Without doubt the information age has brought with the idea of ‘real’ dialogical communication, in which the global extent of networked society has blossomed. A quick history lesson in from the classrooms of public relations adequately plots the transition from the hypodermic method of communication aimed at a centralised model of society, through to the two-step flow approach focussed on a decentralised society and finally into the contemporary networked communication process of a distributed system.
Amongst the vast majority of communication practitioners, and beyond, this shift is explained and celebrated by new/now/digital/social media. So far so good – nothing earthshattering and novel yet. But does modern day ‘messaging’ cater for this environment?
The very idea of a message – something transmitted to an audience, the very fact one ‘sends’ messages infers indeed a one-way transaction. But as we’re constantly informed by the social media gurus the new world is all about the ‘conversation’, dialogue, two-way communication, the community etc. The notion of a message, purveyed hypodermically, is anathema to the new protocols and ethos of the information environment. It grates against the sensitivities of the community involved.
One example is thst conducted by the Obama campaign forged around a slogan of ‘Yes, we can!’. Throughout Obama’s campaign, in every media interview he gave, he embodied a sense that his ideas, his objectives, his desires, via the words and phrases he used were those of a larger community, not of a single man or entity, such as a future administration. Less of the message, more of the idea. His engagements with traditional media translated very well into the cyber domain, took place as part of a conversation and the techniques used, subtle as they were, allowed traditional media to converge with the needs of new, social media.
Does traditional media training cater for this change in the environment?
The output of a modern media interview is now one that is part of a wider conversation, one that is placed on the web immediately, directly or indirectly, inviting immediate comment and, if required, a response. It’s not a one-off maneouvre. But much media training relies on the interview being such a singularity – get your message out, full stop.
Much would be gained by interviewees being aware and being trained to treat their interviews as not just a transmission mechanism for their message but as part of a conversation. This requires knowledge and understanding of that conversation, what it is centred around, how it is conducted, its tone and style. Once again basic presentation is important – hands out of pockets, body language, dress code etc – but the timbre, wording, structure and emphasis are subtly altered, to align with the nature of contemporary information exchange and the format of the medium.
The media interviews of old for TV, radio or print are still relevant and require specific techniques. But more frequently these interviews form part of a wider format of communication, relying less on the message and more on the conversation.
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.
The bloody summer in Afghanistan and elections in Iran have recently brought communications within the foreign policy arena back into the spotlight, showing public relations and strategic communication to be close,if sometimes misunderstood, relatives.
Establishing a radio station to persuade locals not to support pirates; justifying heavy combat operations while trying to convince homeless villagers to support your side; convincing an enemy that his cause is doomed; maintaining domestic public support for an unpopular and difficult foreign policy; encouraging populations to embrace ideas conflicting with their traditional culture; supporting repressed publics in their pursuit of freedom.
These are examples of a field of communications which rarely grace the pages of PR and communications magazines, but which feature heavily in the daily news intake of big and disparate publics, and have the potential to influence the very future of global geopolitics.
This field of foreign policy communication is known within the practising community as ‘strategic communication’.
Outside the field there are terms well recognised by PR practitioners, even laymen – propaganda, nation-branding, psychological operations – terms that give a taster, but rarely provide the full flavour, of a complex communication arena. Likewise, there are fragments which can cumulatively paint the environment of strategic communication – the child soldier laden with ammunition and an AK47; sparkling white United Nation aid convoys trailing through arid, burnt scrubland; a battered but prized radio spouting the scratchy tones of the BBC World Service. These images might evoke emotive responses but they do little to explain strategic communication.
The precise definition of strategic communication is debatable, but put simply, it is the use of communication, in all its guises, to support and achieve foreign policy objectives.
Due to the variety of subject areas, from climate change to assuaging warring factions’, the variety of factors – including Non Governmental Organisations, states, terrorist groups, diasporas and global institutions; and the variety of publics, from the hi-tech media savvy Iranian teenager to the illiterate Sudanese goatherd, the field, operating globally by definition, rightly deserves the label ‘strategic’. To unravel the concept, it’s worthwhile examining a simple but effective model, breaking it into four constituent pillars, some of which PR practitioners will be very familiar with.
First pillar: Public diplomacy
Firstly, public diplomacy seeks, through the exchange of people and ideas, to build lasting relationships and understanding of a nation’s culture, values and policies.
A term coined in the 1960s, public diplomacy gained recognition as a tool of foreign policy during the Cold War. After a hiatus during the 1990s, the aftermath of 9/11 has brought the practice back to the fore in many foreign policy establishments, making it a hot topic, including in United States diplomatic circles.
