The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: Strategic Comms

The space created by humanitarian crises, conflict, revolution or disaster is always rapidly filled by actors of many persuasions – governments, belligerents, the ‘people, the media, the international community, NGOs, specialist, the military and others.  And within this space, communication, its audience and, increasingly, its technology, are fundamental to achieving objectives, whatever they may be, from the defeat of an enemy to a shift in political culture to saving lives and alleviating suffering.

In this space, as in everyday human existence, communication or, more correctly, information has a currency, and it could be argued that in this space, the value of this currency skyrockets.  Indeed when the stakes are high, information is undoubtedly power.

But is that power, to do good or bad, effectively and efficiently used?  Can we, given the utter complexity of the human creations of such environments, ever hope to harness its power.  One need only look to events in the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Tehran, to see communicative power unleashed, but is it a case of unbridled brute force of communication, catalysed by technology but not sparked by it?  And as such, is equal brute force being used, literally and metaphorically, to stymie or dilute the informational tidal wave?

To fathom the nature of this power, one can look to several mechanisms of communication, from the ‘hidden persuaders’ of advertising through to the idea of ‘Facebook revolutions’, from the slippery techniques of the snake oil salesman to grassroots activism.  But it is undoubtedly the latest generation of, not only, technology but its users that are really multiplying the power, but not necessarily the control, of communication and information.

The Director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, recently pointed out: “Ten years ago, the number of people who had access to the Internet was 361 million; today it’s 2 billion. In the year 2000, 300,000 people in Pakistan were using cell phones; today it’s 100 million. You can’t say technology doesn’t matter.”  The sheer exponential advance in numbers is staggering and its influence, as a capability not an ideal, is changing the way people, from Berlin to Benghazi, are utilising and succumbing to informational power.   Take Palestine, a fulcrum of power plays.  Today’s youth, as individuals, are just as their fathers and mothers were, with the same wishes, problems, drives and angst but there are significant differences.  Unlike previous generations, they are collectively informed and, crucially, networked.    The public sphere, from Ramallah to Rotterdam, is morphing, and rather rapidly.

Africa and other parts of the developing world, that public sphere is changing rapidly, thanks to “digital leapfrogging”, whereby areas which have had no or limited analogue communication systems are being catapulted into the digital age.  No longer subject to the linear progression of technology, these areas have embraced digital, especially mobile telephone, methods.  From Khartoum to Kabul, people who have never had access to basic communication equipment are making their first telephone calls and text messaging on hand-held devices similar to, or even more advanced than , those available to subscribers in the developed world.

This technology is a catalyst – providing the capability to do what has already been done for eons vastly quicker.  Yet, as with chemical catalysts, it does not actually become part of the reaction, it does not form part of the final compound.  As with the current ‘Facebook revolutions’, the initial constituents of grievance, repression, anger, resilience, intellect and determination are not changed by a catalyst, technology, but the rate of constituent reaction is raised dramatically.  Catalyst by themselves are often pretty dormant, inert, as it is with communication technology – useless without a human – but place it amongst people with unheeded desires, needs and drives, then the fireworks start.

Whether one subscribes to Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘it’s all over-hyped’ position or Clay Shirky’s ‘here comes everybody’ perspective, it is without doubt that the already violent, unpredictable and cluttered space in which the aforementioned actors find themselves is itself undergoing seismic shocks through this catalysis.  From Madrid to Mogadishu, technology catalysed tectonic shifts are now endemic in the strategic communication environment.  Ignorance is bliss but futile; haphazard attempts to reclaim a degree of power or control often fail or even backfire; debate and cogitation fuel the coffers of communication conference organisers.  But honest, gritty and tough grappling with this catalytic effect, requiring an open mind, dogged determination and a great thirst for answers, is unavoidable if communication is ever again to be effectively and efficiently utilised by those who practice it.

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As the debacle of Libya and the international community’s dire response to it rumbles on, questions are raised over the role of strategic communication and its utility.

