The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: Strategic Comms

The recent change in social media policy by US DoD is a sign of the times and in fact may represent a real paradigm shift in management culture surrounding the relationship between military personnel and the outside world.  Whilst CB3 welcomes this move, appreciating that it won’t come without its pitfalls and problems, the deeper societal, psychological, cultural, relational, management and organisational ramifications of this move are as yet unknown.  This may be only the start of the shifting of institutionally inert techtonic plates – watch this space.

In the meantime, below see David Meerman Scott interview Roxie Merritt, Director of New Media Operations at Office of  Assistant Secretary of Defence for Public Affairs, talking about this bold move.


Event date: 03 March 2010

Location: Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Shrivenham

The ioia symposium is back for its third year providing a unique unclassified gathering held in the secure environment of The Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. This valuable networking context provides the main calendar event for the professional and educational exchanges between military and civilian proponents of Info Ops and Influence Activity in the UK and Europe. Last year we hosted over 150 practitioner and academic delegates from around the world. This year we will be seeking to build on this success to host a truly inclusive event that gathers diverse experts and their opinions from this growing and dynamic field of Military and Government activity. This year’s theme is Influence in Insurgency.

The ‘people as the prize’ puts influence at the heart of insurgency operations.  It demands that the application of violence be undertaken in such a way that the support of the public can be maintained. It necessitates that political, military and economic functions are closely coordinated for effect. It requires that every soldier acts in accordance with the values and aims of the most demanding of home audience and political leadership. This symposium will take stock of our thinking and practice in influence in insurgency.

In particular the symposium will consider:

  • The degree to which influence is a whole organisation activity rather than a discipline of specific branch
  • The extent to which planning processes and concepts are able to take account of the whole organisation approach to influence
  • The degree to which the comprehensive approach can be viewed as an influence activity
  • The extent to which intelligence is geared to planning influence activity
  • The degree to which the military needs to, or is trained and educated to deliver, influence effect other than through the bluntest use of punishment and reward.
  • The extent to which strategic and operational level influence should and can be delivered by the military
  • The development of tactical level doctrine and concepts in influence.
  • Operational and country updates

To register for this event please visit :
www.symposiaatshrivenham.com/ioia10


A strong case can be made that contemporary strategic communications, as ‘synchronized coordination of statecraft, public affairs, public diplomacy, military information operations, and other activities’[1], is failing to achieve its potential at the national level due to organizational failings as well as problems within its constituent parts.

Yet, there are specific areas which are immediately recognised as impediments, notably organizational and managerial issues.  At a major US-UK conference in late 2005, examining information effects in counter-insurgency and stability operations, senior military and civilian personnel rounded upon the managerial aspects of communications and information:

Participants concurred that “we should all work together,” but recognized that strong organizational challenges remain. Participants agreed that the military needs clear strategic guidance on the proposed end-state and overall information strategy to effectively fight the informational fight. However, this strategic vision sometimes has been lacking, which has meant that, by default, the military was shaping policy through its actions on the ground. Many also thought that overall coordination mechanisms are lacking.[2]

Do fancy diagrams like this really address the organizational challenge?

Organizational structure and managerial capabilities in civil-military interventions may be seen as being hampering the communication function through their functionality being framed through an industrial warfare perspective:

[T]he traditional kinetic focus of U.S. military operations often jeopardizes communication-based shaping efforts.  U.S. forces are trained primarily for kinetic operations and inflicting casualties on an enemy, not for shaping noncombatant attitudes. Both force structure and mind-set can be incompatible with shaping goals.[3]

US military doctrine is pervasive throughout most militaries operating in multi-lateral civil-military interventions and thus structures, management and ethos are often replicated.

Corncerns over organizational and managerial issues at the senior levels of strategic communication, have also been raised before.  Once again taking the US example, the DSB reported in 2008:

Nevertheless, the task force finds reasons for continued concern.  Positive changes within organizations are real, but they depend to a considerable extent on the skills and imagination of current leaders.  These changes must be evaluated, and those that work should be institutionalized. Resistance from traditional organizational cultures continues. Resources for strategic communication have increased, but they fall substantially short of national needs.  This task force’s primary concern is that fundamental transformation in strategic communication has not occurred at the strategic and interagency level.[4]

Within this management challenge is the continuing top-down management processes within the foreign policy process, out of kilter with the contemporary information environment.  Faced with a rapidly changing environment, with regard to public diplomacy, Cull claims:

none of these changes is as challenging as the reorientation of public diplomacy away from the top-down communication patterns of the Cold War era[5]

Equally, the continuing disconnect between communication efforts and policy, also present an organizational and managerial challenge.  This is nothing new, as Edward R Murrow pointed out in the 1960s, famously claiming that communication personnel had to be ‘in on the take-offs of policy’ if it was going to be expected to be ‘in on the crash landings’.   As Cull, re-iterates:

[T]he most important link in any public diplomacy structure is that which connects ‘listening’ to policy-making and ensures that foreign opinion is weighed in the foreign policy process.[6]

It is therefore seen that there are problems within multilateral communications and many of these are attributed to managerial and organizational issues.  An examinination of those specific organizational and managerial aspects of multilateral communicative efforts during civil-military foreign policy interventions is well overdue.  This work would not be done without precedent; much has been done in the corporate world, but there is little evidence of deep analysis of communications management or organization against the backdrop of corporate lessons learnt.


