The bloody summer in Afghanistan and elections in Iran have recently brought communications within the foreign policy arena back into the spotlight, showing public relations and strategic communication to be close,if sometimes misunderstood, relatives.
Establishing a radio station to persuade locals not to support pirates; justifying heavy combat operations while trying to convince homeless villagers to support your side; convincing an enemy that his cause is doomed; maintaining domestic public support for an unpopular and difficult foreign policy; encouraging populations to embrace ideas conflicting with their traditional culture; supporting repressed publics in their pursuit of freedom.
These are examples of a field of communications which rarely grace the pages of PR and communications magazines, but which feature heavily in the daily news intake of big and disparate publics, and have the potential to influence the very future of global geopolitics.
This field of foreign policy communication is known within the practising community as ‘strategic communication’.
Outside the field there are terms well recognised by PR practitioners, even laymen – propaganda, nation-branding, psychological operations – terms that give a taster, but rarely provide the full flavour, of a complex communication arena. Likewise, there are fragments which can cumulatively paint the environment of strategic communication – the child soldier laden with ammunition and an AK47; sparkling white United Nation aid convoys trailing through arid, burnt scrubland; a battered but prized radio spouting the scratchy tones of the BBC World Service. These images might evoke emotive responses but they do little to explain strategic communication.
The precise definition of strategic communication is debatable, but put simply, it is the use of communication, in all its guises, to support and achieve foreign policy objectives.
Due to the variety of subject areas, from climate change to assuaging warring factions’, the variety of factors – including Non Governmental Organisations, states, terrorist groups, diasporas and global institutions; and the variety of publics, from the hi-tech media savvy Iranian teenager to the illiterate Sudanese goatherd, the field, operating globally by definition, rightly deserves the label ‘strategic’. To unravel the concept, it’s worthwhile examining a simple but effective model, breaking it into four constituent pillars, some of which PR practitioners will be very familiar with.
First pillar: Public diplomacy
Firstly, public diplomacy seeks, through the exchange of people and ideas, to build lasting relationships and understanding of a nation’s culture, values and policies.
A term coined in the 1960s, public diplomacy gained recognition as a tool of foreign policy during the Cold War. After a hiatus during the 1990s, the aftermath of 9/11 has brought the practice back to the fore in many foreign policy establishments, making it a hot topic, including in United States diplomatic circles.
Second pillar: International broadcasting services
In close alignment with public diplomacy, the second pillar comprises international broadcasting services – BBC World, Voice of America, China’s CCTV-9 and France 24 to name a few. These governmentfunded services transmit news, information, public affairs programs and entertainment to global audiences in a variety of ways.
The influence of such services is often misjudged as being little more than of fleeting interest to bored businessmen in international hotels. But they can also be very powerful, especially if the significant penetration of BBC Pashto in Afghanistan is anything to go by.
Third pillar: Media relations
Media relations or operations are used by Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence to depict communication activities intended primarily to inform and influence domestic media and, therefore, home audiences.
In today’s information environment, this is a quaint idea, given that there is almost complete convergence between media available to domestic and foreign audiences.
Such convergence provides severe headaches for strategic communicators, often trying to provide one message to domestic publics but another to a foreign audience or even an adversary. As a result, the international, regional and local media feature more and more in the media relations strategy.
Fourth pillar: Influence activity
Increasingly touted as ‘influence activity’, the fourth pillar of military information operations focuses on influencing the will of an enemy, but more increasingly of a host nation’s population, capturing their ‘hearts and minds’.
It is categorised as an integrating strategy, as opposed to a capability, and the tools available for such come from a wide spectrum. Actions to influence the will traditionally make use of psychological operations (psyops), electronic warfare (EW), operational security (OPSEC), computer network operations (CNO), kinetic targeting and deception. However, ‘force presence, posture and profile’ along with media operations are also considered in the mix.
Of these information operations, Psyops probably has the highest profile, often linked to propaganda. The field stretches from ‘white’ psyops – placing stories, features, pamphlets, internet sites and the like where the source, be it the US marines or the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), is fully visible – through to ‘black’ psyops – in which the same channels may be used but the source is hidden. Notably, both black and white psyops are grounded in ‘credible truth’.
The former, much more commonly used, is not so different from traditional PR, while the latter can open a whole can of worms, as did the covert placing of stories, originating from the US military, in the Iraqi press in 2005.
Deception is much more straightforward. It is the military use of assets to ‘fool’ an adversary through outright lying, if necessary. Operating at the tactical level, through ‘spoofing’ on communication circuits, to the strategic, such as the coalition military preparing to liberate Kuwait in 1991 which made several signals, including through the conventional media, which indicating that the invasion would come from the sea in a massive amphibious landing.
