A few weeks ago Jeremy Hunt, the UK coalition government’s Culture Secretary, unveiled new plans for media provision in the UK. “We need to do something to stimulate investment in new media services that give a proper voice to local people,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. He is seeking to encourage commercial public service broadcasters (PSBs) including BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to back a new generation of local TV and online services by making the provision of local sevices a condition of their licences.
There have been many moans and groans from several quarters, not least the PSBs themselves over the viability of these grand plans. Indeed it is proably internet TV, not digital terrestrial television, that is most promising in the local TV revolution. Internet TV also presents an opportunity for other organisations such as local newspapers and smaller niche outfits to get into the game. In a major sense this is already happing through digital convergence, as video becomes a major factor in online publication. There are already many local internet based news outlets using existing broadband technology. There has been an interesting comparison between two cities, one here and one in the US:
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This may be the trajectory we’re already on.
So the notion of Digital Britain charges on. But what does it mean for businesses and their handling of this media in the UK?
Let’s recap. Over the last 18 months, events affecting Toyota and BP have dealt catastrophic blows to the reputations of these two mighty companies. Poor PR efforts and, more noticeably, disastrous media handling contributed significantly the severity of their respective crises.
As successful UK companies ever expand their markets, providing vital products and services increasingly impinging on the lives of millions, be they pharmaceuticals through to computer chips, the likelihood and impact of intense media storms in similar circumstances increases. And with the approach of more localised digital media capability, that impact and likelihood increases even more. Well, that’s our contention anyway.
Two counter arguments are often expressed by small and medium enterprises. One: surely it’s all about social, new, digital media nowadays, not the good old-fashioned spokesperson in front of a camera. Two: we’re not BP. The national and international media will never focus on us; we’re just too small and therefore off their radar.
This is flawed logic. Regarding social media – all that tweeting, blogging, websites and the like – the marketing departments are increasingly getting involved in that, and rightly so. But in crisis, it is about people, not so much technology. People want someone, not something, to reassure them. Besides, it is that very technology which is paradoxically enabling the personal interface. The traditional media interview, once destined for the six o’clock news and maybe the ten o’clock slot but then forgotten about, now readily enters the internet echo-chamber, to be viewed and, more importantly, critiqued and commented upon, over and over again online on YouTube or BBC iPlayer, across the world, with interest fuelled by a tidal wave of Tweets and blogposts. New social media has made the skills of the traditional spokesperson even more important.
On the second point, technology now allows the ‘harvesting’ of ever more low level news by the larger media outlets, making the tactical issue a strategic problem very quickly. That technology has also enabled the citizen journalist. And with increasing decentralisation and access to media bandwidth for local PSBs, the camera will be ever closer to one’s business. The chances of that interview being required, especially during a crisis, are increased. Technology is ensuring that, when it comes to even a minor crisis, there will be no way of hiding it, the potential of exacerbating it and the possibility of rapidly widening coverage of it.
Counter-intuitively, digital Britain and the local TV revolution merely increase the need for good old-fashioned media skills.
You have been warned.
The bloody summer in Afghanistan and elections in Iran have recently brought communications within the foreign policy arena back into the spotlight, showing public relations and strategic communication to be close,if sometimes misunderstood, relatives.
Establishing a radio station to persuade locals not to support pirates; justifying heavy combat operations while trying to convince homeless villagers to support your side; convincing an enemy that his cause is doomed; maintaining domestic public support for an unpopular and difficult foreign policy; encouraging populations to embrace ideas conflicting with their traditional culture; supporting repressed publics in their pursuit of freedom.
These are examples of a field of communications which rarely grace the pages of PR and communications magazines, but which feature heavily in the daily news intake of big and disparate publics, and have the potential to influence the very future of global geopolitics.
This field of foreign policy communication is known within the practising community as ‘strategic communication’.
Outside the field there are terms well recognised by PR practitioners, even laymen – propaganda, nation-branding, psychological operations – terms that give a taster, but rarely provide the full flavour, of a complex communication arena. Likewise, there are fragments which can cumulatively paint the environment of strategic communication – the child soldier laden with ammunition and an AK47; sparkling white United Nation aid convoys trailing through arid, burnt scrubland; a battered but prized radio spouting the scratchy tones of the BBC World Service. These images might evoke emotive responses but they do little to explain strategic communication.
