The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Monthly Archives: March 2009

CB3 is working on a programme of training and advising for an Iraqi government Ministry.  The remit is to prepare the Ministry’s communications department to conduct a PR campaign through ‘conventional’ or ‘mass’ media.

However, this does raise the question; today, what exactly is conventional media?  In the good old days that meant the mainstream TV, radio and print outlets.  But today, even in a post-conflict and developing nation like Iraq, the influence of digital capabilities is changing exactly how one gets the message through to the audience, both via the conventional media and directly.

Even in Iraq, there's 400 channels with nothing much on ... but there is also the internet.

Even in Iraq, there are 400 channels with nothing much on ... but there 's also the internet.

Digital convergence means that the supply of information or copy to the conventional media no longer means relying upon the journalist, editor, camera and sound person of that media.  With very few resources, digital copy can be prepared for direct use by that media.  The distribution of a press release, followed by facilities, press conferences and/or interviews can now easily be supplemented by digital video packages, the video news release.  In-house capacity building can allow the production of useable video, to be placed directly on the websites of conventional print, TV or even radio outlets.  And given the pressures upon conventional media outlets, these moves will be welcome – the dietary requirements of conventional media are changing, fast.

Taking the UK as an example, in 2007, Tiscali noted that 63% of Uk adults would prefer to watch on-demand products on via the internet and MediaGuardian reported that 43% of UK internet users watch webTV – which takes into account much more than your traditional media providers such as BBC or SKY.  More peple are accessing their information via the internet and from an increasing number of sources.

Further, those digital packages, ultimately flexible, can be distributed via digitally networked media – YouTube, facebook, itunes etc, and incorporated into wider campaigns.  Yes, that’s using user-generated content sites.  Why? Because if you’re going digital on the web, it’s worthwhile remembering that, of the top 100 global websites the top 70% of websites are content-based, and of those,70% are user-generated (from Alexa).

Bottom line – In Europe and the US digital broadcasting is growing massively, and the trend is taking effect in other areas of the world.  With less than half a million landlines in Afghanistan but approaching 6 million cutting edge mobile phones, and with internet usage almost doubling in the last two years, this is already happening. A comprehensive 2008 report on Pakistan’s new media habits, from the MIT Media Lab, tends to cement this perspective.  There may be a degree of ‘digital divide’ but it is narrowing and the dietary requirements of the recipient audiences, the man on the street, are also changing rapidly.

The digital domain - it's not just a 'Western' thing

The digital domain - it's not just a 'Western' thing

Those who are waking up to the digital broadcast reality are taking it one step further.  Instead of providing copy or spokespersons directly for the traditional media, they are producing their own content and hosting it themselves.  Produce good stuff, which can be seen as untainted with propagandistic rhetroric, and the conventional media (and user-generated sphere) will soon be feeding off organisations’ websites.  Why spend money and time on cameramen and journalists when the organisations who ‘get it’ are providing useable digital content anyway?  Of course, the critical capacity of journalism is still required, but extended provision of good copy, which can be further investigated, cannot be a bad thing

For the communications practitioner, almost anywhere in the world, this represents three approaches to dealing with conventional media – servicing the digital requirements of traditional media outlets, taking part in the external user-generated environment and providing one’s own digital outlet.

Basic conventional media techniques are no longer enough.  The information environment is now criss-crossed with intertwining networks, including the conventional media.  Dealing with the conventional media in isolation, through the once acceptable tunnel-visioned approach, just won’t cut it anymore – even in the less developed and post-conflict areas of the world.

A head of state being casually interviewed on a television show that people actually watch, a comedy show at that – the mere thought would send shivers down spines of staff in Whitehall, the Elysee Palace, the Bundestag and all manner of institutions in Brussels.  But some chap called Barack Obama had a little chat with Jay Leno last night on an extremely popular talk show – how refreshing!

"Tonight with me is Pwime Minister Gordon Bwown ..."

"Tonight with me is Pwime Minister Gordon Bwown ..."

Now, the Obama crew will no doubt have realised that it was an extremely risky strategy – but that’s the point, there is always risk in political communication, it just has to be assessed.  Undoubtedly, there will be some aspects of President Obama’s comments that will come back to haunt him, but the very fact that he is willng and able to present himself and his ideas so openly to so many, in a forthright and understandable manner, will pay dividends several times over.  Love him or hate him, at least his constituency will have a much better understanding of him than his predecessors, or colleagues in other states, contributing to the capacityof citizens to make informed decisions, the bedrock of democracy.