As many begin to really appreciate the value of strategic communication, empirically studied in RAND’s “Victory has a Thousand Fathers” and found to be a highly important pillar in a multipronged approach, capturing the essence of strategic communication appears to be as slippery a prospect as ever.

Its utility is laden with difficult issues, not least from the starting definition which is variously described in different fashions depending on who one talks to, which government or organisation they represent, the particular context and the phase of the moon.  But the inherent issues remain locked solid.

The question of how strategic communication informs and guides policy formation, support objectives and permeates deep-held beliefs and values can generate considerable communication in itself.  How and the degree to which strategic communication is managed, especially within an information-rich and technologically dizzying environment, at all levels is debated and scrutinised on both sides of the Atlantic.  Deciding the mechanisms, both organic and external, to employ equally can invite headaches and ethical dilemmas.

In multilateral organisations, abutting national and non-governmental entities, synergy of communicative action – considered a mainstay of the strategic communication ‘profession’ – can be but a glint in the dreamy-eyed politico, yearning for some coherency of message and consistency of action in order to close the ‘say-do’ gap.  And then, even if a concert of communication is glimpsed, internal machinations and concerns over domestic public opinion often prevail to muddy an already turbulent stream of collective consciousness.  Even within the major publics, diverse interests drive the agendas, colliding and careening off each other, refusing either to be harnessed within or at, sometimes utterly violent, odds with strategic objectives.

The information environment itself poses considerable and rapidly evolving challenges.  Not only do domestic audiences create world views, opinions, attitudes and behaviour motivated through ever more multi-spectral channels, and increasingly contribute to those mediums, but publics in far-flung places across the globe, places rife with geo-political angst, do so equally, often with little understood effect and consequences.  Events in the Middle East have indicated the catalysing effect of such technology – even NATO are now actively cogitating over this.

The very nature of human interaction and collective capability is evolving swiftly, in which the ways in which we cooperate, contribute, co-opt, consult and create are subject to new dynamics.  As such, the manner of top-down hierarchy is giving way to flattened networked linkages, diffusing power from traditional nodes to looser organisms.  And the feedback loop in these new dynamics is growing in volume, ignored at one’s peril – strategic communication can no longer be a one-way street.  This is all occurring within our own settings and within disparate, distant and devolved social entities, with profound effect.

In the early 21st century we are only just beginning to grapple withthese issues and realise the complexities of a vortex of new politics, new technologies and new societies,  all subject to and fonts of masses of information.  An understanding of that information, its utility and its management is now an imperative, utterly essential and fundamental to any who wish to operate in this vortex.

Put simply, communication is defined by the response you get.  In today’s complex geo-political environment, strategic communication is defined by how you get the response needed.


As the debacle of Libya and the international community’s dire response to it rumbles on, questions are raised over the role of strategic communication and its utility.

As many begin to really appreciate the value of strategic communication, empirically studied in RAND’s “Victory has a Thousand Fathers” and found to be a highly important pillar in a multipronged approach, capturing the essence of strategic communication appears to be as slippery a prospect as ever.

Its utility is laden with difficult issues, not least from the starting definition which is variously described in different fashions depending on who one talks to, which government or organisation they represent, the particular context and the phase of the moon.  But the inherent issues remain locked solid.

The question of how strategic communication informs and guides policy formation, support objectives and permeates deep-held beliefs and values can generate considerable communication in itself.  How and the degree to which strategic communication is managed, especially within an information-rich and technologically dizzying environment, at all levels is debated and scrutinised on both sides of the Atlantic.  Deciding the mechanisms, both organic and external, to employ equally can invite headaches and ethical dilemmas.

In multilateral organisations, abutting national and non-governmental entities, synergy of communicative action – considered a mainstay of the strategic communication ‘profession’ – can be but a glint in the dreamy-eyed politico, yearning for some coherency of message and consistency of action in order to close the ‘say-do’ gap.  And then, even if a concert of communication is glimpsed, internal machinations and concerns over domestic public opinion often prevail to muddy an already turbulent stream of collective consciousness.  Even within the major publics, diverse interests drive the agendas, colliding and careening off each other, refusing either to be harnessed within or at, sometimes utterly violent, odds with strategic objectives.

