The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: public affiars

The possibility of reform of the UK’s unjust libel laws appears to be growing. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Justice,  Jack Straw is hoping to push through the findings of the working party on libel reform, before the next general election. 

Our current laws create a chilling effect on the writing, reporting and broadcasting of information, when powerful concerns can threaten debilitating libel action against any who threaten their interests.  It’s not that the libel laws are themselves completely at fault but that they encourage astronomical costs to be involved in libel action, in some cases nore than 100 times more costly than in Europe.  The horrific costs of a libel case mean that losing can result in a legal bill running to over £1m (even if the damages are just £10,000).  The result is that the UK has become the top global location for libel tourism or even, as some have termed it, libel terrorism.

Libel Laws - keeping these guys busy.

The cases highlighted by the Libel Reform Campaign should add greater pressure for reform. The cases of Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst highlight the real dangers and distortion that the suppression of free expression through the courts can present to the public.  Wilmshurst is being sued in the UK by a US company, NMT Medical Inc, for an article written by a Canadian medical journalist and published on a US website. The journalist was reporting a lecture given by Wilmshurst at a major medical conference in the US.  Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association after he wrote an article in the Guardian criticising the association for supporting members who claim that chiropractic treatments – which involve manipulation of the spine – can treat children’s colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying.  As Bad Science author Ben Goldacre puts it, any law that stifles critical appraisal is a danger to patients and the public.  Most recently, Danish radiologist Henrik Thomsen has spoken of his fears of discussing his work after a subsidiary of General Electric claimed he had damaged its reputation by raising concerns about a product.

The campaigning done by Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense about Science under the banner of the Libel Reform Coalition has led over 20,000 people to sign a petition and MPs to receive 7,000 letters and emails in just a few months.   Supporters include Stephen Fry, Lord Rees of Ludlow, Ricky Gervais, Martin Amis, Jonathan Ross, James Randi, Professor Richard Dawkins, Penn & Teller and Professor Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government.

These, and other, cases present a clear reminder that English libel laws need to change. The US has already realised that there is something fundamentally wrong with our legal system and is taking action. Indeed, American states are now individually passing laws to protect their citizens from libel actions in the UK and as a result English libel judgments will soon carry no weight in America.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg are already considering reform of our libel laws seriously and the clamour for reform is being made clear from several quarters, not least the Libel Reform Campaign.


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.



In a recent post, Mountainrunner poses the following question:

Which of the below completes this sentence: Public Diplomacy…

  • is the same as Public Relations. (PD=PR)
  • involves more than the practice of Public Relations. (PD>PR)
  • is contained within a larger practice of Public Relations. (PD<PR)

CB3 comments that it’s a question of perspective. As taught by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK, where Grunig’s assessment of PR is an aspiration, PR (or more commonly termed ‘communications’) is defined roughly as using communication (one-way publicity, press agentry and public information and two way assymmetric amd symmetrical communication) to support an organization’s objectives, at the strategic to the tactical levels. It is, or aspires to be, much more than presenting and promoting a cause, but also understanding, persuading and influencing. In terms of ethos and objectives, this points to a high degree of similiarity between PR and PD, although the specific mechanics and publics may vary, and the underlying motives may differ – i.e. a foreign policy goal versus an economic one.

Academic work by Grunig, Signitzer & Coombs, Gilboa, Wang and Yun all indicate a convergence of the practices over the last two decades, although the academic study of the interconnections between international relations and PR leaves much to be desired.

However, it is noteworthy that placing some form of firewall or hierarchy between the two practices can be counterproductive – there are many lessons to be learned in both PD and PR which may enhance the performance of both. And although PR often gets a bad press (especially in the US*), there are many PR practitioners who would be able to serve the needs of PD very well, certainly in the operational and tactical areas.

So, in apiration and ethos at least, PD=PR.

For a more detailed response see CB3’s previous musings.

Many communications practitioners could serve PD well ... but not all.

Many communications practitioners could serve PD well ... but not all.

*  Note:  However, the nefarious activities of McBride and Draper in ‘smeargate’ are certainly helping to tar the communications practice here in the UK as well.  Indeed, CB3’s comments in no way suggests that the PR industry in the UK is in any way better, cleaner etc than in the US.


CALL FOR PAPERS

INTERNATIONAL WORKSHOP: Reframing the Nation: Media Publics and Strategic Narratives

DATE: 18-19 May 2009

VENUE: The Open University, Hawley Crescent, Camden Town, London.

Keynote speakers:

Sir Lawrence Freedman (King’s College, London)

Nick Cull (Annenberg School, University of Southern California)

Laura Roselle (Elon University)

Philip Seib (Annenberg School, University of Southern California)

Nation states have always used the media to project strategic national narratives on the world stage. But recent shifts in geopolitical and diplomatic imperatives, especially the ‘war on terror’, and the changing digital media ecology, have generated new kinds of public diplomacy initiatives. For example, the BBC World Service, funded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has recently cut radio services in Eastern Europe to make way for BBC Arabic and Persian TV channels, with accompanying tri-platform online services (text, audio and video). These initiatives place high value on interactive debate, citizen journalism, and user generated content. But does such interactivity really contribute to the BBC’s declared aim of fostering a ‘global conversation’, i.e. democratic debate in the Muslim world in particular? And is a coherent strategic narrative about British interests abroad projected by these channels?