It didn’t. But that example is illustrative of the fact that deception might be formulated through all the information operations channels and more. It is deception, seen as a legitimate strategy, which tarnishes much of military information operations, especially psyops, with the brush of propaganda, spin and lies. However, it must be said that modern militaries are waking up to the fact that the information age is increasingly demanding credibility, and therefore truth, of its participants.
Although still largely outside the dominant management coalition, strategic communication is increasingly seen as a vital component of achieving objectives, through ‘soft power’.
The US is adopting a more ‘diplomatic’ approach, within which communication has a major role, although funding for such an approach is yet to be forthcoming. The idea of communication forming a mainstay of foreign policy interventions has been especially supported by the latest generation of senior military officers, saying in regard to Iraq: “We can no longer kill ourselves out of here,” and the notion that the Afghan campaign should, first and foremost, be an ‘information’ campaign. The US military has looked closely at utilising lessons and practices gleaned from Madison Avenue.
Further, the growing realisation of the power of social media is also creating new, if still clumsy, approaches to strategic communication.
NATO has recently enhanced its online presence; many foreign policy agencies are now Twittering; military personnel are blogging. The phrase ‘digital diplomacy’ is increasingly heard in foreign ministries.
Examples include the Israeli government hiring numerous internet savvy students to blog and Twitter their way to dominance in the online Arab-Israeli debate. Even China’s People’s Liberation Armys is attempting to build its reputation via the internet. Yet, these ideas and actions have yet to be really brought together as a ‘strategic’ capability.
Foreign policy strategic communication is complex and challenging but it is no more propaganda than PR is ‘spin’. PR and foreign policy strategic communication are close relatives, almost twins, but they operate in very different contexts. A failure in one can see a hard earned corporate reputation in tatters, and billions wiped off share prices. A failure in the other might result in severe hardship, suffering and even death to many. One may face sophisticated and vocal activists with widespread support. The other may face insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades.
Yet this doesn’t detract from the fact that these relatives are so close, and even more importantly, could learn from each other.
This article appears in the Sept/Oct 2009 edition of Profile magazine
There is one book that should be recommended to newly appointed public affairs officers; “The Utility of Force” by Rupert Smith. Smith’s erudite vision of ‘war amongst the peoples’ is a vital backdrop to modern military public affairs. However, whilst Smith’s book does elude to the media and the ‘theatre’ of war, it does not examine the phenomena in detail, being outside the scope of his excellent book.
Now that gap has been filled and one more book can be added to the list of recommendations: Rid and Hecker’s “War 2.0: Irregular Warfare in the Information Age”.
The authors’ grasp of the nexus of modern warfare and information is well presented, making a clear and easily understood delineation between what they call War 1.0, the industrial use of force throughout the 20th century, and War 2.0, 21st century irregular war and counterinsurgency, fought ‘amongst the peoples’, peoples who now have an extraordinary access to information. Such a deep analysis is timely, given the intense debate within the US and NATO over future strategy, especially in Afghanistan. Rid and Hecker’s work on what is a seismic shift in the conduct of modern war, should rightly inform that debate, one which is moving ahead swiftly, riding a wave of civilian surge and non-kinetic approaches to counterinsurgency and post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction.
The case studies, using the US, UK and Israeli militaries and also Hezbollah, the Taliban and Al-Qaida, provide ample evidence of the complexity of information in irregular warfare, and the oft-misunderstood deeper consequences of it. As they point out, in less than a decade three wars involving sophisticated militaries and insurgents have raged amid the vortex of perhaps the most fundamental information revolution in history. They explore the effects of such on organization, politics, strategy, implementation and objectives.
From a military viewpoint, the book is replete with examples where the provision of information, via media or otherwise, to the local population is in fact of higher operational priority than such provision to a home audience. Public affairs now directly influence military outcomes, a point Smith would concede. Many military personnel realize that information can’t be controlled, that speed of response is crucial, that release authority should be as low as possible. In short, seeing the public as the new centre of gravity, many do ‘get it’. However, it is argued that conceptual, cultural, organizational and political resistance prevent the more effective use of information in a media (both traditional and new)-saturated age. Whilst extolling the many virtues of new technologies, equally Rid and Hecker point out the dangers, especially in the US, of over-reliance on new media as a solution and warn of it being over-rated or, at the very least, used without the full understanding of its nature, especially regarding a media-savvy enemy. Further, they warn of information and communication being overly concerned with the domestic audience and often being largely politically, as opposed to militarily, driven, especially in the case of the UK. However, whilst Rid and Hecker’s analysis is sound, their concerns over the capabilities of military public affairs officers, many of whom do ‘get it’, are sometimes a little harsh.
On the opposing side, their examination makes it clear that Hezbollah has made information a centerpiece of its operations, from simple techniques, such as branded material, to the more sophisticated, via mainstream television and internet activities. Similarly, they contend that the Taliban have also undergone a transformation, from being media–shy to avidly exploiting it, along with hi-tech activities available in a burgeoning new media, especially SMS, market.