The information environment itself poses considerable and rapidly evolving challenges.  Not only do domestic audiences create world views, opinions, attitudes and behaviour motivated through ever more multi-spectral channels, and increasingly contribute to those mediums, but publics in far-flung places across the globe, places rife with geo-political angst, do so equally, often with little understood effect and consequences.  Events in the Middle East have indicated the catalysing effect of such technology – even NATO are now actively cogitating over this.

The very nature of human interaction and collective capability is evolving swiftly, in which the ways in which we cooperate, contribute, co-opt, consult and create are subject to new dynamics.  As such, the manner of top-down hierarchy is giving way to flattened networked linkages, diffusing power from traditional nodes to looser organisms.  And the feedback loop in these new dynamics is growing in volume, ignored at one’s peril – strategic communication can no longer be a one-way street.  This is all occurring within our own settings and within disparate, distant and devolved social entities, with profound effect.

In the early 21st century we are only just beginning to grapple withthese issues and realise the complexities of a vortex of new politics, new technologies and new societies,  all subject to and fonts of masses of information.  An understanding of that information, its utility and its management is now an imperative, utterly essential and fundamental to any who wish to operate in this vortex.

Put simply, communication is defined by the response you get.  In today’s complex geo-political environment, strategic communication is defined by how you get the response needed.


Strategic communication in the foreign policy, development and security arena – what’s that all about?

It’s about contributing to policy and guidance, providing strategic counsel, nurturing linkages and relationships between policy mechanisms, coordinating between national, international and non-governmental entities.

It’s about communicating in a highly charged, ethically challenging, fast moving, traditional and digital, multi-spectral, politically sensitive, conflict-ridden and culturally diverse environment.

It’s about employing media relations, advocacy, lobbying, grassroots activism, de-radicalisation, crisis management, new technologies and old.

It’s about the utility of forums, blogs, twitter, facebook, TV, radio, print, street chatter, posters, networks, crowdsourcing, mobile technology and academic discourse.

It’s about taking part in conversation, dialogue, consultation, education, monitoring, analysis, research, polling, cooperation and collective action.

It’s about understanding narrative, strategy, tactics, messages, identity, objectives, framing, behaviour, attitude, opinion and delivery.

It’s about appreciating sociology, anthropology, history, culture, group dynamics, behavioural ecomonics, organisational theory and psychology.

It’s about engaging with people, publics, stakeholders, governments, activists, opinion leaders, think tanks, NGOs and the military.

It’s about developing media industry, legal infrastructure, free press, media literacy, social activism, technology for development, institutional communications and public affairs.

It’s about managing media liaison, press releases, events, synchronisation, internal communications, spokespeople and social media.

But, simply put, what it’s really all about is bringing all of the above together.

That’s what it’s all about.


Red Cross getting addictive

We noticed Rohit Bhargava’s list of the Top 15 Marketing & Social Media Trends To Watch In 2011 – some interesting concepts, a few of which we’d like to point to, considering their possibilities within communications campaigns.  The main list covers:

  1. Likeonomics
  2. Approachable Celebrity
  3. Desperate Simplification
  4. Essential Integration
  5. Rise of Curation
  6. Visualized Data
  7. Crowdsourced Innovation
  8. Instant PR & Customer Service
  9. App-fication of the Web
  10. Reimagining Charity
  11. Employees As Heroes
  12. Locationcasting
  13. Brutal Transparency
  14. Addictive Randomness
  15. Culting Of Retail

Let’s take a few an expand:

Desperate simplification – Data overload is increasingly hampering any coherent and strong messaging as we are all bombarded with information on several platforms.  People will congregate around those tools which give them a degree of control of this deluge  and provide simplification.  Such platforms will be the iPad (and the myriad of apps), tumblr, animoto, amazon, and maybe quora.

