The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Category Archives: political communications

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.


See below some wise words from Major Mehar Omar Khan (Pakistan Army) from his article “Afghanistan: Seven Fundamental Questions” found at Small Wars Journal (http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/319-khan.pdf)

Who should the coalition try to impress: Afghans or rest of the world?

While the pressure to present tangible results in terms that sound familiar to domestic and global audience is understandable, lives of young men should not be ‘wasted’ in pursuit of hollow ideals and empty slogans that mean woefully little to the people of Afghanistan. While there is essentially nothing bad about transparent ballot boxes, soap opera television, Afghan movies and a few dozen bold and beautiful women in the legislative assembly, the Afghan people look wearily at all these things. They are not impressed with these ‘achievements’, not just because they have an outdated mindset, but because it means so little to them in terms of alleviating some of their most basic concerns like hunger, malnutrition, disease, violence and fear. Coalition soldiers should not have to die for anything less noble than helping the people of Afghanistan forge a new future and a new destiny for themselves – a destiny that they will themselves determine in ways that they feel comfortable with.

Here are some ideas.

One, please understand the hearts and minds that you are trying to win. Most of these minds are illiterate, unschooled and locked in the last century. Most of these hearts are raw, romantic, sentimental and pure as a pearl. Help them start where they actually are and not where you want them to be. At their present level of socio-economic development, Afghans do not truly need a majestic parliament building, a palatial house for the president, five star hotels and nicely suited dummies as rulers in Kabul and Kandahar. They need small schools, clean drinking water, some pills for that headache which refuses to go away, some money to buy food for their kids and some assistance to kick-start their farming or that little shop in a mud-hut. People want their liberators to know that they need ‘electricity before they are asked to destroy their kerosene lantern’ and that they need to at least be able to read names before they are asked to choose one out of a long list of people vying to be their President.

Playing to this crowd ...

Playing to this crowd ...

Two, coalition must refuse to lock itself in a fight that tramples the people. This will involve some sacrifice in the short term but huge dividends in the long term.

Three, people need soldiers that respect their values and their traditions because, however outdated they may be, these are their values and their traditions. This land belongs to a ‘people’; it’s not the property of ‘a state’. In this context, is it not fair to ask how much of an effort, in terms of resources, has gone to ‘Afghanistan the state’ and how much to ‘Afghanistan the people’? How much of the money and resources and security has stayed and stagnated in Kabul guarding criminals and drug-lords; and how much of it has actually reached a far flung Helmand village caught in the center of the storm? How much of attention has gone to people most bitter about being ousted from power (Pashtuns) and how much of it has been lavished on communities that have generally always enjoyed a relative peace? Asking the right questions is the true test of honesty. Giving the right answers is a test of leadership. Questions carry their own correct answers as well as consequences for wrong answers.

global-crowd

... or this one?


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.

Ainsworth1

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.



Who’s the ‘Man’? You know – the ‘Man’!  Jack Black, School of Rock? The ‘Man‘!  What we’re talking about is The Establishment, The Elite, Them – sometimes elusive to pin down and definitively categorise but definately there – that’s the ‘Man’.  Yet if you live in certain societies, then the ‘Man’ is very visible – think of Iran right now – or if not so visible, then presenting a pervasive and omnipresent shadow – think of the People’s Republic of China.  However, today even the serious ‘Man’, wielding his riot baton or spying on every move, is facing a problem – a serious problem.  And at the core of that problem is communicating with its subjects, or publics.

When counter culture was here, the 'Man' had a degree of control over it

When counter culture was here, the 'Man' had a degree of control over it

There was a time when government enforcement and counter culture knew their places – the former within officialdom, ceremony, uniform and a conventional media who knew not to rock the boat too much, and the latter in dark, smoky bars (where have they gone?), underground leaflets, Che Guevara t-shirts, folk/pop songs and grassroots communication.  It was all so straightforward.  But then came the Summer of Love, Winter of Discontent, Punk, fall of the Berlin Wall and loads of other stuff which really messed up the status quo of society and state.  And throughout that period there was a growing and rich seam of information, through modern technology (we all think its so now but the microchip began life in the 1960s and zero-G (as opposed to 3G) mobile telephone network kicked off in 1971 in Finland).

With little choice, democracies have rolled with this wave of universally availablable information capability, have even been created as a by-product of it, and democratic governments have had to adjust to the competetiveness of the contemporary information market.  But after years of staving it off, trying to eliminate it or simply ignoring it, governments with a less than unblemished democratic credentials are really starting to feel the impact of this ubiquitous wave of communicative ability.

In Iran, much has been made of the effects of a technologically savvy and educated population using digital technology, via twitter, youtube, e-mail and blogs, to make their voice heard by the government.  The Iranian government, too late, appeared to understand that they no longer had the monopoly on information via their state-owned outlets.  Regardless of the political outcome of the Iranian situation, whether Ahmadinjad and Ayatollah Khamenei retain power or not, a fire has been lit which will have lasting repercussions in how that society is governed.  Not least, communication and access to information will be at the heart of Iran’s future.  A crackdown is likely but the genie is out of the bottle – empowerment of the counter culture is not going away.  In Iran, the ‘Man’ will have to think hard about what to do about the information factor.

