A bizarre visit to the PeRsian conference bazaar

Toni and young friends in a Persian gardenToni Muzi Falconi details his equal parts fascinating and frustrating visit to Tehran to participate in the International Conference on Public Relations
He also reviews Imam Fesial Abdul Rauf’s recent book, Defining Islamic Statehood

I took a few days to round up my thoughts in order to describe to PR Conversations readers the experience of attending the 11th International Conference on Public Relations, held in Tehran in November 2015.

My contact and meetings with various Iranian PR pros and pundits at other conferences around the world dates back many years; I’ve also studied Iranian texts and scholarly work on communication. There have been invitations to speak at their annual conference in the past, but until this year I always found a reason (often humanitarian, such as the death penalty, persecution of homosexuals, treatment of women, censure on culture, opaque imprisonments, etc.) not to go.

Yet in 2015, there was the recent Nuclear Negotiation and Agreement, so I thought it would be a good juncture to accept the invitation. I had one condition: My presentation would focus on this recent and important event, with my own words and professional perspective. See the full and final text of my presentation here.

After landing in Tehran, I met three other non-Iranian presenters: Bart de Vries (IPRA president elect 2016), a serious, knowledgeable and emphatic senior professional from Holland; Miriam Costea, a bright, learned and curious academic from Romania; and my good friend Enric Ordeix, director of the Blanquerna University’s Master Program in Global Communication, located in Barcelona.

Bizarre first impressions

Tehran is a vast city with some eight million inhabitants, and traffic and pollution that only rival Delhi, Djakarta and Beijing.

It can take hours to move from one place to the other and we were “parked” in a decent but peripheral “four star” hotel (as proudly indicated by our host when I inquired the reasons for not choosing a more central Tehran location).

When I landed at the airport, I was asked by authorities to pay for my visa and insurance, even though Iran’s government had already granted these things. When checking in at this geographically peripheral hotel, I also discovered that:

  1. International credit cards were not accepted.
  2. Use of my Blackberry with an international carrier was impossible.
  3. Facebook and Twitter were “filtered” (a nice way to say they are not normally available, without breaking the law).
  4. The Internet connection was random.

Naturally, I was not informed in advance of any of these constraints, meaning my irritation grew to such a level that at the departure a few days later while my host gave the usual formal (non-gender) effusive kiss on the cheek, I raised my middle finger and explained to him what it meant….

It goes without saying what follows is not an unbiased “bizarre conference experience” report.

The individuals and experiences encountered at this PeRsian conference bazaar

7d39bc23-9c7c-44d8-a335-87f160867a49Ah…my host. We were guests of the Arman PR Institute, owned by the powerful and well-connected Hooshmand Sefidi, national chair and council member of IPRA (reportedly close to past president of Iran, Rafsanjani, who also sent a message indicating the nuclear negotiation as the true success story of effective public relations!).

Sefidi participated and addressed conference attendees, but we never spoke one on one. My sole true host in terms of personal duties was Amir Rastegar, a member of the organizing committee and charged with looking after foreign guests. Rastegar is a likeable and friendly PhD candidate in media management, sciences and research branch at Azad University. His principal trait was being rich with the questions but short on the answers end of things.

Ten minutes before I was to address the conference, following a two-hour opening ceremony with recitations, songs and awards, Rastegar whispered into my ear a request to please not mention the name of a brilliant Iranian scholar I had cited in my written text. The individual is Mehdi Bagherian, who more than 10 years ago theorized that the global environment as a true Bazaar, anticipating the rise of the network society and of fuzzy strategic planning. These are concepts that only quite recently we have begun to fathom in our PR body of knowledge.

When I asked why, Rastegar responded, “He is our strongest competitor.”

IMG_20151115_163103What this proved to me was that no matter where in the world, public relations communities and their professional associations are similarly concerned and motivated by bitter personal feuds and competitions. So what else is new?

Prior to the conference proper I had agreed to participate in tandem with Ali Foroozfar—a wonderful human being, past top manager of National Iranian Television and a seasoned, highly knowledgeable professor of marketing, advertising and communication—in a one-day workshop, where we alternated integrated communication theory and case studies. This presentation was to some 60 Iranian professionals from public, private and social sector organizations.

