The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

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Without doubt the information age has brought with the idea of ‘real’ dialogical communication, in which the global extent of networked society has blossomed.  A quick history lesson in from the classrooms of public relations adequately plots the transition from the hypodermic method of communication aimed at a centralised model of society, through to the two-step flow approach focussed on a decentralised society and finally into the contemporary networked communication process of a distributed system.

Hypodermic to networked models

Amongst the vast majority of communication practitioners, and beyond, this shift is explained and celebrated by new/now/digital/social media.  So far so good – nothing earthshattering and novel yet.  But does modern day ‘messaging’ cater for this environment?

The very idea of a message – something transmitted to an audience, the very fact one ‘sends’ messages infers indeed a one-way transaction.  But as we’re constantly informed by the social media gurus the new world is all about the ‘conversation’, dialogue, two-way communication, the community etc.  The notion of a message, purveyed hypodermically, is anathema to the new protocols and ethos of the information environment.   It grates against the sensitivities of the community involved.

Getting into a conversation not just getting a message out

One example is thst conducted by the Obama campaign forged around a slogan of ‘Yes, we can!’.  Throughout Obama’s campaign, in every media interview he gave, he embodied a sense that his ideas, his objectives, his desires, via the words and phrases he used were those of a larger community, not of a single man or entity, such as a future administration.  Less of the message, more of the idea.  His engagements with traditional media translated very well into the cyber domain, took place as part of a conversation and the techniques used, subtle as they were, allowed traditional media to converge with the needs of new, social media.

Does traditional media training cater for this change in the environment?

The output of a modern media interview is now one that is part of a wider conversation, one that is placed on the web immediately, directly or indirectly, inviting immediate comment and, if required, a response.  It’s not a one-off maneouvre.  But much media training relies on the interview being such a singularity – get your message out, full stop.

Much would be gained by interviewees being aware and being trained to treat their interviews as not just a transmission mechanism for their message but as part of a conversation.  This requires knowledge and understanding of that conversation, what it is centred around, how it is conducted, its tone and style.  Once again basic presentation is important – hands out of pockets, body language, dress code etc – but the timbre, wording, structure and emphasis are subtly altered, to align with the nature of contemporary information exchange and the format of the medium.

The media interviews of old for TV, radio or print are still relevant and require specific techniques.  But more frequently these interviews form part of a wider format of communication, relying less on the message and more on the conversation.

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A strong case can be made that contemporary strategic communications, as ‘synchronized coordination of statecraft, public affairs, public diplomacy, military information operations, and other activities’[1], is failing to achieve its potential at the national level due to organizational failings as well as problems within its constituent parts.

Yet, there are specific areas which are immediately recognised as impediments, notably organizational and managerial issues.  At a major US-UK conference in late 2005, examining information effects in counter-insurgency and stability operations, senior military and civilian personnel rounded upon the managerial aspects of communications and information:

Participants concurred that “we should all work together,” but recognized that strong organizational challenges remain. Participants agreed that the military needs clear strategic guidance on the proposed end-state and overall information strategy to effectively fight the informational fight. However, this strategic vision sometimes has been lacking, which has meant that, by default, the military was shaping policy through its actions on the ground. Many also thought that overall coordination mechanisms are lacking.[2]

Do fancy diagrams like this really address the organizational challenge?

Organizational structure and managerial capabilities in civil-military interventions may be seen as being hampering the communication function through their functionality being framed through an industrial warfare perspective:

[T]he traditional kinetic focus of U.S. military operations often jeopardizes communication-based shaping efforts.  U.S. forces are trained primarily for kinetic operations and inflicting casualties on an enemy, not for shaping noncombatant attitudes. Both force structure and mind-set can be incompatible with shaping goals.[3]

US military doctrine is pervasive throughout most militaries operating in multi-lateral civil-military interventions and thus structures, management and ethos are often replicated.

