An Overpromised City?

The Masdar Institute, within Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, was founded in 2007. The city, Initiated in 2006, was envisioned to cover 6 square kilometres (2.3 sq mi) and estimated to cost US$18-22 billion. It would take approximately eight years to build, with the first phase scheduled to be completed and habitable in 2009. It’s goal: TO be the first truly sustainable, zero-carbon city on the planet. It would be a test hub for the world’s most advanced sustainable technologies and concepts.

This was a PR dream. The Abu Dhabi leadership behind the vision, particularly the city’s visionary founder, Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, who hired APCO Worldwide to lead a significant global PR agenda for the city.

It worked.

The city received an incredible amount of press, from the likes of Time Magazine, BBC, Fast Company, and dozens of other internationally recognized outlets.

This had, in many ways, the desired effect: Increased positive exposure for the Emirate of Abu Dhabi (long hiding in the shadows of its more globally recognized neighbor: Dubai), and a round of investment in the city and its initiatives by global brands.

Masdar City in the New York Times, in 2010

Unfortunately, this wasn’t to last. In 2008, the economy went into a downward spiral. While initially there was a sentiment across the UAE that the country was ‘cushioned’ from the global downturn, this illusion eventually evaporated. The crash hit the country hard.

As the governments of Dubai and Abu Dhabi focused on ensuring economic stability, the ‘Masdar project’ was set to the side. The first phase of the city was already moving ahead, but the larger vision would have to wait.

Over the ensuing six years, media exposure took a turn for the worse. The ad-value metric (a measurement that purports to estimate the value of PR activity – which is highly flawed but was the primary measure used at Masdar during this period) began to fall year over year.

Decline in Ad Value Equivalency (AVE) following initial launch

Additionally, and more importantly, the sentiment of the exposure changed: Media now focused on the shortcomings of the city, and saw it as a failure. It was labelled as a ghost town. Aside from a collection of satellite offices and and the Siemens regional HQ, the primary success was the Masdar Institute – a sustainable-technology focused university founded through a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

By late 2014, the sentiment of coverage had significantly changed

Collecting and Developing More Engaging Content

That Masdar Institute, and the wider Masdar City, had failed to achieve their initially ambitious goals within the timeframe that was first announced – but this does not mean it is a failure. In the same vein, a swimmer who aspires to win an Olympic Gold metal is not a failure if she only wins the Bronze.

Upon taking the helm of communications at Masdar Institute, I committed myself and my team to focusing the media spotlight on these successes.

Rather than playing a reactive role in our media universe (i.e., attempting to limit the damage of negative exposure), we would focus on unveiling the truly innovative and interesting accomplishments of Masdar Institute and it’s faculty.

Indeed, the faculty at Masdar Institute was world class – hailing from some of the most renowned institutions on the globe (including, of course, MIT). These bright minds were working with a local and expatriate student body to develop unique sustainable technologies, leveraging the substantial investment that the Abu Dhabi government and made in world-class laboratories in the university.

A primary challenge for us, though, was that faculty are not necessarily keen on sharing their innovations with… well, anybody. There was an inherent distrust in other faculty, for fear that one’s ideas might be stolen our repurposed for some other project. Additionally, the faculty were conditioned to ensure that their innovations were fully patented, passed rigorous peer-review, and were tested by everybody and their grandmothers before they would be interested in punishing a press release. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it didn’t lend well to a PR turnaround – which would have its own benefits to faculty. After all, the relatively young university needed increased global exposure and stature to attract a world-class student body, which would help it to be financially sustainable in the long-run.

To facilitate increased engagements with faculty, I developed the following approach:

  1. Faculty Relationships and Trust: There had been a few incidents prior to my joining where a faculty member informed the communications department about a new innovation, but asked that they hold off on publicizing it. Then, to the faculty’s dismay, the department would publish anyway. This breach led to a deterioration of trust. To re-establish this trust, I worked hard to redevelop these relationships and ensured that such breaches didn’t take place again.
  2. Rotating Faculty Engagement Schedule: I couldn’t develop relationships with all of the faculty myself and still run the strategy and team, so I created a rotating faculty engagement schedule. My editorial team (3 professionals) was assigned certain faculty members, with whom they were to meet every two weeks. This allowed for the editorial team to develop their own relationships, and effectively allowed us to unveil new stories and innovations that we could publish.
A Piece I Secured with CNN on Our New Solar Storage Project

Creating Our Own News Channels

While bolstering our PR activity, I also wanted to create a news channel (i.e., blog) for Masdar Institute. This would serve as a platform for faculty and students to gain exposure, without the bloat of publishing a dozen press releases every week.