In a similar vein, Obama chose to give a interview to Al-Arabiya within days of his inauguration, presenting himself and his intentions to the Arab world in a way unknown during the Bush Era.  If public diplomacy is seen as communicating directly to the citizens of foreign countries, as opposed to merely talking behind diplomatic closed doors, then here is a prime example.  And as an example of laying the ground for soft power, the administration’s recent offering of ‘a fresh start for Iran‘ is a sound follow on to the Al-Arabiya interview, representing the end of the US abject refusal to deal with, or at least engage with, one of the world’s most strategically important states – Iran.  Engagement was a notion bandied about the Clinton administration, but the Obama team’s use of communication in this direction (call it PR, public diplomacy, stratcomm whatever) takes the concept to a new level.

This brave embracing of communication channels, be they comedy chat shows or twitter or facebook (now in Arabic), by people of gravity (i.e. those who in the eyes of the audience matter), to inform domestic and foreign publics, is risky but will pay dividends for all.  Political communicators now all talk of using new media, websites, twitter etc but it takes real guts for the major players (once again,those who in the eyes of the audience matter) to step up to the plate and really use these capabilities effectively.  Obama’s major advisors in this area, such as David Axelrod, Ellen Moran and ‘Rahmbo’ Emanuel are shaking up the box, in terms of approaches to communication.  Just as many are learning from the web-based aspects of Obama’s presidential campaign, there are lessons also to be learnt from the Al-Arabiya interview and last night’s Jay Leno show – spines should be tingling in Whitehall, the Elysee Palace, the Bundestag and all manner of institutions in Brussels.

In response to Daniel Korski’s questions concerning NATO branding, on the excellent Global Dashboard blogsite, CB3 thought it time to scribble a few words.

Op-eds, academic papers, rumours and downright moaning tend to indicate that NATO isn’t winning the information war, certainly in Afghanistan.  Now, there’s a lot to be said for taking that point of view, but more often than not such a view is expressed alongside such sentiment as ‘the Taliban are, in fact, winning the information battle’.  Well, just hang on a minute.

As Tim Foxley of SIPRI, having spent the last eight years studying the Taliban, elucidated recently, there is little evidence for sustained success of Taliban communications efforts and in fact they still have a weak, poorly planned and inflexible approach to communications, and are vulnerable in this area (but they’re learning fast).  So let’s hear less of the Taliban are better than NATO in communications.

Not quite Alistair Campbell

Not quite Alistair Campbell

And, anyway, NATO have also made great strides in this area over the last few years, with the establishment of a fully functioning Media Operations Centre (MOC) and rapid development of workable procedures.  Further, the concept of Strategic Communication is starting to gain traction, featuring more and more in policy and strategy formulation (with details available on the web).  A lot of hard work has obviously gone into raising NATO’s game in this regard.

But when the word branding starts being bandied about, CB3 starts to worry a little.  Direct experience in Afghanistan has shown that, even after the recent positive developments, there is always a tendency to use communication, especially media operations/public affairs to encourage domestic audiences to support the campaign/war at the expense of using such capabilities to actually support the objectives of the campaign/war.

Serving and retired military one-four stars, senior communicators from IGOs to NGOs and practitioners, all cry out that the circumstances of modern conflict interventions demand that they are conducted with information and communications at their core – and by that they mean using information and communications to win the campaign, not merely make good copy or nice branding for the home audiences (CB3 exaggerates here – a little).  The latter is important but without emphasis on the former, what’s the point?

Few would disagree that, in the information age, communication is becoming fundamental to achieving foreign policy goals.  But words are cheap, and CB3 suspects that NATO does and/or will face similar problems in achieving its communication aspirations as the US is finding.  Recent RAND research has indicated that a lack of leadership buy-in, leading to a lack of resources, vague strategy and obstacles to better coordination, are all posing significant challenges to achieving what the majority of communication practitioners see as vital.  Similar vibes were observed when examined communication management of the the European Union’s ESDP missions in 2008.

Nice branding ... but there's a lot more to it than that.

Nice branding ... but there's a lot more to it than that.

It’s difficult enough in the real world of 24/7 media, diplomatic realities and genuine propaganda, but even in the more benign and more easily controlled training and exercise environment, NATO regularly fails to take communication seriously.  This is symptomatic of large swathes of NATO not really ‘getting it’.  For example, during CMX-08, despite valiant efforts of the exercise directors, the MOC was extensively exercised, but in almost total isolation from the rest of the players – the communication bit can be a little bit problematic and upsetting, so outside the MOC we’ll pay lip service to the media and public opinion bit.  Problemmatic? – damn right it is!  Equally, many NATO exercises consider to have tested communication by conducting little tactical vignettes, thrusting journalists with cameras and microphones into the faces of Public Affairs Officers and their COs, and doing very little else (oh, there will be some good simulated news video stuff).  Nice interview, didn’t pick his nose on camera, didn’t give away any secrets, kept to the lines – brilliant.  That’s vital stuff, but it’s the tip of the strategic communication iceberg – and its the 90% under the water that is likely to sink any communication contribution to achieving strategic objectives.

