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.”
“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.”
“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)”
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.
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.
then it’s probable that most of us could have a fair stab at pinning down Apple’s
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”
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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.
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.
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’ 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.
 Jeffrey B. Jones, “Strategic Communication: A Mandate for the United States,” Joint Force Quarterly 39 (Fourth Quarter 2005): 180.
 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.
 NATO’s ACO 95-2 Strategic Communications dated 15 Sept 2008.
 Allaire Y. and Firsirotu M.E. (1984) Theories of Organizational Culture in Organizational Studies 5(3) London: Sage, 1984, pp 193-226
 Washington Post, October 20, 2009
 Aylwin-Foster N. Changing the Army for Counter-Insurgency Operations in Military Review, Nov-Dec 2005, pp 2-15
 “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.
 Rid T. & Hecker, M. War2.0: Irregular Warfare in the Information Age Westport: Praeger Security International, 2009, p. 223.
On 1 April, 2010, the UK military’s Defence Cultural Specialist Unit (DCSU), consisting of military specialists in Afghan culture and language, came into being, over eight years since military forces arrived in Afghanistan.
As part of ISAF, DCSU personnel will be a major part of General McChrystal’s renewed counter insurgency strategy – which places the people of Afghanistan at the centre of operations.
From an ISAF Press Release:
The DCSU – based at RAF Henlow in Bedfordshire – has been established in consultation with other government departments to ensure that its activities support the wider comprehensive approach and link into other government and Afghan initiatives.
Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Operations) Air Vice-Marshal Andy Pulford said that a focus on cultural issues is essential to success in the country.
He said: “Cultural awareness is at the heart of General McChrystals Counter Insurgancy Strategy. This unit will help improve the military understanding and appreciation of the region, its people and how to do business there.”
Commander John Garratt RN, the MoD team leader for implementing the unit explained:
“This has come about as a response to the operational demand to better understand the people we operate with so as to make smarter decisions and improve military effectiveness. The DCSU is the spearhead of a broader Defence Cultural Capability and will provide both the home for the specialists and the focus for wider capability development”.
The new unit’s Operational Commander, Colonel Nick Hubberstey, stressed the importance of having a dedicated unit.
“The DCSU represents a real opportunity to further improve our understanding of the current operational environment. By continuing to develop our understanding of the people we are working amongst, how they think, their culture, beliefs, hopes and fears, we can do much more to bring our mission in Afghanistan a speedy and satisfactory conclusion”.
This is, withoubt doubt a welcome move and commendable. As part of any Information Operations capability, a deep understanding of the host poulation’s culture is utterly crucial. In pure PR terms this is critical to what specialists call two-way asymmetrical communication – acquiring knowledge of a target public in order to establish the best appraoches to persuade and influence audiences to behave as an organization desires and then conducting such. Notably it does encourage research to find out how it publics feel about the organization.
However, theoretically (through organizational systems theory approach) the holy grail of modern communications, especially in the contemporary information age with the ubiquitous nature of information, is two-way symmetrical communication, whereby relationships demand the understanding of all publics of each other. This approach uses communication to negotiate with publics, resolve conflict, and promote mutual understanding and respect between the organization and its publics.
This begs the question – how far can NATO’s effective communication go when the military know a lot about the host population but makes little effort to allow them to fully understand the military and foreign entities in their countries? What’s more, when it comes to their own culture, ideals, motivations, how coherent are they to those military and foreign entities?
In any communication process there are always at least two cultures to consider and understand – oneself and ‘the other’. DCSU is a very welcome addition to understanding ‘the other’ – but in the wider communication ‘battle’ it’s only half way there.
And, as welcome as it is, with the public sector, including MoD soon due to be squeezed even hard for cash, will DCSU survive any cuts? Or will Hard power requirements take priority?
