Umayma Abubakar | The Innovator 25 EMEA 2020

Umayma Abubakar

Director, Internal Corporate Relations


“The biggest impact of 2020 on innovation has been to try something out, learn and improve, rather than only going with something certain. We are learning faster.”

Umayma Abubakar is the only one of our Innovator 25 this year to be focused on internal communications, one of the PR disciplines that has been most critical for firms in all sectors this year. In her decade at Mubadala, Abubakar has transformed employee engagement at the investment company, fostering an award-winning, cohesive culture and values across the company, advising senior leadership and ensuring an integrated, unified and consistent brand and corporate narrative across the group. This year, she has also been a member of the crisis leadership team overseeing Mubadala’s Covid-19 response, having previously led change management during the company’s merger with IPIC in 2016, the same year she was named as one of our Influence 100 Rising Stars. A finance sector specialist, before joining Mubadala in 2010 Abubakar led corporate affairs at Barclays Bank in UAE.

Where is the most urgent need for innovation within the PR/communications industry? 
The industry has been continuously evolving as the world moves more towards digital channels, along with an increasing appetite for more meaningful content. The industry has done a great job at listening and adapting to emerging market trends such as engaging audiences with more timely and authentic stories, exploring different means of measurement and metrics, and becoming more agile when using social media and online tools.

Our most urgent need is to keep improving how we gain and retain attention in a digital world that is increasingly noisy and confusing. I believe we need to continue our focus on digital engagement and the ways that work best for specific audiences and channels. Using data analytics and Artificial Intelligence, for example, can help wade through the abundance of content available online, which can ensure target audiences are reached more effectively. Diversifying our use of digital tools can also simplify complex stories and engage with stakeholders in an environment where content is typically bite-sized.

How would you describe the communications/PR industry's level of innovation compared to other marketing disciplines?
I believe we are ahead in many respects. Communicators understood the digital world earlier and created more ways of gaining attention through earned as well as paid media, in increasingly varied ways. We also understand managing reputation risk and issues. We constantly reinvent ourselves, looking for ways to do things differently, always exploring new territories. It has been rewarding to be part of this industry and witness the impact we are making.

How have the events of 2020 impacted innovation in the PR and communications industry?
It has definitely tested us. We often talk about utilising multiple channels, leadership engagement and ensuring timely updates are implemented, and the importance of being agile and responsive. In 2020, we had to be true to all the above. The biggest impact on innovation has been – with the backing of our business leaders – to move fast and try something out, learn and improve, rather than only going with something that is ‘certain’. So we are learning faster. 

Where is the PR industry's greatest opportunity for taking the lead on innovation?
Storytelling is our biggest asset and strength, and there is nothing more important and valuable to audiences in this day and age than content that is meaningful, inclusive, and engaging. Digital channels and social media leverage these aspects and provide a powerful global platform that can reach anyone, anywhere in the world. Most importantly, we have the opportunity to be inclusive – to allow a wide variety of diverse voices to contribute and feel like they are part of stories and causes they care deeply about.

What is the ideal working scenario for innovation?
Perhaps the pandemic has taught us that unprecedented and unpredictable pressure can drive fast and successful innovation. But I believe innovation is timeless; it is always the right time and place to reinvent, improve and think of ways to do things differently. The digital age with its various tools has definitely played an important role in accelerating and implementing innovation more effectively.

Has 2020 changed the way you define/approach innovation? How?
The most important changes have come in how we – as a team – work together, having to use and learn a wide variety of ways of collaborating and co-creating in the different mixes of working from home, the office and every combination of these. This year has undeniably been challenging with many lessons learned. The impact of the global pandemic has contributed to the rapid shift to digital channels and engagement, along with the need to devise quick and efficient solutions and alternatives. This is undoubtedly part of innovation that will continue to evolve post the pandemic.

What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen this year?
There have been many and it’s hard to call out one. We have seen companies combine their strategy along with their purpose and cultural attributes to keep their employees and their customers informed, spread the importance of community wellbeing and despite the pandemic, forge collaborations that have made a meaningful impact. This is the true essence of impactful engagement and communication.

What is the most important lesson you've learned this year?
The importance of partnerships. As an organisation, we allowed our values to guide us. We did what was right for our people and inspired others by role modelling the desired behaviours. We did not achieve this alone – we did it through collaboration with one another and therefore it’s important not to lose sight of that as we go back to “normal”. I also learned the importance of empathy. People go above and beyond if you are empathetic to their needs.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider innovative.
I am fortunate to work for an organisation that is comfortable to try new things. I come back to the most recent example of the pandemic.  We took our annual recognition program virtual in 2020  Leaders recognised efforts of the employees from their homes and employees celebrated their peers through a digital platform. The combination of pre-recorded announcements and live moderation gave employees an experienced that matched their face to face one. 

Any habit/activity that you have added to your life this year that you hope to take forward post-pandemic?
Implementing a virtual-first mentality has improved efficiency and time management.  Employees felt empowered while working remotely, breading accountability. Maintaining some of that discipline as we move forward is important to our evolution. This has somehow emphasised the importance of work life balance. During the pandemic, I made a point of walking 10 thousand steps every day.  Giving me a chance to self-reflect, reset and reevaluate where appropriate.  As the cliché goes, in order to be effective it’s important to take the necessary time for yourself. 

How can the PR industry make real progress in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and what is the biggest obstacle?
Implementing fair systems and DE&I are crucial in all sectors and aspects of society, and the PR industry can help leverage and raise awareness of such practices. Engaging with diverse audiences with stories that have a human element, especially when it applies to everyone, can be a powerful tool.

What are you thinking about most these days? 
Two things. The first, my team. As the adrenalin wears off, how can we maintain and sustain the creativity and agility we displayed in 2020, pushing past the exhaustion we are probably all feeling.

The second, supporting leaders navigate through these uncharted territories. There obviously hasn’t been a rule book to guide us. In many instances, the crisis was in our back yard so to speak. Leaders are looking at their communications team to provide guidance on everything from keeping employees and local communities safe in every part of the world we work in, doing business while working remotely and how best to manage restructure and downsizing. Therefore, staying close to other organizations, learning from one another and sharing best practices has been crucial in helping the team continue to be effective in our roles.

Your bold prediction for 2021…
2020 has taught us not to make any assumptions for the future. We must be ready for the unexpected, be ready to move fast, dare to be bold and nimble turning any crisis to an opportunity.