UW-Whitewater: Public relations professor builds relationships in Dubai

Contact: Ann Knabe

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WHITEWATER ­ Communication students at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater may find themselves studying in Dubai in coming years, thanks to friendships made during a recent visit by public relations professor Ann Knabe.

Dubai is the largest city in the United Arab Emirates and is strategically located at the crossroads of the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Its diverse, international makeup is ideal for global business and is “absolutely open to the U.S. and its business and practices,” says Knabe.

Her visit was part of a research agenda focused on understanding the cultural nuances of the Arab community. As a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve, Knabe has served as a public affairs officer for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for the war court at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and most recently in the Pentagon.

The opportunity to visit Dubai, she said, could be helpful for improving U.S. diplomacy in the Arab world.

“To many Arabs, Americans come off as a culture of ‘know-it-alls,'” Knabe said. “But continued efforts on education can help change that perception.”

One way she sees this happening is through student exchanges. She hopes to have laid groundwork for such experiences through visits to Zayed University’s Abu Dhabi and Dubai campuses for Public Relations Day and a conference presentation on social media use.

Knabe also met with some of Dubai’s public relations practitioners during her weeklong visit to the United Arab Emirates. She said her interviews with the executive director of the Middle East Public Relations Association and Dubai’s “Father of PR,” Sadri Barrage of Headline Public Relations, revealed the importance of education to increasing stability in the Middle East and improving the United States’ relationship with the Arab world.

“Education in the form of student exchanges, Western education for Emiratis who are willing to travel and education of Americans on Arab issues and culture are key,” Knabe said.

One of the practitioners Knabe interviewed will visit UW-Whitewater Sept. 9 to present a case study in multicultural public relations and talk about the industry in emerging markets. Irina Sharma owns eKadaa Public Relations, an agency based in Dubai that works with global clients Estée Lauder, Clinique and Durex.

Focusing on the youth and the future is also crucial. Knabe said several practitioners talked about the large youth population and the need to reach out to it. “Whether it’s through social media or other means, this target demographic needs attention,” she said.

More than anything, Knabe found that trust and loyalty are keys to developing long-standing partnerships in the Middle East. “The standard Western approach of Olet’s not waste any time and get down to business’ will likely fail,” she said. “In the Arab world, business relationships are all based on approach. Interpersonal communication skills are critical. If you can’t develop a bond at a personal level, it’s difficult to conduct business on a large scale.

Knabe’s trip was made possible by a $4,800 grant from the Institute for National Security Studies. An initial report is due to the institute in October. She plans to continue her research with the goal of developing future courses on Arab-American culture issues and global public affairs.