The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Category Archives: Strategic Comms

The space created by humanitarian crises, conflict, revolution or disaster is always rapidly filled by actors of many persuasions – governments, belligerents, the ‘people, the media, the international community, NGOs, specialist, the military and others.  And within this space, communication, its audience and, increasingly, its technology, are fundamental to achieving objectives, whatever they may be, from the defeat of an enemy to a shift in political culture to saving lives and alleviating suffering.

In this space, as in everyday human existence, communication or, more correctly, information has a currency, and it could be argued that in this space, the value of this currency skyrockets.  Indeed when the stakes are high, information is undoubtedly power.

But is that power, to do good or bad, effectively and efficiently used?  Can we, given the utter complexity of the human creations of such environments, ever hope to harness its power.  One need only look to events in the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Tehran, to see communicative power unleashed, but is it a case of unbridled brute force of communication, catalysed by technology but not sparked by it?  And as such, is equal brute force being used, literally and metaphorically, to stymie or dilute the informational tidal wave?

To fathom the nature of this power, one can look to several mechanisms of communication, from the ‘hidden persuaders’ of advertising through to the idea of ‘Facebook revolutions’, from the slippery techniques of the snake oil salesman to grassroots activism.  But it is undoubtedly the latest generation of, not only, technology but its users that are really multiplying the power, but not necessarily the control, of communication and information.

The Director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, recently pointed out: “Ten years ago, the number of people who had access to the Internet was 361 million; today it’s 2 billion. In the year 2000, 300,000 people in Pakistan were using cell phones; today it’s 100 million. You can’t say technology doesn’t matter.”  The sheer exponential advance in numbers is staggering and its influence, as a capability not an ideal, is changing the way people, from Berlin to Benghazi, are utilising and succumbing to informational power.   Take Palestine, a fulcrum of power plays.  Today’s youth, as individuals, are just as their fathers and mothers were, with the same wishes, problems, drives and angst but there are significant differences.  Unlike previous generations, they are collectively informed and, crucially, networked.    The public sphere, from Ramallah to Rotterdam, is morphing, and rather rapidly.

Africa and other parts of the developing world, that public sphere is changing rapidly, thanks to “digital leapfrogging”, whereby areas which have had no or limited analogue communication systems are being catapulted into the digital age.  No longer subject to the linear progression of technology, these areas have embraced digital, especially mobile telephone, methods.  From Khartoum to Kabul, people who have never had access to basic communication equipment are making their first telephone calls and text messaging on hand-held devices similar to, or even more advanced than , those available to subscribers in the developed world.

This technology is a catalyst – providing the capability to do what has already been done for eons vastly quicker.  Yet, as with chemical catalysts, it does not actually become part of the reaction, it does not form part of the final compound.  As with the current ‘Facebook revolutions’, the initial constituents of grievance, repression, anger, resilience, intellect and determination are not changed by a catalyst, technology, but the rate of constituent reaction is raised dramatically.  Catalyst by themselves are often pretty dormant, inert, as it is with communication technology – useless without a human – but place it amongst people with unheeded desires, needs and drives, then the fireworks start.

Whether one subscribes to Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘it’s all over-hyped’ position or Clay Shirky’s ‘here comes everybody’ perspective, it is without doubt that the already violent, unpredictable and cluttered space in which the aforementioned actors find themselves is itself undergoing seismic shocks through this catalysis.  From Madrid to Mogadishu, technology catalysed tectonic shifts are now endemic in the strategic communication environment.  Ignorance is bliss but futile; haphazard attempts to reclaim a degree of power or control often fail or even backfire; debate and cogitation fuel the coffers of communication conference organisers.  But honest, gritty and tough grappling with this catalytic effect, requiring an open mind, dogged determination and a great thirst for answers, is unavoidable if communication is ever again to be effectively and efficiently utilised by those who practice it.

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When it comes to dealing with the media, spokespersons do handle most for larger companies and in most companies few devote time/funds for training management and leadership to handle the media.

But, in today’s information environment, where the public and stakeholders demand increased accountability, especially of those industries who ‘fly close to the wind’ (finance, petrochem, automotive, aviation, defence, utilities, pharma etc – where (a) there are utter public reliance, safety, wellbeing aspects and (b)  if things go wrong they have the potential to go very wrong) – trotting out the spokesperson has its limits – as BP, Toyota, the Prudential, British Airways, most banks over the last eighteen months etc, will prove.  Spokespersons are utterly invaluable in the day-to-day dealings with the media, but most know that using the ‘big guns’ or subject matter experts (SMEs) is a necessity in maintaining a fresh, credible and mature relationship with the media.

