Opinion: Why Iran is turning to proactive communications

Salamander Davoudi, co-founder and managing partner at Tancredi, explains how Iran’s corporate environment makes it an exciting frontier for PR.

Salamander 1

Salamander Davoudi

Iran is emerging as one of the most exciting frontiers in the public relations business. For me, as a former journalist and current PR practitioner, the particularities of media relations and corporate communications in Iran are endlessly fascinating.

What has become very clear in Tancredi’s first 18 months in the country, is that PR in Iran requires a unique understanding of how and why businesses’ attitudes towards corporate visibility have changed.

Until recently, both local and multinational companies engaged in Iran avoided visibility. During the period of international sanctions, there was a strong disincentive for proactive communications. Major multinational companies downplayed their ongoing operations in Iran due to reputational risks at home, often removing mention of in-country operations from websites and reports.

Iranian companies faced political risk, particularly in the private sector, and downplayed success, market position and overall ambitions to avoid drawing unwanted attention.

The resulting lack of transparency in Iran, which extends to even a basic understanding of which companies are the market leaders and who owns them, has made an otherwise well-developed economy seem especially byzantine.

As a consequence, opponents of Iran’s economic opening easily sow seeds of doubt about the intentions and capabilities of Iran’s business community – with little or no correction offered by the companies they target.

Against this backdrop, PR services have a heightened importance. The ability to effectively communicate will distinguish the most professional Iranian companies from the rest of the pack, setting potential partners, investors and regulators at ease. However, most companies have yet to understand the return on investment offered by strategic communications advisory. This means that PR firms looking to engage the Iranian market must not only navigate a fraught media landscape, but also prove the fundamentals of PR value to clients.

But, the landscape is shifting as the story of Iran post-sanctions enters a critical new phase. The overall consensus among senior political and commercial stakeholders in Iran is that that the upcoming US and Iranian elections, to be held in November 2016 and May 2017 respectively, represent a transition period.

As the “Iran story” moves into a new phase, most major Iranian and multinational companies have identified autumn 2017 as a key period to launch new commercial strategies and are preparing accordingly.

PR can play a key role in these new strategies by advancing three key aims:

  1. Narratives need to become more granular. In order to depoliticise trade and investment with Iran, Iranian companies need to earn coverage beyond the world affairs pages and reach sector correspondents and trade publications.
  2. Narratives need to have a human-face. To engender greater trust in the leading Iranian companies, and to ensure they are judged on the merits of their management and vision, Iranian business leaders need to become more comfortable dealing with the international media directly.
  3. The narrative needs to be data-driven. Deploying financial data as part of the narrative ensures that the best Iranian companies signal their sophistication and maturity.

Together, these three approaches will help address the full range of political and reputational issues affecting Iranian investment and trade.

Whereas in many markets, PR is about highlighting what makes a company extraordinary, for Iranian clients the challenge is to show that a company is perfectly normal.

  • Salamander Davoudi, co-founder and managing partner at Tancredi Group, used to work for the Financial Times. Before that, she was a researcher on Iran and US foreign policy in the Middle East.
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