Funny and viral … and well integrated

Essential integration –  With this almost limitless number of platforms, the holy grail will increasingly become integration of campaigns, often screwed up my departmental infighting, agencies working to subtly different objectives and downright laziness or lack of creativity.  Last year’s viral phenomena of the Old Spice Guy worked not only because of its creative content but die to its seamless integration and placement across different platforms.

Content Curation –  Increasingly aggregators or curators, such as paper.li, are becoming seen as effective filters and hubs for information centred upon a campaign, product or idea.  These can act as effectively draw the audience, as a trusted and simple source.

Addictive randomness:  Ever found yourself just clicking to see what’s next – addicted to the random nature of internet available information?  The phenomena is not researched but there’s something there.  How can it be used to push the boundaries of a campaign?  The American Red Cross provides a great example

Recognizing an issue and getting dirty early

Brutal transparency –  Many lessons have been learned throughout several corporate crises over 2010.  One is a more proactive approach to issue management in which painfully a honest approach to negativity is seen to outweigh the costs of reactive efforts after the event.  Rohit cites the Domino Pizza and Southwest Airlines campaigns to raise themselves above the others in this regard.  The whole idea is an advance on our mantra of ‘Get dirty early’.

This is just a smattering – things are moving at a blistering pace.  Keep up now!


Definitions of strategic communications are replete with the notions of coordination, coherence, management and synchronization.  Indeed any idea of communications strategies, plans or campaigns focuses on such elements.

“the synchronized coordination of statecraft, public affairs, public diplomacy, military information operations, and other activities, reinforced by political, economic, military and other actions, to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives.”[1]

“focused USG (United States Government) processes and efforts to understand and engage key audiences in order to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable to advance national interests and objectives through the use of coordinated information, themes, plans, programs and actions synchronized with other elements of national power.”[2]

“In concert with other political and military actions to advance NATO’s aims and operations through the co-ordinated, appropriate use of Public Diplomacy, Public Affairs (PA), and Information Operations( lnfo Ops)[3]

However, the real potency of communication efforts is down to the degree of synergy leveraged from the garnering of its components.

Through complex military operations, in which synchronization and coordination are paramount, such as joint fires or air tasking orders, military staff, management and organisations are adept, practiced and knowledgeable in such matters.  In fact, this inherent ability to coordinate and synchronize is almost a feature of military culture – “synchronize watches”, Joint Coordination Board.  If anyone can do the coordination thing, it’s the military.  Difficult though it may be, through the internal machinations and politics of organisations, especially multinational ones, this practical synchronization and coordination is not the problem – it’s inbred into the military culture.  You’ve got structures and processes galore, tried and tested (although not perfect, which we will come to later).  Yet, despite this, the message, big idea, ideology, narrative often fails to be communicated effectively – synergy is not achieved.  The result is several diffuse and only roughly aligned messages, even given resources and political backing, entering the information space, producing diluted effects, producing a degree of cognitive dissonance and being pulled apart by audiences, both friend and foe. We fail to reach the next quantum level.  The problem is more often than not deciding exactly what is to be synchronized and coordinated, right back at its roots.

In the 1980s, it was observed that organisational structure and processes did not account entirely for organisational success and synergy of output. Academic research sought out the missing link and rested upon culture, the deep roots of foundation.  It is back at these roots that synergy is born.  Without the deep, cultural, almost anthropological, knowledge and understanding of what one is, all that comes after will fail to achieve synergy, and remain merely constituent parts, no matter how well these parts operate.

Unfortunately, in the current politico-military communication environment, the vast majority of papers, research, studies, soul-searching and practical application, remains intensely pre-occupied with ‘the other’ – those out there, the audience, the public, the media, the stakeholders.  That is just so.  As Sun Tzu said:

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

Sun Tzu - Even Paris Hilton thinks he's good

Indeed one needs to know ‘the enemy’ – all military personnel understand this.  Although not wishing to make too much of the war analogy, knowing ‘the other’ is vital in terms of communication.  Rightly, much time and effort is taken up in market research, audience analysis, cultural awareness and the like.