Several English-language transnational television channels recently launched, including Al Jazeera English, Press TV (Iran), CCTV9 (China), France 24, and Russia Today. They pose further questions about strategic narratives and public diplomacy in the new media ecology. Diasporic groups, increasingly connected via digital media, are being recognised as exploitable for diplomacy purposes. States can mobilise citizens both at home and abroad in diplomatic media initiatives via internet chat rooms and news discussion sites. How are we to research and evaluate changing configurations of media ‘audiences’ or ‘publics’, and the uses of digital diasporas by states for diplomacy purposes? And what about the ways in which diaspora actors use digital media to challenge strategic national narratives?

The media are essentially storytelling machines. When political narratives represent future-oriented identity claims, they typically invoke the past in order to articulate distinctive national positions on events, issues, policy domains, or a country’s place in world political narratives. As social lives and political events become more open to being digitally recorded, narrated, stored and transported in unpredictable ways, the potential for citizens to disrupt such strategic narratives and public diplomacy efforts also grows. Can citizen journalism and digital storytelling constitute an effective form of resistance to strategic national narratives?

At a moment when emerging state powers such as China, India, and the EU pose a challenge to US pre-eminence globally, there is a need for comparative studies of how citizens as well as state, political, and military actors are using media to reframe and/or contest national narratives.

This exploratory workshop addresses these dynamics through discussion of studies of how the ‘strategic narratives’ of nation-states and also of transnational actors, like the EU, are projected and interpreted domestically and internationally. It brings together scholars from Sociology, Media Studies, Political Communications and International Relations to address these key questions:

* How can we identify, analyse and assess the impact of strategic narratives?

* How are configurations of audiences and publics changing as a result of migration and media technologies, and how do such changes affect the meanings and practices of (mediated) citizenship?

* How do strategic narratives translate (or not) across linguistic or cultural boundaries within and/or between nations?

* How do state actors work with the media, the military, NGOs, corporations, and other institutions to project strategic narratives?

* How do political leaders assimilate international events into established national narratives and/or change the narratives?

* How do media users respond to attempts to shift strategic national narratives?

* What difference do strategic narratives make to international alliances, military interventions, and the domestic legitimacy of leaders?

* What forms of knowledge and understandings of history are drawn upon in mobilising and/or challenging strategic narratives?

* What methodological tools (from the Arts and Humanities and the Social Sciences) can help us research and interpret the political, social and cultural significance of strategic national narratives?

Please send an abstract (150 words max) by 20th April to Karen Ho: k.d.ho@open.ac.uk.

For further information contact either Marie Gillespie (m.gillespie@open.ac.uk) or Ben O’Loughlin (Ben.OLoughlin@rhul.ac.uk) or call Ben on 01784 443153.

The exploratory workshop is funded by the Open University’s ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) and the New Political Communication Unit and the Centre for European Politics at Royal Holloway College. It is also supported by the Centre for Global Political Economy at the University of Sussex.


In short: they can and do but, as they say, it ain’t necessarily so.

The Information Operations and Influence Activity (IOIA) Symposium, held this week at UK’s Defence Academy, threw up several enticing cerebral teasers, not least the tension between two schools of thought regarding public affairs (or as the Brits say ‘media operations’).  On the one hand, it is claimed by the old guard that public affairs (PA) merely informs  (as can be found in US doctrine).  On the other, the young turks would have it that information is never value-free and therefore PA will always have an element of influence to it.

ioia1

As much as CB3 would like to subscribe to the former, the brute force of reality must indicate the latter to be the case.  Even at a most simple level, if one stubbornly keeps to transmitting utterly ‘true’ facts and figures, claiming to only inform – the mere selection of which facts to reveal introduces a bias, and therefore a degree of sway or influence, even unconsciously.

This raises a further question, one broached at IOIA.  If  journalists live and die by their adherence to seeking the truth, informing not influencing and unbiased reporting, can they so easily transfer themselves into roles which are inherently partisan, promotional and influencing?  There is well documented tension between the arenas of public relations and the media (although they provide each other with vital life support) – using a market analogy, they are at opposite ends of the supply-demand equation.

Many journalists make the jump to PR, some very successfully, others less so – it may be their contact books which are in demand rather than their prowess as flacks.  Equally, many journalists are employed by vitally important reserve military forces (especially in the UK) as public affairs/media operations officers.  Many are consummate operators in both journalism and PA, proving mental dexterity, but is it time to question the seemingly automatic assumption that a journalist will be a natural candidate for PA, or wider communication, duties?

Which one is the journalist?

Which one is the journalist?

This is no way reflects upon the crucial media and PA capability that the reserve forces provide, supplying resources which often are unavailable from the regular forces.