultimately, the panel, comprising CEOs and communications professionals from government and multinationals based in the region, agreed that now is the time to take a stand – but with some caveats.

CEOs that do take a stand can reap rewards when their values connect strongly with their audience. Ultimately, though, a CEO’s responsibility is to the business, and the risk-reward strategy needs to be properly ascertained, especially in a region where social issues and politics are frequently indistinguishable, and governments can exercise significant power over the business world.

CEOs that want to engage on social media need to know what they’re signing up for. Where once a public-facing CEO would act through a spokesperson, today’s outspoken executives have direct access to stakeholders through social media. There’s no filter, and once released, the genies aren’t going back into the bottle.

In an era of #fakenews, more people are looking to CEOs. Brands aspire to foster trust; today’s CEOs are more and more expected to embody their organisation’s brand values, and, when a trusted connection is made, then these CEOs have a responsibility to act in the interest of consumers to maintain that trust, even in areas not totally related to the business.

And, related to that, the panel agreed that authenticity is key. I would even take that a step further: I firmly believe that authenticity will be the new measure of successful communications.

As PR practitioners it is our job to work with CEOs to ensure they emphasise the truth, broadcast the facts and present an image of unimpeachable honesty. We need to make the CEO more human, more authentic and more transparent – that will be the new measure of effective communications.

In conversation with MEPRA: Sunil John

ASDA’A BCW President – Middle East Sunil John was one of the first people to be named a MEPRA Fellow by the Middle East Public Relations Association. This fellowship recognises PR professionals that have made a significant contribution to the communications industry.

In a recent interview with MEPRA, Sunil reveals his early career in journalism, his best career advice for budding PR professionals and how he grew ASDA’A BCW to become the biggest PR agency in the Middle East.

Watch the video below.

CEO Activism: Five things we learned at In2SummitMENA

In a column for Arabian Business earlier this year, Sunil John, ASDA’A BCW’s President, Middle East, posited that ‘2019 is the year of the socially conscious CEO’. While leaders have long avoided rocking the boat, he argued that in today’s climate, taking a stand is not a ‘nice to do’ but rather ‘a must-do’.

Sunil John, ASDA’A BCW President – Middle East

This was the topic up for debate during the opening panel at the 2nd In2 Innovation Summit MENA: Should CEOs, and the companies and brands they represent, take a stand on policy making and political issues?

Joining Sunil for the discussion on February 13 were Heba Fatani, Executive Director of RAK Media Office, Maaz Sheikh, CEO and Founder of Starz Play Arabia, and Nicole Hayde, Senior Director of Corporate Relations for Visa MENA.

Here are our five key takeaways from the panel.

The In2SummitMENA panel

A CEO’s ultimate responsibility is to the business

Both Maaz and Heba likened a leadership role to taking an oath to preserve the best interests of your company. “If you speak out on an issue you personally feel strongly about, but your employees and shareholders are not aligned with it, you might end up alienating someone,” warned Heba.

Maaz added: “Sometimes you have to set aside your personal beliefs and make the bigger interests of your shareholders, employees and customers a higher priority.”

Maaz Sheikh, CEO and Founder, STARZ PLAY Arabia

However, CEOs that do take a stand can reap rewards when their values connect strongly with their audience

“Consumers are drawn to companies that are authentic and work hard at amplifying the things they stand for,” said Nicole. Sunil cited the example of Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad campaign, a controversial move in a divisive political climate that ultimately paid off enormously.

In an era of #fakenews, more people are looking to CEOs for the truth

“Consumers are pivoting towards corporates for good governance and looking to CEOs to take more of a lead on providing trustworthy information,” Nicole said.

Nicole Hayde, Senior Director – Corporate Communications, MENA & SSA , Visa

Authenticity is key

It’s not enough to pay lip service -–you have to live your values. “When your core values are genuine and aligned with shared, human values that no one can dispute, your employees will feel proud to be associated with you,” said Heba, noting how the UAE government has made its core value of tolerance actionable, through its Year of Tolerance, the appointment of a Minister of Tolerance, and even the recent visit to the emirate by Pope Francis.

Heba Fatani, Executive Director, RAK Media Office

CEOs that want to engage on social media need to know what they’re signing up for

While social media can make CEOs appear more relatable and make communications feel more genuine, the ‘echo chamber’ will amplify your message, and the internet will preserve it forever. The best advice? According to Heba: “Take your time. See how things develop before you comment. Know when (and when not to) engage. And don’t be an angry tweeter.”

Ultimately, the conclusion was that, done correctly, CEO activism can reap real quantifiable rewards and create authentic connections, as long as it’s done responsibly (Maaz), with passion (Heba), and with relevance (Nicole). As long as it’s done right, it’s worth the potential risk.

Choose an issue or a cause that matters to you, your business and your shareholders and go after it with sincere passion – make it matter.

As Sunil concluded, “Taking a brave stand needs heart. Not every brand can do it.”