But synergy is achieved by taking the last of Sun Tzu’s points – knowing the enemy and knowing yourself.  The implications, especially in communications terms, of not fully understanding what you are, why you exist, what you want and why you want it are massive.  Without this understanding, synergy can never be achieved.

Any trained public relations officer in the corporate world will be aware of the need to understand his or her organization, to be able to distill its essence, define its ideals, recognize its culture, explain its spirit, feel its soul.  Nice and soft and fluffy – and rather intangible stuff.  This immediately presents a problem for the military mindset, born of a culture of exactitudes, specifics and precision.  The military don’t really do intangibles.

But communication and information exist in a world floating in intangibles.  A large percentage of an organisation’s value is its reputation or “goodwill” – an intangible asset accounted for by deducting the financial value of tangible assets (buildings, stock, equipment, financial reserves,etc) from the organisation’s total worth.  Of course, such is based upon ‘real’ tangible factors – products or action, but these do not guarantee a good reputation.

But the intangible idea of culture is potent.  Take Apple.  You know what Apple represents, most of the Western world does.  And we don’t just mean a computer company – we mean its culture.  Rebellious, casual but intense work ethic, collegial.  If we take culture as being defined by:

Socio-cultural system – structure, strategies, policies, processes, goals, reward, motivation

Cultural system – shared understanding evidenced in myths, stories, ideology, values and artefacts

Individual actor – the role played by individuals within the organisation who receive and contribute to culture as they orientate themselves to its operation.[4]

then it’s probable that most of us could have a fair stab at pinning down Apple’s

Apple - you just know what it's all about.

culture.  And if you can’t, then ten minutes in an Apple shop speaking to the employees will put you right.  And the same thing would happen in New York, Madrid, Paris, Berlin or Brussels. Notably, these employees, the vital ‘touchpoints’ between the organisation and the ‘the other’, the consumer, are all fully signed up and thoroughly enveloped in this culture – they all know what Apple is about, they’ve got the t-shirts.  Their products, their structure and processes, born of a deep seated culture allow for a synergy in their communicative efforts. This blog has been written on a PC, by the way – not very cool.

Now let’s take NATO.  Now, we’re not going to compare Apple to NATO but merely examine an area proved vital, if rarely explored, to synergistic communication – culture.  In the cold war, NATO had an easily identifiable identity and culture – a bastion protecting the values of freedom and democracy against the Russian hordes.  All trained and prepared to fight, brothers with brothers, to hold back the scourge, and real threat, of communism.  That it never came to that allowed that identity and culture to remain untested.  But meanwhile, military personnel knew what this organisation was, where they might fit into it, and why.

But twenty years after the fall of the wall, in Afghanistan, that culture and identity, often ignored as a crucial feature in the communication effort, has been tested and found wanting.   Synergy, despite processes, structure, coordination even apparent political agreement, is failing because that vital element of cultural identity is too thin.  Those involved in communication, and by that I mean everyone, from the private soldier to the General, – all those ‘touchpoints’  have too vague a notion of what their overarching organisation is about, what it is meant to do and what it wants to do – they haven’t got the t-shirts.  And if they don’t know, as a collective, what they’re about, how can they tell others, both at home and abroad, and further, how can they contribute to the communication element of the mission?

A stinging indictment in the Washington Post in October 2009 exemplified the lack of synergy in the ISAF message.  The article, “The Slowly Vanishing NATO”, is only one of many appraisals reflecting countless “whither-the-Alliance” seminars held over the last few years, reflecting a possibly growing sentiment, within and outside NATO itself.  As Anne Applebaum reported:

“There is almost no sense anywhere that the war in Afghanistan is an international operation, or that the stakes and goals are international, or that the soldiers on the ground represent anything other than their own national flags and national armed forces”[5]

The suggestion is that the identity, or the very deep roots of culture binding the very nature, of the Alliance, is either crumbling or unsuited to the task in hand.  And without such culture synergy suffers.

