Definitions of strategic communications are replete with the notions of coordination, coherence, management and synchronization.  Indeed any idea of communications strategies, plans or campaigns focuses on such elements.

“the synchronized coordination of statecraft, public affairs, public diplomacy, military information operations, and other activities, reinforced by political, economic, military and other actions, to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives.”[1]

“focused USG (United States Government) processes and efforts to understand and engage key audiences in order to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable to advance national interests and objectives through the use of coordinated information, themes, plans, programs and actions synchronized with other elements of national power.”[2]

“In concert with other political and military actions to advance NATO’s aims and operations through the co-ordinated, appropriate use of Public Diplomacy, Public Affairs (PA), and Information Operations( lnfo Ops)[3]

However, the real potency of communication efforts is down to the degree of synergy leveraged from the garnering of its components.

Through complex military operations, in which synchronization and coordination are paramount, such as joint fires or air tasking orders, military staff, management and organisations are adept, practiced and knowledgeable in such matters.  In fact, this inherent ability to coordinate and synchronize is almost a feature of military culture – “synchronize watches”, Joint Coordination Board.  If anyone can do the coordination thing, it’s the military.  Difficult though it may be, through the internal machinations and politics of organisations, especially multinational ones, this practical synchronization and coordination is not the problem – it’s inbred into the military culture.  You’ve got structures and processes galore, tried and tested (although not perfect, which we will come to later).  Yet, despite this, the message, big idea, ideology, narrative often fails to be communicated effectively – synergy is not achieved.  The result is several diffuse and only roughly aligned messages, even given resources and political backing, entering the information space, producing diluted effects, producing a degree of cognitive dissonance and being pulled apart by audiences, both friend and foe. We fail to reach the next quantum level.  The problem is more often than not deciding exactly what is to be synchronized and coordinated, right back at its roots.

In the 1980s, it was observed that organisational structure and processes did not account entirely for organisational success and synergy of output. Academic research sought out the missing link and rested upon culture, the deep roots of foundation.  It is back at these roots that synergy is born.  Without the deep, cultural, almost anthropological, knowledge and understanding of what one is, all that comes after will fail to achieve synergy, and remain merely constituent parts, no matter how well these parts operate.

Unfortunately, in the current politico-military communication environment, the vast majority of papers, research, studies, soul-searching and practical application, remains intensely pre-occupied with ‘the other’ – those out there, the audience, the public, the media, the stakeholders.  That is just so.  As Sun Tzu said:

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

Sun Tzu - Even Paris Hilton thinks he's good

Indeed one needs to know ‘the enemy’ – all military personnel understand this.  Although not wishing to make too much of the war analogy, knowing ‘the other’ is vital in terms of communication.  Rightly, much time and effort is taken up in market research, audience analysis, cultural awareness and the like.

But synergy is achieved by taking the last of Sun Tzu’s points – knowing the enemy and knowing yourself.  The implications, especially in communications terms, of not fully understanding what you are, why you exist, what you want and why you want it are massive.  Without this understanding, synergy can never be achieved.

Any trained public relations officer in the corporate world will be aware of the need to understand his or her organization, to be able to distill its essence, define its ideals, recognize its culture, explain its spirit, feel its soul.  Nice and soft and fluffy – and rather intangible stuff.  This immediately presents a problem for the military mindset, born of a culture of exactitudes, specifics and precision.  The military don’t really do intangibles.

But communication and information exist in a world floating in intangibles.  A large percentage of an organisation’s value is its reputation or “goodwill” – an intangible asset accounted for by deducting the financial value of tangible assets (buildings, stock, equipment, financial reserves,etc) from the organisation’s total worth.  Of course, such is based upon ‘real’ tangible factors – products or action, but these do not guarantee a good reputation.

But the intangible idea of culture is potent.  Take Apple.  You know what Apple represents, most of the Western world does.  And we don’t just mean a computer company – we mean its culture.  Rebellious, casual but intense work ethic, collegial.  If we take culture as being defined by:

Socio-cultural system – structure, strategies, policies, processes, goals, reward, motivation

Cultural system – shared understanding evidenced in myths, stories, ideology, values and artefacts

Individual actor – the role played by individuals within the organisation who receive and contribute to culture as they orientate themselves to its operation.[4]

then it’s probable that most of us could have a fair stab at pinning down Apple’s

Apple - you just know what it's all about.

culture.  And if you can’t, then ten minutes in an Apple shop speaking to the employees will put you right.  And the same thing would happen in New York, Madrid, Paris, Berlin or Brussels. Notably, these employees, the vital ‘touchpoints’ between the organisation and the ‘the other’, the consumer, are all fully signed up and thoroughly enveloped in this culture – they all know what Apple is about, they’ve got the t-shirts.  Their products, their structure and processes, born of a deep seated culture allow for a synergy in their communicative efforts. This blog has been written on a PC, by the way – not very cool.