In a previous CB3 Blog, it was stated that, ‘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’.  This equally applies to NATO.

The point is, having Coca-Cola executives and TV channels (which is pretty good – although its style is definately staid, some creativity and flair would be welcome), nice branding and interview training is all good and well, and indeed vital.  But it is the deeper, complex and sometimes uncomfortable and contentious aspects of communications that will have to be addressed.  Budgets, strategy, relationships, analysis, personnel, ROI, private sector involvement, new media – these all have to be on the table … on the ‘boardroom’ table.  Making communication mainstream and holistic, such that it is rightly seen by everyone as fundamental (but not exclusive) to achieving strategic objectives, is key to improving the communication capability of the Alliance.

There are those in NATO who are pushing hard to apply pressure in this direction, in the face of massive institutional inertia.  CB3 applauds them.

So now it’s in paperback.  But what is it all about?

Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge – where economics meets behavioural psychology – has become a prime reader for political communicators, having been linked to Obama’s presidential campaign and the UK’s conservatives.  However, the ‘nudge’ is nothing new, as its authors admit.


As the Guardian handily explained back in mid-2008, rather than leave people to their own devices, or give them dos and don’ts, Thaler and other behavioural economists want to highlight the best option, while still leaving all the bad ones open. They argue it’s better for everyone to be automatically enrolled in a pension scheme (or more controversially for organ donation), but give them an opt-out. Or they may want a shop to put real oranges by the checkout rather than chocolate versions.


Now, if communication is defined as the response you get, then using the liberal paternalist methods of nudge to ‘persuade’ people to do the right thing, is the way ahead.  The pragmatics amongst us will see much in the nudge.  And the age-old methods of ‘nudge’, now comprehensively explained, are appearing across the communications spectrum.  The applications in public diplomacy, foreign policy communications, information operations and media operations have yet to be fully explored.  However, CB3 will be shaking up the cerebral matter to venture into nation-building nudging.

It’s not for everyone – Gordon Brown’s not too keen – but it’s definately got some traction.  After all, it’s now in paperback, and being advertised like a common-or-garden Ian Rankin thriller (see the posters on the London Underground).  Someone’s giving Nudge a ‘nudge’.

There’s a perception within many foreign policy establishments that public diplomacy is definately not public relations.   Last year’s publication by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), entitled  Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World, is definitive.  On page 10, Jim Murphy MP, then Minister for Europe, exhorts that:

“… foreign ministries must stop seeing public diplomacy as a form of public relations, shouting out core messages and top lines, louder and louder, in the false belief that they haven’t been heard clearly enough.  To succeed in today’s world, we need genuine engagement, not clumsy propoaganda.”

The US has a specific problem in this regard, but that appears to be borne of a more restricted view of PR than that of the Brits (however, CB3 does agree with the sentiment of Montainrunner’s blog), and several constitutional issues surrounding PD, such as the Smith-Mundt act.  Currently, the Obama Adminstration is raising the very issue of what PD should be, but many in the US tend to bunch PR in with advertising, marketing and branding, unlike in the UK, where a clearer delineation can be made.

Yes, with regard to PD and PR, there are differences, but only in context.  Even CB3 recognises that PD isn’t quite public relations, but only in the sensitivities, audiences and proximity to information operations.  The similarities? Engagement, dialogue, symmetry, vision, relationships – these are espoused by Public diplomats, and just happen to also be the cornerstone of PR ideology, as taught by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

Indeed, CB3 challenges any ethical PR practitioner (certainly those trained in the UK), to see massive differences in the ideals, practices and objectives between PR and PD.  Academic studies by Signitzer and Coombs, Yun, even Grunig himself, indicate a real convergence of PR and PD in an era of global information. The resistance of foreign ministries to accept synonymity seems borne of a lack of understanding of contemporary PR (as opposed to mere publicity) and fear of being tarred with the negative connotations of PR (often brought about by publicists).  It is moot that many reviews of PD indicate that it is also hampered by the regime of one-way, conveyor-belt traffic – an accusation often levelled at PR.

However, there is a shift, as evidenced by a recent workshop for diplomats in Rome.  During the Georgian war of 2008, it was claimed that ‘plucky, little Georgia’ won the PR battle with Russia.