And this applies to individual militaries, once defined by their capabilities in industrial war-fighting.  This identification is foundering as these militaries are involved in ‘war amongst the people’, counter-insurgency operations, especially in long-standing multi-national operations.  Soldiers, sailors and airmen and women may be more frequently asking themselves ‘what is this ‘thing’ I am a part of.  I understand my immediate culture, but outside of that I’m slightly lost’.

Clausewitz’s trinity applies here – military, government and people. But our point is, whilst it is vitally important that the domestic audiences understand what NATO and their nation’s contributions are about, we must not forget that the development and maintenance of the understanding of those on the battlefield, through the adaptation and nurturing of a culture suitable to war 2.0, is equally important.  This more than internal communications, force magazines, divisional orders.  It is about fundamental management and difficult but possibly fruitful political choices.  Indeed, a degree of culture shift may be happening towards a wider political view of tasks and objectives, and where militaries may feature in this broader framework.  As Stephen Grey, respected Times journalist with extensive knowledge of operations in Afghanistan, admitted after his last stint there over the summer of 2009, the British Army was adapting very quickly. Some soldiers he met spoke of a transformation in culture. Grey identified the most important change as a recognition that the political aspect of the wider strategy could not simply be left to other government agencies like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DFID). But this process of adaptation needed to continue and he wondered whether the pace of change was sufficient in the face of an enemy who was also adapting.[6]

However, we must inject a sense of reality.

“Changing structures, systems and platform capabilities is one thing: changing the way your people think, interact and behave … is much more difficult.”[7]

Realistically we must appreciate that such moves will be gradual and there will be almost immovable, mostly political, obstacles but we do believe that there are workable measures that can be taken to imbue that sense of raison d’etre across a force, measures that can be enacted by management functions.

Busy finding out about how these chaps work ...

Style of leadership and management is a reflection of culture.  At one end of the spectrum some organisations tend to favour management structures which are mechanistic, hierarchical, centralised and formal, whilst at the opposite end others enjoy organic, networked, creative, flexible and informal approaches, with a multitude of permutations in between.  Militaries across the world tend to adopt vaguely similar management style – walk into any barracks on the face of the planet and the hierarchical, centralised and formal atmosphere will be obvious, and for good reason given the tasks required of militaries.  However, management and leadership is also adaptive, and has over time evolved to suit contemporary requirements.  Such adaptation has allowed many militaries to adopt a style more suited to modern complex warfare – the style of management known as Mission Command.

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, practising ‘management by objectives’ or the management concept of empowerment.  A corporate example could be from Marks and Spencers, with the highest reputation rating amongst UK companies in 2009[8]:

The business of Marks and Spencer sometimes might use a mixture of Management Styles.  For example, Marks and Spencer is consultative, but the business might also be using a democratic management style and also to a degree laissez-faire.  This is where people are allowed to do what they feel correct, this is usually associated with medium status (e.g. Managing director – Marketing Director) probably because they are experts in their field so they know what they’re doing.[9]

Returning to the military, 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 doctrine, 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.

An example of where mission command may well have assisted in the dissemination of information occurred in the aftermath of the ill-fated and much reported air strike on fuel tankers near Kunduz in early September 2009.  The decision-making processes at high level kicked in quickly but then took time to decide what to say, whilst in the meantime, fearing political fallout, Public Affairs officers on the ground were hamstrung by clearance mechanisms.  The information vacuum was quickly filled by other sources, many very unreliable and ISAF communication efforts once again were behind the ball – an experience common to many PAOs.  The impact of the lack of freedom of action and open practices were huge, resulting in the resignation of the German Defence Minister and sacking of the Inspector General of German Forces, in effect their Chief of the Defence Staff.  An important aspect of these events is the shifting power structure within communications, in which official power centres could not control public information and were subject to alternate power sources beyond their influence.  This shifting power distribution is a new reality[10].

... when the collective culture of these chaps needs looking at too.

