The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Category Archives: Supporting democracy

Last night (Aug 17) on BBC’s Newsnight, Professor Kiron Skinner (assistant professor of political science at Carnegie Mellon University and research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University), talked of US commitment to liberal interventionsim continuing, but, with Somalia as an example, noted that the non-military dimension – development, capacity building etc – would be proportionately more pronounced.  She claimed much discussion around this, especially from the NGO world, was rife in Washington, and this included ‘on the Track Two side’.

Somalia - forgotten

Somalia - forgotten

CB3 initially took note because of the little hint of Somalia, in what was an Afghanistan package -elections, are we achieving anything, does liberal interventionism work?  The oft-quoted reasons for the UK, US, NATO and the rest being in Afghanistan become a little hard to swallow when Somalia is brought into focus – if we’re in Helmand for those reasons then logically we have even more reason to be in Mogadishu, right now, in force.  Explain that one, Mr Spokesperson.  Of course, Somalia hardly registers on the general public knowledge radar, so the questions are hardly raised.

However, it was the casual reference to Track Two that also caught CB3’s ear.  The presenter, Kirsty Wark, didn’t bat an eyelid, nor did her other scholarly guests (including Rory Stewart – agree with him or not, CB3 likes a maverick) but how many laymen, even in the relatively intellectual audience of Newsnight, would have picked “Track Two” up and understood what it meant?  And how many communications practitioners would readily identify it?

Whereas Track One refers to traditional diplomacy (or high level B2B), Track Two diplomacy is loosely defined as unofficial policy dialogue, focused on problem solving, in which the participants have some form of access to official policymaking circles.  Track Two refers to non-governmental, informal and unofficial contacts and activities between private citizens or groups of individuals, sometimes called ‘non-state actors.  Or, put another way: informal and unofficial interaction between private citizens or groups of people within a country or from different countries who are outside the formal governmental power structure.  Even simpler: dialogue through back channels. Whilst these definitions are so broad that any nongovernmental activity could constitute Track Two, including business contacts, citizen exchange programs, advocacy work, or religious contacts, they are often borne of a specific hard objective and that objective will entail, to a significant degree, persuasion, education, understanding, informing etc – all those objectives associated with communication.

The title may appal some but it's worth a read

The title may appal some but it's worth a read

Call it what you will – unofficial fireside chats, key leader engagement, cultural diplomacy – the point is that whilst communication activities press on with radio spots, leaflets, media campaigns, digital strategy  and the like, Track Two, or the corporate equivalent, continues (it always has done) away from the glare, often unnoticed.  Yet all activities may be servicing the same objective.

As a communicator, Track One, involving the big boys – the Ministers or chief execs – may be seductive but the constant but distant rumblings of Track Two should not be forgotten, should be listened to, facilitated and coordinated.  Of course, sometimes Track Two can be highly sensitive, as it was during the Oslo peace process, but at some point both overt and covert dialogue and communication must be on the same table, under the same scrutiny, synergised.  As Professor Skinner hinted, Track Two is being seriously discussed regarding Somalia.  This should be equally the case in Afghanistan, where back channels are potent.  Any major communications efforts in either ignore the effects of Track Two at their peril.


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.


Interesting snippet caught on Newsnight last night (28/04/09) about energy and climate change issues in the US.  Ethical man Justin Rowlatt covered Powershift 09 as part of his series.  But the crucial communications aspect of Powershift seems to be that a green activist movement, normally shunned by mainstream governments, is being seen as a method of encouraging and persuading American voters of Obama’s climate change agenda, using activists (seen being trained in how to resist arrest) as ambassadors for a government policy.

Ambassadors of US energy policy?

Ambassadors of US energy policy?

Now this proximity of traditional enemies is not new – Shell and BP have taken considerable steps to be seen as green through apparent (and only occasional) connectivity with activist groups like Greenpeace, although emnity is deep and remains for obvious reasons.  And there are many political groups who will support political pitches, including that of the incumbent government.  But the use of strident activists to promote a government policy against a generally accepted stance i.e. the fossil fuel economy, seems to be a new leap.  This is not Astroturf but using genuine activism for policy endorsement.

The circumstances may be unique to the cap and trade issue in the US, but this approach does beg several questions – are there other circumstances where political policy can be matched with vocal activists against a form of accepted, conventional wisdom?  And further, are there circumstances in developing  and post-conflict countries which can be used in a similar way?

This is not necessarily countenancing covert support to student groups under totalitarian regimes, but where foreign agencies are already engaged (be they UN, NATO etc) do we make full use of grass roots activism (as limited as it may be) to achieve policy goals, or do we still tend to go down the route of mainsteam key leader engagement because it’s easier, more straightforward (relatively!) and more in line with our conventional
Western way of doing things?  Are developing embryonic government institutions, struggling with democracy, encouraged to look towards the power of activist groups or are they merely maintaining their traditional opposition towards them?  Are they, and therefore we, missing a trick?

Womens activist groups in Afghanistan - holding a vital key?

Womens activist groups in Afghanistan - holding a vital key?

After all, most governments have always had difficult relationships with autonomous grass roots organisations, unless, of course, they’re onside already.  As ever with trying to improve the performance of public diplomacy and foreign policy communications in a rapidly changing information environment, the above requires some serious unconventional and politically risky thinking.

