Having checked out cyberspace regarding the sacking of General McChrystal over the Rolling Stone Magazine coverage, it apears that there is chatter of conspiracy theories. Basically, they centre on the possibility that the good General (a man who certainly seemed to get communication within the counter-insurgency context) deliberately created/engineeered/concocted the circumstances which led to the article, in order to (a) get fired so he wouldn’t be responsible for the Afghan debacle or (b) as a test of resolve of the White House in a Pentagon willy-waving statement.
Now CB3 isn’t one for conspiracy theories but on balance can see why, in this case, they are getting some profile – and it’s because of the “what the xxxx were they thinking?” factor. The sheer absurdity of the events is mesmerising, especially to anyone who has ever worked in public affairs, public relations or media operations. In fact, I’m sure many journalists are also pretty dumbfounded as to how it all happened.
It appears McChrystal’s team had absolutely no idea of their objectives regarding the interviews. They hadn’t asked the WIIFM question (what’s in it for me (or rather, the General – or to be precise, the mission)). Then the team seemed to abandon any notion of this having a strategic effect, wandered off subject, spoke outside their responsibility, forgot about research, treated Michael Hastings as a beer-drinking buddy, gave ill-thought through access, and generally behaved totally unprofessionally. But these are experienced blokes – surely they know the game?
Well, it just goes to show that even the experienced can become complacent and hence make catastrophic mistakes, especially in a field as slippery, intangible, nebulous, unpredictable and downright tricky as dealing with the media. No conspiracy, just complacency – just Generals and media advisors forgetting that once engaged with the media, they no longer dominate the ‘battlespace’ (or for a corporate analogy, the marketplace).
And on complacency … for all those CEO’s and senior business leaders who think “no, we can handle the media … we’d never make mistakes like that”, it’s worthwhile remembering that McChrystal (just like BP’s Tony Hayward) was certainly no fool.
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.
Interesting snippet caught on Newsnight last night (28/04/09) about energy and climate change issues in the US. Ethical man Justin Rowlatt covered Powershift 09 as part of his series. But the crucial communications aspect of Powershift seems to be that a green activist movement, normally shunned by mainstream governments, is being seen as a method of encouraging and persuading American voters of Obama’s climate change agenda, using activists (seen being trained in how to resist arrest) as ambassadors for a government policy.
Now this proximity of traditional enemies is not new – Shell and BP have taken considerable steps to be seen as green through apparent (and only occasional) connectivity with activist groups like Greenpeace, although emnity is deep and remains for obvious reasons. And there are many political groups who will support political pitches, including that of the incumbent government. But the use of strident activists to promote a government policy against a generally accepted stance i.e. the fossil fuel economy, seems to be a new leap. This is not Astroturf but using genuine activism for policy endorsement.
The circumstances may be unique to the cap and trade issue in the US, but this approach does beg several questions – are there other circumstances where political policy can be matched with vocal activists against a form of accepted, conventional wisdom? And further, are there circumstances in developing and post-conflict countries which can be used in a similar way?
This is not necessarily countenancing covert support to student groups under totalitarian regimes, but where foreign agencies are already engaged (be they UN, NATO etc) do we make full use of grass roots activism (as limited as it may be) to achieve policy goals, or do we still tend to go down the route of mainsteam key leader engagement because it’s easier, more straightforward (relatively!) and more in line with our conventional
Western way of doing things? Are developing embryonic government institutions, struggling with democracy, encouraged to look towards the power of activist groups or are they merely maintaining their traditional opposition towards them? Are they, and therefore we, missing a trick?
After all, most governments have always had difficult relationships with autonomous grass roots organisations, unless, of course, they’re onside already. As ever with trying to improve the performance of public diplomacy and foreign policy communications in a rapidly changing information environment, the above requires some serious unconventional and politically risky thinking.
But that thinking, at the very least, should be done.
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 response to Daniel Korski’s questions concerning NATO branding, on the excellent Global Dashboard blogsite, CB3 thought it time to scribble a few words.
