Hello My Name is Iran: Conferences and Strategic Communications
Over the past 18 months, I have become convinced that Iran’s commercial opening represents the world’s greatest strategic communications challenge. Both the general public and the business community worldwide continue to understand Iran through a handful of channels (news media, Hollywood movies, political spin) and a handful of stereotypes (rogue state, oil rich, untrustworthy).
As has been discussed in previous articles on this site, if Iran is going to achieve an economic and commercial reawakening, it will need to open new channels of communication, challenge stereotypes, and actively create a narrative of progress and prosperity.
Having outlined the problem, it is important to identify solutions. When we consider Iran’s strategic communications problems, which exist not only at the country level, but also at the level of companies and individual business leaders, conferences can play an absolutely critical role.
Over the past year, several initiatives have established the proof-of-concept for conferences as part of the solution to Iran’s strategic communications challenges.
In the exciting area of technology and startups, the iBRIDGES conferences series has brought a community-led effort to empower promising young tech entrepreneurs in Iran, tapping into the energy and excitement of Silicon Valley in an Iranian context. (Discolure: I am on the Europe Advisory Board of the iBRIDGE Berlin conference).
Recently, the TEDxKish conference leveraged an intelligent choice of location to create something remarkable: an Iranian conference, located in Iran, with strong international participation and a great deal of engagement across online platforms.
My own work has focused on the Europe-Iran Forum business conferences series. The first Forum was successfully held in London in October 2014 and the second Forum will be held in Geneva, Switzerland in September 2015. These conferences seek to connect business leaders from Europe, Iran, and worldwide to develop networks and knowhow for post-sanctions commercial engagement in open, technical, and energizing discussions.
Importantly, these three conference efforts are initiatives of the private sector, and represent collaborative efforts between Iranians from both within Iran and among the diaspora, as well as their partners from around the world. The private sector and international qualities of these projects are key aspects of their success. Such conferences can be politically neutral and smartly curated for the needs of the global audience at hand.
Certainly, there are other examples of how conferences can ameliorate the circumstances around Iran’s position in global networks of people and ideas. Within academia, the biennial conference of the International Society for Iranian Studies is particularly notable. There are also those circumstances in which Iranian actors contribute positively to non-Iran focused conferences. It bears mentioning that the introduction of the Rouhani administration to the global economic elite occurred at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2014. The positive impression made by President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and the Iranian delegation at Davos bolstered the new narrative of Iran’s re-opening, a narrative to which iBRIDGES, the Europe-Iran Forum, and TEDxKish later made humble contributions.
For many in the world of business, the notion of the “conference” evokes a drab affair of business card swapping in a hotel ballroom. At this superficial level, conferences merely offer their participants—the speakers, sponsors, and delegates—the opportunity to network and build an awareness of the activities of potential partners and competitors. Sometimes, a particularly good conference program might also offer learning experiences, as experts share their insights in well-curated panels or workshops.
If we consider the largest companies—major energy firms, banks, industrial conglomerates—the benefits they accrue in speaking and attending conferences may seem limited. They almost certainly know the key players in their sector, potential partners already know them, and they have industry expertise beyond anything that can be gleaned at a conference.
So why do major firms bother with conferences? They participate in business conferences in order to achieve communications and marketing goals. Conferences allow companies and their executives to build brand awareness and demonstrate thought leadership. When a firm such as ExxonMobil or Volkswagen sponsors a conference, they do so because it is expected of them as the market leader. Such visibility cements their supremacy in the market.
But when we look to an Iran-focused conference, the dynamic is quite different. The circumstances of sanctions, and the stigmatization of Iran as a political pariah mean that Iran-focused conferences must operate by fundamentally different rules. Communications and marketing are not just things that happen at an Iran-focused conference, they represent the very strategic purpose of a conference at this juncture in time.
There are two interrelated ways in which conferences enable the kind of strategic communications that will be vital to unlocking Iran’s economic and commercial potential. First, the communications dimension of conferences matters hugely for a country and marketplace hampered by negative perceptions. Conferences allow the creation of new and constructive narratives. Second, conferences allow relationship building that is transparent and accountable, and enables Iran to become part of global networks. Taken together, these outcomes allow for a simple conference to have a profound impact on the way Iran's commercial future is to be understood and realized.
