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Hacks, flacks and the power of persuasion

Bahri Bar buzz about the regional media scene

The hacks and flacks ensured the conversation flowed freely into the late hours at Dubai's Bahri Bar Shutterstock
The hacks and flacks ensured the conversation flowed freely into the late hours at Dubai's Bahri Bar

The highlight of the week – no, the year – was the biannual “Hacks and Flacks” get-together at the swanky Bahri Bar in Mina A’Salam hotel in Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah.

An informal gathering of journalists (hacks), PR people (flacks) and general media types, the event was the brainchild of Simeon Kerr, former Financial Times Gulf hack turned Scotland correspondent, whose regional contacts book – roughly the thickness of the Tokyo phone directory – always ensured a monster turnout for a very convivial occasion.

Simeon passed the baton to yours truly on his departure from Dubai earlier this year, but it was with some trepidation that I began belatedly to organise the summer event. Imagine throwing a party and nobody comes?

But thanks to help from Margaret Flanagan, PR doyenne who arranged the venue, and the indefatigable Eithne Treanor, whose people produced a stylish art nouveau flyer, it all went off splendidly.

There was a noticeably higher proportion of PRs than journalists, with minimal representation from newswires, agencies and big international titles. “Shock as journalists give up drinking!” was one headline that sprang to mind.

But the 50 or so who made it represented a fair cross-section of the Dubai media scene, and the conversation flowed freely into the late hours at the Bahri Bar, where the Chatham House Rule rules.

Who was coming and going, up and down, in and out were the main themes, as ever, with catty gossip about rivals and competitors often being exchanged just a few feet away from those same rivals and competitors.

There is much to gossip about at the moment in the UAE media scene, and it was great fun.

The following day – after a slightly later-than-usual rise for me – I was turning the night over in my head, and began to think: how would this gathering in Dubai differ from a similar one in, say, London?

Little difference in the bar bill, I would venture, though the journalists would have probably made a bigger contribution to it in the UK. (Shape up, Dubai hacks.)

But I think the main difference – how do I put this diplomatically? – is that the power equation between the hacks and the flacks would be more evenly balanced in a London environment.

This has been a bugbear of mine ever since I came to the Middle East in 2006, and the feeling has only increased over recent years since I began doing more work on the flack side of the fence.

PRs in the UK – in the West in general – have to work much harder to get their message across. This is not just because Western journalists are more inquisitive and interrogative, if not downright bolshie on occasion.

In the UAE, with its much tighter media regulatory frameworks, there is not so much need for persuasion

It is also because media there is held in a different regard than it is in this region. This is not a criticism, I must underline – merely an observation based on nearly four decades of experience in both places, with their different historical and cultural traditions.

So in the West, the main job of the PR professional is to persuade: to talk a sometimes sceptical journalist or editor round to the way of thinking that the PR’s client wants to get across. To convince him or her that the message is plausible and convincing.

In the UAE, with its much tighter media regulatory frameworks, there is not so much need for persuasion.

Sure, a hack appreciates it when a flack takes the time and trouble to talk through a story angle, or to give a serious and knowledgeable background briefing on an important issue. But we both know that an interrogative, sceptical approach can only go so far.

I often think regional PR firms – especially the big global ones which have operations both in the West and in the Gulf (which is virtually all of them these days) – should make a greater effort to tell their regional clients what counts as communications best practice in their home markets.

OK, I’m off my soapbox now.

But that’s the good thing about Hacks and Flacks. You have a great evening in amiable company, and come away with the grey matter buzzing, in more ways than one. The discussion will be continued at the December gathering.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia and is a media adviser to First Abu Dhabi Bank of the UAE

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