The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Monthly Archives: February 2009

Okay, CB3 is going to get a little technical.


All communicators are familiar with the message influence model, as defined by the Shannon and Weaver and upgraded by the Westly-Maclean model.  Basically, one transmits a message, often through ‘noise’, the receiver translates/decodes the message and feedback allows finer calibration for the transmitter to retransmit.  It’s fairly simple.  But that’s the point – is it too simple?



In today’s complex information environment, the message influence model is still prevalent in strategic communication.  People at Arizona State University have come up with a new approach – the Pragmatic Complexity (PCOM) Model,claiming that the message-meaning element is flawed and meaning cannot so easliy be translated or decoded. ‘Listeners create meanings from messages based on factors like autobiography, history, local context, culture, language/symbol systems, power relations, and immediate personal needs. ‘

PCOM takes its lead from ‘new systems’ perspectives, not least the communication theory of Niklas Luhmann.  Examining the communicative system in the real world, the ‘system is complex because of a double contingency that involves the participants. In the simplest case of a communication system with two participants A and B, we can describe this constraint as follows:
• The success of A’s behavior depends not only on external conditions, but on what B does and thinks.
• What B does and thinks is influenced by A’s behavior as well as B’s expectations, interpretations, and attributions with respect to A.
So there is no independent B sitting “out there” waiting to be impacted by A’s message, as the old model would have it. Instead A and B are locked in a relationship of simultaneous, mutual interdependence.’

To make this simple, CB3 sees it as the ‘ does my bum look big in this?’ scenario.  Without wishing to trivialize a potent communication idea, it goes like this.

Imagine your wife/girlfriend/partner/husband/boyfriend has been looking for that perfect dress/pair of trousers.  They’ve found them and bought them and you’re about to go out on the town.  They put the dress/trousers on and ask ‘does my bum look big in this?’  Unfortunately it does and they know it.  Answer ‘Yes’ and you’re in trouble. Answer ‘No’ and they think ‘well you would say that, wouldn’t you?  Therefore the communication is complex and you and they are locked in a relationship of simultaneous, mutual interdependence!

Does my bum look big in this?

Does my bum look big in this?

But it does raise serious questions, most importantly, how does this affect strategic communication?  Human beings have not changed since the mid 20th Century, when Shannon and Weaver first kicked around the message influence model, but the information environment within which they live has been transformed.  It is no longer enough to merely understand the culture of one’s publics but understand that the communicator and the audience is in a relationship from the start, with successful communication dependent upon each other understanding that relationship and each other’s complete worldview.  One could argue that the US administration, UK government, NATO, EU etc are already in ‘informational relationships’ with (not the same as actually in dialogue), Al Qaida, the Taliban, the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, DRC etc, but few actually recognise the fact and communicate accordingly (except that the ‘bad guys’ seem to have a better handle on it).  It involves moving from rigidity in approach to embracing complexity and variation – and in the staid, and admittedly complex, world of foreign policy communication, that’s easier said than done.

With regard to strategic communication, a common sentiment at development, strategy, foreign policy and political conferences is that “we all know it’s not working”.

Such attitudes often spark ideas on how to make communications contribute more to foreign policy objectives, but all too often these approaches suggest changes at the tactical level, without recourse to the core of the problem; that of understanding at the strategic level.

Over the last two decades, the corporate world has recognised the rapid evolution of the information environment. As a result, public relations (as opposed to pure marketing and advertising) has made an upward transition into the boardroom, has become part of the dominant coalition. In other words, the corporate world has come to understand the nature and importance of strategic communications, harnessing its power at the core of business and having communications contribute directly to corporate objectives. This paradigm shift has not ameliorated all ills, but communications is no longer an afterthought, no longer a ‘bolt on’ at the end of the policy process. It has gone mainstream.

In the area of foreign policy, notably crisis management and post-conflict reconstruction, this culture shift is moving at a glacial rate. Currently, in the higher echelons of foreign ministries, defence departments and development agencies, communications remains a ‘bolt-on’, despite the sterling work of many working on influence, information operations, public affairs and public diplomacy.

