EmenaComm 2019: Key Takeaways

Bringing together senior communicators from across the region for two days of conversation and insight, the IABC in Bahrain hosted the inaugural EmenaComm conference on 11th and 12th February 2019. I was lucky enough to attend, along with a group of UK IABC members and board members attended, hosting sessions on sustainability messaging, the power of listening, social media and content marketing. Here are our takeaways from the event.


From Howard Krais, President at IABC UK

As I sit in the lounge at Bahrain international airport, a day after the conclusion of IABC’s EMENA Conference, I am left to reflect on what has been an inspiring week, for several reasons. I often talk about how important the I in IABC is. Demonstrating how the organisation is truly international, bringing together communicators not just from Europe and the Gulf, but also the US and Australia shows what it’s all about. Realising how many issues and challenges we share, how much brings us together, and yet how much we can learn from the different cultures and ways of working present can be truly humbling.

Continuing the theme of our IABC year, together with Mike Pounsford and Kevin Ruck, I was delighted to run a workshop on listening. We shared the highlights of some recent research we’ve done about listening which has thrown up several interesting issues. We looked at what listening means to individual communicators and to organisations. We also looked at the best way of using some of the many channels we have available to listen. And we’d love to listen to more people – we are just finalising a date to run a similar workshop in London in April so look forward to continuing the discussion then.

I’d say if you ever get the chance to go to an international conference of peers then take it. You’ll find your horizons being broadened and your eyes being opened. You’ll grow your network and you’ll have a fantastic experience.


From Georgia Halston, of Halston Marketing

Broadening your horizons is an understatement. The value that can be gained from throwing yourself into a completely alien scenario is incomparable. From experience in public speaking, never before have I been met with an audience so diverse and as any advocate for diversity will tell you, the exposure to new points of view make it invaluable. The feedback, questions and intrigue from the audience and delegates in general did not disappoint – I’ve been met with points of view I would never have experienced if it wasn’t for a platform of this magnitude.

Quick-fire learnings –

  • Lewis Woodward – Purpose is made powerful through daily actions
  • Joss Mathieson – Make the leadership team visible and accessible and through the use of local communicators (#letstalk champions) you share ownership of the conversation
  • Joe Lipscombe and Nick Driver – Make your audience the hero of the story
  • Brad Jennings – Communicators are meaning makers and meaning shapers

My real stand out moments –

  • Yasser Zaki gave insight into B2B strategies with a concise case study and explained how his company not only penetrated but smashed their way into the Egyptian market. What I took away from this session is that B2B marketing is so similar in terms of strategy, no matter where you are and no matter what the product is. It’s the execution that bears the cultural differences and it was amazing to be in a position to really learn something here
  • Aimee DaBrule introduced a case study on the benefits of building on purpose. The work being showcased was multi-faceted and delivered insight on how a campaign can help to deal with the media, the audience and regulatory compliance.


From Casilda Malagon, Past president, IABC UK

I have a confession to make. I was very skeptical about speaking at EmenaComm. It is the height of the sustainability reporting season, I have a small child and Bahrain is so far away. I also had ethical reservations about the choice of venue, its regime and human rights record made me ponder.

However, over the years I have learned that faith in the IABC colleagues always pays back. And this was definitely not the exception. Doing my research, I realized that the Gulf region is not even represented in the Dow Jones Sustainability Emerging Markets Index, so that infused me with a double call to action: give back to IABC and take the sustainability message to the region.

I chaired the sustainability track and present alongside Helen Lamb and Matt Painter from IPSOS, and Monaem Ben Lellahom a MENA sustainability consultancy. It was such a rewarding experience. We discussed trust, evidence-based decision making, the role of communicators and had a spirited debate over CSR vs Sustainability. I had one goal in mind when I prepared, inspire our audience. At the end of the session, we asked them one question: How do you feel right now?

Their answer is what we work for.

My lesson: step up and say yes. It pays back.