Does it really matter?  It is just a question of semantics?  Well, to a degree.  But there is a danger of artificial firewalls being established between practitioners of public diplomacy and public relations.  The debate is good, and we must understand the nuances of each but, let’s face it, we’re all in communications, and have a lot to learn from each other.   To use a cliche, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

In short: they can and do but, as they say, it ain’t necessarily so.

The Information Operations and Influence Activity (IOIA) Symposium, held this week at UK’s Defence Academy, threw up several enticing cerebral teasers, not least the tension between two schools of thought regarding public affairs (or as the Brits say ‘media operations’).  On the one hand, it is claimed by the old guard that public affairs (PA) merely informs  (as can be found in US doctrine).  On the other, the young turks would have it that information is never value-free and therefore PA will always have an element of influence to it.


As much as CB3 would like to subscribe to the former, the brute force of reality must indicate the latter to be the case.  Even at a most simple level, if one stubbornly keeps to transmitting utterly ‘true’ facts and figures, claiming to only inform – the mere selection of which facts to reveal introduces a bias, and therefore a degree of sway or influence, even unconsciously.

This raises a further question, one broached at IOIA.  If  journalists live and die by their adherence to seeking the truth, informing not influencing and unbiased reporting, can they so easily transfer themselves into roles which are inherently partisan, promotional and influencing?  There is well documented tension between the arenas of public relations and the media (although they provide each other with vital life support) – using a market analogy, they are at opposite ends of the supply-demand equation.

Many journalists make the jump to PR, some very successfully, others less so – it may be their contact books which are in demand rather than their prowess as flacks.  Equally, many journalists are employed by vitally important reserve military forces (especially in the UK) as public affairs/media operations officers.  Many are consummate operators in both journalism and PA, proving mental dexterity, but is it time to question the seemingly automatic assumption that a journalist will be a natural candidate for PA, or wider communication, duties?

Which one is the journalist?

Which one is the journalist?

This is no way reflects upon the crucial media and PA capability that the reserve forces provide, supplying resources which often are unavailable from the regular forces.

In its widest sociological sense, public relations (PR) can be seen as a mechanism for the promotion of understanding and creation of beneficial relationships or, as Edward Bernays claimed, continuing process of social integration . However, in a modern context, its aims may be seen as stretching from the enabling of the ideal citizen through to the creation of the ideal consumer. Although the contemporary ‘Western’ developed free-market democratic society relies upon the support of these entities, PR’s contribution to modern society often finds itself in constant tension between the two ends of the spectrum.

Bernays knew a thing or two about all this ...

Bernays knew a thing or two about all this ...

On the one hand, well managed PR is crucial to the sustenance of a collective of rational informed citizens. As Berelson commented, ‘the major decisions the ordinary citizen is called upon to make in a modern representative democracy involve basic simplifications which need not rest upon a wide range of information so long as they are based upon a certain amount of crucial information, reasonably interpreted.’ The provision of such crucial information, in between citizens, interest groups, corporations, organisations and governments is a major, if not fully appreciated, contribution of PR.

However, be they a form of systems or critical theory, of the rhetorical or relationship management paradigm, in the information age, with the mass of information available, PR is even more vital in providing that crucial information amidst a grey mass of confusion, contradiction and coercion in Nye’s ‘paradox of the plenty’ through the vehicle of new technology. Media sociology is starting to recognise the new terrain of multiple representations and infinite interpretations, irrespective of ownership structures.

To the other end of the spectrum, whilst corporate marketing preys upon ‘inner directives’ – assuming utter self-interest and private advantage, PR contributes to the provision of that information and context necessary to allow consideration as a member of the economic, free-market collective, in the interest of the public.

Whilst PR serves civil society, embedded in political economy, the above portrays a normative stance. A more positive theoretical perception reveals that PR’s contribution to modern society falls short of that ideal. Elite access, asymmetrical communication, partial and biased information, power broking and media filtering, to name but a few issues, contribute to a watering down of the ethical basis of PR in modern society. In the political sphere, ‘engineering consent’, focus-group politics, politico-industrial complexes and heavily financed political packaging have ravaged the PR environment, exploited by governments, political parties, corporations, interest groups and activists, denying publics real context. In the economic arena, the consumerist drive often subsumes the economic interest of the individual and public, in favour of maximising short-term gains for the organisation or corporation. Even if understanding is achieved, it is debatable as to whether an effectively informed citizenry given voice can actually effect change.

The result, borne of man’s psyche, has been the sociological damaging of PR’s contribution to modern society, contributing to communicative inequality.

However, the mere accepted practice of striving towards the promotion of understanding and creation of beneficial relationships is a noble cause. Its mere existence and continued furtherance towards such an ethical ideal is, at core, PR’s vital contribution to modern free society.