Further, media relations do not exist in a vacuum.  Any successful organization integrates its communication functions – PR, advertising, marketing – and has strong buy-in from leadership who provide sound guidance and fully appreciate that communications have the ability to contribute to organizational goals way beyond the mere promotion of products or services.  As such communication management, and thereby media relations, is a crucial aspect of organizational development (as the widely respected Grunig ‘Excellence’ Model of Effective Organizations attest – straight out of organizational theory (systems)), just as communications has found its way into the dominant coalition of corporate boardrooms over the last decade or so.  Some have learnt that media handling is not and should not be a bolt-on.

Just as successful companies will invest huge amounts of effort in market research, R&D, branding, advertising and marketing, the lean and mean, the aggressive winners in the marketplace should not skimp on PR and media relations.  And part of the latter involves having key personnel, not just the spokespersons, prepared and able to handle the media.  If it comes to a battle for reputation, it will most likely be fought in the glare of the camera, and the arsenal must be ready, otherwise getting into the ring with experienced journalists will be a painful and damaging experience.

The notion that ‘the spokesperson will deal with it’ is folly as has been shown time and time again – management at the very least need to be engaged in the media process and prepared, if necessary, to engage directly with the media.  Further, if in crisis, a media interview can be a brutal event, both personally and for the organization.  By not preparing anyone for such, any HR department can be seen as neglecting its duty in training its staff for their duties and responsibilities.

Of course, not all organizations, will find themselves in the media spotlight (although the potential is always there) and may not consider media training a high priority – a reasonable judgement call.  But, many, many companies can quickly be under the microscope and media engagement can become, rapidly, very critical to the future fortunes of a company, especially during a crisis.  By this time it may be too late to consider training.

Those caught in a media storm can then reflect on the fact that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

The bottom line is that while it may take years to build a good reputation, it can be shattered in hours through the media, and relying solely on the spokesperson(s) to save the day on their lonesome or wielding unprepared and untrained senior staff and SMEs, is asking for trouble.


As the debacle of Libya and the international community’s dire response to it rumbles on, questions are raised over the role of strategic communication and its utility.

As many begin to really appreciate the value of strategic communication, empirically studied in RAND’s “Victory has a Thousand Fathers” and found to be a highly important pillar in a multipronged approach, capturing the essence of strategic communication appears to be as slippery a prospect as ever.

Its utility is laden with difficult issues, not least from the starting definition which is variously described in different fashions depending on who one talks to, which government or organisation they represent, the particular context and the phase of the moon.  But the inherent issues remain locked solid.

The question of how strategic communication informs and guides policy formation, support objectives and permeates deep-held beliefs and values can generate considerable communication in itself.  How and the degree to which strategic communication is managed, especially within an information-rich and technologically dizzying environment, at all levels is debated and scrutinised on both sides of the Atlantic.  Deciding the mechanisms, both organic and external, to employ equally can invite headaches and ethical dilemmas.

In multilateral organisations, abutting national and non-governmental entities, synergy of communicative action – considered a mainstay of the strategic communication ‘profession’ – can be but a glint in the dreamy-eyed politico, yearning for some coherency of message and consistency of action in order to close the ‘say-do’ gap.  And then, even if a concert of communication is glimpsed, internal machinations and concerns over domestic public opinion often prevail to muddy an already turbulent stream of collective consciousness.  Even within the major publics, diverse interests drive the agendas, colliding and careening off each other, refusing either to be harnessed within or at, sometimes utterly violent, odds with strategic objectives.

The information environment itself poses considerable and rapidly evolving challenges.  Not only do domestic audiences create world views, opinions, attitudes and behaviour motivated through ever more multi-spectral channels, and increasingly contribute to those mediums, but publics in far-flung places across the globe, places rife with geo-political angst, do so equally, often with little understood effect and consequences.  Events in the Middle East have indicated the catalysing effect of such technology – even NATO are now actively cogitating over this.