Mike Pounsford, Past president, IABC UK

The theme for the conference was Transformers: Communicators driving strategic change.  Maybe you just hear what you want to hear but I loved:

  • The lessons about the importance of clarifying and communicating purpose with passion, great storytelling and authenticity that came through Colin Hatfield’s session, Lewis Woodward from EY and others in different ways
  • How to help people cope with uncertainty because of change, change, change: digital, disruption etc and in particular Brad Jennings talking about his experiences of helping to get the voice of disruption and the voices of the people into the executive suite
  • Celebrating and using diversity – which played out in front of our eyes in a room full of different cultures, backgrounds, ages, organisation and gender
  • The listening session I ran with Howard Krais and Kevin Ruck because of the challenge around how to make sure that better listening improves the quality of the business

A bit like Casilda I was in two minds about whether this was the best use of my time when faced with so many pressures and priorities in life.  But, again and again, I am struck by the quality and warmth of the IABC crowd.  It is such a good network of like-minded, argumentative and challenging colleagues who share a passion for what they do and an openness to share their ideas and support each other.   I know we will do more on listening because the session went well and with Howard and Kevin we’ve got a team keen to take this further, and I know it’s a topic we will all get value from.


My own reflections

As I reflect on my whistlestop visit to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and then Bahrain for EmenaComm I am reminded what a unique opportunity this was to forge new partnerships, new friendships and learn more about global communication. As well as the formal sessions, lunches and dinners provided a great opportunity to understand the nuances of doing business in the region, and to workshop individuals’ own challenges. Through relaxed, honest conversations I gained much more of a sense of the region than I had in the past, travelling more widely than more usual destination of Dubai.

Hanisha Lalwani was confident on ‘how to say no’ in the workplace – always a challenge but ultimately such a great approach to avoid disappointment and misunderstanding.  There was a fantastic, and energetic final panel moderated by Amith Prabhu from a team of senior Indian communicators on migrating their comms campaigns from tactics to strategy – my primary takeaway from that was the notion of ROO (Return on Objectives) as a more realistic/real-life alternative to ROI (Return on Investment). Here are some additional takeaways from the first ever EmenaComm, expertly organized by Alex Malouf:-

Joss Mathieson outlined how GSK streamlined its internal comms to deliver clearer messages to staff, streamlining 100+ newsletters into one with a single editorial process. Guidance on how to really cut through? Keep messages simple, work as one team and focus on outcomes now outputs. On the critical success factors for internal comms success – leaders must be human and visible, you must listen and involve your people, and you

Jon Hammond delivered practical guidance on how to gain more presence in your presentations and communications: be confident about yourself and you will be confident in your presentations; create stories that will resonate with your audience

My own session on the Power of Brand Journalism was well received – the power of informative, broad and wide-ranging articles posted on your own corporate website to drive engagement and build audiences. Definitely worth making the trip as an extension of my client work and brand building in the region.

How can communicators survive in the new corporate world? – IABC UK introduces Bushcraft for Communicators

Inspired by their experiences as consultants and specialists in organisational change, employee engagement and leadership, Mike Pounsford and Stephen Welch have joined forces to create Bushcraft for Communicators.


As traditional approaches in marketing and strategic communications don’t seem to work in the new corporate world, Welch and Pounsford have devised 12 tools to help communicators navigate this new landscape. The pair use the bushcraft analogy to show how to be more agile and move faster to face the challenges encountered in the ‘bush’.


During an interactive event in London conducted by the two IABC UK past presidents, attendees had the opportunity to get a taste of how bushcraft tools can help communication professionals facing periods of uncertainty at their organisations.


The starting point


In a time when things can appear to be moving too quickly and changes arise unexpectedly, communicators and leaders need to ask where they are heading.


According to Welch and Pounsford, organisations need to be prepared if they want to survive in this new landscape, which is influenced by so many different factors. And how can they do that? By acknowledging where they are and where they want to go. However, the real challenge here is getting people to a common destination, while keeping in mind everyone’s journey will be different. As Pounsford says, ‘Not everyone departs from the same starting point’.


In order to reach sustained change, leaders shouldn’t focus on the process or the journey, but on the destination. They need to understand that it’s not only the leadership’s perspective that matters. it’s also importenat to pay attention to other employees’ points of view when they ask the big question: where do we want to go?

Good leaders, those who bet on sustained change, will know they have succeeded when they reach common consensus on the destination.