We created this as a standalone website (news.masdar.ac.ae) to allow for an immersive experience. Te alternative was to bury it within the bloated and information-heavy primary Masdar Institute website, which wouldn’t have served the purpose well.

Additionally, we launched a freshly-designed newsletter to accompany the website and push news out to our key stakeholders.

The blog also acted as a sounding board and resource for engagements with media. Stories that were well shared could be pitched to media more extensively for follow-up articles and interviews.

A Sample of Strategic Plans I Created for This Effort

Collaborating for Shared Exposure

Masdar Institute was well engaged with some of the most respected and recognized brands in the world – primarily through research contracts. This was a significant PR opportunity – These brands carried weight with the media.

Over the course of my time at the university, I worked with Lockheed Martin, Boeing, GE, Safran, UOP Honeywell, among many others, on collaborative communications stories, projects and launches. These engagements resulted in exposure far beyond what we could have achieved as a standalone entity.

Collaboration has its own challenges, but these aren’t too difficult to overcome. First, there is the difficulty of agreeing on a headline and overall message. The key to achieving this consensus is a deep understanding of the content of the opportunity and the desires of each party involved. It takes some deep thinking and generally a bit of back-and-forth with the parties involved (it helps if you establish trust and robust relationships), but end result is usually quite impactful.

Secondly, there is the issue of the press release itself. Usually, at least in my experience, these opportunities are time sensitive – and the communications team is only introduced to them at the 11th hour. Therefore, timely approval and development of the substantive content of the announcement (primarily the press release) is crucial.

My simple but effective solution: Google Docs combined with an approval table at the top. I’ve tested out several more advanced, feature-packed platforms, but these usually fall on their face when a third party, who likely has not used the system, receives an invite to collaborate. The usual response: “Can you please send me the Word doc instead? We’ve never used XXXX system before and we don’t have time to learn it right now.”

So, we adopted Google Docs completely. The vast majority of our external collaborators were comfortable with Google Docs. An added benefit: We could share a comments-only link, which forced our collaborators to edit with tracked changes and comments turned on.

Amplifying the Strategy with Increased Productivity

I wanted to make sure that this strategy had a powerful foundation. If executed poorly, even the best strategy will fail. So I establish a number of systems to support with the effective delivery of content.

Content Dashboard

I used AirTable as the content dashboard. By creating a custom tracking system with AirTable, I was able to quickly identify and delegate a structured set of content for each opportunity.

Additionally, I set up a Podio database to enable the development of a full database of projects that were being undertaken by research faculty and students. This was updated through the regular schedule of engagements that was established for the editorial team. Through this database, we were able to quickly identify and source content relevant to current news trends and opportunities. We could also support new marketing and communications opportunities with proof points by referencing this database.

Masdar Institute AirTable to coordinate communications activities

The Result: A 61% Increase in 12 Months – With Consistent Growth Thereafter

With all of these changes in place, we still needed to conduct the groundwork: Engaging with media and selling stories. No PR turn-around plan is completely without this. All of the systems and strategies are a means to better enable this activity.

By developing these systems and ensuring that the team was intimately familiar with them, we could scale content more quickly and focus on quality, rather than operations.

Through extensive, rigorous communication activity, combined with the changes listed in this post, we were able to increase the PR Ad-Value Equivalency (AVE) Metric by 61% in my first year at the institute – from $3,900,158.50 to $6,284,518.73 (US Dollars). This was maintained through to my departure in August 2017: In the twelve months prior to this time, average monthly exposure was up 44%.

Uptick in Ad Value Equivalency (AVE) after I joined and implemented this plan

This is quite significant, as the AVE had dropped consistently for three years prior to my departure, as can be noted in the trend line from the graph in this section.

Additionally, in one year alone we conducted over 250 media interviews – that is nearly one for every working day of the year. This also represented an increase over the previous few years – and media value through these interviews isn’t captured in the AVE metric increase noted above.

Needless to say, the client, Masdar Institute, and its stakeholders in the Emirate, including Masdar and the Mubadala Development Company, were pleased with the results of this communications transformation.