The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

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Mission Command.  Most military personnel in modern armed forces, certainly in the West, understand it.  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, practisng ‘management by objectives’ or the management concept of empowerment.

A bright lad, our Mr Clausewitz.

A bright lad, our Mr Clausewitz.

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 docrine, 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.

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 (sounds familiar? – see the first paragraph), have as good, if not better, capabilities than the modern fighting forces.  Indeed, modern fighting forces, are hamstrung for may 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?

Of course, mission command requires a degree of specific guidance!

Of course, mission command requires a degree of specific guidance!

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?

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 hierachy to’ let go’.  But the signs are there.  Without decentralisation, freedom of action, speed, delegation and iniative 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.


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.

Ainsworth1

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.



A head of state being casually interviewed on a television show that people actually watch, a comedy show at that – the mere thought would send shivers down spines of staff in Whitehall, the Elysee Palace, the Bundestag and all manner of institutions in Brussels.  But some chap called Barack Obama had a little chat with Jay Leno last night on an extremely popular talk show – how refreshing!

"Tonight with me is Pwime Minister Gordon Bwown ..."

"Tonight with me is Pwime Minister Gordon Bwown ..."

Now, the Obama crew will no doubt have realised that it was an extremely risky strategy – but that’s the point, there is always risk in political communication, it just has to be assessed.  Undoubtedly, there will be some aspects of President Obama’s comments that will come back to haunt him, but the very fact that he is willng and able to present himself and his ideas so openly to so many, in a forthright and understandable manner, will pay dividends several times over.  Love him or hate him, at least his constituency will have a much better understanding of him than his predecessors, or colleagues in other states, contributing to the capacityof citizens to make informed decisions, the bedrock of democracy.

In a similar vein, Obama chose to give a interview to Al-Arabiya within days of his inauguration, presenting himself and his intentions to the Arab world in a way unknown during the Bush Era.  If public diplomacy is seen as communicating directly to the citizens of foreign countries, as opposed to merely talking behind diplomatic closed doors, then here is a prime example.  And as an example of laying the ground for soft power, the administration’s recent offering of ‘a fresh start for Iran‘ is a sound follow on to the Al-Arabiya interview, representing the end of the US abject refusal to deal with, or at least engage with, one of the world’s most strategically important states – Iran.  Engagement was a notion bandied about the Clinton administration, but the Obama team’s use of communication in this direction (call it PR, public diplomacy, stratcomm whatever) takes the concept to a new level.

This brave embracing of communication channels, be they comedy chat shows or twitter or facebook (now in Arabic), by people of gravity (i.e. those who in the eyes of the audience matter), to inform domestic and foreign publics, is risky but will pay dividends for all.  Political communicators now all talk of using new media, websites, twitter etc but it takes real guts for the major players (once again,those who in the eyes of the audience matter) to step up to the plate and really use these capabilities effectively.  Obama’s major advisors in this area, such as David Axelrod, Ellen Moran and ‘Rahmbo’ Emanuel are shaking up the box, in terms of approaches to communication.  Just as many are learning from the web-based aspects of Obama’s presidential campaign, there are lessons also to be learnt from the Al-Arabiya interview and last night’s Jay Leno show – spines should be tingling in Whitehall, the Elysee Palace, the Bundestag and all manner of institutions in Brussels.


With regard to strategic communication, a common sentiment at development, strategy, foreign policy and political conferences is that “we all know it’s not working”.

Such attitudes often spark ideas on how to make communications contribute more to foreign policy objectives, but all too often these approaches suggest changes at the tactical level, without recourse to the core of the problem; that of understanding at the strategic level.

Over the last two decades, the corporate world has recognised the rapid evolution of the information environment. As a result, public relations (as opposed to pure marketing and advertising) has made an upward transition into the boardroom, has become part of the dominant coalition. In other words, the corporate world has come to understand the nature and importance of strategic communications, harnessing its power at the core of business and having communications contribute directly to corporate objectives. This paradigm shift has not ameliorated all ills, but communications is no longer an afterthought, no longer a ‘bolt on’ at the end of the policy process. It has gone mainstream.