This lamentable position is maintained largely through a lack of understanding. Many still see communications through an industrial warfare lens, from a pre-information age viewpoint, when communications entailed either getting the spokesperson in front of a camera or conducting a solid bit of psychological operations (Psyops) or propaganda against an enemy. As mission critical as many see communications, through its ability to explain, justify, persuade, influence, understand and inform, and its capacity to win ‘hearts and minds’ or ‘capture the will of the people’, contemporary guiding philosophies and methodologies espoused by senior planners are often outmoded. As General Rupert Smith states, ‘capturing the will of the people is a very clear and basic concept, yet one that is either misunderstood or ignored by political and military establishments around the world’.

When considering the poor performance of communications, many examples of failings from the fields of Afghanistan to the mountains of Kosovo to the streets of the DRC, can be cited. In the asymmetric warfare of Afghanistan, with regard to the information battleground, it is the modern ‘Western’ force which is the weaker, while the Taliban possesses the superior communication ‘firepower’. It is little wonder that some senior Commanders are stressing  that interventions must be treated as entire information campaigns in this new type of conflict; post-industrial war. And that also requires a deeper understanding of the role of strategic communications in this new conflict, both during and after.

Of course, there have been successes. The EU Police Mission in Bosnia-Hercegovina (EUPM) has successfully used modern media tactics to discourage crime; in 2001 a popular soap opera on BBC’s Pashtun service was instrumental in the success of a massive UNICEF inoculation campaign in Afghanistan, dealing with seven million children in just three weeks; the success of the ‘Kimberley Process’ is in no small part due to highly successful lobbying by development NGOs; Psyops were seen as a major factor in the rapid collapse of the Iraqi military in 2003; in 2000, the UK’s use of force, posture and profile certainly persuaded the RUF to stay away from Freetown, Sierra Leone; Oxfam, Save the Children and Médecins sans Frontières (and many others) can all point to successful campaigns to educate populations in war-ravaged countries. Although these successes tend to be the exceptions and mostly of tactical significance, the list does serve to illustrate the wide spectrum of and complex environment in which communications now feature.

In light of this new operating environment, a full review of the use of communications in war, crisis management and post conflict reconstruction is way overdue. As all communication professionals know, effective communication strategies are holistic, multi-spectral, multi-layered, internal and external, with multiple audiences and agencies, both domestic and foreign – in short, strategic. Strategic communications is an all pervasive concept: distillation of one’s own raison d’être; direct contribution to strategic guidance; internal communication; dialogical conversations; public diplomacy; boundary-spanning; social psychology; issue management; behavioural dynamics; stakeholder engagement; lobbying; narrative construction and publics analysis. The need to understand this concept at the highest level is becoming ever more crucial in the increasingly complex environments of foreign policy crisis management and post-conflict reconstruction. With this understanding will come the enablers, at all levels, that will allow comprehensive and effective strategic communication. It will go mainstream.

Yes, we need more resources. Yes, we need more coordination. Yes, we need better trained people. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that merely calling for these will bring about change. Equally, let’s not be so naïve as to think that by merely getting more resources, coordination and people that we will suddenly have sorted out the strategic communication malaise. The solutions lie deeper, in a sound and concrete understanding of what strategic communication is and what it can deliver.

If strategic communication is to contribute fully to the objectives of crisis management and post-conflict reconstruction, it firstly needs to be communicated to, and fully understood by, those who can bring about the paradigm shift. Attitudes and understanding are changing slowly but the most critical battle for ‘hearts and minds’ will not be fought in the fields of Afghanistan, the mountains of Kosovo or the streets of the DRC, but in the corridors of power of foreign ministries, defence departments and development agencies.

When the miltary do their business, they regularly ‘engage targets’.  When a missile is thrown into a surface-to-air missile site, it is very much a one-way transaction, precisely designed to prevent two-way transaction of fires!  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having the ability to put steel onto a target rapidly, precisely, decisively and overwhelmingly – hard power has its place.  But the very wording of this phrase causes problems for those in military public affairs, media operations and public diplomacy.

Engaging a target - Definately a one-way transaction!

Engaging a target - Definately a one-way transaction!

Engagement should be, and is in political and foreign policy circles, a two way process.  Further, when communicating in military interventions, peacekeeping, post-conflict reconstruction and development, all too often we refer to ‘target ‘audiences, normally referred to as ‘publics’ amongst public relations professionals.  However, a target is something to aim at, to attain, to achieve; it infers a one-way, omni-directional action.  Referring to an audience as a ‘target’ encourages, in the a parlance of PR Guru James Grunig, one-way communication.  Even if military or foreign policy communicators do conduct two-way asymmetric communications,i.e. conduct deep research and cultural analysis, before conducting comms campaigns, they often still end up aiming at a ‘target’.