The very nature of human interaction and collective capability is evolving swiftly, in which the ways in which we cooperate, contribute, co-opt, consult and create are subject to new dynamics.  As such, the manner of top-down hierarchy is giving way to flattened networked linkages, diffusing power from traditional nodes to looser organisms.  And the feedback loop in these new dynamics is growing in volume, ignored at one’s peril – strategic communication can no longer be a one-way street.  This is all occurring within our own settings and within disparate, distant and devolved social entities, with profound effect.

In the early 21st century we are only just beginning to grapple withthese issues and realise the complexities of a vortex of new politics, new technologies and new societies,  all subject to and fonts of masses of information.  An understanding of that information, its utility and its management is now an imperative, utterly essential and fundamental to any who wish to operate in this vortex.

Put simply, communication is defined by the response you get.  In today’s complex geo-political environment, strategic communication is defined by how you get the response needed.


Millennia ago, huge lumps of rock with exotic names such as Gondwana, Vaalbara and Laurasia bumped around and the Himalayas, Alps and Andes popped up, changing the very nature and condition of life on planet Earth.  It took a while but the results are magnificent and you can’t exactly miss them – the results of monumental but subtle tectonic shifts.

Likewise, the societies and environments within which we live, breathe, work and sleep, are undergoing shifts of similar proportion, and although the visibility of these shifts is less clear, the results may well be as massive as the impact of mountain ranges and deep sea valleys of their tectonic forebears.

The convergence of the digital information technology and the continuing dominance of the market , have over the last decade or so provided a vehicle for decentralized organizational capacity, not only at a local level but on a global scale.  This phenomena has encouraged a new global economy: an  informational economy, in which, as Manuel Castells, guru of modern culture, states, “the capacity to work as a unit in real time on a planetary scale” becomes a reality.

This economy is reliant upon the capacity of organizations to create, analyse, process, navigate, disseminate, manage and apply information in accordance with the desires and drives of the market.  This is especially true of finance, where information is a critical resource, but increasingly the information economy and the ability to act collaboratively using information is making inroads into manufacturing, design and research.  The value of the potential of information economy processes is the degree of utter synergy which can be brought about through mass use of know-how and the management of that.  Such a fine example is Linux, whereby, simply put, one organization, using a collaborative informational process enabled through ICT, has achieved what no one single conventional company could ever hope to achieve, producing output which conventional human resources, financial and time constraints prevent.

Successful organizations in this economy are those capable of generating, managing and utilising information efficiently; and are flexible enough to respond to rapid changes in the economic environment, increasingly forced by institutional, cultural, societal  and technological change. Collaborative or networked enterprise increasingly play a part in securing organizations’ roles in the economy. Connectivity also contributes to overall performance, along with how well the objectives of its networked and collaborative components are aligned with the goals of the enterprise itself.  At heart, survival in the competitive informational economy demands constant information driven innovation.

Of the environment within which these organizations operate, or the society with whom they interact, several tectonic shifts are taking place, concerning labour, perception, space and time.

These things take time but before you know it ...

Labour is becoming a global resource and, as Castells discriminates, is breaking up into two spheres: generic labour, and informational producers. Labour markets, no longer restricted by powerful unions, have new kinds of workers (women, youth, immigrants), new work environments (offices, high-tech industry) and a new organizational structures (the network or collaborative enterprise). Flexitime and temporary employment have also changed the workplace.

Perception is also being altered as networks, providing increased access to data, and readily available technology allow the convergence of electronic data – text, audio and video – to provide a viruality of perception, a confluence of opinionated, and therefore biased, reality.  Further, technology allows the easy ‘mashup’ and altering of such data, changing narratives.  The result is that ‘reality’ is metamorphosed through network filters and electronic data forms the real data of experience, from mainstream media through to Second Life.

The nature of space and time is also evolving. Where once power resulted from presence at a location, movement or flow is becoming congruent with that power, Society is increasingly structured around flows of information influenced reactions, creating rapid real world reactions out of information derived ideas, opinions and decisions.  A logic and meaning is enveloped within networks.  Time is increasingly speeded up – product life-cycles shortened, news dissemination almost real-time – but also increasingly, perceived sequences and rhythms are being interrupted or shuffled in perception.

