‘My phone is never off’: MBC’s Mazen Hayek on his 24/7 role

Inside the Newsroom: MBC’s official spokesman describes his job dealing with the press

Ben Flanagan
Ben Flanagan - Al Arabiya News, Dubai
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Running 14 television stations involves staff working around the clock – something MBC Group’s official spokesman knows only too well.

Mazen Hayek, who joined the group in 2006, says that his phone is “never off” in his role handling communications for MBC’s general-entertainment stations and the Al Arabiya News Channel, of which this website is part.

Calls from journalists can come in anytime, said Hayek, who is also MBC Group’s Group Director of PR & Commercial.

“We cherish the relationship we have with the press. It is built on trust – and we are accessible 24/7,” Hayek said.

“[My phone] can’t be off – it’s never off. First of all because you have to respond to the unexpected, so you never know when there is something that you need to go into the office to deal with,” he added. “A power outage, with black screens, is a major crisis – you have to be in the office and issue an alert to the press, saying it’s not a bomb, it’s not a terrorist attack, it’s a simple electric [issue].”

Hayek says the media coverage of MBC Group is “overwhelmingly positive” – although negative stories do appear. “I would say 80 percent positive, 10 percent neutral, and 10 percent negative,” he said.

The executive manages a team of public relations specialists as well as holding a commercial role within MBC Group. He said that he has to be careful when speaking about professional matters in public, on social media, or even among friends.

“There is nothing called ‘the private life of Mazen Hayek’, with me on Twitter saying whatever I want, and without it being attributed to MBC,” he said. “There is a professional aspect to your life that you can never – and you should never – forget.”

Hayek told Inside the Newsroom about the everyday tasks and challenges of his job.

Q&A with Mazen Hayek, MBC Group’s Official Spokesman, Group Director of PR & Commercial


Q. Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?

A typical day starts very early with reading the morning papers and websites, and reviewing my six daily alerts of press clippings. Anything that is written about the industry, not only about MBC Group and Al Arabiya, I tend to be aware of. This is my way to make sure that we have a rapid response: We’re alert, we’re monitoring what is being said and written about us and it’s a good mechanism to spot a potential crisis ahead of time. I think the best crisis-management tool is anticipation and preparedness. Instead of getting to the stage where you’re on the defensive, you spot things ahead of time and then you diffuse, or deal with it.

Later in the day, I have a lot of meetings, a lot of preparations on the commercial site with clients, advertisers, our media representative and with key stakeholders.

Q. What are the biggest challenges of your role?

With a leading group like MBC you have 13 or 14 top-rated channels, so the brand awareness is very high, the credibility is very high. So your challenge in PR and in stakeholder relationships is to match the image and perception that people have of the group in whatever you do: in press conferences, in events, in academia. Because they look up to us and they admire the offerings on screen and you want [everything] to be as good as the quality of what they see on screen.

The second challenge is to create consistency in the messaging, so that you don’t have several voices talking about one issue in MBC.

Third, is varying messaging according to the audience – that is very important for us in press and in media. I work a lot with journalists; I personally write op-eds. My dad was a journalist and he owned a daily paper, so I was brought up in a journalistic environment, and I love this field. So I'd rather focus on respect and credibility, not just on attention and spin. You need all of them, but [the latter aspects] are short-term, you can use them a few times.

Another challenge in many instances is not getting things published. In the PR world you measure what is published, you track it, and you give it a value… Also one of the challenges is not to get things published in specific cases when you don’t want them to leak.

One last challenge of my job is to give justice to [MBC] Group. As a spokesman you have access to the media, and you talk on behalf of a leading large group. But one should never forget that you’re there on behalf of a very talented team of 2,000 individuals. Huge work is being put onscreen, and online and off-screen – a pool of marvelous creativity, talent and hard work. So the story is not about the spokesman, the story is about the group. If the spokesman falls into the trap of thinking that he or she is the story, it won't go far, and it becomes an ego trip and then it won’t last.

Q. When you monitor the media for mentions of MBC Group, what sets the alarm bells ringing?

I’m not looking for an alarm bell, I’m looking to know. Knowing is very important. What’s happening in the industry? What is the competition doing? What is working and what is not, in our offerings and in others’? In [observing] that spectrum, you start spotting scandals or wrongdoings or mistakes in your programs. [In that case] you would either share internally, or you decide to respond, or if there is defamation you send it to the legal department, etcetera.