Corncerns over organizational and managerial issues at the senior levels of strategic communication, have also been raised before.  Once again taking the US example, the DSB reported in 2008:

Nevertheless, the task force finds reasons for continued concern.  Positive changes within organizations are real, but they depend to a considerable extent on the skills and imagination of current leaders.  These changes must be evaluated, and those that work should be institutionalized. Resistance from traditional organizational cultures continues. Resources for strategic communication have increased, but they fall substantially short of national needs.  This task force’s primary concern is that fundamental transformation in strategic communication has not occurred at the strategic and interagency level.[4]

Within this management challenge is the continuing top-down management processes within the foreign policy process, out of kilter with the contemporary information environment.  Faced with a rapidly changing environment, with regard to public diplomacy, Cull claims:

none of these changes is as challenging as the reorientation of public diplomacy away from the top-down communication patterns of the Cold War era[5]

Equally, the continuing disconnect between communication efforts and policy, also present an organizational and managerial challenge.  This is nothing new, as Edward R Murrow pointed out in the 1960s, famously claiming that communication personnel had to be ‘in on the take-offs of policy’ if it was going to be expected to be ‘in on the crash landings’.   As Cull, re-iterates:

[T]he most important link in any public diplomacy structure is that which connects ‘listening’ to policy-making and ensures that foreign opinion is weighed in the foreign policy process.[6]

It is therefore seen that there are problems within multilateral communications and many of these are attributed to managerial and organizational issues.  An examinination of those specific organizational and managerial aspects of multilateral communicative efforts during civil-military foreign policy interventions is well overdue.  This work would not be done without precedent; much has been done in the corporate world, but there is little evidence of deep analysis of communications management or organization against the backdrop of corporate lessons learnt.


[1] Jones,J. B., “Strategic Communication: A Mandate for the United States,” Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue Thirty-nine (Fourth Quarter 2005), p. 109.

 

[2] Collings, D. & Rohozinski, R., “Shifting Fire: Information Effects in Counterinsurgency and Stability Operations” , US Army War College (2006), p.12

[3] Helmus, T.C., Paul, C. & Glenn, R.W. “Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation” , (2007), p.17

[4] US DoD, “Task Force on Strategic Communication: Report of the Defense Science Board”, (2008), p. xi-xii

[5] Cull, N.,  Public Diplomacy: Seven Lessons for its Future from its Past in “Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World”, (2008), p. 25

[6] Ibid (2008), p. 20


Poignant video, winner of Afghanistan Matters video contest – appears a little military to start but moves on to the human aspect.

 


Renowned and prolific blogger Mountainrunner recently posted on ‘The False Hope of the President’s Public Diplomacy’ and it’s well worthwhile a perusal.

CB3 largely concurs with Mountainrunner’s sentiments.  The points are well made and for the most part entirely valid, although the comment ‘Public diplomacy must be re-framed as direct or indirect engagement of foreign audiences to further America’s national security’ seems to back up a DoD-centric view. This may be mere semantics but security can be a loaded word and PD operates across a policy spectrum – albeit all contributing to security.

US Public Diplomacy - still wearing combat boots?

US Public Diplomacy - still wearing combat boots?

The phenomena of ultimately leaving much foreign policy communicative effort to the military, who at least have the resources (but not necessarily the expertise), appears to be common, not only in the US but also, maybe to a slightly lesser degree, in the UK. NATO and the EU (within ESDP civ-mil operations) are also not immune to this.

Further, the narrowing of the word-deed gap is critical to the success of PD, which requires it to be deeply ingrained in policy-making (as Murrow appreciated). The corporate world has taken this on board but political institutions, even in the most developed nations on the planet, still don’t fully appreciate this fact, despite the recognition of the monumental societal changes being braought about by the information age. The Obama administration is good on the word but still has to follow upon the deed (good intentions lead the way to hell etc).

The US is now in a good position to make good on the Obama effect and take PD seriously, but I fear that political infighting is taking its toll. State needs to take a stand if the US is to capitalise on this window of opportunity.