But that thinking, at the very least, should be done.


In its widest sociological sense, public relations (PR) can be seen as a mechanism for the promotion of understanding and creation of beneficial relationships or, as Edward Bernays claimed, continuing process of social integration . However, in a modern context, its aims may be seen as stretching from the enabling of the ideal citizen through to the creation of the ideal consumer. Although the contemporary ‘Western’ developed free-market democratic society relies upon the support of these entities, PR’s contribution to modern society often finds itself in constant tension between the two ends of the spectrum.

Bernays knew a thing or two about all this ...

Bernays knew a thing or two about all this ...

On the one hand, well managed PR is crucial to the sustenance of a collective of rational informed citizens. As Berelson commented, ‘the major decisions the ordinary citizen is called upon to make in a modern representative democracy involve basic simplifications which need not rest upon a wide range of information so long as they are based upon a certain amount of crucial information, reasonably interpreted.’ The provision of such crucial information, in between citizens, interest groups, corporations, organisations and governments is a major, if not fully appreciated, contribution of PR.

However, be they a form of systems or critical theory, of the rhetorical or relationship management paradigm, in the information age, with the mass of information available, PR is even more vital in providing that crucial information amidst a grey mass of confusion, contradiction and coercion in Nye’s ‘paradox of the plenty’ through the vehicle of new technology. Media sociology is starting to recognise the new terrain of multiple representations and infinite interpretations, irrespective of ownership structures.

To the other end of the spectrum, whilst corporate marketing preys upon ‘inner directives’ – assuming utter self-interest and private advantage, PR contributes to the provision of that information and context necessary to allow consideration as a member of the economic, free-market collective, in the interest of the public.

Whilst PR serves civil society, embedded in political economy, the above portrays a normative stance. A more positive theoretical perception reveals that PR’s contribution to modern society falls short of that ideal. Elite access, asymmetrical communication, partial and biased information, power broking and media filtering, to name but a few issues, contribute to a watering down of the ethical basis of PR in modern society. In the political sphere, ‘engineering consent’, focus-group politics, politico-industrial complexes and heavily financed political packaging have ravaged the PR environment, exploited by governments, political parties, corporations, interest groups and activists, denying publics real context. In the economic arena, the consumerist drive often subsumes the economic interest of the individual and public, in favour of maximising short-term gains for the organisation or corporation. Even if understanding is achieved, it is debatable as to whether an effectively informed citizenry given voice can actually effect change.

The result, borne of man’s psyche, has been the sociological damaging of PR’s contribution to modern society, contributing to communicative inequality.

However, the mere accepted practice of striving towards the promotion of understanding and creation of beneficial relationships is a noble cause. Its mere existence and continued furtherance towards such an ethical ideal is, at core, PR’s vital contribution to modern free society.


You know what it’s like – some bad stuff happens somewhere, the ‘international community/coalition of the willing’ occasionally decide, for whatever reason, to do a little bit of liberal intervention, ‘nation building’ gets on the agenda, and the establishment of a free media is pushed hard. However, it is often forgotten, or at best an afterthought, to involve communications as a direct contributor to the creation or development of democratic government institutions and systems in host nations.  Although the establishment of a free media is well served by many respected NGOs, such as IWPR and Reporters Sans Frontieres, developing or new government institutions and political bodies are often ill-prepared to engage with this free media and the public at large.

Will their successors be able to handle a free media?

Will their successors be able to handle a free media?

Basically, the demand side of civil and democratic society, i.e. a free media, gets much more attention than the supply side, ie the governments and political parties.  The fantastic work of NGO does often indeed produce a free media but the government (and private) institutions who are required to engage with this media have no idea how to engage with them.  For example, I’m thinking of the notion of a BBC-style Question Time being conducted in DRC or Sudan – it just ain’t going to happen that often (although something similar has been conducted in Sierra Leone).

Let’s face it, many regimes have often had their very own special way of dealing with the media – coercion, blackmail, disapperances, even the banning of any free media whatsover.  So when these regimes change, by force or otherwise, the newly developing government (and private) institutions, often have little cultural legacy, regarding communicating to a free media and the public at large, to draw upon.

‘Nation building’ aims at host nation governments taking on their democratic responsibilities – rule of law, fiscal and monetary regulation, ethical governance, human rights, security etc.  Part of these responsibilities is engagement with its citizens (pretty much a cornerstone of democracy), often via a free media.  Indeed, in relatively stable liberal democracies, considerable investment is made in PR and media training and research, to enable institutions to fulfil this responsibility.  Yet, while NGOs, IGOs and the international community may fall over each other to provide assistance in developing governance, legal institutions, security, economics and media freedom, newly developing institutions are often left to fend for themselves in a rapidly evolving information environment.

It is vital that in international democracy assistance that the needs of both the supply and demand sides of democratic life are invested in.  A free media needs a political system able to engage constructively with it.  When thinking of civil society and the media, those involved in foreign policy intervention, development initiatives and post-conflict reconstruction, need to consider the communication needs, expertise, resources and training, of the very institutions they purport to be helping develop.