Second pillar: International broadcasting services
In close alignment with public diplomacy, the second pillar comprises international broadcasting services – BBC World, Voice of America, China’s CCTV-9 and France 24 to name a few. These governmentfunded services transmit news, information, public affairs programs and entertainment to global audiences in a variety of ways.
The influence of such services is often misjudged as being little more than of fleeting interest to bored businessmen in international hotels. But they can also be very powerful, especially if the significant penetration of BBC Pashto in Afghanistan is anything to go by.
Third pillar: Media relations
Media relations or operations are used by Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence to depict communication activities intended primarily to inform and influence domestic media and, therefore, home audiences.
In today’s information environment, this is a quaint idea, given that there is almost complete convergence between media available to domestic and foreign audiences.
Such convergence provides severe headaches for strategic communicators, often trying to provide one message to domestic publics but another to a foreign audience or even an adversary. As a result, the international, regional and local media feature more and more in the media relations strategy.
Fourth pillar: Influence activity
Increasingly touted as ‘influence activity’, the fourth pillar of military information operations focuses on influencing the will of an enemy, but more increasingly of a host nation’s population, capturing their ‘hearts and minds’.
It is categorised as an integrating strategy, as opposed to a capability, and the tools available for such come from a wide spectrum. Actions to influence the will traditionally make use of psychological operations (psyops), electronic warfare (EW), operational security (OPSEC), computer network operations (CNO), kinetic targeting and deception. However, ‘force presence, posture and profile’ along with media operations are also considered in the mix.
Of these information operations, Psyops probably has the highest profile, often linked to propaganda. The field stretches from ‘white’ psyops – placing stories, features, pamphlets, internet sites and the like where the source, be it the US marines or the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), is fully visible – through to ‘black’ psyops – in which the same channels may be used but the source is hidden. Notably, both black and white psyops are grounded in ‘credible truth’.
The former, much more commonly used, is not so different from traditional PR, while the latter can open a whole can of worms, as did the covert placing of stories, originating from the US military, in the Iraqi press in 2005.
Deception is much more straightforward. It is the military use of assets to ‘fool’ an adversary through outright lying, if necessary. Operating at the tactical level, through ‘spoofing’ on communication circuits, to the strategic, such as the coalition military preparing to liberate Kuwait in 1991 which made several signals, including through the conventional media, which indicating that the invasion would come from the sea in a massive amphibious landing.
It didn’t. But that example is illustrative of the fact that deception might be formulated through all the information operations channels and more. It is deception, seen as a legitimate strategy, which tarnishes much of military information operations, especially psyops, with the brush of propaganda, spin and lies. However, it must be said that modern militaries are waking up to the fact that the information age is increasingly demanding credibility, and therefore truth, of its participants.
Although still largely outside the dominant management coalition, strategic communication is increasingly seen as a vital component of achieving objectives, through ‘soft power’.
The US is adopting a more ‘diplomatic’ approach, within which communication has a major role, although funding for such an approach is yet to be forthcoming. The idea of communication forming a mainstay of foreign policy interventions has been especially supported by the latest generation of senior military officers, saying in regard to Iraq: “We can no longer kill ourselves out of here,” and the notion that the Afghan campaign should, first and foremost, be an ‘information’ campaign. The US military has looked closely at utilising lessons and practices gleaned from Madison Avenue.
Further, the growing realisation of the power of social media is also creating new, if still clumsy, approaches to strategic communication.
NATO has recently enhanced its online presence; many foreign policy agencies are now Twittering; military personnel are blogging. The phrase ‘digital diplomacy’ is increasingly heard in foreign ministries.
Examples include the Israeli government hiring numerous internet savvy students to blog and Twitter their way to dominance in the online Arab-Israeli debate. Even China’s People’s Liberation Armys is attempting to build its reputation via the internet. Yet, these ideas and actions have yet to be really brought together as a ‘strategic’ capability.
Foreign policy strategic communication is complex and challenging but it is no more propaganda than PR is ‘spin’. PR and foreign policy strategic communication are close relatives, almost twins, but they operate in very different contexts. A failure in one can see a hard earned corporate reputation in tatters, and billions wiped off share prices. A failure in the other might result in severe hardship, suffering and even death to many. One may face sophisticated and vocal activists with widespread support. The other may face insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades.
Yet this doesn’t detract from the fact that these relatives are so close, and even more importantly, could learn from each other.
This article appears in the Sept/Oct 2009 edition of Profile magazine
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.
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?
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.
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.