As Welch explained during the event, ‘HQs tend to remain in their little bubble of the world, and for them it will seem very simple. But, actually, their view of the world may not be shared by the rest of the organisation, who have different perspectives on how changes should be implemented or the journey to follow to achieve those new results’. Welch also maintains that communicators have a key role to play in devising a new strategy to bring about change in an organisation, encouraging them to ‘remind leaders they’re not the centre of the universe’.


The trust formula


Whether it is a business transaction or a friendship, trust plays an essential role in developing a relationship. Within strategic communications, a trusting relationship contains three key elements:


  • R: the results obtained or business outcome (what benefit will I obtain from this?)
  • US: mutual understanding and support (what is the relationship based on?)
  • T: low levels of risk (how will you reduce possible threats?).


When it comes to building long-term relationships with different stakeholders, the Trust Tool created by Welch and Pounsford helps communicators. The tool assesses how much effort communicators put into each element and outlines what can be done to raise their profile as a trusted specialist or consultant. For example:


  • To improve R: focus on solutions and results, show you understand the other person’s perspective and their world, listen and give feedback, show confidence in your skills.
  • To enhance US: share a social element, show empathy and put yourself in the other person’s shoes, find common ground and shared values, be generous with information and connections, be willing to learn more about them, do not forget about the power of face-to-face meetings.
  • To reduce T: provide examples of what you can do, do great work and solve problems, be visible and show commitment, demonstrate you are reliable, be responsible and available, give endorsements (mouth to mouth recommendations), show honesty.


Find out more about Bushcraft for Communicators and how you can apply these tools to your organisation.


By Alexandra R. Cifre


IABC Event – Defining Communications Excellence

Join us on Wednesday 12 December 8.00–9.30am for Defining Communications Excellence, a breakfast event for communicators.

Whether or not you’re planning to enter the 2019 Gold Quill Awards, this event will be incredibly useful to anyone in corporate or internal communications. We’ll be joined by a panel of experts who’ll share their insights, and a number of strategies and tools to help you plan and develop communications that are truly world-class.

The event is being hosted by Instinctif Partners at their central London office.



  • Meaningful Measurement – a key ingredient for communications success. Our panel will explain how to include SMART goals and objectives within your communications plans
  • Gold Quill Winning Case Study – an in-depth look at Tarmac’s award-winning communications strategy and plan
  • Recognition – how to get your hard-work recognised both within and outside your organisation and bench-marked against your peers’ work globally.
  • Final word – the event will close with an interactive session where our experts will address any additional questions in small groups or individually.


Confirmed Speakers:

Kate Jones, Head of Communications & Corporate Affairs, Tarmac
Neil Griffiths, ABC, Chart.PR, Senior Manager, Global Communication at ERM
Ezri Carlebach, consultant, writer, lecturer
Howard Krais, President, IABC UK Chapter



Tickets include breakfast and are free to IABC members* and cost £20 for non members.

Please are limited so please register now to secure your place.

Tickets available here.


About our Speakers:

Kate Jones is an award-winning internal communications specialist with 25 years’ experience, both agency and in-house, across a range of industries. She is elected Chair of the Institute of Internal Communication, an IoIC Fellow and was named IoIC Internal Communicator of the Year 2016. Twitter: @how_IC_it

Ezri Carlebach is a writer, lecturer, and consultant with over 20 years’ experience in corporate communications, public relations, and internal comms. He has worked for government, non-profit, and FTSE 100 organisations, and now splits his time between Turin, Brussels, and London with a variety of clients. He is also Visiting Lecturer in Public Relations at the University of Greenwich.

Neil Griffiths, ABC, Chart.PR is Senior Manager, Global Communication at ERM, the world’s largest sustainability consultancy. Neil is an advocate of professional standards in communication and has been a part of some of IABC’s flagship efforts in this area, such as the Career Roadmap Committee, the Global Communication Certification Council and World Conference. Neil has been Gold Quill evaluator and/or EMENA evaluation panel chair for almost 10 years.

Howard Krais is this year’s IABC UK President. With over 25 years as a communicator under his belt, both in senior in house and consulting roles. Howard currently leads communication for Johnson Matthey’s Clean Air division.


Cancellation policy:

For paid tickets you may nominate someone to attend in your place if you can no longer attend. Otherwise the following applies:
100% refund if cancelled >14 days in advance
50% refund if cancelled 2-13 days in advance
No refund if cancelled within 24 hours of the event.