Of course networks and collaborative ventures are nothing new but in the 21st century these are beginning to pervade entire social structures, as networks, as well as their participants, take on the status of societal actors  Presence or absence in the network, and the activity of one network toward another, determine social domination, performance, and change.  The complete and utter effectiveness of networks may be questioned, especially given the ability of the human element to be empowered through collaborative or networked activity – the real world still places legitimate constraints – but that it is changing the way that nation states operate is clear.  Information is now a primary currency but is no longer the preserve of and controlled by the state, presenting challenges to the governance and democratic process, as the informed citizen, increasingly either globally networked – of the Net –  or locally entrenched – of the Self,  accesses masses  of time-shifted, altered, biased, framed and constantly flowing data, either over wide spectrums or selectively tunnel-visioned.

Through these complex prisms, “in a world of global flows of wealth, power, and images, the search for identity, collective or individual, ascribed or constructed, becomes the fundamental source of social meaning.”  Like it or not, networks are causing tectonic shifts that the San Andreas fault would be proud of.


As the debacle of Libya and the international community’s dire response to it rumbles on, questions are raised over the role of strategic communication and its utility.

As many begin to really appreciate the value of strategic communication, empirically studied in RAND’s “Victory has a Thousand Fathers” and found to be a highly important pillar in a multipronged approach, capturing the essence of strategic communication appears to be as slippery a prospect as ever.

Its utility is laden with difficult issues, not least from the starting definition which is variously described in different fashions depending on who one talks to, which government or organisation they represent, the particular context and the phase of the moon.  But the inherent issues remain locked solid.

The question of how strategic communication informs and guides policy formation, support objectives and permeates deep-held beliefs and values can generate considerable communication in itself.  How and the degree to which strategic communication is managed, especially within an information-rich and technologically dizzying environment, at all levels is debated and scrutinised on both sides of the Atlantic.  Deciding the mechanisms, both organic and external, to employ equally can invite headaches and ethical dilemmas.

In multilateral organisations, abutting national and non-governmental entities, synergy of communicative action – considered a mainstay of the strategic communication ‘profession’ – can be but a glint in the dreamy-eyed politico, yearning for some coherency of message and consistency of action in order to close the ‘say-do’ gap.  And then, even if a concert of communication is glimpsed, internal machinations and concerns over domestic public opinion often prevail to muddy an already turbulent stream of collective consciousness.  Even within the major publics, diverse interests drive the agendas, colliding and careening off each other, refusing either to be harnessed within or at, sometimes utterly violent, odds with strategic objectives.

The information environment itself poses considerable and rapidly evolving challenges.  Not only do domestic audiences create world views, opinions, attitudes and behaviour motivated through ever more multi-spectral channels, and increasingly contribute to those mediums, but publics in far-flung places across the globe, places rife with geo-political angst, do so equally, often with little understood effect and consequences.  Events in the Middle East have indicated the catalysing effect of such technology – even NATO are now actively cogitating over this.

The very nature of human interaction and collective capability is evolving swiftly, in which the ways in which we cooperate, contribute, co-opt, consult and create are subject to new dynamics.  As such, the manner of top-down hierarchy is giving way to flattened networked linkages, diffusing power from traditional nodes to looser organisms.  And the feedback loop in these new dynamics is growing in volume, ignored at one’s peril – strategic communication can no longer be a one-way street.  This is all occurring within our own settings and within disparate, distant and devolved social entities, with profound effect.

In the early 21st century we are only just beginning to grapple withthese issues and realise the complexities of a vortex of new politics, new technologies and new societies,  all subject to and fonts of masses of information.  An understanding of that information, its utility and its management is now an imperative, utterly essential and fundamental to any who wish to operate in this vortex.

Put simply, communication is defined by the response you get.  In today’s complex geo-political environment, strategic communication is defined by how you get the response needed.


Strategic communication in the foreign policy, development and security arena – what’s that all about?

It’s about contributing to policy and guidance, providing strategic counsel, nurturing linkages and relationships between policy mechanisms, coordinating between national, international and non-governmental entities.

It’s about communicating in a highly charged, ethically challenging, fast moving, traditional and digital, multi-spectral, politically sensitive, conflict-ridden and culturally diverse environment.

It’s about employing media relations, advocacy, lobbying, grassroots activism, de-radicalisation, crisis management, new technologies and old.

It’s about the utility of forums, blogs, twitter, facebook, TV, radio, print, street chatter, posters, networks, crowdsourcing, mobile technology and academic discourse.

It’s about taking part in conversation, dialogue, consultation, education, monitoring, analysis, research, polling, cooperation and collective action.

