The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Monthly Archives: May 2009

Messages are all good and well, indeed a vital part of communications.  But a common fault amongst those trying to communicate messages is the belief that if they put the message out often enough and loud enough it’ll get through – just keep on hammering it home and the audience will get the message.

But messages do not get transmitted through a vacuum.  They exist amongst many other messages, borne of plain information or of more complex relationships, in contemporary space, and put simply they create narratives – stories.  And those stories can be deep, complex, long-lived and ingrained.  They have a temporal quality, based upon a remembered past.  Simple messages, even if repeated and loud, may bounce off.  More successful messages may shift the narrative, but given the temporal and complex nature of these narratives, with a multitude of variables, may shift it in unexpected ways.   An analogy could be taken from sub-atomic physics, where many particles (messages) may miss the target atom (narrative), a single high velocitycollision of one particle (message) into an atom (narrative), neither adds to the atom (narrative) nor displaces another particle (message) but often creates something quite different (a new narrative).  The atomic scientist applies his or her brainpower to understand what this new something will be and how it can be controlled.  The art of strategic narrative imitates that.

CERN and sub-atomic physics - this is real science ...

CERN and sub-atomic physics - this is real science ...

However, where the scientific example is highly rules based and can acceptably aim for a degree of control, art is more abstract and irrational.  Which brings up the main element of narrative theory.  Narrative theory presupposes that people are essentially storytellers, make decisions based upon their own condition, that condition is borne of culture, history and character, the world consists of sets of stories which we choose to frame our lives.  This is slightly out of kilter with a more scientific and rational approach, whereby people are rational, persuaded by argument and the world is a logical place.

... and this is art (about storytelling)

... and this is art (about storytelling)

From narrative theory, concentrating on the rational, well-meant messages and not the narrative can often result in unintended results.  Using master messages as one’s starting point is asking for trouble.  And even if one takes account of the narrative it is often one’s own narrative, not the narrative existing in temporal and complex space – one’s own story often bears no resemblance to the story ‘out there’.  And understanding culture, poilitics, media environments and history will be to little avail if one does not understand how they contribute to existing narratives and what those narratives are.

The advent of new, social, digital media complicates all this.  Whilst many claim that it dilutes the temporal aspect, the memory, by diffusing its constituents, others talk of it hardening history through the ability to capture, archive, retrieve and distribute digital information, creating definitive spikes in historical discourse (much like the long tail phenomena, whereby expontential traction is afforded to the few).  Alongside this aspect of memory comes the idea of memes, gathering pace amongst practitioners and acdemics alike.

But at heart, the art of the strategic narrative involves the understanding of how narratives exist, what creates such narratives, accepting that they are fundamental to the communicative environment and have a temporal quality, and realising that domination of an existing narrative is not practical (although the generation of a dominant narrative is).  To the communications practitioner it involves the understanding of one’s own narrative in the minds of others, accepting that it may be different from the intended, grasping how and why that is so, and developing messages that will influence that narrative, not ones that will just bombard it ineffectually.

Taking a look at many public diplomacy, strategic communications and PR campaigns, an obvious hankering for an ordered universe, where stories can be controlled, seems to be the norm.  A more enlightened, deeper understanding of narratives and their place in publics’ psyches may pave the way to developing the elusive art of the strategic narrative.

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So you want to study the ‘hot button’ topic of Public Diplomacy?  Oh, you mean diplomatic studies, or maybe international relations, or possiblily public relations or communication studies.  Oh, you don’t?  You definately and specifically want to study the increasingly complex and important subject of public diplomacy?  Well, let’s see what we can do.

How about the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Public Diplomacy or an MSc in Public Diplomacy at New York’s Syracuse University(see their enthusiastic students expounding on public diplomacy in the film below)?  Then there’s a Public Diplomacy Course at Georgetown University in Wasington D.C. or you could attend Edward R. Murrow School of Public Diplomacy at Tufts University, Massachusetts.

What’s that? You say, the Murrow School appears semi-dormant and some other courses are merely minor elements of wider masters programmes?  Hmm, I see.

Ah, anything outside of the US, you ask? In public diplomacy, specifically?

Um, well, let me see.  Oh, yes, how about the online course in Public Diplomacy at the Diplo Foundation, Malta?  And then there’s … um … well, there’s … ah … well, nowhere else, as far as I know*.

In the old days where diplomats spoke to diplomats and occasionally some PR-type would be brought in to do some outreach thing or media campaign for foreign audiences, it was acceptable that public diplomacy was not on any curricula – a good bit of experience and one would get the handle of it.  Globalisation, the information age, technological advances and the spread of democracy have changed all that, and anyone expected to work in public diplomacy can expect a sharp learning curve.  Yet as shown above, outside the US, there are few institutions providing that learning at high level, certainly not at the graduate level, preparing students for entering the workforce.  One or two week courses here and there, aspects of Public diplomacy in wider studies, the occasional conference and articles published, but not genuine, specific, academic, graduate level learning.