And as likely as it is in the short term, crackdown is not an easy option, as China now testifies.  After years of developing Green Dam, a compulsory software system to allow a degree of government control over the internet, the government is now wavering.  Further, as Al Jazeera reported last week, the Chinese government is appreciating that it has to enter the information ring, not merely block it.  The government is taking steps to make its own state-controlled media operation more competitive in the market, making it more attractive and of consequence to possible viewers – it is entering, like in any other democracy, a battle to grab ratings.  With some 300 million Chinese online and therefore having a choice over who informs them of what’s going on (and most not referring to Chinese state media), the government is going to try to win them back, not coerce them back.  Even if Green Dam does eventually get the green light, this is a major change of attitude by the ‘Man’.

This realisation is ground-breaking.  If essentially undemocratic regimes are finally understanding that they cannot control information, then they will have to seek methods of joining the battle for audiences, just as democracies have had to do gradually over the last fifty years.  The ‘Man’ is waking up to the fact he is playing a new game with different rules, and he’s going to have to learn fast if he is to survive.  The problems are manifest – there is no legacy for playing this game, information structures will have to undergo major transformations, the very game encourages democratic and free market ideologies and the old guard may just never accept or understand the rules.  Public relations, public affairs, new media, public diplomacy – these are all big factors in the game, all of which will have to be recalibrated, and dialogical communications must feature as part of a new engagement strategy.  The impact will have deep political and socio-cultural consequences.  There is historical precedent – post-Gutenberg, it took some time before the pamphleteers of the 16th Century would contribute considerably to the demise of the Ancien regime, the ‘Man’ of the day.  Sure, the new game may not bring forth real revolution in the near future – it’s all about playing for the long term – but democratic or not, the ‘Man’ will have to adjust and will also have to accept that some accession of power will be necessary.

... but now it's here, and there's a new game for the 'Man'.

... but now it's here, and there's a new game for the 'Man'.

There are several regimes out there who are finding themselves at this juncture – they know who they are and we know who they are.  In these regimes, the ‘Man’ has a stark choice – adjust to the new game, understand the rules and accept the limitation on state power, or die … slowly.


IS THE PUBLIC INTEREST UNDER THREAT?

MEDIA POLICY RESPONSES TO THE PRIVATE SECTOR RECESSION IN EUROPE

Symposium jointly organised by the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI), University of Westminster, and the European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA)

Date:  2 October, 2009

Venue: University of Westminster, Regent Str Campus, 309 Regent Str, London W1B 2UW

camri_logo

THE TOPIC

In virtually every European country, the private media sector is suffering intense economic pressure from the cyclical downturn in advertising and the structural shift of advertising revenue to the web. As a result, corporations are pursuing every avenue to exploit new and existing means of generating revenue, and of maximising the potential of digitalisation. This is having a direct impact on the policy making process at both national and supranational levels as governments and regulatory agencies are coming under increasing pressure to restrict new initiatives in the public sector, to apply the strictest possible criteria to publicly funded media organizations, and to relax overall regulatory oversight of the private sector.

This symposium will seek to bring together scholars and regulators from around Europe to discuss the nature of new policy initiatives being canvassed or implemented, and their repercussions for promoting (or foreclosing) the public interest. Topics of particular interest include, but are not limited to:

·         Means of exploiting the “public” to alleviate pressures on the “private” (partnership deals, sharing proceeds of public funding etc.)

·         Limits on expansion or interpretation of public service broadcaster remits

·         Circumscribing funding opportunities for Public Service Media (PSM)

·         Proposals to change or reduce advertising controls or restrictions

·         Relaxing restrictions on concentration of ownership

·         Proposals to change or relax cross-ownership regimes at local, regional or national levels

·         Initiatives and responses at the EU level

There will be three themed sessions and one plenary session consisting of two keynote speakers. The precise themes will depend on abstracts received, but are provisionally designated as

i.                     relaxation of regulatory regimes and potential consequences

ii.                   pressures on PSBs and regimes of public funding

iii.                  ownership, consolidation and threats to pluralism

The model for this symposium will be short position papers of no more than 10 minutes in length designed to prompt cross-national discussion and debate. Our objective is to promote a better understanding of how governments and regulators within Europe are responding to the inevitable pressure to accommodate the private sector, and perhaps to anticipate some of the consequences. The emphasis will therefore be on discussion and exchange.

Our intention is then to select around 10 papers to be written up for an edited collection arising out of the symposium.

PROGRAMME AND REGISTRATION

The symposium will take place from 9.30 to 5.30 on Friday, October 2nd. There will be three sessions consisting of concurrent panels and one plenary session.

Online registration will open in September 2009.

DEADLINE FOR ABSTRACTS

Abstracts (between 300 and 500 words) addressing one or more of the above topics, and including a brief set of questions posed by the proposed paper, should be emailed in Word-format to  <Journalism@wmin.ac.uk <mailto:Journalism@wmin.ac.uk> > by Monday July 6th, 2009. Each abstract must include the presenter’s name, affiliation, email and postal address, together with the title of the paper and a brief biographical note on the presenter.

The selection committee will comprise members of CAMRI’s Policy Group and ECREA’s Communication Law & Policy Group.  Applicants will be advised by the end of July 2009 of the outcome of their submissions.

More information will be available in due time on the conference websites:

http://www.wmin.ac.uk/camri

<https://webmail.wmin.ac.uk/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://www.wmin.ac.uk/camri>

<https://webmail.wmin.ac.uk/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://www.wmin.ac.uk/camri>

http://commlawpolicy.wordpress.com

<https://webmail.wmin.ac.uk/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://commlawpolicy.wordpress.com/>

<https://webmail.wmin.ac.uk/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=https://webmail.wmin.ac.uk/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://commlawpolicy.wordpress.com/>


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.