The Inaugural Media Operations and Public Affairs Symposium
9-10 June 2010
Venue: Defence Academy of United Kingdom
“Winning the communications war: new thinking and new practice ”
The battle for ideas, hearts and minds is back in centre stage in twenty first century military operations. Experience in engaging the local populace in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that well-executed public communications are critical to shaping operational and strategic outcomes. As a result, ad-hoc approaches to military PR are giving way to deliberate strategies developed using innovative planning approaches and supported by analysis and effects monitoring techniques. New cross-disciplinary thinking is emerging from both academia and government, focused on coordinating and maximising the power of messaging in counter- insurgency, anti-terrorism and global security. A revolution in military communications is underway, transforming the way governments and militaries communicate. Against this backdrop the Defence Academy is presenting the inaugural Media Operations and Public Affairs Symposium. A networking forum for stakeholders from across the communications spectrum, this new symposium is designed to showcase cutting edge thinking alongside innovative tools and techniques.
Over two days, the tactical, operational and strategic aspects of communication will be explored: Identifying best practice in recent Media Operations; developing supporting theory for the emerging discipline of Strategic Communications; examining new approaches to both Media Operations and Strategic Communications and application to current conflicts. The current operational context in Afghanistan is of special interest and raises a number of questions which the symposium will explore, for example: How can strategic communication objectives be pursued whilst working in a media environment with shortened time horizons and intense tactical engagement? How can two way models of communication be adopted and accommodated within the new information environment? What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of competing media and information strategies in Afghanistan? What is the role of local media in Afghanistan?
For further details Contact Caroline Dawson on:
T: +44(0) 1793 785268
or visit the website http://www.symposiaatshrivenham.com
Event date: 03 March 2010
Location: Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Shrivenham
The ioia symposium is back for its third year providing a unique unclassified gathering held in the secure environment of The Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. This valuable networking context provides the main calendar event for the professional and educational exchanges between military and civilian proponents of Info Ops and Influence Activity in the UK and Europe. Last year we hosted over 150 practitioner and academic delegates from around the world. This year we will be seeking to build on this success to host a truly inclusive event that gathers diverse experts and their opinions from this growing and dynamic field of Military and Government activity. This year’s theme is Influence in Insurgency.
The ‘people as the prize’ puts influence at the heart of insurgency operations. It demands that the application of violence be undertaken in such a way that the support of the public can be maintained. It necessitates that political, military and economic functions are closely coordinated for effect. It requires that every soldier acts in accordance with the values and aims of the most demanding of home audience and political leadership. This symposium will take stock of our thinking and practice in influence in insurgency.
In particular the symposium will consider:
- The degree to which influence is a whole organisation activity rather than a discipline of specific branch
- The extent to which planning processes and concepts are able to take account of the whole organisation approach to influence
- The degree to which the comprehensive approach can be viewed as an influence activity
- The extent to which intelligence is geared to planning influence activity
- The degree to which the military needs to, or is trained and educated to deliver, influence effect other than through the bluntest use of punishment and reward.
- The extent to which strategic and operational level influence should and can be delivered by the military
- The development of tactical level doctrine and concepts in influence.
- Operational and country updates
To register for this event please visit :
See below some wise words from Major Mehar Omar Khan (Pakistan Army) from his article “Afghanistan: Seven Fundamental Questions” found at Small Wars Journal (http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/319-khan.pdf)
Who should the coalition try to impress: Afghans or rest of the world?
While the pressure to present tangible results in terms that sound familiar to domestic and global audience is understandable, lives of young men should not be ‘wasted’ in pursuit of hollow ideals and empty slogans that mean woefully little to the people of Afghanistan. While there is essentially nothing bad about transparent ballot boxes, soap opera television, Afghan movies and a few dozen bold and beautiful women in the legislative assembly, the Afghan people look wearily at all these things. They are not impressed with these ‘achievements’, not just because they have an outdated mindset, but because it means so little to them in terms of alleviating some of their most basic concerns like hunger, malnutrition, disease, violence and fear. Coalition soldiers should not have to die for anything less noble than helping the people of Afghanistan forge a new future and a new destiny for themselves – a destiny that they will themselves determine in ways that they feel comfortable with.
Here are some ideas.
One, please understand the hearts and minds that you are trying to win. Most of these minds are illiterate, unschooled and locked in the last century. Most of these hearts are raw, romantic, sentimental and pure as a pearl. Help them start where they actually are and not where you want them to be. At their present level of socio-economic development, Afghans do not truly need a majestic parliament building, a palatial house for the president, five star hotels and nicely suited dummies as rulers in Kabul and Kandahar. They need small schools, clean drinking water, some pills for that headache which refuses to go away, some money to buy food for their kids and some assistance to kick-start their farming or that little shop in a mud-hut. People want their liberators to know that they need ‘electricity before they are asked to destroy their kerosene lantern’ and that they need to at least be able to read names before they are asked to choose one out of a long list of people vying to be their President.