My co-presenter, Ali Foroozfar, proved to be one of the treasures “found” during my visit to the Tehran bazaar. Equally delightful were some of the young “groupies” I had been assigned during the day of the conference. One was the lovely Marzie, a cheerful and charming 22-year old student of economics. Another standout was Ali, a 24-year-old, very curious, technology student who when I asked what he wanted to do in life, bluntly responded, “I want to be rich.” They cheered me up, followed me everywhere and both went wild with their selfie addiction (a few of the photos shared here).

Overall, in musing about this bizarre PeRsian bazaar experience, I would probably have passed on this invitation with all of its frustrations and restrictions. That having been said, I was thoroughly happy to meet new friends, such as Ali Foroozfar, Bart de Bries, Miriam Costea, and, of course, the lovely Marzie and the anxious student Ali, and to catch up with Enric Ordeix.

Defining Islamic Statehood complementary bookend

51esTOxrr4L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_A complementary Iranian travel experience bonus was how prior to leaving New York for Tehran, Imam Fesial Abdul Rauf’s masterful book, Defining Islamic Statehood, hit city bookstores; I made time to purchase a copy to read during the long flight to Iran.

I first had the honour of meeting Imam Feisal in Kuala Lumpur in 2010, when we were presenters at the first-ever global conference of Muslim PR professionals and scholars. A few weeks later on PR Conversations, I posted a revealing conversation had with the Imam, considered one of the more influential and authoritative “moderactive” intelligentsia. The Imam is fiercely rational and critical, and a thought leader amongst the world’s 1.7 billion (and growing) Muslims.

Having finished reading it (not to mention attending the above-described Tehran workshop and conference), I can say that the book is an excellent (yet not easy) read.

I found there are at least two good reasons why a public relations professional or a management addict might wish to engage with its contents.

First, in Defining Islamic Statehood, a daring attempt is made to evaluate and measure—by using contemporary big data analysis—how countries who define themselves as “Islamic” are, in fact, coherent with the intellectually (very) challenging interpretation of the many variables that (according to the book), constitute in the first decade of this 21st century a “true” Islamic state.

The Imam does this based on a highly provocative and intellectually challenging consensus reached by 12 top-level Muslim scholars and analysts of contemporary society. They are drawn from as many countries and from all “segments” of Islamic faith representative of the widest variety of schools of thought.

The discussion is the first part of the book; what follows afterwards is the indexing effort.

The second reason it is useful for those focused on public relations is because—confirming his specific attention to our professional vision of the world—Feisal includes in his blockbuster “super cast” of scholarly discussants, two individuals who define themselves as public relations specialists: Hamayun Gauhar and Ramzi Khoury.

For the brave of heart and the endlessly curious, I wish a good and thoroughly fascinating read.

However, I would betray my critical nature if I did not warn potential readers that this book does not in any way address the phenomenon of those who call themselves the “Islamic State” (a.k.a. IS, ISIS, ISL, Daesh).

Following is how I interpret this surprising cancellation from the Imam.

After having been one of the very first moderactive Muslim leaders to openly criticize and attack the early moves of ISIS (June 2014) across many international media, Feisal decided to ignore the Islamic State in his book, maybe agreeing with the mounting evidence that ISIS is, after all, an outcome of western misinterpretations, mistakes and appeasements. Moreover, a result of mostly western monies, arms and military, as well as public relations training….

To this and to appreciate that this phenomena has much more to do with us than with the 1.7 billion Muslims, I would also add the impact, unprecedented in history, of a continued and ongoing discourse machine—dare I say a form of public relations—graciously granted to ISIS by global mainstream, digital and social media systems.

This appears to me to be the principal elements that mandated ISIS’s exclusion from the academic, cultural and political discourse in Defining the Islamic State, shifting the issue more comfortably into the context of a contemporary history of the horrors of humanity.

Disclosure: Via Methodos, Toni Muzi Falconi consulted for the Cordoba Initiative, the Imam’s New York City-based NGO, from August 2014 to May 2015.

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Please feel free to query Toni Muzi Falconi on his bizarre Iranian conference experience or book review below in the comments section. Alternatively, contact him via Twitter or LinkedIn.

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9 Replies to “A bizarre visit to the PeRsian conference bazaar

  1. Dear Toni,

    Iran and Tehran aren’t that bad!

    But the days you were in Iran, the pollution and traffic were frustrating.

    1. Happy New Year Marzie!

      I am sure you are right. and that, next time I visit Tehran all will be much better….