Similarly, the public affairs response to the burning Warrior AFV incident in Basra in 2006, connected with a British operation to release soldiers held captive at a police station, led to a loss of communication initiative.  In what was a complex set of events, a degree of respected initiative on the ground may have prevented what became an all-out media sensation surrounding the possibility of withdrawal and utter military failure in Basra.  As it happened, time lapsed allowing a misleading narrative and raw imagery to take hold globally, only to be pursued by the “commentariat”.

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, have as good, if not better, capabilities than the modern fighting forces.  Indeed, modern fighting forces, are hamstrung by many 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?

Risk aversion is a major factor in management style within militaries, living, eating and sleeping by doctrine.  We’re talking here about cerebral risk, not practical and physical risk, which miltaries, by their nature, live with daily.  But this cerebral risk allows free-thinking, dare we say ‘blue-skies’ thinking, and readiness to toy with and even accept new ideas.  But this has practical implications for the management of communications, as indicated by Rid and Hecker in which they recommend that ‘a culture of error tolerance be fostered’[11] amongst governments and militaries involved in what they term War 2.0.  Note, this is culture.

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 hierarchy to’ let go’.  But the signs are there.  Without decentralisation, freedom of action, speed, delegation and initiative 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.

It is, whilst considering managerial style, worthwhile looking across to the corporate world and the communication approaches deemed successful.  To an extent RAND have already do so with regard to marketing approaches being applied to ‘shaping’ and earning popular support in Theatres of operation.   In ‘Enlisting Madison Avenue’, all the major issues were highlighted: traditional kinetic focus, IO-Psyop overlap, lack of font line understanding, reactive information processes, measures of effectiveness and, of course, the lack of synchronization and coordination just about everywhere.  In applying marketing ideas and practices  – branding, sales, products – many communication issues can be ameliorated.  But, despite its great value in improving communication effect, this is tactical tinkering and highly customer-focussed.   Little time is given to more strategic effects of internal culture and management.

The point of all this is apparent from the degree of discourse on how we influence others, looking at the externalities but the utter lack of debate over how we see, organise, manage and function ourselves, examining the internalities.  Synergy and style of management is key to this internalising. Strategic communication is a holistic endeavour, not a magic bullet to merely deal with the complexities out there, and within that approach a long, hard look at ourselves is way overdue.


[1] Jeffrey B. Jones, “Strategic Communication: A Mandate for the United States,” Joint Force Quarterly 39 (Fourth Quarter 2005): 180.

[2] U.S. Department of State, “QDR Execution Roadmap for Strategic Communication,” September 2006, p. 3. and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02, April 12, 2001 (as amended through March 4, 2008), p. 522.

[3] NATO’s ACO 95-2 Strategic Communications dated 15 Sept 2008.

[4] Allaire Y. and Firsirotu M.E.  (1984) Theories of Organizational Culture in Organizational Studies 5(3)   London: Sage, 1984,  pp 193-226

[5] Washington Post, October 20, 2009

[6] http://frontlineclub.com/blogs/danielbennett/2009/11/stephen-grey-is-the-british-army-losing-in-afghanistan.html

[7] Aylwin-Foster N. Changing the Army for Counter-Insurgency Operations in Military Review, Nov-Dec 2005, pp 2-15

[8] http://www.marketingmagazine.co.uk/news/911066/British-consumers-rank-top-50-companies-reputation/

[9] “Report on the Business of Marks and Spencer.” 123HelpMe.com. 18 Nov 2009
<http://www.123HelpMe.com/view.asp?id=149330&gt;.

[10] “In a moment of acute crisis, political and corporate leaders along with government officials are discovering they have less power to shape public perceptions than they assume they must surely have ex officio. “ Gowing. N. ‘Skyful of Lies’and Black Swans: The New Tyranny of Shifting Power in Crisis Oxford: Reuters Institute, 2009 , p. 9.

[11] Rid T. & Hecker, M. War2.0: Irregular Warfare in the Information Age Westport: Praeger Security International, 2009, p. 223.


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