The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: Iraq

Heard from Basra: “What on Earth were the British doing here? Wasting their time, wasting their money and wasting their lives.”  Not CB’s words, but sentiments expressed by the people of Basra, passed on by a senior and highly regarded BBC correspondent who has spent years reporting from the streets of Iraq. (for the original audio – Radio 4 Today programme at 0738 on 30 Apr 2009)

The British Army is leaving Iraq – an Army steeped in tradition and arguably recognised as one of the best fighting forces in the world.  It is, by and large, well respected and has an admirable and solid reputation.  Only last summer, IPSOS-Mori polling gave  an 80% favourable or mainly favourable  (UK only) to the question “How favourable or unfavourable are your opinions and impressions of the British Army?” Fine stuff indeed, and fully endorsed by CB3.

However, reputation is a fickle entity and never guaranteed, no matter how strong your ‘brand’.

The British Army - A fine reputation, but one to be maintained just as much after Iraq as during it.

The British Army - A fine reputation, but one to be maintained just as much after Iraq as during it.

The line has often been used that the difficulties and struggles faced by the British military have been caused by politicians (the Labour government) who have sent them on unsuitable missions, under-resourced and often out-gunned.  The concept of serious problems within the Army, are not new, as Newsnight’s  September 07 programme ‘Broken Army’ proves.  And Deep Cut, Royal Navy Iranian hostages, with its own  media debacle (not Army but still people in uniform), and abuses of Iraqi prisoners, have also raised eyebrows (putting it mildly!), here and internationally. However, recent media coverage, such as Stephen Grey’s Dispatches – Afghanistan: Mission Impossible?, and several print articles have further eluded to failures within the military itself.    While Con Coughlin concedes that the damage to the Army’s reputation is real, albeit of government making, Christopher Brooker is particularly forthright:

“The British Army had entered Iraq in 2003 with a reputation as ”the most professional in the world’’. Six years later it will leave, having failed to fulfil any of its allotted tasks and having earned the contempt of the Iraqis and the Americans after one of our most humiliating defeats in history.”

Now, of course, headlines and op-eds and the occasional documentary do not automatically reflect genuine public opinion but let’s look at a hypothetical timeline over the next eighteen months:

  • American money pours into the south of Iraq, infrastructure improves – Narrative in Basra: ‘It’s getting much better now the Americans are here’, possibly reading as ‘the British Army failed’.
  • Afghanistan remains slow progress, but the Obama administration wants a good foreign policy win, and points to Iraq – Narrative in the US: ‘We’re suceeding in Basra’ i.e ‘where the British Army failed’.
  • Maliki wants to capitalise on sucess in Basra – Narrative:, with American support, the Iraqi government is improving the lives of Baswaris’, read as ‘where the British Army couldn’t’
  • Domestically, the Conservatives, wishing to win marginal seats in garrison towns during the general election (remember this is hypothetical), make a campaign push on defence – Narrative ‘We will rebuild a ‘broken Army’, read as ‘the Army is broken’.
  • Overall narrative:  ‘The broken British Army failed in Iraq’.  And a sustained narrative like this may well affect public opinion.

Okay, so that;s all hypothetical, but the point here is, regardless of a failure to resource the Army for its mission and the fact that any chance of success in Iraq was also down to several government agencies who do not wear combat uniform, under the circumstances above, the Army, the most visible of British involvement, may end up taking the hit long after they have withdrawn.  The US Army took a generation to really get over the damage that Vietnam did to its reputation, despite its many successes (i.e. the massive Tet offensive was successfully repelled, effectively a massive US victory but was seen as a PR disaster).

CB3’s hope and hunch is that this won’t happen for the British Army.  But a recent conversation with a retired British Lieutenant-Colonel, who could not ever see circumstances in which the Army’s reputation would be tarnished, got CB3 thinking.  That well earned reputation is not guaranteed, and must be attended to just as much after the event (Iraq) as during it.  Resting, literally, on laurels just won’t cut it.

Further, there are lessons here for others.  Let’s not forget, other militaries are appearing to limp home from Iraq.  They have reputations to think about too.


CB3 is working on a programme of training and advising for an Iraqi government Ministry.  The remit is to prepare the Ministry’s communications department to conduct a PR campaign through ‘conventional’ or ‘mass’ media.

However, this does raise the question; today, what exactly is conventional media?  In the good old days that meant the mainstream TV, radio and print outlets.  But today, even in a post-conflict and developing nation like Iraq, the influence of digital capabilities is changing exactly how one gets the message through to the audience, both via the conventional media and directly.

Even in Iraq, there's 400 channels with nothing much on ... but there is also the internet.

Even in Iraq, there are 400 channels with nothing much on ... but there 's also the internet.

Digital convergence means that the supply of information or copy to the conventional media no longer means relying upon the journalist, editor, camera and sound person of that media.  With very few resources, digital copy can be prepared for direct use by that media.  The distribution of a press release, followed by facilities, press conferences and/or interviews can now easily be supplemented by digital video packages, the video news release.  In-house capacity building can allow the production of useable video, to be placed directly on the websites of conventional print, TV or even radio outlets.  And given the pressures upon conventional media outlets, these moves will be welcome – the dietary requirements of conventional media are changing, fast.

Taking the UK as an example, in 2007, Tiscali noted that 63% of Uk adults would prefer to watch on-demand products on via the internet and MediaGuardian reported that 43% of UK internet users watch webTV – which takes into account much more than your traditional media providers such as BBC or SKY.  More peple are accessing their information via the internet and from an increasing number of sources.

Further, those digital packages, ultimately flexible, can be distributed via digitally networked media – YouTube, facebook, itunes etc, and incorporated into wider campaigns.  Yes, that’s using user-generated content sites.  Why? Because if you’re going digital on the web, it’s worthwhile remembering that, of the top 100 global websites the top 70% of websites are content-based, and of those,70% are user-generated (from Alexa).

Bottom line – In Europe and the US digital broadcasting is growing massively, and the trend is taking effect in other areas of the world.  With less than half a million landlines in Afghanistan but approaching 6 million cutting edge mobile phones, and with internet usage almost doubling in the last two years, this is already happening. A comprehensive 2008 report on Pakistan’s new media habits, from the MIT Media Lab, tends to cement this perspective.  There may be a degree of ‘digital divide’ but it is narrowing and the dietary requirements of the recipient audiences, the man on the street, are also changing rapidly.

The digital domain - it's not just a 'Western' thing

The digital domain - it's not just a 'Western' thing

Those who are waking up to the digital broadcast reality are taking it one step further.  Instead of providing copy or spokespersons directly for the traditional media, they are producing their own content and hosting it themselves.  Produce good stuff, which can be seen as untainted with propagandistic rhetroric, and the conventional media (and user-generated sphere) will soon be feeding off organisations’ websites.  Why spend money and time on cameramen and journalists when the organisations who ‘get it’ are providing useable digital content anyway?  Of course, the critical capacity of journalism is still required, but extended provision of good copy, which can be further investigated, cannot be a bad thing

For the communications practitioner, almost anywhere in the world, this represents three approaches to dealing with conventional media – servicing the digital requirements of traditional media outlets, taking part in the external user-generated environment and providing one’s own digital outlet.

Basic conventional media techniques are no longer enough.  The information environment is now criss-crossed with intertwining networks, including the conventional media.  Dealing with the conventional media in isolation, through the once acceptable tunnel-visioned approach, just won’t cut it anymore – even in the less developed and post-conflict areas of the world.