NEED FOR CONTROL ROOM: The industry has alphabet bodies that deal with various issues but when it comes to public relations and marketing, there seems to be a gaping hole that is getting larger
IS THERE a media and public relations (PR) "control room" for Islamic finance that educates, creates awareness, undertakes damage control, etc, so that the industry is "conventionally efficient" media-savvy?
Some recent headlines, by-lined articles, blogs and press releases from Islamic finance provide the answer:
* Is Islamic Finance a Failure? Reuters (Guest Columnist)
* KFH: Banking Products that Cement Value of Savings in Society, press release
* Islamic Banks Misleading: Clients Emirates 24/7 (Dubai, UAE)
* Reporters Notebook: The Ethical Aspects of Islamic Banks, www.greenprophet.com
* Most Trusted Middle East Banks, www.Alifarabia.com
* Questionable Islamic Banking Principles, www.freemalaysiatoday.com
* Shining Star of the Middle East, Financial News
* The Trillion Dollar Hoax, The Islamic Globe
* The Lessons from the Goldman Sachs Proposed US$2 Billion Sukuk Saga, Arab News
* Mega Islamic Bank Plans Cancelled, Gulf Daily News (Bahrain).
Let's put aside those writers seeking publicity, cheerleaders of the industry, the anti-syariah movement and the well-meaning purest, and those who, unfortunately, have had a bad experience, from inappropriate products to fraud to customer service, in Islamic finance. The truth about Islamic finance is somewhere between "today's offering and where we eventually want it to be tomorrow".
The continued "conflicting" headlines should be the "cold water" wake-up call for the industry on two fronts: ADDRESSING
the substance, over form, of the Islamic finance, and; CONVEYING
its message, as the perception of the industry is not aligned to the objectives of movement, including raising/writing comments after "unbalanced, out-of-context, exaggerated, or untrue" articles in the media circles.Industry body
Usually, industries, from finance and healthcare to technology, have financed a designated company/industry body to educate, lobby, promote to new customers and market, undertake damage control, and so on. Their broad message is supplemented and complimented by local institutions with customised local message.
For example, in many of non-Muslim countries with an established Muslim population, there are Muslim organisations, like Council of American Islamic Relations in the US or Muslim Council of Britain and so on, that, in effect, act as the "PR" arm for "righting wrongs, damage control, or addressing media/political errors of omission and commission".
In Islamic finance, we have alphabet industry bodies: for accounting and auditing (Bahrain-based AAOIFI), for prudential regulations and governance (Malaysia-based IFSB), for Islamic capital and money market (Bahrain-based IIFM), etc.
Although, they have some common shareholders, let's put aside the inability of these industry bodies to host one Islamic finance event that is supported by all of them. Let's put aside lack of speaker invitation of one industry body to the head of its sister industry body for a presentation slot.
Notwithstanding present "turf" challenges, these industry bodies have done a commendable job of raising awareness and educating the wholesale stakeholders of the technical aspects of Islamic finance, in Muslim and non-Muslim countries, on standards, governance, and regulations. However, when it comes to the public relations and marketing of Islamic financial institutions or even damage control, there is a gaping hole and it is getting larger.
In fairness to the above-mentioned industry bodies, they have resource constraints, from manpower to finance, and, furthermore, expanding their mandate to include marketing and public relations for a geographically- dispersed and fragmented industry at various stages of development is unreasonable. However, something more needs to be done as Islamic finance is only strong as the weakest link.
The continued negative headlines will not go away even if we continue to ignore them or convince ourselves that it's the growing pains of an emerging industry. They should be seen as the tip of the iceberg of issues and feedback on the industry's perception/message. Funding of body
The time has arrived for the majority to conclude there is need for an industry body that is tasked with public relations and marketing of Islamic finance at, say, the "wholesale level" - governments, regulators, financial institutions, law firms, western media, and so on. It allows for a universal message, a necessary pre-requisite to achieve harmonisation-cum-standardisation, that builds the foundation for local Islamic financial institutions to customise and add local content.
After determining a need for an industry body to promote and educate Islamic finance, the funding question must be addressed. Fortunately, the experience of AAOFI, IFSB, IIFM, etc, suggests the stakeholders could include the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), Islamic financial institutions (possibly one from every country that has declared itself an Islamic finance hub), forward-looking governments like Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, and possibly the existing industry bodies (to include their technical message).
One of the lessons learned from the existing industry bodies is the need for adequate capitalisation and annual budget (adjusted for demand). It makes no sense to provide a shoestring budget when the objectives are global and the awareness and education is on-going and expanding. Location of industry body
One of the takeaways about an industry body's location is that it raises the profile of the country and the country raises the profile of the industry body, as there is now a "go to" place on the global map. Thus, bodies like the AAOIFI, IIFM and IIRA have raised the profile of Bahrain, while the IFSB, ISRA, and INCIEF have raised that of Malaysia.
Therefore, Dubai (UAE), Qatar, Pakistan, Indonesia, Brunei or even London, Paris, or Luxembourg have an opportunity to host an industry body that promotes awareness and information about Islamic finance and shows their commitment to the industry. Furthermore, much like the phrase "think global, act local", it makes to have geographically situated satellite offices to address local time zone challenges.Mandates
Beyond awareness, education, damage control, etc, one of the areas that require immediate attention is a more robust investor relations depart of Islamic financial institution, including addressing media training for executives. The media, especially western, wants access to senior executives, which implies challenging questions, and, it is here that the industry can best utilise them to send its message to the masses globally.
Additional responsibilities could include establishing and hosting a Davos-type event, including the US$640 billion (RM1.9 trillion) halal industry, in Europe, the Gulf and Southeast Asia. Thus, not Islamic finance per se, but the link of Islamic finance and funding education, healthcare, infrastructure, know-ledge-based economy, etc.
Some examples where the proposed PR Islamic body could have provided guidance for clear, coherent and concise clarifications: SCHOLARS
(confusion as to their role in the West), purification and zakat (not funnelling money to financing extremists), money exchange places in Muslim countries are not Islamic financial institutions, etc. COORDINATE
with other industry bodies for job openings, direct inquiries to appropriate industry bodies and Islamic financial institutions (reduce information cost for existing/potential users) PRODUCT
launches, new bank/takaful launched, etc. I'm not convinced that a general or financial PR firm can provide the needed specialised message and follow-ups that a dedicated body can direct. DAMAGE
control includes recent media frenzy on Islamic banking in Nigeria, Goldman Sachs' US$2 billion sukuk, sukuk defaults, Islamic funds closing, Islamic bank (Dubai Bank and Islamic Bank of Britain) rescue, etc. BRANDING
of Islamic finance. Has time arrived to survey the stakeholders on the naming? In Turkey, its called Participation Banking and it conveys the essence and objective of the movement and is less politically charged, especially if Islamic finance is for all mankind.
Continuing to call it "Islamic", combined with marketing materials emphasising syariah board and adherence, may not convey its universality.
Many of these issues also go to trust and confidence of Islamic finance by depositors, investors, shareholders, etc.Conclusion
Although Islamic finance is less than 40 years old, the time has arrived for the industry to have a dedicated well-financed body to send a coherent and consistent message about the industry. This is an investment and not a cost, and not having such a body is to have continued schizophrenia headlines and resulting systemic brand risk. Rushdi Siddiqui
is the global head of Islamic finance at Thomson Reuters