The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: obama

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.


Every year PRWeek produces the ‘Power Book’ – the definitive guide to the most influential people in Public Relations (CB3 has yet to grace the pages of said publication!).  It includes the likes and dislikes of 100 of the UK’s finest – and can be indicative of trends in communications  – i.e it’s what the big boys are thinking and saying.  Now, there are a lot of people in communications who may not often glance through a corporate PR magazine – especially those in public diplomacy, information operations and public affairs.  So, although this will be a little UK-centric, CB3 just thought it would be useful to provide a quick resume of what the PR powerbrokers are really into ….

Popular chap

Popular chap

Most popular politician – some chap called Obama won by a mile. (Nelson Mandela, Vince Cable (if you’re not a Brit you won’t have heard of him – top chap though) and Margaret Thatcher also featured highly.

Most respected journalist – Andrew Marr, followed by Jeff Randall and John Simpson

Top newspapers – FT and The Guardian (both way ahead of third place The Times)

Just pipped by the FT

Just pipped by the FT

Best online –  BBC by far, but Google, Facebook, Guardian Unlimited and Twitter feature in top five.

Best broadcast – Today (BBC Radio 4).  In fact, in the top six, various BBC programmes featured, with the only exception being SKY News.twitter_logo

Business or brand to watch – Obama and Apple fought for top space, with Twitter, Aldi (sign of the times) and Google, trailing after them.

Best PR campaign – easily Obama’s presidential campaign (oh, that Obama – not the Irish pub)

Okay, this may be from  a UK perspective but it may be  somewhat informative for others across the globe as well.  So, in a nutshell, if you want to be up with the best, be familiar with Obama, BBC, Guardian, Google and Twitter and you can’t go wrong!


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.


So now it’s in paperback.  But what is it all about?

Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge – where economics meets behavioural psychology – has become a prime reader for political communicators, having been linked to Obama’s presidential campaign and the UK’s conservatives.  However, the ‘nudge’ is nothing new, as its authors admit.

nudge1

As the Guardian handily explained back in mid-2008, rather than leave people to their own devices, or give them dos and don’ts, Thaler and other behavioural economists want to highlight the best option, while still leaving all the bad ones open. They argue it’s better for everyone to be automatically enrolled in a pension scheme (or more controversially for organ donation), but give them an opt-out. Or they may want a shop to put real oranges by the checkout rather than chocolate versions.

nudge-cartoon

Now, if communication is defined as the response you get, then using the liberal paternalist methods of nudge to ‘persuade’ people to do the right thing, is the way ahead.  The pragmatics amongst us will see much in the nudge.  And the age-old methods of ‘nudge’, now comprehensively explained, are appearing across the communications spectrum.  The applications in public diplomacy, foreign policy communications, information operations and media operations have yet to be fully explored.  However, CB3 will be shaking up the cerebral matter to venture into nation-building nudging.

It’s not for everyone – Gordon Brown’s not too keen – but it’s definately got some traction.  After all, it’s now in paperback, and being advertised like a common-or-garden Ian Rankin thriller (see the posters on the London Underground).  Someone’s giving Nudge a ‘nudge’.


There’s a perception within many foreign policy establishments that public diplomacy is definately not public relations.   Last year’s publication by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), entitled  Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World, is definitive.  On page 10, Jim Murphy MP, then Minister for Europe, exhorts that:

“… foreign ministries must stop seeing public diplomacy as a form of public relations, shouting out core messages and top lines, louder and louder, in the false belief that they haven’t been heard clearly enough.  To succeed in today’s world, we need genuine engagement, not clumsy propoaganda.”

The US has a specific problem in this regard, but that appears to be borne of a more restricted view of PR than that of the Brits (however, CB3 does agree with the sentiment of Montainrunner’s blog), and several constitutional issues surrounding PD, such as the Smith-Mundt act.  Currently, the Obama Adminstration is raising the very issue of what PD should be, but many in the US tend to bunch PR in with advertising, marketing and branding, unlike in the UK, where a clearer delineation can be made.

Yes, with regard to PD and PR, there are differences, but only in context.  Even CB3 recognises that PD isn’t quite public relations, but only in the sensitivities, audiences and proximity to information operations.  The similarities? Engagement, dialogue, symmetry, vision, relationships – these are espoused by Public diplomats, and just happen to also be the cornerstone of PR ideology, as taught by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

Indeed, CB3 challenges any ethical PR practitioner (certainly those trained in the UK), to see massive differences in the ideals, practices and objectives between PR and PD.  Academic studies by Signitzer and Coombs, Yun, even Grunig himself, indicate a real convergence of PR and PD in an era of global information. The resistance of foreign ministries to accept synonymity seems borne of a lack of understanding of contemporary PR (as opposed to mere publicity) and fear of being tarred with the negative connotations of PR (often brought about by publicists).  It is moot that many reviews of PD indicate that it is also hampered by the regime of one-way, conveyor-belt traffic – an accusation often levelled at PR.

However, there is a shift, as evidenced by a recent workshop for diplomats in Rome.  During the Georgian war of 2008, it was claimed that ‘plucky, little Georgia’ won the PR battle with Russia.

Does it really matter?  It is just a question of semantics?  Well, to a degree.  But there is a danger of artificial firewalls being established between practitioners of public diplomacy and public relations.  The debate is good, and we must understand the nuances of each but, let’s face it, we’re all in communications, and have a lot to learn from each other.   To use a cliche, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.


Encouraged by the leadership of the obamaObama administration, there is hope that soft power and consensus may pervade the thinking of ‘Western’ foreign policy. We may, at last, see the ideology of Joseph Nye (Paradox of American Power, Powers to Lead) seeping through the US administration, and percolating throughout ‘Western’ foreign policy (although, some already claim to embrace it, eg, the European Union).  As PR Week (Opinion, 16 Jan) proclaimed, as this wind of change blows through, the PR profession may reap rewards.

However, when it comes to strategic communications and public diplomacy, senior leaderships of the West have all too often failed to ‘get it’. Despite a general recognition that, in a globalised world, domestic and foreign policy are inextricably linked, government interest and expenditure in communications wane dramatically once publics fall outside domestic borders.  This problem exists in national management structures and within multilateral organisations as well, as many practitioners in foreign policy communications will attest. 

The problem, in CB3’s humble opinion (but based on experience and research), is often due to a lack of understanding, at senior, strategic level, of communications in the foreign policy and development contexts, despite the sterling work of many in public information, public diplomacy, influence activity and information operations. This results in underfunded, ill-planned and outmoded ideas in campaigns that often lack strategic guidance. ‘Hearts and minds’ is a tired cliché, but to nurture effective soft power and consensus in this age of dialogue, the most crucial battle for ‘hearts and minds’ should first be fought not on the global stage but in the corridors of power of government offices, foreign ministries, defence departments and development agencies.