Listening – a strategic communication capability


“Good communication is not just data transfer. You need to show people something that addresses their anxieties, that accepts their anger, that is credible in a very gut-level sense, and that evokes faith in the vision.” John P. Kotter


I have just been listening to Thomas Bjørn the captain of the victorious European Ryder Cup team.  He said a similar thing to John Kotter when talking about the secret of his team’s success.  He emphasised that success lay in really understanding the motivations and desires of members of the team.  I’m paraphrasing, but he said of his team that: “They are all professionals at the top of their game so winning is not about telling them what to do but listening to understand what matters to them.”

It strikes me that these examples from John Kotter (a change leadership guru) and Thomas Bjørn (a contemporary leader in a highly competitive field) are relevant in this age of rapid digital transformation.

We need leadership communication that inspires, provides clarity of mission and purpose, and that enables people to operate with autonomy.  This is a style of leadership communication that is less about transmission and broadcasting and more about listening, and which places a premium on understanding the perspectives of others and building empathy.


The listening leader

Right at the heart of this discussion about change, Kotter’s quote above conveys the essential need to communicate at a personal, emotive level in order to stand a chance of getting people to buy-into new directions and ways of working.  It also captures the insight that inspiring people begins not with broadcasting but with listening.  To “address anxieties” and to “accept anger” requires an ability to be sensitive to, empathise with and tune into the concerns and emotions of the group leaders aim to influence.


This implies that the inspirational leader is not the stereotype of the extreme personality or the ego-centric CEO leading the charge.  Rather, the inspirational leader begins not with talking but with listening to what people think and feel.


Reflecting on personal experience

Bringing this down to the personal level, consider when you last felt completely engaged and committed to the goals of an organisation that you worked for, or with.  Take a minute to reflect on what drove that engagement.

Based on numerous conversations over the years I have found that a number of themes recur which emphasise how important “local” conversations and empathetic listening are compared to “inspirational” communications from a remote leader.


The role of listening and empathy in communicating strategy

In reflecting therefore on the need to develop more conversational approaches to change, and the 10 characteristics of effective strategic conversations, it strikes me that listening and empathy run through all the things that leaders need to do to communicate their strategy.   But how do you make this happen?


  1. Provide clarity of purpose and vision
    This is focused on making meaning for people. Leaders need to give people clarity about what the organisation stands for, who it aims to serve and what things should look like in the future when it is successful. The purpose piece requires a deep commitment to understand what connects customers, stakeholders and employees to an organisation, listening to the difference that it makes to others and what value that difference delivers to them.
  2. Develop shared goals at top
    Ironically often the piece that is missing and that is obvious if it is absent to others. The CEO or leader needs to get the top team to listen to each other and sets the example by ensuing he or she can advocate others points of view as well as his or her own on the way to defining shared goals
  3. Encourage a focus on strengths and celebrate what you do well
    Great leaders are sensitive to the things that matter to their employees and will recognise the talismanic quality of old brands or legacy organisations. Rather than dismiss these as outdated they will honour heritage and recognise the skills that went into building these. This is a true test of empathy as one of the common problems is that new CEOs, merged organisations or leadership teams building new brands often discount history and miss the emotional impact old symbols, brands and companies have for people.
  4. Build conversational skills and curiosity
    Genuine conversations involve being present and paying attention to the views of others. If we are waiting to talk we are not really listening and others will spot that lack of authenticity quickly. Effective strategic communication today needs to be cantered around high-quality conversations that allow people to explore the implications of strategy for them. Leaders at all levels need to pay close attention and be curious about the needs of others to earn their right to explain their vision and strategy
  5. Focus on the future
    Strategic conversations focus on how teams can influence events and take more control of their environment. Given the pace of change teams need to be responsive and fast which can only be achieved with leaders who are willing to listen to their teams and empower colleagues to take decisions
  6. Adopt an external perspective
    Strategy and its implementation do not occur in a vacuum. Listening to the needs of customers, suppliers and other stakeholders and paying attention to the actions of competitors and new market entrants ensures relevance and responsiveness
  7. Tolerate ambiguity and build resilience
    We live in uncertain times, yet we all crave more certainty and knowledge of what may happen in future. Great leaders can invite their people to discuss the implications of future uncertain events and lead conversations on what we can control and what we cannot control. Their ability to listen, empathise and focus on what we can influence helps build capacity for change.
  8. Be clear on outcomes and share responsibility
    Effective communication and implementation of strategy involves distributing intelligence around a business so that at each point there is a degree of clarity about our role in supporting the bigger picture. By understanding the essentials, we know what to do when we make local decisions, allocate resources or serve customers. This degree of flexibility and responsiveness is achieved not by telling people what to do but by listening, planning and working together to share responsibility
  9. Encourage discovery and emergent thinking
    The leader in the modern day is not an expert orator but an expert facilitator. He or she is good at asking questions and exploring options to help people figure new ways of delivering – letting go but in the context of a clear framework
  10. Build relationships
    People want to connect with colleagues. Leaders and managers need to help people feel part of their “in-group” and help their teams build great relationships by listening and empathising with each other.


