The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

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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.

From the media-savvy Iranian teenager ...

From the media-savvy Iranian teenager ...

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.

... to the illiterate Sudanese goatherd.

... to the illiterate Sudanese goatherd.

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

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.

China's military - now online, in English

China's military - now online, in English

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

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