DEEMMag Special Edition
The interview was conducted during the active phase of the Artsakh war in November, 2020, by DEEM’s Creative Director Raffi Niziblian.
Hjortur Smarason is an expert on communication strategies, brand positioning and crisis management. He has advised companies, tourism boards and governments on their branding and crisis communication strategies, such as Iceland after the economic collapse of 2008 and the volcanic eruptions of 2010 and 2011, Nepal after the earthquakes of 2015, as well as countries in Africa and Middle East following political turmoil and economic difficulties. Hjortur is the founder and principal of S.A.L.T., the School of Astronaut Leadership Training where he offers leadership training together with astronauts and specialists from NASA. Hjortur visited Armenia in 2017 when he worked with DEEM Communications on the branding of Gyumri.
Raffi: As you know, Armenia is in an all out war with two of its neighbors waging war on Artsakh. Before the war started, Armenia was on a path of glory. Following the 2018 first free and fair elections after the Velvet Revolution, a concept that captured the world’s attention and was a welcome breath of fresh air for the Caucasus region’s new path for success, the country was on many top ten lists of must-visit destinations. New hotels were popping up; wineries, cafés and restaurants were lining themselves up for what was to be the busiest summer of all times. Then the world was hit with Covid-19 and everything turned on its head. As if that was not enough, last July, Azerbaijan attacks Armenia on its north-east borders, killing civilians and devastating the country. Before it could recover, on 27 September, drone bombs shelled the densest city of Artsakh, and for over a month, armed activities have caused havoc, terror and a total economic halt.
Raffi: This awful year is ending and we all hope to find peace very soon. As such, we now seek your expert opinion and advice on how to reposition or re-brand the country after such a calamity?
Hjortur: I think the keyword here is after. Branding is a long term, ongoing project and not something you can really do in the midst of a crisis. Nagorno-Karabakh has no connection in people’s minds other than being the disputed area of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the nineties. That is how I remember it from Iceland where I was a teenager at the time. In those thirty years the reputation of the area should have been built up through tourism and popular media. Reality is that at this moment the conflict is getting close to zero attention, despite being in Europe, and the reason is simple. It is not just because of Covid and the US presidential elections, although those two are excellent to drown out the little information that actually does make it to the news. The bigger reason is that people don’t relate. They do not know the history, the region, the people, their personal stories nor any of the places. Stephanakert? Rings no bells for anyone. This is actually where tourism can become an incredibly powerful tool. Building relationships even in places that are not politically recognised. They still exist and so does their people.
Here we have news of a conflict between countries A and A about a region called A… Confusing when you have no relationship with the area and why it is so easy to steal the messages and twist them like Azerbaijan has been doing by turning everything on its head.
Raffi: How does a country redefine itself to become attractive to the world as both a tourist destination and as a livable place?
Hjortur: Consistency is king when it comes to branding. This is particularly important when you are going through crisis and why rule number one is having a “one-stop-shop” with accurate information free from all emotions. Just facts, preferably delivered or verified by a third party. As soon as emotions taint it too much it becomes propaganda and loses credibility.
In Iceland we had an economic collapse in 2008 where all the banks in the country went bankrupt. We had just gone through a branding strategy planning the year before where the focus was on Iceland as a financial center which obviously had now crashed. If we look at Iceland through history, different strengths and cultural traits to me it was clear what stood out. Creativity. Whether it was in nature constantly reshaping the landscape of the island, our music industry, literature, films, innovative tech companies – or even banking and accounting.
This is where hope becomes stronger than ever, where stories of rescue, finding lost loved ones or getting a new opportunity at life is so inspiring. A dismal reality creates a lot of stories like that. Of heartbreak, of unfairness, of defeat. And while people may find it hard to relate to Armenia everyone can relate to the feelings of heartbreak, unfairness and defeat and the fear for their loved ones because that is life and that creates compassion. Compassion not for Artsakh which is just a concept, but for the people of Armenia (including Artsakh) and your centuries of struggle for survival squashed between enemy nations. Compassion that opens up support from unexpected directions and opportunities that might otherwise never have come. When that happens, you need to be ready to grab them and make the most of those opportunities. Allow people to help you and join forces with you in the rebuilding of the country.
Raffi: If you were to consult the image-makers of Armenia on how to re-brand the country, what are the 5 things you would advise them on doing right after the war is over?
Hjortur: 1. Truth. This is of essence. Call for neutral, international investigation of the war crimes committed. Admit to your own failures because they are inevitable in a war. Show the world that you are a democratic, just country and you fought that war to protect your right to existence and self determination against foreign tyranny. Call on OSCE, the UN, the ICC and even NATO to do investigations on use of illegal weapons, illegal civilian targets and war crimes committed. Fight for the truth, face it where it hurts and your story will be heard and believed. The armed conflict is just one, short, (and very painful) part of the war. It continues in the international community and the history books where you fight for the truth to come out.
- Network. Call on the diaspora to call on their networks to help with the rebuilding. Do matchmaking between the resources you have on the ground and the resources you need to recruit from abroad to rebuild. If every person of the diaspore can reach ten people, you have a pool of 80 million people. That is not everybody, but you don’t need everybody to rebuild a country of 3 million people. You just need the right people who can relate and find the compassion to help.
- Being. Remember, storytelling is not just about what you say. It is about what you do and what you are. And how you allow others to experience that with you and share the story further. So focus on showing what you are fighting for and what you want to become through your work and actions. Reflect your identity in your architecture, political system and initiatives, show your strengths in your startups, innovation and arts, and celebrate milestones through events of all sorts.
- Invitation. Instead of telling your stories yourself, invite others to experience what Armenia and Armenians really are like, what it is the country has to offer with fantastic mountainous nature, magnificent vineries and rich culture of both ancient and modern art. Invite journalists, bloggers, vloggers and influencers to experience first hand what you have to offer. When they get to know you and the truth they will become your strongest advocates to their home audiences and will have much more credibility in their dissemination of the country than a local ever would. The rebranding will not happen through advertising but through partnerships with content creators, artists, innovators, bloggers and journalists.
- Resilience. Branding a country is not a one off. It is a constant process that is repeated through new initiatives, events and happenings year after year, constantly building on top of the image you want to create and furthering your narrative, recognition and empathy around the world. And this can only be achieved if you have your ground work in order. A clear idea of what your message is and what the new Armenia of the 21st century is going to stand for on the World stage. You need to claim your spot on that stage and hold it.
The stronger your brand is the stronger your voice will be, the more valuable your export will be with your strong currency and economy. But more importantly, the stronger the support will be for your claims and the stronger the opposition will be to your wrong doers.