Two, coalition must refuse to lock itself in a fight that tramples the people. This will involve some sacrifice in the short term but huge dividends in the long term.
Three, people need soldiers that respect their values and their traditions because, however outdated they may be, these are their values and their traditions. This land belongs to a ‘people’; it’s not the property of ‘a state’. In this context, is it not fair to ask how much of an effort, in terms of resources, has gone to ‘Afghanistan the state’ and how much to ‘Afghanistan the people’? How much of the money and resources and security has stayed and stagnated in Kabul guarding criminals and drug-lords; and how much of it has actually reached a far flung Helmand village caught in the center of the storm? How much of attention has gone to people most bitter about being ousted from power (Pashtuns) and how much of it has been lavished on communities that have generally always enjoyed a relative peace? Asking the right questions is the true test of honesty. Giving the right answers is a test of leadership. Questions carry their own correct answers as well as consequences for wrong answers.
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
Renowned and prolific blogger Mountainrunner recently posted on ‘The False Hope of the President’s Public Diplomacy’ and it’s well worthwhile a perusal.
CB3 largely concurs with Mountainrunner’s sentiments. The points are well made and for the most part entirely valid, although the comment ‘Public diplomacy must be re-framed as direct or indirect engagement of foreign audiences to further America’s national security’ seems to back up a DoD-centric view. This may be mere semantics but security can be a loaded word and PD operates across a policy spectrum – albeit all contributing to security.
The phenomena of ultimately leaving much foreign policy communicative effort to the military, who at least have the resources (but not necessarily the expertise), appears to be common, not only in the US but also, maybe to a slightly lesser degree, in the UK. NATO and the EU (within ESDP civ-mil operations) are also not immune to this.
Further, the narrowing of the word-deed gap is critical to the success of PD, which requires it to be deeply ingrained in policy-making (as Murrow appreciated). The corporate world has taken this on board but political institutions, even in the most developed nations on the planet, still don’t fully appreciate this fact, despite the recognition of the monumental societal changes being braought about by the information age. The Obama administration is good on the word but still has to follow upon the deed (good intentions lead the way to hell etc).
The US is now in a good position to make good on the Obama effect and take PD seriously, but I fear that political infighting is taking its toll. State needs to take a stand if the US is to capitalise on this window of opportunity.
In short: they can and do but, as they say, it ain’t necessarily so.
The Information Operations and Influence Activity (IOIA) Symposium, held this week at UK’s Defence Academy, threw up several enticing cerebral teasers, not least the tension between two schools of thought regarding public affairs (or as the Brits say ‘media operations’). On the one hand, it is claimed by the old guard that public affairs (PA) merely informs (as can be found in US doctrine). On the other, the young turks would have it that information is never value-free and therefore PA will always have an element of influence to it.
As much as CB3 would like to subscribe to the former, the brute force of reality must indicate the latter to be the case. Even at a most simple level, if one stubbornly keeps to transmitting utterly ‘true’ facts and figures, claiming to only inform – the mere selection of which facts to reveal introduces a bias, and therefore a degree of sway or influence, even unconsciously.
This raises a further question, one broached at IOIA. If journalists live and die by their adherence to seeking the truth, informing not influencing and unbiased reporting, can they so easily transfer themselves into roles which are inherently partisan, promotional and influencing? There is well documented tension between the arenas of public relations and the media (although they provide each other with vital life support) – using a market analogy, they are at opposite ends of the supply-demand equation.
Many journalists make the jump to PR, some very successfully, others less so – it may be their contact books which are in demand rather than their prowess as flacks. Equally, many journalists are employed by vitally important reserve military forces (especially in the UK) as public affairs/media operations officers. Many are consummate operators in both journalism and PA, proving mental dexterity, but is it time to question the seemingly automatic assumption that a journalist will be a natural candidate for PA, or wider communication, duties?
This is no way reflects upon the crucial media and PA capability that the reserve forces provide, supplying resources which often are unavailable from the regular forces.