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Chat’s the way to do it

In Communicate, Dubai, Journalism, Opinion, Public relations, Published journalism on November 24, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Communicate joins the Ramadan feeding frenzy and finds that focus-free feasting will serve a good host well

Originally published in Communicate, October 2009

“It was like the buffet was a wounded gazelle and the marketing folk were starved lions,” says one friend of Communicate, talking about an iftar to which we weren’t invited (This is unthinkable, don’t they know who we are?).

Well, it’s reassuring to know that we journalists aren’t alone in being, “a bunch of good-for-nothing freeloading gannets” (in the words of the same friend) during Ramadan. For many in the press pack the Holy Month is all about getting fed, and in these strained times the frenzy for freebie food has seemed even more desperate than usual. And rightly so – this could be the only dining out most of us manage all year.

It all begins early in Ramadan, when the e-mails, gossip and tips start to circulate about which clients, agencies and venues will offer the best buffets, the finest finger food, or the serenest settings for sheesha. Then follows the crucial question of how to best tackle this abundance of buffets; with the increased range and sophistication of restaurant spreads, only a fool would charge in without a well-planned strategy.

Some go for balance (stick with fish on Sunday to ease into the week, followed by beef and lamb dishes on Monday, chicken on Tuesday and then salads for a break on Wednesday, before hitting the dessert table hard on Thursday). Others favor variety over depth, choosing to go for lots of small portions over the evenings. But all seem to learn early: be careful with the bread, it fills you up way too fast.

Communicate opts for the less well-known “high volume” approach, whereby anything that can be eaten is eaten (it’s like a marketing version of Supersize Me). In this way we store up food to see us through winter. Yes it’s dangerous, and our fat fingers make the magazine harder to write. But ultimately the medical consequences of such a strategy are cheaper than the weeks of food we save on.

As we waddle about at these events, patting our ample bellies in satisfaction and asking when the next tray of kababs will be out, we realize that Ramadan is also, of course, about networking, and should be a chance for both press and agencies to come a little bit off-message and get to know one another for real.

A number of feasts are agenda driven. Such as the News Group iftar, tacked on to a press conference to announce its PR Measurement Summit, or the Google suhoor later the same evening. There, a representative of the search engine announced Ejabat, its Arabic tool for peer-to-peer question answering. He did this while guests subtly checked their watches and eyed the dessert table. During the Holy Month, these announcements play second fiddle to eating, going off-topic, and generally hanging out.

Although some do push for interviews and more measureable outcomes, the hosts of most iftars fortunately understand it’s the long game that matters. It’s the blathering over baba ghanoush and the chit-chat over coffee that sows ideas, gets numbers into mobiles, and forges stronger relationships and, ultimately, better coverage and content for all. This low pressure truly makes an iftar or suhoor, as much as an expensive setting or bountiful buffet.

And occasionally the overarching cynicism of the journalist can be peeled away, as at The Market Buzz PR agency’s bash at the Palace hotel. The invite not only carried the reassurance, “We promise – no press releases, no interviews, just iftar, sheesha and a little networking,” but also pledged that, for every journalist who turned up, the agency would donate 250 dirhams to the Special Needs Family Support Center charity. The invite was passed around, and enough people turned up to warrant extra seating, while the charity got 10,000 dirhams. Proof, if any were needed, that these events can be more than just a meet and greet and a meal.

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