John Hemery, in his chapter on public diplomacy training in ‘The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations’ (Mellisen, J. (Ed), Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), highlights the dearth of real academic education in the field.  As ever, the US is learning its lessons quickly, as shown above.  But what of the rest of the world?  Is it time that nations, such as the UK, examined its personnel requirements in terms of public diplomacy (there are certainly calls for it to taken seriously), and looked closely at any academic approach that may be necessary to prepare its young people for 21st century diplomatic and communication environments?

*Note: Of course, CB3 may not be aware of all academic training available, and would appreciate being informed of other courses.


Heard from Basra: “What on Earth were the British doing here? Wasting their time, wasting their money and wasting their lives.”  Not CB’s words, but sentiments expressed by the people of Basra, passed on by a senior and highly regarded BBC correspondent who has spent years reporting from the streets of Iraq. (for the original audio – Radio 4 Today programme at 0738 on 30 Apr 2009)

The British Army is leaving Iraq – an Army steeped in tradition and arguably recognised as one of the best fighting forces in the world.  It is, by and large, well respected and has an admirable and solid reputation.  Only last summer, IPSOS-Mori polling gave  an 80% favourable or mainly favourable  (UK only) to the question “How favourable or unfavourable are your opinions and impressions of the British Army?” Fine stuff indeed, and fully endorsed by CB3.

However, reputation is a fickle entity and never guaranteed, no matter how strong your ‘brand’.

The British Army - A fine reputation, but one to be maintained just as much after Iraq as during it.

The British Army - A fine reputation, but one to be maintained just as much after Iraq as during it.

The line has often been used that the difficulties and struggles faced by the British military have been caused by politicians (the Labour government) who have sent them on unsuitable missions, under-resourced and often out-gunned.  The concept of serious problems within the Army, are not new, as Newsnight’s  September 07 programme ‘Broken Army’ proves.  And Deep Cut, Royal Navy Iranian hostages, with its own  media debacle (not Army but still people in uniform), and abuses of Iraqi prisoners, have also raised eyebrows (putting it mildly!), here and internationally. However, recent media coverage, such as Stephen Grey’s Dispatches – Afghanistan: Mission Impossible?, and several print articles have further eluded to failures within the military itself.    While Con Coughlin concedes that the damage to the Army’s reputation is real, albeit of government making, Christopher Brooker is particularly forthright:

“The British Army had entered Iraq in 2003 with a reputation as ”the most professional in the world’’. Six years later it will leave, having failed to fulfil any of its allotted tasks and having earned the contempt of the Iraqis and the Americans after one of our most humiliating defeats in history.”

Now, of course, headlines and op-eds and the occasional documentary do not automatically reflect genuine public opinion but let’s look at a hypothetical timeline over the next eighteen months:

  • American money pours into the south of Iraq, infrastructure improves – Narrative in Basra: ‘It’s getting much better now the Americans are here’, possibly reading as ‘the British Army failed’.
  • Afghanistan remains slow progress, but the Obama administration wants a good foreign policy win, and points to Iraq – Narrative in the US: ‘We’re suceeding in Basra’ i.e ‘where the British Army failed’.
  • Maliki wants to capitalise on sucess in Basra – Narrative:, with American support, the Iraqi government is improving the lives of Baswaris’, read as ‘where the British Army couldn’t’
  • Domestically, the Conservatives, wishing to win marginal seats in garrison towns during the general election (remember this is hypothetical), make a campaign push on defence – Narrative ‘We will rebuild a ‘broken Army’, read as ‘the Army is broken’.
  • Overall narrative:  ‘The broken British Army failed in Iraq’.  And a sustained narrative like this may well affect public opinion.

Okay, so that;s all hypothetical, but the point here is, regardless of a failure to resource the Army for its mission and the fact that any chance of success in Iraq was also down to several government agencies who do not wear combat uniform, under the circumstances above, the Army, the most visible of British involvement, may end up taking the hit long after they have withdrawn.  The US Army took a generation to really get over the damage that Vietnam did to its reputation, despite its many successes (i.e. the massive Tet offensive was successfully repelled, effectively a massive US victory but was seen as a PR disaster).

CB3’s hope and hunch is that this won’t happen for the British Army.  But a recent conversation with a retired British Lieutenant-Colonel, who could not ever see circumstances in which the Army’s reputation would be tarnished, got CB3 thinking.  That well earned reputation is not guaranteed, and must be attended to just as much after the event (Iraq) as during it.  Resting, literally, on laurels just won’t cut it.

Further, there are lessons here for others.  Let’s not forget, other militaries are appearing to limp home from Iraq.  They have reputations to think about too.