Now let’s take NATO.  Now, we’re not going to compare Apple to NATO but merely examine an area proved vital, if rarely explored, to synergistic communication – culture.  In the cold war, NATO had an easily identifiable identity and culture – a bastion protecting the values of freedom and democracy against the Russian hordes.  All trained and prepared to fight, brothers with brothers, to hold back the scourge, and real threat, of communism.  That it never came to that allowed that identity and culture to remain untested.  But meanwhile, military personnel knew what this organisation was, where they might fit into it, and why.

But twenty years after the fall of the wall, in Afghanistan, that culture and identity, often ignored as a crucial feature in the communication effort, has been tested and found wanting.   Synergy, despite processes, structure, coordination even apparent political agreement, is failing because that vital element of cultural identity is too thin.  Those involved in communication, and by that I mean everyone, from the private soldier to the General, – all those ‘touchpoints’  have too vague a notion of what their overarching organisation is about, what it is meant to do and what it wants to do – they haven’t got the t-shirts.  And if they don’t know, as a collective, what they’re about, how can they tell others, both at home and abroad, and further, how can they contribute to the communication element of the mission?

A stinging indictment in the Washington Post in October 2009 exemplified the lack of synergy in the ISAF message.  The article, “The Slowly Vanishing NATO”, is only one of many appraisals reflecting countless “whither-the-Alliance” seminars held over the last few years, reflecting a possibly growing sentiment, within and outside NATO itself.  As Anne Applebaum reported:

“There is almost no sense anywhere that the war in Afghanistan is an international operation, or that the stakes and goals are international, or that the soldiers on the ground represent anything other than their own national flags and national armed forces”[5]

The suggestion is that the identity, or the very deep roots of culture binding the very nature, of the Alliance, is either crumbling or unsuited to the task in hand.  And without such culture synergy suffers.

And this applies to individual militaries, once defined by their capabilities in industrial war-fighting.  This identification is foundering as these militaries are involved in ‘war amongst the people’, counter-insurgency operations, especially in long-standing multi-national operations.  Soldiers, sailors and airmen and women may be more frequently asking themselves ‘what is this ‘thing’ I am a part of.  I understand my immediate culture, but outside of that I’m slightly lost’.

Clausewitz’s trinity applies here – military, government and people. But our point is, whilst it is vitally important that the domestic audiences understand what NATO and their nation’s contributions are about, we must not forget that the development and maintenance of the understanding of those on the battlefield, through the adaptation and nurturing of a culture suitable to war 2.0, is equally important.  This more than internal communications, force magazines, divisional orders.  It is about fundamental management and difficult but possibly fruitful political choices.  Indeed, a degree of culture shift may be happening towards a wider political view of tasks and objectives, and where militaries may feature in this broader framework.  As Stephen Grey, respected Times journalist with extensive knowledge of operations in Afghanistan, admitted after his last stint there over the summer of 2009, the British Army was adapting very quickly. Some soldiers he met spoke of a transformation in culture. Grey identified the most important change as a recognition that the political aspect of the wider strategy could not simply be left to other government agencies like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DFID). But this process of adaptation needed to continue and he wondered whether the pace of change was sufficient in the face of an enemy who was also adapting.[6]

However, we must inject a sense of reality.

“Changing structures, systems and platform capabilities is one thing: changing the way your people think, interact and behave … is much more difficult.”[7]

Realistically we must appreciate that such moves will be gradual and there will be almost immovable, mostly political, obstacles but we do believe that there are workable measures that can be taken to imbue that sense of raison d’etre across a force, measures that can be enacted by management functions.

Busy finding out about how these chaps work ...