The cornerstone of effective communications relies not only in knowing what those ‘publics’ are about – how they think, what makes them tick –  but also what they want and need (eg, marketing will fail utterly if the product is not what the publics/consumers want or need, no matter how good the product is).  This requires two-way symmetrical communications, or dialogue, with people, not targets.  Otherwise, one ends up communicating messages, ideas and products that simply will, at best, not resonate and, at worst, produce animosity.

Publics to engage with, not targets to transmit to.

Publics to engage with, not targets to transmit to.

Strategic communication itself is a multi-facted beast, which includes internal conversation in order to distil one’s raison d’etre.  Without that essence, strategic guidance and objectives will be ill-formed, creating inefficiency, even harbouring unseen but certain failure.  Without understanding what can be achieved – in other words finding those objectives which serve both one’s own and the concerned public’s (in this case a foreign population’s) needs – achieving policy aims will always be hampered.  Vague, unachievable objectives, as a result of a failure to broach coincident needs after neglecting to engage in a dialogical communications, are harbingers of policy disaster. The targeting mentality of communications can only encourage this.  As a practical example, such results are summed  up by a US Civil Affairs officer:

‘We have built so many schools that the Iraqis do not need. You
know what happens to them? They get blown up, because no
teachers show up, because no students come, no books are there,
the [mujahideen] walks in, they blow them up. It happens time
and time again, we give them something they do not ask for, they
do not need, because it’s something that we can do.’

They may not have asked for them but did anyone even hear what they did ask for?  A little bit of dialogue with people, not dictating to targets, would go a long way to prevent such policy failures.

The suffering of innocents in Gaza has been appalling and, rightly, efforts must be made to alleviate such suffering.  NGO’s launched appeals early on in the crisis, many successful because of the impact of news coverage brought to the safe populations of Europe and the US by the major newscasters, including the BBC and SKY.  This coverage was vital in reporting, as far as practicable and as impartially as can be reasonably expected, the reality of the situation and the suffering of Palestinians and constant fear of Isrealis across the border.  The images and stories flashing across our screens and over the radios contributed undoubtedly significantly to the success of appeals.

However, when the Disaster Emergency Committee’s (DEC’s) request for a broadcast appeal was turned down this is seen by many as the BBC, and SKY, being inhumane, irresponsible and even downright evil.

The BBC has suffered recently in the eyes of the public and has taken a real battering.  Its position as one of, if not the, most respected news organisations on the planet is hard earned and easily undermined.  Impartiality, or the appearance and reputation of something very near to it, is key to the BBC’s ability to report on the suffering we talk of.  One argument made was that such a broadcast appeal may undermine public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality, countered by the notion that to think that viewers can’t distinguish between a genuine humanitarian appeal and support for terrorist is insulting.

If the BBC can't get access to this ...

If the BBC can't get access to this ...

Well, of course the public can distinguish the difference but that’s not the point.  Putting the BBC’s audience aside for a moment, when the BBC’s reputation is no longer respected by the protagonists, combatants, belligerants, regimes, governments and agencies in areas of suffering, then the very effectiveness of the BBC as a news organisation, able to credibly report that suffering, is critically damaged.  And the BBC is a potent mechanism for presenting that news (as opposed to a specific appeal) to a lot of people, many of who will dig into their pockets.

... then ultimately less support will go to appeals like this.

... then ultimately less support will go to appeals like this.

Put very simply, when the BBC is no longer allowed into the most war ravaged and suffering areas of the world because their impartiality is not trusted, by the actors on the ground, then the success of any appeal for the suffering will be diminished considerably – because few will even know about it in the first place.

If broadcasts in support of raising money for the suffering directly reduce the ability to broadcast the material which would allow the public to see, hear and understand the circumstances of, that suffering in the first place, then the BBC is right to take the stance it has.

And, from a cynical perspective, the BBC’s stance has in fact drawn even more attention to the appeal (newspaper coverage about the row, several packages on the BBC itself), without necessarily damaging the BBC’s reputation across the world (although a fair few in Britain are mightily upset).