In the area of foreign policy, notably crisis management and post-conflict reconstruction, this culture shift is moving at a glacial rate. Currently, in the higher echelons of foreign ministries, defence departments and development agencies, communications remains a ‘bolt-on’, despite the sterling work of many working on influence, information operations, public affairs and public diplomacy.

This lamentable position is maintained largely through a lack of understanding. Many still see communications through an industrial warfare lens, from a pre-information age viewpoint, when communications entailed either getting the spokesperson in front of a camera or conducting a solid bit of psychological operations (Psyops) or propaganda against an enemy. As mission critical as many see communications, through its ability to explain, justify, persuade, influence, understand and inform, and its capacity to win ‘hearts and minds’ or ‘capture the will of the people’, contemporary guiding philosophies and methodologies espoused by senior planners are often outmoded. As General Rupert Smith states, ‘capturing the will of the people is a very clear and basic concept, yet one that is either misunderstood or ignored by political and military establishments around the world’.

When considering the poor performance of communications, many examples of failings from the fields of Afghanistan to the mountains of Kosovo to the streets of the DRC, can be cited. In the asymmetric warfare of Afghanistan, with regard to the information battleground, it is the modern ‘Western’ force which is the weaker, while the Taliban possesses the superior communication ‘firepower’. It is little wonder that some senior Commanders are stressing  that interventions must be treated as entire information campaigns in this new type of conflict; post-industrial war. And that also requires a deeper understanding of the role of strategic communications in this new conflict, both during and after.

Of course, there have been successes. The EU Police Mission in Bosnia-Hercegovina (EUPM) has successfully used modern media tactics to discourage crime; in 2001 a popular soap opera on BBC’s Pashtun service was instrumental in the success of a massive UNICEF inoculation campaign in Afghanistan, dealing with seven million children in just three weeks; the success of the ‘Kimberley Process’ is in no small part due to highly successful lobbying by development NGOs; Psyops were seen as a major factor in the rapid collapse of the Iraqi military in 2003; in 2000, the UK’s use of force, posture and profile certainly persuaded the RUF to stay away from Freetown, Sierra Leone; Oxfam, Save the Children and Médecins sans Frontières (and many others) can all point to successful campaigns to educate populations in war-ravaged countries. Although these successes tend to be the exceptions and mostly of tactical significance, the list does serve to illustrate the wide spectrum of and complex environment in which communications now feature.

In light of this new operating environment, a full review of the use of communications in war, crisis management and post conflict reconstruction is way overdue. As all communication professionals know, effective communication strategies are holistic, multi-spectral, multi-layered, internal and external, with multiple audiences and agencies, both domestic and foreign – in short, strategic. Strategic communications is an all pervasive concept: distillation of one’s own raison d’être; direct contribution to strategic guidance; internal communication; dialogical conversations; public diplomacy; boundary-spanning; social psychology; issue management; behavioural dynamics; stakeholder engagement; lobbying; narrative construction and publics analysis. The need to understand this concept at the highest level is becoming ever more crucial in the increasingly complex environments of foreign policy crisis management and post-conflict reconstruction. With this understanding will come the enablers, at all levels, that will allow comprehensive and effective strategic communication. It will go mainstream.

Yes, we need more resources. Yes, we need more coordination. Yes, we need better trained people. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that merely calling for these will bring about change. Equally, let’s not be so naïve as to think that by merely getting more resources, coordination and people that we will suddenly have sorted out the strategic communication malaise. The solutions lie deeper, in a sound and concrete understanding of what strategic communication is and what it can deliver.

If strategic communication is to contribute fully to the objectives of crisis management and post-conflict reconstruction, it firstly needs to be communicated to, and fully understood by, those who can bring about the paradigm shift. Attitudes and understanding are changing slowly but the most critical battle for ‘hearts and minds’ will not be fought in the fields of Afghanistan, the mountains of Kosovo or the streets of the DRC, but in the corridors of power of foreign ministries, defence departments and development agencies.