It’s about understanding narrative, strategy, tactics, messages, identity, objectives, framing, behaviour, attitude, opinion and delivery.

It’s about appreciating sociology, anthropology, history, culture, group dynamics, behavioural ecomonics, organisational theory and psychology.

It’s about engaging with people, publics, stakeholders, governments, activists, opinion leaders, think tanks, NGOs and the military.

It’s about developing media industry, legal infrastructure, free press, media literacy, social activism, technology for development, institutional communications and public affairs.

It’s about managing media liaison, press releases, events, synchronisation, internal communications, spokespeople and social media.

But, simply put, what it’s really all about is bringing all of the above together.

That’s what it’s all about.


Red Cross getting addictive

We noticed Rohit Bhargava’s list of the Top 15 Marketing & Social Media Trends To Watch In 2011 – some interesting concepts, a few of which we’d like to point to, considering their possibilities within communications campaigns.  The main list covers:

  1. Likeonomics
  2. Approachable Celebrity
  3. Desperate Simplification
  4. Essential Integration
  5. Rise of Curation
  6. Visualized Data
  7. Crowdsourced Innovation
  8. Instant PR & Customer Service
  9. App-fication of the Web
  10. Reimagining Charity
  11. Employees As Heroes
  12. Locationcasting
  13. Brutal Transparency
  14. Addictive Randomness
  15. Culting Of Retail

Let’s take a few an expand:

Desperate simplification – Data overload is increasingly hampering any coherent and strong messaging as we are all bombarded with information on several platforms.  People will congregate around those tools which give them a degree of control of this deluge  and provide simplification.  Such platforms will be the iPad (and the myriad of apps), tumblr, animoto, amazon, and maybe quora.

Funny and viral … and well integrated

Essential integration –  With this almost limitless number of platforms, the holy grail will increasingly become integration of campaigns, often screwed up my departmental infighting, agencies working to subtly different objectives and downright laziness or lack of creativity.  Last year’s viral phenomena of the Old Spice Guy worked not only because of its creative content but die to its seamless integration and placement across different platforms.

Content Curation –  Increasingly aggregators or curators, such as paper.li, are becoming seen as effective filters and hubs for information centred upon a campaign, product or idea.  These can act as effectively draw the audience, as a trusted and simple source.

Addictive randomness:  Ever found yourself just clicking to see what’s next – addicted to the random nature of internet available information?  The phenomena is not researched but there’s something there.  How can it be used to push the boundaries of a campaign?  The American Red Cross provides a great example

Recognizing an issue and getting dirty early

Brutal transparency –  Many lessons have been learned throughout several corporate crises over 2010.  One is a more proactive approach to issue management in which painfully a honest approach to negativity is seen to outweigh the costs of reactive efforts after the event.  Rohit cites the Domino Pizza and Southwest Airlines campaigns to raise themselves above the others in this regard.  The whole idea is an advance on our mantra of ‘Get dirty early’.

This is just a smattering – things are moving at a blistering pace.  Keep up now!


What a Kafuffle (old English word) Wikileaks has caused. Governments are moaning and getting quite aggressive, activists are up in arms and getting quite aggressive, the media are stoking it up and getting more excited than aggressive – all wonderful stuff.  People are taking sides and the noise of opinion, dissent, anger and outrage is pumped up to maximum volume.  But regardless of whether Wikileaks is a good thing or not, whether Julian Assange et al are the new media Messiahs or Cyber-Satans, the whole notion of what Wikileaks represents and the impact of this new ‘cost-effective political action’ is worthwhile pondering.

Media Messiah or Cyber Satan?

Is the phenomena anything new?  The capability to issue confidential information to a global audience – leak – has been gathering pace since the internet became a mainstream interactive information platform, or Web 2.0.   Wikileaks itself is in fifth year and had garnered over one million documents within its first year.  And as a phenomenon, the are other organisations akin to Wikileaks such as the Chaos Computer Club, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and more recently openleaks and tradeleaks.  Being an information guerilla is suddenly all the rage.  But that’s the thing – it’s not new, it’s just become fashionable and has gained prominence in the mind of the public, despite being a fundamental part of the developing networked world.  To those in smeared or embarrassed governments who have been shocked and surprised by this phenomenon, the question must be asked, where have you been for the last few years?  And where they, and many of us, have been, to paraphrase BBC’s Bill Thompson, is ‘calling forth the network age, whilst carrying on in our daily lives as if nothing has really changed’.  Wikileaks and all it entails is a fundamental and immutable fact of life in the 21st century information environment – that’s just the way it is going to be, rightly or wrongly.  And alongside that will come a general recognition that information, whilst always a powerful tool, has become a lot easier to wield to massive effect, not only by governments and corporate behemoths but by the common man, sometimes called the ‘Whistleblower’.