The precise definition of strategic communication is debatable, but put simply, it is the use of communication, in all its guises, to support and achieve foreign policy objectives.
Due to the variety of subject areas, from climate change to assuaging warring factions’, the variety of factors – including Non Governmental Organisations, states, terrorist groups, diasporas and global institutions; and the variety of publics, from the hi-tech media savvy Iranian teenager to the illiterate Sudanese goatherd, the field, operating globally by definition, rightly deserves the label ‘strategic’. To unravel the concept, it’s worthwhile examining a simple but effective model, breaking it into four constituent pillars, some of which PR practitioners will be very familiar with.
First pillar: Public diplomacy
Firstly, public diplomacy seeks, through the exchange of people and ideas, to build lasting relationships and understanding of a nation’s culture, values and policies.
A term coined in the 1960s, public diplomacy gained recognition as a tool of foreign policy during the Cold War. After a hiatus during the 1990s, the aftermath of 9/11 has brought the practice back to the fore in many foreign policy establishments, making it a hot topic, including in United States diplomatic circles.
Second pillar: International broadcasting services
In close alignment with public diplomacy, the second pillar comprises international broadcasting services – BBC World, Voice of America, China’s CCTV-9 and France 24 to name a few. These governmentfunded services transmit news, information, public affairs programs and entertainment to global audiences in a variety of ways.
The influence of such services is often misjudged as being little more than of fleeting interest to bored businessmen in international hotels. But they can also be very powerful, especially if the significant penetration of BBC Pashto in Afghanistan is anything to go by.
Third pillar: Media relations
Media relations or operations are used by Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence to depict communication activities intended primarily to inform and influence domestic media and, therefore, home audiences.
In today’s information environment, this is a quaint idea, given that there is almost complete convergence between media available to domestic and foreign audiences.
Such convergence provides severe headaches for strategic communicators, often trying to provide one message to domestic publics but another to a foreign audience or even an adversary. As a result, the international, regional and local media feature more and more in the media relations strategy.
Fourth pillar: Influence activity
Increasingly touted as ‘influence activity’, the fourth pillar of military information operations focuses on influencing the will of an enemy, but more increasingly of a host nation’s population, capturing their ‘hearts and minds’.
It is categorised as an integrating strategy, as opposed to a capability, and the tools available for such come from a wide spectrum. Actions to influence the will traditionally make use of psychological operations (psyops), electronic warfare (EW), operational security (OPSEC), computer network operations (CNO), kinetic targeting and deception. However, ‘force presence, posture and profile’ along with media operations are also considered in the mix.
Of these information operations, Psyops probably has the highest profile, often linked to propaganda. The field stretches from ‘white’ psyops – placing stories, features, pamphlets, internet sites and the like where the source, be it the US marines or the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), is fully visible – through to ‘black’ psyops – in which the same channels may be used but the source is hidden. Notably, both black and white psyops are grounded in ‘credible truth’.
The former, much more commonly used, is not so different from traditional PR, while the latter can open a whole can of worms, as did the covert placing of stories, originating from the US military, in the Iraqi press in 2005.
Deception is much more straightforward. It is the military use of assets to ‘fool’ an adversary through outright lying, if necessary. Operating at the tactical level, through ‘spoofing’ on communication circuits, to the strategic, such as the coalition military preparing to liberate Kuwait in 1991 which made several signals, including through the conventional media, which indicating that the invasion would come from the sea in a massive amphibious landing.
It didn’t. But that example is illustrative of the fact that deception might be formulated through all the information operations channels and more. It is deception, seen as a legitimate strategy, which tarnishes much of military information operations, especially psyops, with the brush of propaganda, spin and lies. However, it must be said that modern militaries are waking up to the fact that the information age is increasingly demanding credibility, and therefore truth, of its participants.
Although still largely outside the dominant management coalition, strategic communication is increasingly seen as a vital component of achieving objectives, through ‘soft power’.
