The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: NATO

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.


Within academic and especially scientific research there has been, for centuries, a reductionist drive – the desire to break down complex structures, entities, organisms or theories into their simplest form – to form all-encompassing explanations or unifying theories.  This, in political or social sciences, and equally in management or organisational studies, is hindered by what seems to be an inherent human capability to produce complex structures to manage, lead, empower, enact and organise, amidst what can be seen as equally complex environments.  Top-down hierarchies have remained at the heart of attempt to maintain a reductionist approach to multi-faceted, multi-layered and often multilateral entities. Whilst these environments are often indeed complex, technology has allowed, even encouraged, the management, using complex systems and practices, of more intricate and intertwined top-down structures.  But the networked society and networked organisation is inherently complex, with a multitude of actors, each with a multitude of opinions and means to communicate and enact them.  Whilst, on the one hand, technology has enabled, to a degree, some control over these actors, this technology has also made for an increasingly difficult environment within which to exercise control.  This is especially apparent in the case of warfare, in which command and control has been a mainstay of its organisational capacity.  Modern warfare, far from its industrial hay day, now encapsulates complex environmental factors, not least the communication and information factors, which challenge increasingly complex organisational structures and alliances, such as NATO.

Nick Davies has a Flat Earth obsession too (and opinions on strategic communication)

The information age has provided a clarion call for many who claim that top-down, reductionist approaches to communication, and thereby its, and wider, management, is incapable of dealing with the complexities of the 21st century.  Within political science and international studies, there are many adherents to this call – from a geostrategic viewpoint, expounded by Thomas Friedman in ‘The World is Flat[1]; from a public diplomacy perspective, raised by Nicholas Cull in calling for ‘the reorientation of public diplomacy away from the top-down communication patterns of the Cold War era’[2] and by Daryl Copeland with his ideas of the networked, grass-roots guerrilla diplomacy[3].

Albeit outside strict political science but possibly through a more focussed lens, there are those who claim to have seen the light and, much more importantly, translated its teachings into reality, from a communication technology position, in which Eric Raymond has broached the now widely accepted notion, having translated into wider communication wisdom, of the Cathedral and the Bazaar[4]; to advocates of 21st century economics based around mass innovation, not mass production, or wikinomics – those such as Charles Leadbetter[5], Don Tapscott, Anthony D Williams[6], Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom[7].

In communication terms, loose networks, as practiced by activists from Greenpeace to the Obama presidential campaign, at one end of the spectrum, and utilized to great physical effect by terrorist groups from Al Qaida to Hezbollah, regularly outperform top-down, mechanistic organisations, be they corporate conglomerates or inter-governmental organisations.  That the former tend to place communication at the centre of strategy explains, to a degree, their considerable capabilities.  But it is also their willingness, and ability, to embrace openness, accept risk, encourage member collaboration, eschew hierarchy and allow innovation within an environment in which a ‘bazaar’ mentality is pervasive, which allows them to synergistically punch above their weight.  Their organizational structures, culture, ethos and management are optimized, by design or otherwise, to operate in the information age – an age which Clay Shirky calls a “new information ecosystem” creating “new social strategies” in a world that privileges networks over hierarchies.

Working within the communication sections of large multilateral organisations, like NATO, many would agree that top-down, mechanistic management practices often stymie communication efforts.  Arguably, many would at least prefer a greater degree of autonomy, and a flatter, networked system.  Indeed, knowledge management or ‘network-centric’ practices have, in the last decade, been developed rapidly, seen as a major factor of information management in modern military doctrines as well as in the corporate world.  However, the management practices allowing that information to be utilized continue to present problems – operators may indeed know a lot more but still can’t use that knowledge effectively.  Networks only really become effective when those within them are allowed to use the value-added that being within a network affords them.

In areas driven by information and innovation, this is where the likes of Linux, Goldcorp, World of Warcraft, the Human Genome Project, Lego and increasingly the likes of Nokia, Proctor & Gamble and IBM, and many more, are going – empowering networks, with some remarkable success.  However, the transformation to an organisational, managerial and cultural space previously anathema to capitalist corporate ideals has required considerable leaps of faith.