Alongside this potential information tsunami, is the issue of privacy.  What the Wikileaks phenomenon is doing for secrecy and privacy of diplomatic information (and let’s not forget also of corporate information) may have repercussions on personal privacy and our view of it.  Facebook, wifi networks, internet purchasing, personal databases, google streetview etc have come under scrutiny regarding the breaching of personal privacy.  If mighty governments cannot protect really important classified stuff what hope for me and my bank details?  Undoubtedly many computer security consultants are already licking the lips in preparation for cyber-fortresses to be built to protect information.  Despite the fact that it is a human being, not a machine at the core of leaking, via the internet or otherwise, will general concern generate universal measures over time which will drive the information environment back to the 1980s?  Remember when there was no wifi, no USB memory sticks, no internet in workplaces, you still bought stuff using real money not electronic transfer?  Are we heading back that way?

Perhaps not completely, but there will be no doubt some sizeable shifts as the potent mix of wikileakmania and IT security bubbles up.  And then there’s cyber-warfare.  The Chinese are often accused of being a menace in cyber-space, or the Russians when they close down It infrastructures of tiny Baltic states. Yet the activist backlash against suppression of Wikileaks – attacking Paypal, Visa etc – has highlighted another potent threat, one spawned and aided by a positive internet-age outcome: collaborative networking.  Through collaboration, focussed around a passionate cause, a mighty army of computer-literate operatives, from Delhi to Dallas, can present a cyber-threat that maybe even the Chinese may baulk at.  This may be slightly far-fetched but does indicate that cyber-conflict is not the preserve of governments or the occasional lone-wolf hacker and powerful counterinsurgencies have the potential to cause huge effect not only in cyber-space but on our daily lives.

Cyber warfare - like a big computer game that everyone can play - but with massive consequences

The stuff that is being released by Wikileaks is undoubtedly of interest and in some cases has strategic significance, but is not necessarily all that shocking.  What may be more of a shock is where the consequences of the Wikileaks phenomenon takes us.


Having checked out cyberspace regarding the sacking of General McChrystal over the Rolling Stone Magazine coverage, it apears that there is chatter of conspiracy theories.  Basically, they centre on the possibility that the good General (a man who certainly seemed to get communication within the counter-insurgency context) deliberately created/engineeered/concocted the circumstances which led to the article, in order to (a) get fired so he wouldn’t be responsible for the Afghan debacle or (b) as a test of resolve of the White House in a Pentagon willy-waving statement.

Now CB3 isn’t one for conspiracy theories but on balance can see why, in this case, they are getting some profile – and it’s because of the “what the xxxx were they thinking?” factor.  The sheer absurdity of the events is mesmerising, especially to anyone who has ever worked in public affairs, public relations or media operations.  In fact, I’m sure many journalists are also pretty dumbfounded as to how it all happened.

It appears McChrystal’s team had absolutely no idea of their objectives regarding the interviews.  They hadn’t asked the WIIFM question (what’s in it for me (or rather, the General – or to be precise, the mission)).  Then the team seemed to abandon any notion of this having a strategic effect, wandered off subject, spoke outside their responsibility, forgot about research, treated Michael Hastings as a beer-drinking buddy, gave ill-thought through access, and generally behaved totally unprofessionally.  But these are experienced blokes – surely they know the game?

Well, it just goes to show that even the experienced can become complacent and hence make catastrophic mistakes, especially in a field as slippery, intangible, nebulous, unpredictable and downright tricky as dealing with the media.  No conspiracy, just complacency –  just Generals and media advisors forgetting that once engaged with the media, they no longer dominate the ‘battlespace’ (or for a corporate analogy, the marketplace).

And on complacency … for all those CEO’s and senior business leaders who think “no, we can handle the media … we’d never make mistakes like that”, it’s worthwhile remembering that McChrystal (just like BP’s Tony Hayward) was certainly no fool.


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.