      Today, in Italy, both Rome and Milano have stopped traffic to reduce pollution, while the North American continent is struggling to understand what to expect next as far as climate is concerned.

      Also, I heard last night on Al Jazeera USA that people migrating to the USA from Latin America do this now mostly because of lack of water…..

      Helas, I feel at least in part responsible for the terrible state of the world you found in growing up…

      Sorry Marzie and please do everything you can to avoid leaving the same mess to your children!

  2. Very good point, Heather, that leads us to that old ethnocentric vision of PR, that is basically the stigma we still carry. That is, based on the traditional narratives of ‘export of democracy’ and of the ‘American dream’…both highly based on the the scientific persuasion model for public relations practised in much of the 20th century.

    In this specific case, however, there are a couple of counter-currents.

    On one side the highly developed cultural level of Iranian academic thought (as I tried to cite in the paper I presented ).

    On the other side the fact that, for contingent reasons, it seems that European interests are more focused on the potential of a post-sanctions Iran market; additionally, we can hope the European practice of PR is less ‘ethnocentric’ than the USA version.

    While I am positive of the first, I am doubtful of the second….

  3. Mmm! The challenge for ‘Western’ PR firms (as well as the PR practice and theorising that are established under this label) is to be avoid spreading the bad practices along with what may be useful within countries where PR is emerging as a professional (taken as paid and informed) occupation.

    We already know that the default of many global consultancies is economic in seeing the financial opportunities for existing and new clients to operate in countries outside their traditional bases. I’d like to hope that we will avoid the traps of suggesting that this is intended to help stimulate a ‘progressive’ approach to PR that in many cases may be our same old poor practices. As the IS ability to utilise social media in new ways shows, there is often as much to learn as to offer when travelling to new places.

    Does ‘western’ PR have the ability to be a good visitor rather than a critical judge? Can we avoid spreading our (often appalling) tastes and norms?

  4. Thank you, Pamela.

    Indeed, the shift is definitely there and the Nuclear Agreement has unleashed a visible, ‘feel-able’ and ‘taste-able’ eagerness to catch up, particularly among the younger generation (which is a great part of the populace).

    In fact, following the Paris events and their outcome so far, I strongly fear that the planned removal of sanctions could be delayed, thus unleashing a backlash in Iranian public opinion that could only take an anti-Rouhani, anti-west route….

    And this, as most other things happening today, is scary and leads only to further negative consequences.

    We should not only cross our fingers, but act to convince our business communities to push for the removal of sanctions:the only condition for them to make legitimate money in Iran.

    Public relations has a huge opportunity to prove its worth. Three Italian PR companies just announced as many openings of Iranian branches with Iranian partners.

    Jumping the gun? Maybe–let’s hope not!

  5. Toni, you are a modern (non-gender-specific, of course) “Alice in Wonderland” and I loved the selfies!

    It must have been immensely frustrating to cope with the confined digital environment you were in, yet on the other hand does the existence of the selfies and the eagerness with which the young people followed you around mean there is some kind of seismic shift happening?

  6. Toni, I am not a post-modern relativist. But I do maintain that it is quite legitimate to trade with and do PR for Saudi Arabia but I would not extend that same tolerance to IS. And I find it unhelpful how campaigners have conflated the two in a quite childish manner.

    Yes, you right there never was an Islamic version of the Pope or any overarching earthly authority in its religion. As far as I can fathom, historically on a world scale that has actually mostly made it a tolerant, moderate and adaptive faith whose followers are able to get along with others in peace.

  7. Thank you, Paul.

    I endorse your relativist view if it also applies to political, social, organizational and other non-religious (in strict terms) beliefs…including, by the way, the art and craft of relationships with publics….

    One more reason for there not being a universal Islamic view or movement, as you say, is also due to it being the only one of the three global monoteistic religions that does not have a global hierarchy or a single institution that is entitled to interpret the whole.

  8. The one thing that gets ignored in most of these discussions is that a religion is what its believers believe it to be. That means that somethings or beliefs that get denounced as being something other than what they claim to be, or indeed which get accused of forming no part of a particular or of any religion, are not credible or worthy rebuttals.

    As I see it, there is no universal Islamic view or movement no more than there is no such Christian one.

    I guess that means we have to see individual countries and movements and practices on their own terms and not see them as part of anything homogeneous. Hence, for instance, I find it wrong when people say Saudi Arabia is the same as IS. That is not so!

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