“The magnitude and frequency of the crisis you survive shape the crisis communications specialist you eventually become. Resilience is the key characteristic to persevere and move on to the next assignment,” Kristine Abrahamyan, Communications Manager at Deem Communications. 

Throughout my career, I had the privilege of working with companies that used sophisticated crisis communications strategies and tools. I was lucky enough to participate in speaker preparation training, writing crisis response scenarios, and facilitating simulation exercises for such brands as British Airways, Nestle, and Bel Group. All that while working in a country facing uncertainty and crisis, Iran. What are my takeaways and lessons learned? 

You should always be prepared for the worst, even if you are armed with all the necessary tools. Crisis communications, crisis cells (a team of people who play secondary roles in the organization during times of crisis), research-based prewritten holding statements, emergency room, and emergency communication equipment are just a few examples.

Regional Climate Impact on Communications 

After years in Iran, I worked in Australia and finally came back to live and work in Armenia. I thought that I was experienced enough to handle crisis communications, when suddenly the COVID-19 pandemic happened, followed by the 44-day Artsakh war and constant armed attacks on Armenia for two years. We are still living through a hostile regional situation with war and aggression looming in the air creating further political instabilities. The Russian-Ukrainian war is not a crisis for Armenia by definition, nonetheless, the flow of migrants and western backlash on Russia is felt in Armenia. Iran is going through a major political upheaval since early fall. This is critical for the region, especially since the success of many Armenian companies depend on imports from Iran, and yet have we asked ourselves if we are ready to deal with the consequences of a massive strike there, for example? There needs to be a response plan on at least two levels – micro and macro. Micro for individual companies, and macro to the country level, from large corporations to intern-governmental agencies as well as national trade. 

Since there are matters globally out of micro control,  the strength of a company’s crisis communications plan will need to be prepared for the unexpected and be more resilient than ever.  Because some crises will require a macro level of planning and support, I am referring, for example, to what happened back in Iran, in 2017. I woke up to a call from the BBC headquarters asking for comments from British Airways, as they just canceled their flights to the USA. Why? Because President Donald Trump implemented his notorious Muslim Travel Ban. Iranians were among seven nationalities banned from traveling to the USA. I, as the Communications Officer, could not have possibly forecasted this or had leverage to influence the decisions of foreign diplomats and governments. All I could do is have a mitigation plan on a micro level – which I did and implemented with the corporate team.

A few months later, while on a holiday, I read on the news that there was a terrorist attack on the National Assembly in Tehran. A homemade bomb made from Nestle’s NAN Baby formula was used in the attack. Images of our client’s brand were all over the media, and our first action was to consult the crisis communications handbook, use pre-drafted holding statements, and engage trained speakers. The team managed to handle the situation because we had pre-planned a possible crisis comms plan that was endorsed by management.

Very often, I am asked whether a crisis communications tool is mandatory. My answer is definitely yes. Is having the mentioned toolset enough? The answer is no! We are currently living in a new reality of a post-pandemic world, ongoing war, and economic recession. The most important thing for us is to understand the urgency of being prepared. We also need to revise the way we think. Since the world is now more than ever interdependent with tech, global brands find their national and international users increasingly impacting one another. Over the past years, much of the work I have been doing seems to carry a backup plan based on the many uncertainties of today’s geo-political climate, economic, environmental and many other challenges.  

Cultural Partnerships During Crisis Reflecting on these thoughts, I came to realize that most of what I knew as a communications specialist needs to be revisited. During the Generation N conference held by DeeM recently, where specialists from Armenia, the USA, Canada and Russia were gathered to share knowledge, some important opportunities were mentioned, worth sharing here.  For example, among other topics, several panelists discussed establishing cultural partnerships as an investment to be used during a crisis. This was not a new format, but certainly a concept worth exploring further. 

Anastasia Elaeva, Global Development Director, musicAeterna Orchestra and Choir, argued that art is a facilitator of something more significant than just a product or service. The new generation expects to know the values and standpoints of the brands they work for or products they consume – who they are culturally and what kind of partnerships they have. During the COVID-19 lockdown, institutions and brands with cultural engagements had a variety of ways to communicate with their communities, such as organizing virtual tours of studios and halls and creating digital residences, which meant creating allies, friends, and partnerships. Even some of Armenia’s tech companies offered solutions to local museums and galleries for such virtual experiences. Today the 360 experience or the AR/VR solutions have expanded thanks to these solutions. 

Another approach, as was suggested by Dr. Armen R. Kherlopian, Chief Science and Innovative Officer, Covenant Venture Capital, is the importance of storytelling for the sake of resilience during the recession. And this fits into what I referred to as the macro or the national level of a crisis communications plan. For example, Dr. Kherlopian said that Armenia’s economy is growing towards 20 bln, but it is the smallest among its neighbors, which introduces further geopolitical challenges. As a country or as a group of companies, what stories should we have on top of our minds?  Should we tell stories like that of the Armenian healthcare robotics companies that have made it to the “TIME” magazine? Or that in the growing space industry, allegedly reaching USD 24 trillion, Armenia has expertise in computer vision with satellite imagery, and these gadgets are created and built here? The types of stories to tell for the strengthening of the economic foundation of a country require a high level of storytelling for relevance and resilience. So as a preemptive crisis communications management tool, setting the grounds for a strong economic climate, storytelling of such grandeur is a strategy I can support. 

Thus, crisis communications preparedness at the organizational level is mandatory, and it can be achieved by consulting communications specialists and preparing/revising basic tools at least once a year. Also, the application of cultural partnerships will add value and create allies for companies during tough times. At more macro levels, such as governments or groups of companies, storytelling, and crisis communications strategies should be considered crisis communication tools. I, for one, will be promoting this approach to my clients.

Kristine Abrahamyan

Conjurer of Planning

Deem Communications

DeeMmag, December 2022