[1] Jones,J. B., “Strategic Communication: A Mandate for the United States,” Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue Thirty-nine (Fourth Quarter 2005), p. 109.

 

[2] Collings, D. & Rohozinski, R., “Shifting Fire: Information Effects in Counterinsurgency and Stability Operations” , US Army War College (2006), p.12

[3] Helmus, T.C., Paul, C. & Glenn, R.W. “Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation” , (2007), p.17

[4] US DoD, “Task Force on Strategic Communication: Report of the Defense Science Board”, (2008), p. xi-xii

[5] Cull, N.,  Public Diplomacy: Seven Lessons for its Future from its Past in “Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World”, (2008), p. 25

[6] Ibid (2008), p. 20


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.

From the media-savvy Iranian teenager ...

From the media-savvy Iranian teenager ...

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.

... to the illiterate Sudanese goatherd.

... to the illiterate Sudanese goatherd.

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

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.

China's military - now online, in English

China's military - now online, in English

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


There is one book that should be recommended to newly appointed public affairs officers; “The Utility of Force” by Rupert Smith.  Smith’s erudite vision of ‘war amongst the peoples’ is a vital backdrop to modern military public affairs.  However, whilst Smith’s book does elude to the media and the ‘theatre’ of war, it does not examine the phenomena in detail, being outside the scope of his excellent book.

Now that gap has been filled and one more book can be added to the list of recommendations: Rid and Hecker’s “War 2.0: Irregular Warfare in the Information Age”.

War 2.0 croppedThe authors’ grasp of the nexus of modern warfare and information is well presented, making a clear and easily understood delineation between what they call War 1.0, the industrial use of force throughout the 20th century, and War 2.0, 21st century irregular war and counterinsurgency, fought ‘amongst the peoples’, peoples who now have an extraordinary access to information.  Such a deep analysis is timely, given the intense debate within the US and NATO over future strategy, especially in Afghanistan.  Rid and Hecker’s work on what is a seismic shift in the conduct of modern war, should rightly inform that debate, one which is moving ahead swiftly, riding a wave of civilian surge and non-kinetic approaches to counterinsurgency and post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction.

The case studies, using the US, UK and Israeli militaries and also Hezbollah, the Taliban and Al-Qaida, provide ample evidence of the complexity of information in irregular warfare, and the oft-misunderstood deeper consequences of it.  As they point out, in less than a decade three wars involving sophisticated militaries and insurgents have raged amid the vortex of perhaps the most fundamental information revolution in history.  They explore the effects of such on organization, politics, strategy, implementation and objectives.

From a military viewpoint, the book is replete with examples where the provision of information, via media or otherwise, to the local population is in fact of higher operational priority than such provision to a home audience.  Public affairs now directly influence military outcomes, a point Smith would concede.  Many military personnel realize that information can’t be controlled, that speed of response is crucial, that release authority should be as low as possible.  In short, seeing the public as the new centre of gravity, many do ‘get it’.  However, it is argued that conceptual, cultural, organizational and political resistance prevent the more effective use of information in a media (both traditional and new)-saturated age.  Whilst extolling the many virtues of new technologies, equally Rid and Hecker point out the dangers, especially in the US, of over-reliance on new media as a solution and warn of it being over-rated or, at the very least, used without the full understanding of its nature, especially regarding a media-savvy enemy.  Further, they warn of information and communication being overly concerned with the domestic audience and often being largely politically, as opposed to militarily, driven, especially in the case of the UK.  However, whilst Rid and Hecker’s analysis is sound, their concerns over the capabilities of military public affairs officers, many of whom do ‘get it’, are sometimes a little harsh.

On the opposing side, their examination makes it clear that Hezbollah has made information a centerpiece of its operations, from simple techniques, such as branded material, to the more sophisticated, via mainstream television and internet activities.  Similarly, they contend that the Taliban have also undergone a transformation, from being media–shy to avidly exploiting it, along with hi-tech activities available in a burgeoning new media, especially SMS, market.