But people even in the foreign policy world are taking tentative, if small, steps in this direction. One example is Diplopedia – “grass-roots technology in a top-down organization,” according to Eric M. Johnson of the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy.  Diplopedia, being a wiki, is open to the contributions of all who work in the State Department.[8] This has involved a culture shift from a “need to know culture” to a “need to share culture” evoking Pierre Levy’s idea of “we think, therefore we are”[9] suffused with Leadbeater’s “you are what you share”[10].

It’s a small step but it is indicative of a potential, seismic shift in thought about how we manage and then use information, in the same sense that communications professionals manage and use information.

Admittedly, this approach is not for all.  Strict security, defence, strategic policy, political machinations, negotiations and alliance concensus-building and decision-making may not be suitable for this collaborative, participative, self-organising, collectivist, horizontal networking style of management.  But, it has been remarkably successful in areas which thrive on information, ideas and innovation.  The question is: could it be useful in the management of communication within complex organisations operating in complex environments?

The technology is there but do we have the cerebral capacity, cultural flexibility and management ethos to use it effectively?  This sort of question has been raised before.  In the military context, the development of tank warfare strategy was slow to take shape despite the technology rapidly improving and a similar case can be made for air power.   Both required a culture shift to allow effective use of technology.

It can be argued that the widespread approach to strategic communication and public diplomacy, despite acknowledging the need for a change, is driven through adaptation of existing practices, denying the idea of a paradigm shift.  We are using new information technologies to merely create efficiencies and legitimize traditional tasks.  But, as Bruce Gregory points out “in today’s global information environment, we must do more than adapt – we must transform”[11].

Playing this ...

A senior NATO communications officer put it succinctly by claiming that even the widespread use of social media within NATO is being seen as a new club from the hierarchical golf bag.  However, the point is that the game has changed, and the world is no longer playing golf.  This, he claims, is like playing football with a golf club. Still operating as a hierarchy but in a networked world, he countenances throwing the rule book out and starting again – transforming not merely adapting.

At a higher level, governments and NATO, can be seen struggling with the Comprehensive Approach.  At its core the Comprehensive Approach tends toward the notion of collaboration, the very essence of the fully utilised networked environment, but can be seen to be faltering through the maintenance of hierarchical, top-down organisational culture inherent within its system.

Of course, it can be argued that a military alliance can never really adapt to such levels of self-organising and flat management culture.  The provision of organised violence through war demands a top-down command and control structure.  Indeed so.  But there are three aspects to this argument to be considered.  Firstly, modern warfare is increasingly fought in the information domain, a domain unlike any previous incarnation, rapidly evolving, less reliant upon outright violence and with innumerable actors. Secondly, modern warfare has adapted already to deal with the restrictions placed upon it through strict command and control protocols by encouraging the philosophy of mission command.  And thirdly, the ideals of flat, networked, collaborative structures and practice do not encourage pure self-organising without leadership.  In fact, all the success stories mentioned above have required a core, a guidance function – to all intents, a degree of leadership.

Furthermore, with regard to communications within military organisations, the thrust of this academic exercise, the function has always ‘enjoyed’ unique management practices because of its specialised nature – nowhere is the ‘thousand mile screwdriver’ as well utilised yet, equally, hardly any other functions have immediate management access to the hierarchy.  On most military HQ organigrams, just look for the dotted line between Public Affairs or Media Ops to the Command.  The notions of flat, collaborative, networked management primarily work for information driven activities and nowhere in a headquarters is information more of a direct force multiplier than when used by the communication function, be it information operations or public affairs.  The point here is that, while this new philosophy may have some limited utility within general management practice of military alliances, communications management within such is ripe for such transformation.

Yet, has this been examined seriously?  One could fill two thirds of the Royal Albert Hall with books on corporate management, including public relations or communications management.  The other third could accommodate the vast number of papers on military and foreign policy communications practices, especially propaganda, information operations and psyops.