The first type of strategic communication enabled by conferences centers on the creation of narratives. A narrative is a way of understanding complex circumstances; it is a story we use to understand a part of the world. It has been many years since Iranians have been able to write their own story, and this is especially true for those within the business community. While academic and cultural events have allowed for an authentic scholarly or artistic narrative of Iran to persist under sanctions, the commercial narratives have been stiffled.
Necessarily, the limitation on commercial activity and the inward focus on most Iranian firms has prevented businesses from generating a constructive narrative around their activities. Today, this is changing. Iranian companies are increasingly outwardly focused as they seek foreign partners and investors. The story of Iranian innovation, compounding an untapped potential, now dominates business reporting about Iran. But while journalists and market analysts are important interlocutors for the narrative of Iran’s commercial opening, it is also important for business leaders to speak for themselves. This is why conferences are so important. The participation of senior executives allows for companies to send signals about their intentions for the future and tell a new story about how their particular firm is going to contribute to the larger narrative of Iran’s commercial reawakening.
Second, once the narrative is in play, conferences allow the formation of new and stronger networks between Iranian firms and their international counterparts. As mentioned above, many large companies already have access to the Iranian market through local partners. But the economic potential of these partnerships is stymied because of sanctions, and because of the stigma associated with Iran operations. Take for example Carrefour and the wildly successful Hyperstar chain it established in Iran in partnership with the Dubai-based Majjid Al Futtaim (MAF) retail conglomerate. In the press, Carrefour insists it has "no links" with the Hyperstar project despite common knowledge of their role.
For Carrefour and other companies, the inability to integrate Iran operations into global networks is challenging on numerous levels. As described above, it impacts the creation of narratives, as companies cannot discuss Iran success stories openly. Second, it means that Iran operations are segregated in specific partnerships and often subject to their own supply chains. Iran should be the regional hub for manufacturing and trade, yet across industries it exists as a kind of market unto itself. Certainly, there are structural reasons for this isolation. But it is significant that Iran is also isolated in the communications and self-presentation of companies. Germany's Rocket Internet, a start-up incubator valued at €8 billion Euros, operates in Iran under a holding group known locally as Romak. The company's aggressive expansion in Iran has been widely reported, yet Rocket makes no mention of Iran as a region of operation anywhere in its official marketing materials or on its website.
In this sense, even if major companies are present in Iran already, they will need to further develop their Iran operations with an eye towards integration into regional and global strategy. Conferences, in which Iran country-managers and their teams can introduce themselves as the empowered representatives of major multinational corporations, offer one way to begin this process of integration. In these venues, networking takes on a new dimension because the network is being introduced in an open, transparent way. It is especially important for Iranians to build relationships with global players while outside of Iran. There has been a great deal of reporting about Europeans and Americans visiting Iran to explore opportunities, but Iranian firms ought to signal their serious intentions by mobilizing resources to reach audiences in Europe and the US. In some sense, it may be the companies and investors that are not yet to take fact-finding trips to Iran who will make the best partners for new growth. In these situations, conferences will be the critical venue for brokering relationships.
There will come a day when Iran-focused conferences will be many. They will include routine investor tradeshows, real estate showcases, and tourism expos. These conferences will be organized by event management companies that know little about Iran, but a lot about logistics and marketing as they hold similar conferences about Turkey and Dubai and Brazil.
When this day comes we will know that Iran’s role in the global economy will have become clear, the idea of doing business in Iran will have become normalized, and simple marketing will be the main impetus for participating in routine events.
But for now, Iran-focused conferences remain critical for strategic communications. Companies and individuals ought to support these efforts by attending, speaking at, and sponsoring conferences with a clear understanding of the strategy involved. Each time such a conference is successfully held, whether focused on investment, on entrepreneurship, or simply powerful ideas, Iran inches closer to achieving its potential.
Photo Credit: Bourse & Bazaar