In summary, empathetic listening is critical to effective strategic communication.  It is the skill that must come first, and it is a skill that needs to permeate throughout the organisation to support engagement at all levels.

It may sound counter-intuitive to start with listening but the evidence from leadership researchers, neuroscientists, behavioural economists – and our own experience – tells us it holds the key to engagement.


By Mike Pounsford

Founder, Couravel

[email protected]

Mike works with leadership and with specialists in communication to clarify and communicate purpose, vision and strategy.   He founded his own business, Couravel, in 2001 and works to help define and share common meaning.  Clients have included global and smaller UK based businesses and organisations in the private, public and third sectors.

Mike is currently the Past President of IABC UK.

10 ways to be a better listener

Communication is not a one-way street. While speaking is a crucial part of effective leadership, its counterpart – listening – is often overlooked.

As many as one in four corporate leaders find out they could be better listeners in 360-degree feedback, according to the Harvard Business Review. Listening is a skill which can have a major impact on a company’s fortunes.

One thing I’m still learning in my career is the power of silence. When I was younger, I always believed that unless my lips were moving, I wasn’t contributing.

I just hoped that whoever was at the receiving end of my verbal bombardment was able to pick out the useful bits.

I’m by no means an expert at listening or being silent, but I hope these ideas on how to be an effective listener are helpful.

  1. Choose the right place

Finding the right environment is key – a café, a sofa or a quiet corner are all better than a formal office, boardroom, or meeting room. Create a situation where they feel comfortable to open up. Likewise, sitting next to them will create a more intimate situation without being face-to-face, which can appear separated and confrontational. I find kitty-corner (two sides of a corner of a table) the most effective layout.

  1. Ask questions, but don’t interrupt

Ask lots of short questions, which are designed to give long answers. Such as, ‘Tell me more…’, ‘Why?’ and, ‘What prompted that approach?’ Then let them answer fully before you ask another question. I know lots of people who think they are good listeners because they ask questions – but then blow it by asking a follow-up question before the previous one has been answered fully.

  1. Look at them

Watch their body language. Look them in the eye. Give the other person your undivided attention: make them feel that there is nothing more important in the world to you at that moment.

  1. Show empathy

Understand their perspective without taking over the conversation. Saying, ‘Yeah, the same thing happened to me’ and then launching into your own personal story is not listening. It’s taking over the conversation and making them listen to you.

  1. Don’t problem-solve immediately

You don’t need to jump in and try to ‘solve’ the situation, nor do you need to necessarily resolve every comment. At the end of the conversation, it may be useful to wrap up with some actions, but jumping into solution mode immediately isn’t good listening.

  1. Take notes

Taking notes is a great way to shut yourself up. It’s hard to talk and write at the same time, writing things down makes the other person feel they are important, and often while you are writing – and the room is silent – they will say more than they originally intended. Let them fill the silence.

  1. Stay on-topic

Stick to the topic they want to discuss. This is about them and their topics of interest, not you and yours.

  1. Keep it secret

Remind the person that – if appropriate – your conversation is confidential and you won’t betray that trust. A good listener talks little. Loose lips sink ships.

  1. Give them time

Find the right moment and allow enough time for the conversation. You can’t give someone a good listening to in five minutes. It takes time.

  1. Ditch the tech

When your phone starts flashing, it becomes the centre of attention – not the other person. So keep your tech out of the room.


By Stephen Welch

Former IABC President