For Al-Qaida, the authors argue that the consequences of the information age have gone deeper.  The strategic transformation of Al-Qaida from a hierarchical organization to a cellular one, relies heavily, and utilizes efficiently, web technology – allowing the ‘community’ to focus on ideas, common purpose, participation and ‘fuzzy membership’, epitomized by ‘electronic jihad’, as opposed to strict edicts and protocols transmitted via easily compromised methods.

However, whilst the nature of new media may suit insurgents, Rid and Hecker make the cogent argument that the challenges of the contemporary information environment have posed problems for the insurgent and terrorist.  Strategic inertia, loss of control, heightened political risk and management of globalised themes all have their impact on the effectiveness of the message.

Rupert Smith - 'war amongst the people' a common thread throughout War 2.0

Rupert Smith - 'war amongst the people' a common thread throughout War 2.0

Whilst Rid and Hecker’s recommendations are unfortunately not explored in great detail, they are insightful, for military public affairs officers, strategists, senior officers and policy-makers.  Their recommendations are thread with considered approaches to modern technology and core practices recognized by any public relations practitioner but they are also reminiscent of a well known military doctrine, that of Mission Command.   They promote decentralisation, freedom, speed of action, delegation, initiative and the acceptance of a degree of risk – all virtues of Mission Command but rarely used in the practice of military information and communication.   One only needs to have read their compelling case studies to agree that such virtues are vital in the information age.

Timely, evidence-driven, clear and concise, “War 2.0” challenges the ideas and protocols of the 20th century, dragging us into the modern reality inhabited by ‘digital natives’, and is recommended reading for all, young and old, involved in or studying the conduct of irregular warfare.  And along with their doctrinal notes from staff college, public affairs officer should now add one more book to their compulsory reading list.


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.


Last night (Aug 17) on BBC’s Newsnight, Professor Kiron Skinner (assistant professor of political science at Carnegie Mellon University and research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University), talked of US commitment to liberal interventionsim continuing, but, with Somalia as an example, noted that the non-military dimension – development, capacity building etc – would be proportionately more pronounced.  She claimed much discussion around this, especially from the NGO world, was rife in Washington, and this included ‘on the Track Two side’.

Somalia - forgotten

Somalia - forgotten

CB3 initially took note because of the little hint of Somalia, in what was an Afghanistan package -elections, are we achieving anything, does liberal interventionism work?  The oft-quoted reasons for the UK, US, NATO and the rest being in Afghanistan become a little hard to swallow when Somalia is brought into focus – if we’re in Helmand for those reasons then logically we have even more reason to be in Mogadishu, right now, in force.  Explain that one, Mr Spokesperson.  Of course, Somalia hardly registers on the general public knowledge radar, so the questions are hardly raised.

However, it was the casual reference to Track Two that also caught CB3’s ear.  The presenter, Kirsty Wark, didn’t bat an eyelid, nor did her other scholarly guests (including Rory Stewart – agree with him or not, CB3 likes a maverick) but how many laymen, even in the relatively intellectual audience of Newsnight, would have picked “Track Two” up and understood what it meant?  And how many communications practitioners would readily identify it?

Whereas Track One refers to traditional diplomacy (or high level B2B), Track Two diplomacy is loosely defined as unofficial policy dialogue, focused on problem solving, in which the participants have some form of access to official policymaking circles.  Track Two refers to non-governmental, informal and unofficial contacts and activities between private citizens or groups of individuals, sometimes called ‘non-state actors.  Or, put another way: informal and unofficial interaction between private citizens or groups of people within a country or from different countries who are outside the formal governmental power structure.  Even simpler: dialogue through back channels. Whilst these definitions are so broad that any nongovernmental activity could constitute Track Two, including business contacts, citizen exchange programs, advocacy work, or religious contacts, they are often borne of a specific hard objective and that objective will entail, to a significant degree, persuasion, education, understanding, informing etc – all those objectives associated with communication.

The title may appal some but it's worth a read

The title may appal some but it's worth a read

Call it what you will – unofficial fireside chats, key leader engagement, cultural diplomacy – the point is that whilst communication activities press on with radio spots, leaflets, media campaigns, digital strategy  and the like, Track Two, or the corporate equivalent, continues (it always has done) away from the glare, often unnoticed.  Yet all activities may be servicing the same objective.

As a communicator, Track One, involving the big boys – the Ministers or chief execs – may be seductive but the constant but distant rumblings of Track Two should not be forgotten, should be listened to, facilitated and coordinated.  Of course, sometimes Track Two can be highly sensitive, as it was during the Oslo peace process, but at some point both overt and covert dialogue and communication must be on the same table, under the same scrutiny, synergised.  As Professor Skinner hinted, Track Two is being seriously discussed regarding Somalia.  This should be equally the case in Afghanistan, where back channels are potent.  Any major communications efforts in either ignore the effects of Track Two at their peril.