The US is adopting a more ‘diplomatic’ approach, within which communication has a major role, although funding for such an approach is yet to be forthcoming. The idea of communication forming a mainstay of foreign policy interventions has been especially supported by the latest generation of senior military officers, saying in regard to Iraq: “We can no longer kill ourselves out of here,” and the notion that the Afghan campaign should, first and foremost, be an ‘information’ campaign. The US military has looked closely at utilising lessons and practices gleaned from Madison Avenue.
Further, the growing realisation of the power of social media is also creating new, if still clumsy, approaches to strategic communication.
NATO has recently enhanced its online presence; many foreign policy agencies are now Twittering; military personnel are blogging. The phrase ‘digital diplomacy’ is increasingly heard in foreign ministries.
Examples include the Israeli government hiring numerous internet savvy students to blog and Twitter their way to dominance in the online Arab-Israeli debate. Even China’s People’s Liberation Armys is attempting to build its reputation via the internet. Yet, these ideas and actions have yet to be really brought together as a ‘strategic’ capability.
Foreign policy strategic communication is complex and challenging but it is no more propaganda than PR is ‘spin’. PR and foreign policy strategic communication are close relatives, almost twins, but they operate in very different contexts. A failure in one can see a hard earned corporate reputation in tatters, and billions wiped off share prices. A failure in the other might result in severe hardship, suffering and even death to many. One may face sophisticated and vocal activists with widespread support. The other may face insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades.
Yet this doesn’t detract from the fact that these relatives are so close, and even more importantly, could learn from each other.
This article appears in the Sept/Oct 2009 edition of Profile magazine
The UK’s new Minister of Defence, Bob Ainsworth, gave his first public speech on Wednesday 8 July at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), wordled below. Now, Ainsworth, unlike his predecessors, has previous in the area of defence, as in he was Minister of State for the Armed Forces from June 2007, so he’s pretty much up to speed on what it’s all about. Further, he’s known as a straight talker.
So his first speech as Minister of Defence could have been expected to be a no-nonsense justification of UK military operations and presence in Helmand, especially with casualty rates amongst his troops currently so appalingly high, which has given the media extra focus on Afghanistan. The circumstances, unfortunate and saddening as they are, the timing and the platform gave an opportunity for the MoD to give heightened voice to a message which is not being heard by the British public, a message clearly articulating why the UK is doing what it’s doing, and suffering because of it, in a far off counry.
Indeed, Ainsworth was refreshingly forthright, admitting that the problems faced are grave and serious. Further, he did attempt to show signs of a strategy, articulating several steps necessary, many already under way, to stabilise the situation and reach an ‘end state’, not an end date. Indeed, he stated that ‘more lives will be lost and our resolve will be tested’ – no pulling of punches here. In fact, that was the message received by the media, as scores of headlines, from the BBC to the tabloids reiterated the warning of further lives being lost.
Yet as to explaining why, an opportunity was missed. Of the 2943 words of the speech, only 220 words, less than 10%, were invested in that crucial element of explaining why. Any message explaining why it is vital that the UK continue to puts its people in harm’s way was drowned out, if really attempted at all.
The MoD itself seemed to be caught up in its own tight worldview, panglossian in its attempt to be seen to be filling this yawning information gap. As can be seen from its own website, despite the lack of real attempt to deal with the ‘why’ question, MoD were keen to portray the speech as one in which “Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has given a speech today explaining why the British Armed Forces are on operations in Afghanistan”.
Unfortunately he didn’t. A fine speech it may have been, but it didn’t do what it says on the tin.
Of course it would be naive to think that good old-fashioned politics would merely allow such a speech to go ahead. Yet politics is about power and influence and retaining it. And modern democratic politics cannot achieve such things without an informed public. With operations at high tempo, and serving personnel working bloody hard to achieve their objectives, and suffering in order to do so, the media ensures that Afghanistan remains in the spotlight in the eyes of the public. Under this spotlight and with a new, straight talking Minister, there is a window of opportunity to articulate the governments reasons for pursuing such a difficult course, to inform its public so they may at least understand. Those at Chatham House might understand (and remember this was a public speech – Chatham House was the location not the audience), CB3 might understand, most journalists might understand, but the majority of the British public remain unclear as to why our Armed Forces are being asked to do what they are doing. The window of opportunity for changing that won’t stay open for long.