Style of leadership and management is a reflection of culture.  At one end of the spectrum some organisations tend to favour management structures which are mechanistic, hierarchical, centralised and formal, whilst at the opposite end others enjoy organic, networked, creative, flexible and informal approaches, with a multitude of permutations in between.  Militaries across the world tend to adopt vaguely similar management style – walk into any barracks on the face of the planet and the hierarchical, centralised and formal atmosphere will be obvious, and for good reason given the tasks required of militaries.  However, management and leadership is also adaptive, and has over time evolved to suit contemporary requirements.  Such adaptation has allowed many militaries to adopt a style more suited to modern complex warfare – the style of management known as Mission Command.

It constitutes a style of military command promoting decentralisation, freedom, speed of action, delegation and initiative. Subordinates, understanding the commander’s intentions, their own missions and the context of those missions, are told what effect they are to achieve and the reason why it needs to be achieved.  Indeed, most civilians will recognise it, practising ‘management by objectives’ or the management concept of empowerment.  A corporate example could be from Marks and Spencers, with the highest reputation rating amongst UK companies in 2009[8]:

The business of Marks and Spencer sometimes might use a mixture of Management Styles.  For example, Marks and Spencer is consultative, but the business might also be using a democratic management style and also to a degree laissez-faire.  This is where people are allowed to do what they feel correct, this is usually associated with medium status (e.g. Managing director – Marketing Director) probably because they are experts in their field so they know what they’re doing.[9]

Returning to the military, originating in Clausewitz’s 19th century German armed forces, known as auftragstaktik, mission command works ideally in high tempo and complex warfare.  Although the ‘thousand-mile screwdriver’ is still commonplace in military operations, and in corporate affairs, high ranking political officials would never dream of attempting to dictate to the soldier on the ground how to achieve his objective – even though, as per Clausewitz, “war is an extension of politics by another means”.  It works because of highly specific objectives and a confidence in highly trained and experienced operatives, allowing for a serious degree of delegation.

Today’s warfare, ‘War 2.0′, is a far cry from that of the age of industrial force-on-force struggle.  In counter-insurgency, operations other than war, ‘war amongst the people’ and the like, communication, both simple and hi-tech (from the tribal gathering to the Second-Life propaganda) has become a major feature of conduct of warfare, conflict, call it what you want.  As is increasingly becoming apparent in doctrine, opinion, papers and at conferences, communication – stratcom, influence, public affairs, public diplomacy – is as considerable a factor, or operational capability, as tanks, bullets and bombs.  However, whilst the latter are often utilised under the code of Mission Command, the former is not.

An example of where mission command may well have assisted in the dissemination of information occurred in the aftermath of the ill-fated and much reported air strike on fuel tankers near Kunduz in early September 2009.  The decision-making processes at high level kicked in quickly but then took time to decide what to say, whilst in the meantime, fearing political fallout, Public Affairs officers on the ground were hamstrung by clearance mechanisms.  The information vacuum was quickly filled by other sources, many very unreliable and ISAF communication efforts once again were behind the ball – an experience common to many PAOs.  The impact of the lack of freedom of action and open practices were huge, resulting in the resignation of the German Defence Minister and sacking of the Inspector General of German Forces, in effect their Chief of the Defence Staff.  An important aspect of these events is the shifting power structure within communications, in which official power centres could not control public information and were subject to alternate power sources beyond their influence.  This shifting power distribution is a new reality[10].

... when the collective culture of these chaps needs looking at too.

Similarly, the public affairs response to the burning Warrior AFV incident in Basra in 2006, connected with a British operation to release soldiers held captive at a police station, led to a loss of communication initiative.  In what was a complex set of events, a degree of respected initiative on the ground may have prevented what became an all-out media sensation surrounding the possibility of withdrawal and utter military failure in Basra.  As it happened, time lapsed allowing a misleading narrative and raw imagery to take hold globally, only to be pursued by the “commentariat”.

The tight, codified, process-driven and hierarchical systems within with military communication stymies any real effectiveness in War 2.0 – a fast and dynamic environment in which the ‘enemy’ may, as well as having the flexibility and responsiveness afforded by decentralisation, freedom, speed of action, delegation and initiative, have as good, if not better, capabilities than the modern fighting forces.  Indeed, modern fighting forces, are hamstrung by many immovable factors – politics, enemy capabilities, inherent communicative advantages afforded to insurgents etc – but there is one area, command style, which is in the gift of modern fighting forces to change.   The concept is well practised and widely applied, but can the style of mission command extend to communications?