Q. Is your job stressful?

There is a personal part that is very stressful in this job, there is a huge responsibility. Whatever you say is attributed to MBC. And there is no ‘off the record’ for me. I am always ‘on the record’. So whenever we are off the record I know that we are on the record – with journalists, friends, in a café, in public. Because it is very hard to dissociate between what you say on the record, and what you say off the record. I always practice this famous saying: if you don’t want it to be published, don’t say it. I have a few cases with colleagues, where it was off the record and it remained so, based on trust. But I tend not to go the ‘off’ route.

Q. What are the crises that MBC has faced in its history?

When you have a news channel, typically you have kidnapping, attacks, car bombs on either one of your reporters, journalists or offices. You have the issues related to war journalism or journalism in areas of conflict. You also have crises that could emanate from wrongdoings on screen – so the microphone still on and the anchor talks about their nephew or mother-in-law or whatever. Or if uncensored material goes on air on a movie channel, when the censored version should have been shown, that could create heat for you. Other things that we had to deal with include the controversy that preceded the airing of the historical series Omar. We always dealt with this confidentially, because we always knew what MBC was producing, and we always said ‘wait, don’t prejudge… wait until you watch it before coming to conclusions’. And we were proven right.

Q. MBC Group has a certain reputation that you need to uphold, how would you define that? What does the group stand for?

It stands for life enhancement, life enrichment and hope for Arab audiences. You always anticipate what the viewers want from you. So you bring in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, The Voice, Arabs Got Talent, Arab Idol… flagship programs, movie blockbusters from Hollywood. And to really place the Arab world on the global entertainment and media map. And that’s what we do. So in the eyes of people we stand for excellence, creativity, we stand for dreams, we stand for – obviously – premium content and recently we stand even more for fostering Arab youth. Because most of our talent shows foster Arab youth. And we were loved for this.

Q. You also handle the communications for Al Arabiya; give us an example of this work.

Unfortunately our Al Arabiya office in Baghdad was bombed. I had a phone call from the Al Arabiya general manager Abdulrahman al-Rashed, who said ‘this is what happened, we’re channeling all press queries to you. I'll try to get more information about what happened’. [We needed to] issue clarifications, check the facts, and not accuse anyone before you have the investigation. You have a wide range of things to check, and the press wants it now.

Q. What does the Al Arabiya News Channel stand for, and how do you maintain that reputation?

Al Arabiya is more than just a channel, it is a mindset in the Arab world. It is a mindset of openness, of modernism, of advancement. You look at the screen and it’s vibrant, it’s positive, it covers things that interest you. It’s news, not views. You rarely see people shouting on the screen; we don’t exaggerate, we don’t distort the news. The news stands for the brand promise to ‘know more’. We have a breaking news edge – always being the first.

Q. You say Al Arabiya is about ‘news not views’. But the channel has faced widespread allegations of being against the Muslim Brotherhood. Is that justified?

In every conflict there are two or more parties, each one is trying to sell the media its own version of a story. And each one is trying to bring the media closer to adopt its own version of a given conflict, thus moving them away from the reality. And what Al Arabiya always tries to do in every conflict is to cover it from all walks of life, from all perspectives, and give all those involved the right to appear and explain their point of view. What we don’t accept is when you have groups or networks or paramilitary who will tell you, ‘you are biased, we won't appear on your screen unless you change your editorial line’. For us, that is intimidation, that’s trying to twist your arm to adopt their point of view. We tell them, ‘appear and tell your story, and there’s a counter story. But we're not going to cover it the way you want, for you to be happy’. Back to your question, this applies to the Muslim Brotherhood, to Hezbollah, to Hamas; it applies to official and government players, non-governmental, you name it.

Q. What about the commercial side of your role?

It is mostly focused on generating non-conventional sources of revenue for the group. The conventional part, ad sales and sponsorships, are outsourced through our media representatives Choueiri Group and AMS. So though I deal a lot with them on the reporting and the figures; the commercial team is primarily in charge of generating extra revenues. That could come from product placement, branded content, or advertorials, or infotainment, or all of the above.

Q. What proportion of MBC Group’s revenues come from non-conventional streams now and how do you see this changing?

Our revenues come mostly – I would say at 85 to 90 percent – from conventional sources of revenues: advertising and sponsorships. The rest comes from non-conventional sources I mentioned; subscriptions, fees, distribution, royalties or re-selling rights [and] revenues from SMS. Our challenge is to grow both, yet improve the ratio between them over time. So that the 85:15 becomes 80:20, which becomes 70:30 in time.

MBC Group’s Mazen Hayek

Mazen Hayek at the season two finale of the MBC show Arabs Got Talent
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