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.