For Al-Qaida, the authors argue that the consequences of the information age have gone deeper. The strategic transformation of Al-Qaida from a hierarchical organization to a cellular one, relies heavily, and utilizes efficiently, web technology – allowing the ‘community’ to focus on ideas, common purpose, participation and ‘fuzzy membership’, epitomized by ‘electronic jihad’, as opposed to strict edicts and protocols transmitted via easily compromised methods.
However, whilst the nature of new media may suit insurgents, Rid and Hecker make the cogent argument that the challenges of the contemporary information environment have posed problems for the insurgent and terrorist. Strategic inertia, loss of control, heightened political risk and management of globalised themes all have their impact on the effectiveness of the message.
Whilst Rid and Hecker’s recommendations are unfortunately not explored in great detail, they are insightful, for military public affairs officers, strategists, senior officers and policy-makers. Their recommendations are thread with considered approaches to modern technology and core practices recognized by any public relations practitioner but they are also reminiscent of a well known military doctrine, that of Mission Command. They promote decentralisation, freedom, speed of action, delegation, initiative and the acceptance of a degree of risk – all virtues of Mission Command but rarely used in the practice of military information and communication. One only needs to have read their compelling case studies to agree that such virtues are vital in the information age.
Timely, evidence-driven, clear and concise, “War 2.0” challenges the ideas and protocols of the 20th century, dragging us into the modern reality inhabited by ‘digital natives’, and is recommended reading for all, young and old, involved in or studying the conduct of irregular warfare. And along with their doctrinal notes from staff college, public affairs officer should now add one more book to their compulsory reading list.
Mission Command. Most military personnel in modern armed forces, certainly in the West, understand it. 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, practisng ‘management by objectives’ or the management concept of empowerment.
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 docrine, 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.
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 (sounds familiar? – see the first paragraph), have as good, if not better, capabilities than the modern fighting forces. Indeed, modern fighting forces, are hamstrung for may 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?
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 hierachy to’ let go’. But the signs are there. Without decentralisation, freedom of action, speed, delegation and iniative 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.
The UK’s new Minister of Defence, Bob Ainsworth, gave his first public speech on Wednesday 8 July at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), wordled below. Now, Ainsworth, unlike his predecessors, has previous in the area of defence, as in he was Minister of State for the Armed Forces from June 2007, so he’s pretty much up to speed on what it’s all about. Further, he’s known as a straight talker.
So his first speech as Minister of Defence could have been expected to be a no-nonsense justification of UK military operations and presence in Helmand, especially with casualty rates amongst his troops currently so appalingly high, which has given the media extra focus on Afghanistan. The circumstances, unfortunate and saddening as they are, the timing and the platform gave an opportunity for the MoD to give heightened voice to a message which is not being heard by the British public, a message clearly articulating why the UK is doing what it’s doing, and suffering because of it, in a far off counry.
Indeed, Ainsworth was refreshingly forthright, admitting that the problems faced are grave and serious. Further, he did attempt to show signs of a strategy, articulating several steps necessary, many already under way, to stabilise the situation and reach an ‘end state’, not an end date. Indeed, he stated that ‘more lives will be lost and our resolve will be tested’ – no pulling of punches here. In fact, that was the message received by the media, as scores of headlines, from the BBC to the tabloids reiterated the warning of further lives being lost.
Yet as to explaining why, an opportunity was missed. Of the 2943 words of the speech, only 220 words, less than 10%, were invested in that crucial element of explaining why. Any message explaining why it is vital that the UK continue to puts its people in harm’s way was drowned out, if really attempted at all.
The MoD itself seemed to be caught up in its own tight worldview, panglossian in its attempt to be seen to be filling this yawning information gap. As can be seen from its own website, despite the lack of real attempt to deal with the ‘why’ question, MoD were keen to portray the speech as one in which “Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has given a speech today explaining why the British Armed Forces are on operations in Afghanistan”.
Unfortunately he didn’t. A fine speech it may have been, but it didn’t do what it says on the tin.
Of course it would be naive to think that good old-fashioned politics would merely allow such a speech to go ahead. Yet politics is about power and influence and retaining it. And modern democratic politics cannot achieve such things without an informed public. With operations at high tempo, and serving personnel working bloody hard to achieve their objectives, and suffering in order to do so, the media ensures that Afghanistan remains in the spotlight in the eyes of the public. Under this spotlight and with a new, straight talking Minister, there is a window of opportunity to articulate the governments reasons for pursuing such a difficult course, to inform its public so they may at least understand. Those at Chatham House might understand (and remember this was a public speech – Chatham House was the location not the audience), CB3 might understand, most journalists might understand, but the majority of the British public remain unclear as to why our Armed Forces are being asked to do what they are doing. The window of opportunity for changing that won’t stay open for long.
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 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.
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?
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.