However, of the latter, the vast majority of academic research, debate, discussion and dialogue connected with this area deal with externalities – i.e. concerned with how to strategically communicate, influence, coerce, persuade others – target audiences, be they citizens or consumers, foreign or domestic, friendly or hostile, population or insurgent – using various practices from TV spots to focus groups to social media and theories from social psychology to behavioural economics.  However, the approach encouraged focuses 180 degrees away, looking at the internalities – i.e how organisations manage communication, organise communicative practice, create a communicative culture in order to facilitate effective strategic communication via the externalities.  Specifically it suggests that the internalities – management, culture, structure, dynamics, ethos – of a highly political multilateral organization within an environment of multi-layered complexity play a massive role in achieving its goals.

As such, this area is indeed multi-disciplinary, existing at the nexus of international relations, security studies, organizational theory and communication management.

... when everyone else is playing this?

This approach is not necessarily focussed on how to persuade Afghan tribesmen to deny succour to Taliban raiders, nor does it examine how to convince the US population that the Afghan strategy is working and worth continuing.  These sorts of questions are wrestled with by many on a daily basis, from the newsrooms of the media to the military staff colleges of NATO nations.  There is no need to add to that cacophony.

However, it does appear that NATO and other militaries and governments, are reticent to seriously examine their own internal issues with regard to these communication needs.  Despite the common rhetoric, the discipline of corporate public relations is remarkably inward-looking, determined to fully understand the cultural web of an organization, in order to enable it to present itself to the world.  Only then can effective transformation, if needed, be enacted. The practice of strategic communication, and the endeavours within its rubric – public diplomacy, information operations and public affairs – have yet to achieve that maturity of discipline and management, and especially culture.  But, despite utilizing networking technologies, there is evidence that such immaturity, remaining shackled to a reductionist, hierarchical command and control framework, continuing to merely adapt existing practices, is negatively affecting the ability to use information and communicate it effectively.

The importance of culture to military communications practitioners applies to the culture of a target audience, with scant, if any, regard to the fact that there is a culture within, the understanding of which is just as important to a dialogical engagement as the protocols, routines, ritual, histories, narratives, codes and mores of  those being engaged.  Unfortunately culture is apparently something we need to know about others, as endless information operations workshops will attest.

Culture shift is always a controversial issue, fraught with philosophical difficulties and guarded against by powerful institutional inertia.  But culture shift is happening out there and some are successfully transforming themselves to deal with it.  This new culture of collaboration, flat management, open-source and interconnectivity will not provide the likes of NATO with the answers to all its communication issues but there are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt…

… Lesson 1: leave your golf clubs at home and start playing football.

And just to put our money where our mouth is (to coin an old English phrase) this is going to developed further via a wiki.  So feel free to have your say/comment/rant at http://natostratcom.wikia.com/


[1] ‘The World is Flat’ (2005)

[2] ‘Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World’ (2008), p.25

[3] ‘Guerilla Diplomacy’ (2009)

[4] ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’ (1999)

[5] ‘We-Think’ (2008)

[6] ‘Wikinomics’ (2007)

[7] ‘The Starfish and the Spider’ (2006)

[8] New York Times 4 August 2008 ‘An Internal Wiki that’s not Classified’ http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/04/business/media/04link.html?_r=1

[9] ‘Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace’ (1999)

[10] ‘We-Think’ (2008)

[11] http://www.gwu.edu/~ipdgc/assets/docs/mapping_smartpower_gregory.pdf


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.

Playing to this crowd ...

Playing to this crowd ...

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.

global-crowd

... or this one?


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.

Ambassadors of US energy policy?

Ambassadors of US energy 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?

Womens activist groups in Afghanistan - holding a vital key?

Womens activist groups in Afghanistan - holding a vital key?

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.

US Public Diplomacy - still wearing combat boots?

US Public Diplomacy - still wearing combat boots?

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.

Not quite Alistair Campbell

Not quite Alistair Campbell

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.

Nice branding ... but there's a lot more to it than that.

Nice branding ... but there's a lot more to it than that.

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.