The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: Strategic Comms

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.


So you want to study the ‘hot button’ topic of Public Diplomacy?  Oh, you mean diplomatic studies, or maybe international relations, or possiblily public relations or communication studies.  Oh, you don’t?  You definately and specifically want to study the increasingly complex and important subject of public diplomacy?  Well, let’s see what we can do.

How about the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Public Diplomacy or an MSc in Public Diplomacy at New York’s Syracuse University(see their enthusiastic students expounding on public diplomacy in the film below)?  Then there’s a Public Diplomacy Course at Georgetown University in Wasington D.C. or you could attend Edward R. Murrow School of Public Diplomacy at Tufts University, Massachusetts.

What’s that? You say, the Murrow School appears semi-dormant and some other courses are merely minor elements of wider masters programmes?  Hmm, I see.

Ah, anything outside of the US, you ask? In public diplomacy, specifically?

Um, well, let me see.  Oh, yes, how about the online course in Public Diplomacy at the Diplo Foundation, Malta?  And then there’s … um … well, there’s … ah … well, nowhere else, as far as I know*.

In the old days where diplomats spoke to diplomats and occasionally some PR-type would be brought in to do some outreach thing or media campaign for foreign audiences, it was acceptable that public diplomacy was not on any curricula – a good bit of experience and one would get the handle of it.  Globalisation, the information age, technological advances and the spread of democracy have changed all that, and anyone expected to work in public diplomacy can expect a sharp learning curve.  Yet as shown above, outside the US, there are few institutions providing that learning at high level, certainly not at the graduate level, preparing students for entering the workforce.  One or two week courses here and there, aspects of Public diplomacy in wider studies, the occasional conference and articles published, but not genuine, specific, academic, graduate level learning.

John Hemery, in his chapter on public diplomacy training in ‘The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations’ (Mellisen, J. (Ed), Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), highlights the dearth of real academic education in the field.  As ever, the US is learning its lessons quickly, as shown above.  But what of the rest of the world?  Is it time that nations, such as the UK, examined its personnel requirements in terms of public diplomacy (there are certainly calls for it to taken seriously), and looked closely at any academic approach that may be necessary to prepare its young people for 21st century diplomatic and communication environments?

*Note: Of course, CB3 may not be aware of all academic training available, and would appreciate being informed of other courses.


Renowned and prolific blogger Mountainrunner recently posted on ‘The False Hope of the President’s Public Diplomacy’ and it’s well worthwhile a perusal.

CB3 largely concurs with Mountainrunner’s sentiments.  The points are well made and for the most part entirely valid, although the comment ‘Public diplomacy must be re-framed as direct or indirect engagement of foreign audiences to further America’s national security’ seems to back up a DoD-centric view. This may be mere semantics but security can be a loaded word and PD operates across a policy spectrum – albeit all contributing to security.

US Public Diplomacy - still wearing combat boots?

US Public Diplomacy - still wearing combat boots?

The phenomena of ultimately leaving much foreign policy communicative effort to the military, who at least have the resources (but not necessarily the expertise), appears to be common, not only in the US but also, maybe to a slightly lesser degree, in the UK. NATO and the EU (within ESDP civ-mil operations) are also not immune to this.

Further, the narrowing of the word-deed gap is critical to the success of PD, which requires it to be deeply ingrained in policy-making (as Murrow appreciated). The corporate world has taken this on board but political institutions, even in the most developed nations on the planet, still don’t fully appreciate this fact, despite the recognition of the monumental societal changes being braought about by the information age. The Obama administration is good on the word but still has to follow upon the deed (good intentions lead the way to hell etc).

The US is now in a good position to make good on the Obama effect and take PD seriously, but I fear that political infighting is taking its toll. State needs to take a stand if the US is to capitalise on this window of opportunity.