Op-eds, academic papers, rumours and downright moaning tend to indicate that NATO isn’t winning the information war, certainly in Afghanistan. Now, there’s a lot to be said for taking that point of view, but more often than not such a view is expressed alongside such sentiment as ‘the Taliban are, in fact, winning the information battle’. Well, just hang on a minute.
As Tim Foxley of SIPRI, having spent the last eight years studying the Taliban, elucidated recently, there is little evidence for sustained success of Taliban communications efforts and in fact they still have a weak, poorly planned and inflexible approach to communications, and are vulnerable in this area (but they’re learning fast). So let’s hear less of the Taliban are better than NATO in communications.
And, anyway, NATO have also made great strides in this area over the last few years, with the establishment of a fully functioning Media Operations Centre (MOC) and rapid development of workable procedures. Further, the concept of Strategic Communication is starting to gain traction, featuring more and more in policy and strategy formulation (with details available on the web). A lot of hard work has obviously gone into raising NATO’s game in this regard.
But when the word branding starts being bandied about, CB3 starts to worry a little. Direct experience in Afghanistan has shown that, even after the recent positive developments, there is always a tendency to use communication, especially media operations/public affairs to encourage domestic audiences to support the campaign/war at the expense of using such capabilities to actually support the objectives of the campaign/war.
Serving and retired military one-four stars, senior communicators from IGOs to NGOs and practitioners, all cry out that the circumstances of modern conflict interventions demand that they are conducted with information and communications at their core – and by that they mean using information and communications to win the campaign, not merely make good copy or nice branding for the home audiences (CB3 exaggerates here – a little). The latter is important but without emphasis on the former, what’s the point?
Few would disagree that, in the information age, communication is becoming fundamental to achieving foreign policy goals. But words are cheap, and CB3 suspects that NATO does and/or will face similar problems in achieving its communication aspirations as the US is finding. Recent RAND research has indicated that a lack of leadership buy-in, leading to a lack of resources, vague strategy and obstacles to better coordination, are all posing significant challenges to achieving what the majority of communication practitioners see as vital. Similar vibes were observed when examined communication management of the the European Union’s ESDP missions in 2008.
It’s difficult enough in the real world of 24/7 media, diplomatic realities and genuine propaganda, but even in the more benign and more easily controlled training and exercise environment, NATO regularly fails to take communication seriously. This is symptomatic of large swathes of NATO not really ‘getting it’. For example, during CMX-08, despite valiant efforts of the exercise directors, the MOC was extensively exercised, but in almost total isolation from the rest of the players – the communication bit can be a little bit problematic and upsetting, so outside the MOC we’ll pay lip service to the media and public opinion bit. Problemmatic? – damn right it is! Equally, many NATO exercises consider to have tested communication by conducting little tactical vignettes, thrusting journalists with cameras and microphones into the faces of Public Affairs Officers and their COs, and doing very little else (oh, there will be some good simulated news video stuff). Nice interview, didn’t pick his nose on camera, didn’t give away any secrets, kept to the lines – brilliant. That’s vital stuff, but it’s the tip of the strategic communication iceberg – and its the 90% under the water that is likely to sink any communication contribution to achieving strategic objectives.
In a previous CB3 Blog, it was stated that, ‘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’. This equally applies to NATO.
The point is, having Coca-Cola executives and TV channels (which is pretty good – although its style is definately staid, some creativity and flair would be welcome), nice branding and interview training is all good and well, and indeed vital. But it is the deeper, complex and sometimes uncomfortable and contentious aspects of communications that will have to be addressed. Budgets, strategy, relationships, analysis, personnel, ROI, private sector involvement, new media – these all have to be on the table … on the ‘boardroom’ table. Making communication mainstream and holistic, such that it is rightly seen by everyone as fundamental (but not exclusive) to achieving strategic objectives, is key to improving the communication capability of the Alliance.
There are those in NATO who are pushing hard to apply pressure in this direction, in the face of massive institutional inertia. CB3 applauds them.