Nearly a decade after the US and its allies began dropping bombs on Baghdad, Iraq's economy is finally showing signs of life, but it appears as though it will be many years yet before the country is ready for a PR industry of any note. The International Monetary Fund forecasts Iraq's economy will grow 11.1% this year to about $144 billion. According to Dunia Frontier Consultants, last year, Iraq attracted $55.67 billion in foreign investment and other commercial activity, a 40% increase from the previous year.
A remarkable 21.5% of that foreign investment came from South Korea, and a trip to oil-rich Wasit in the south of the country where China's Shanghai Electric has a $1 billion deal to expand a power plant there, is enough to convince most visitors that future growth is likely to come from Asian rather than European or American investment.
Security remains a key issue. Suggest the idea of expansion into Iraq to boardrooms in Western Europe or North America and you will most likely be greeted with blanching faces and mutterings that it might be more sensible to start Middle East operations in Dubai. It is difficult to find staff who are willing to leave safe jobs in Frankfurt, Aberdeen or Houston, and persuade them to live in fortified compounds in Basra.
This affects those brave few who are prepared to enter Iraq's nascent PR industry. As a director of one of the few agencies to operate in Iraq says: “Planning a visit to an Iraqi client remains a little more complex than grabbing a cab or even, God forbid for City PR types, a five-stop tube ride. Five checkpoints, manned by various branches of Iraq's security forces, lie between Baghdad airport and the centre of the city. At around US$1,000 each way for the 15km journey it must be the most expensive airport transfer in the world.”
Another industry insider reports that security typically accounts for around 25% of a campaign budget. Yet it is not only these costs that hinder the development of the Iraqi PR industry. One industry insider who has worked in Iraqi media for several years but declined to be identified says: “Business in Iraq is all done on personal relationships. You do business with people in your family, your tribe, or your sect. Iraqis are locked into their existing perceptions, and there is little evidence that media campaigns can change them.”
Dr. Saad Al Hasani, Media & PR Senior Manager at Zain Telecom says: “Since 2003 there have been some noticeable developments in the Iraqi PR industry. These have mostly been in response to increased foreign investment in the country. Until recently the PR industry has been somewhat primitive, but I expect this to change rapidly as companies like Zain introduce new global concepts of PR , CSR and social sustainability. What was once a low profile PR department is fast changing into a very active department that is vital for the success of the company.”
Things are changing, but very slowly. For example, at the end of 2011 Zain, which with over 12 million subscribers is the country’s number one telco company, hired M:Communications to assist with its planned IPO on the Iraqi Stock Exchange. While it may come as a surprise to many overseas that Iraq even has a stock exchange, this is just one of a few financial PR deals in which we might see the tentative first steps of the Iraqi PR industry.