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.
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?
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.
Every year PRWeek produces the ‘Power Book’ – the definitive guide to the most influential people in Public Relations (CB3 has yet to grace the pages of said publication!). It includes the likes and dislikes of 100 of the UK’s finest – and can be indicative of trends in communications – i.e it’s what the big boys are thinking and saying. Now, there are a lot of people in communications who may not often glance through a corporate PR magazine – especially those in public diplomacy, information operations and public affairs. So, although this will be a little UK-centric, CB3 just thought it would be useful to provide a quick resume of what the PR powerbrokers are really into ….
Most popular politician – some chap called Obama won by a mile. (Nelson Mandela, Vince Cable (if you’re not a Brit you won’t have heard of him – top chap though) and Margaret Thatcher also featured highly.
Most respected journalist – Andrew Marr, followed by Jeff Randall and John Simpson
Top newspapers – FT and The Guardian (both way ahead of third place The Times)
Best online – BBC by far, but Google, Facebook, Guardian Unlimited and Twitter feature in top five.
Best broadcast – Today (BBC Radio 4). In fact, in the top six, various BBC programmes featured, with the only exception being SKY News.
Business or brand to watch – Obama and Apple fought for top space, with Twitter, Aldi (sign of the times) and Google, trailing after them.
Best PR campaign – easily Obama’s presidential campaign (oh, that Obama – not the Irish pub)
Okay, this may be from a UK perspective but it may be somewhat informative for others across the globe as well. So, in a nutshell, if you want to be up with the best, be familiar with Obama, BBC, Guardian, Google and Twitter and you can’t go wrong!
The suffering of innocents in Gaza has been appalling and, rightly, efforts must be made to alleviate such suffering. NGO’s launched appeals early on in the crisis, many successful because of the impact of news coverage brought to the safe populations of Europe and the US by the major newscasters, including the BBC and SKY. This coverage was vital in reporting, as far as practicable and as impartially as can be reasonably expected, the reality of the situation and the suffering of Palestinians and constant fear of Isrealis across the border. The images and stories flashing across our screens and over the radios contributed undoubtedly significantly to the success of appeals.
However, when the Disaster Emergency Committee’s (DEC’s) request for a broadcast appeal was turned down this is seen by many as the BBC, and SKY, being inhumane, irresponsible and even downright evil.
The BBC has suffered recently in the eyes of the public and has taken a real battering. Its position as one of, if not the, most respected news organisations on the planet is hard earned and easily undermined. Impartiality, or the appearance and reputation of something very near to it, is key to the BBC’s ability to report on the suffering we talk of. One argument made was that such a broadcast appeal may undermine public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality, countered by the notion that to think that viewers can’t distinguish between a genuine humanitarian appeal and support for terrorist is insulting.
Well, of course the public can distinguish the difference but that’s not the point. Putting the BBC’s audience aside for a moment, when the BBC’s reputation is no longer respected by the protagonists, combatants, belligerants, regimes, governments and agencies in areas of suffering, then the very effectiveness of the BBC as a news organisation, able to credibly report that suffering, is critically damaged. And the BBC is a potent mechanism for presenting that news (as opposed to a specific appeal) to a lot of people, many of who will dig into their pockets.
Put very simply, when the BBC is no longer allowed into the most war ravaged and suffering areas of the world because their impartiality is not trusted, by the actors on the ground, then the success of any appeal for the suffering will be diminished considerably – because few will even know about it in the first place.
If broadcasts in support of raising money for the suffering directly reduce the ability to broadcast the material which would allow the public to see, hear and understand the circumstances of, that suffering in the first place, then the BBC is right to take the stance it has.
And, from a cynical perspective, the BBC’s stance has in fact drawn even more attention to the appeal (newspaper coverage about the row, several packages on the BBC itself), without necessarily damaging the BBC’s reputation across the world (although a fair few in Britain are mightily upset).