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.