There is an argument that communication is too strategically potent or politically sensitive – what is said, what is perceived, what is seen on the battlefield may have strategic effect – it may even make a Minister/Senator or a government policy look bad.  But today, with the concept of the ’strategic corporal’ ever present, in which the tactical military actions of very junior personnel have the capacity to bring about huge strategic impact, the same can be applied to any military action.  Thus, why should the command and management of military communication (public affairs, info ops etc) be any different to other traditional military function?

Risk aversion is a major factor in management style within militaries, living, eating and sleeping by doctrine.  We’re talking here about cerebral risk, not practical and physical risk, which miltaries, by their nature, live with daily.  But this cerebral risk allows free-thinking, dare we say ‘blue-skies’ thinking, and readiness to toy with and even accept new ideas.  But this has practical implications for the management of communications, as indicated by Rid and Hecker in which they recommend that ‘a culture of error tolerance be fostered’[11] amongst governments and militaries involved in what they term War 2.0.  Note, this is culture.

Political sensitivity, organisational culture, lack of a professionalism (in the strict sense of the word) – these all contribute to the inertia, the inability of the hierarchy to’ let go’.  But the signs are there.  Without decentralisation, freedom of action, speed, delegation and initiative afforded to professional and highly trained operators, then the command style will continue to restrict progress in strategic communications, regardless of how good the ‘message’ is.  Applying mission command to strategic communications is not straightforward, but acknowledging that a lack of it, or certainly its ethos, is a first step.  There will be immovable obstacles (some there for good reason), but examining where elements of mission command style could be employed in communications may just break a logjam of our own making.

It is, whilst considering managerial style, worthwhile looking across to the corporate world and the communication approaches deemed successful.  To an extent RAND have already do so with regard to marketing approaches being applied to ‘shaping’ and earning popular support in Theatres of operation.   In ‘Enlisting Madison Avenue’, all the major issues were highlighted: traditional kinetic focus, IO-Psyop overlap, lack of font line understanding, reactive information processes, measures of effectiveness and, of course, the lack of synchronization and coordination just about everywhere.  In applying marketing ideas and practices  – branding, sales, products – many communication issues can be ameliorated.  But, despite its great value in improving communication effect, this is tactical tinkering and highly customer-focussed.   Little time is given to more strategic effects of internal culture and management.

The point of all this is apparent from the degree of discourse on how we influence others, looking at the externalities but the utter lack of debate over how we see, organise, manage and function ourselves, examining the internalities.  Synergy and style of management is key to this internalising. Strategic communication is a holistic endeavour, not a magic bullet to merely deal with the complexities out there, and within that approach a long, hard look at ourselves is way overdue.


[1] Jeffrey B. Jones, “Strategic Communication: A Mandate for the United States,” Joint Force Quarterly 39 (Fourth Quarter 2005): 180.

[2] U.S. Department of State, “QDR Execution Roadmap for Strategic Communication,” September 2006, p. 3. and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02, April 12, 2001 (as amended through March 4, 2008), p. 522.

[3] NATO’s ACO 95-2 Strategic Communications dated 15 Sept 2008.

[4] Allaire Y. and Firsirotu M.E.  (1984) Theories of Organizational Culture in Organizational Studies 5(3)   London: Sage, 1984,  pp 193-226

[5] Washington Post, October 20, 2009

[6] http://frontlineclub.com/blogs/danielbennett/2009/11/stephen-grey-is-the-british-army-losing-in-afghanistan.html

[7] Aylwin-Foster N. Changing the Army for Counter-Insurgency Operations in Military Review, Nov-Dec 2005, pp 2-15

[8] http://www.marketingmagazine.co.uk/news/911066/British-consumers-rank-top-50-companies-reputation/

[9] “Report on the Business of Marks and Spencer.” 123HelpMe.com. 18 Nov 2009
<http://www.123HelpMe.com/view.asp?id=149330&gt;.

[10] “In a moment of acute crisis, political and corporate leaders along with government officials are discovering they have less power to shape public perceptions than they assume they must surely have ex officio. “ Gowing. N. ‘Skyful of Lies’and Black Swans: The New Tyranny of Shifting Power in Crisis Oxford: Reuters Institute, 2009 , p. 9.

[11] Rid T. & Hecker, M. War2.0: Irregular Warfare in the Information Age Westport: Praeger Security International, 2009, p. 223.

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