Conflict Prevention in the Multimedia Age
3-5 June, Bonn/Germany
Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum

The conference secretariat is busily finalising content and organisational matters – as you can  see in the attached programme overview we have about 45 panels and workshops lined up so far. In terms of content the number of events has nearly tripled compared to last year. A topical overview is online available here

Javier Solana, High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union will open the conference (tbc), Ramtane Lamamra, Commissioner for Peace and Security of the African Union has also agreed to join. Moreover we have lined up a number of German politicians and we are still waiting for a decision of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. We also have asked the Jordanian queen and some other international political VIPs  who have not yet confirmed.

In terms of content experts and speakers it looks better and better nearly on a daily basis. Just two colleagues who have agreed to join recently are Howard Rheingold, the Internet visionary and Brian Storm, multimedia guru from New York . Ahmed Salim, CEO A24 Media has also agreed to come. We have started publishing all those names on our website.

An attractive evening programme will give you a chance to enjoy the scenery of the Rhine river and the hospitability typical for this German region.

Partners include (in no special order): German Armed Forces, Stanford University, Reuters, University of Saarbrücken, University of Melbourne, Eyes and Ears of Europe, Intermedia, FoeBud, Chaos Computer Club, Radio Nederland, Media21, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Committee for the Protection of Journalists, InWEnt, Commonwealth Broadcasting Organisation, FiFF, Interdisc. Fora RWTH, GPACC, SIGNIS, Friedrich  Ebert Foundation , DART Centre, n-ost, Thomson Reuters, Oxford University, OECD, UNHCR, Nokia Siemens Networks, IPI, Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, EBU, Zurich University of Applied Sciences

The conference is generously supported by the German Foreign Office, the Foundation for International Dialogue of the savings bank in Bonn , the State Government of North-Rhine Westphalia, the City of Bonn and DHL

Contact / Conference Secretariat:
DW – MEDIA SERVICES GmbH
Kurt-Schumacher-Str. 3
53113 Bonn , Germany
P +49.228.429-2142 (Press inquiries: +49.228.429-2148)

F +49.228.429-2140
mailto:gmf@dw-world.de


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 response to Daniel Korski’s questions concerning NATO branding, on the excellent Global Dashboard blogsite, CB3 thought it time to scribble a few words.

Op-eds, academic papers, rumours and downright moaning tend to indicate that NATO isn’t winning the information war, certainly in Afghanistan.  Now, there’s a lot to be said for taking that point of view, but more often than not such a view is expressed alongside such sentiment as ‘the Taliban are, in fact, winning the information battle’.  Well, just hang on a minute.

As Tim Foxley of SIPRI, having spent the last eight years studying the Taliban, elucidated recently, there is little evidence for sustained success of Taliban communications efforts and in fact they still have a weak, poorly planned and inflexible approach to communications, and are vulnerable in this area (but they’re learning fast).  So let’s hear less of the Taliban are better than NATO in communications.

Not quite Alistair Campbell

Not quite Alistair Campbell

And, anyway, NATO have also made great strides in this area over the last few years, with the establishment of a fully functioning Media Operations Centre (MOC) and rapid development of workable procedures.  Further, the concept of Strategic Communication is starting to gain traction, featuring more and more in policy and strategy formulation (with details available on the web).  A lot of hard work has obviously gone into raising NATO’s game in this regard.

But when the word branding starts being bandied about, CB3 starts to worry a little.  Direct experience in Afghanistan has shown that, even after the recent positive developments, there is always a tendency to use communication, especially media operations/public affairs to encourage domestic audiences to support the campaign/war at the expense of using such capabilities to actually support the objectives of the campaign/war.

Serving and retired military one-four stars, senior communicators from IGOs to NGOs and practitioners, all cry out that the circumstances of modern conflict interventions demand that they are conducted with information and communications at their core – and by that they mean using information and communications to win the campaign, not merely make good copy or nice branding for the home audiences (CB3 exaggerates here – a little).  The latter is important but without emphasis on the former, what’s the point?

Few would disagree that, in the information age, communication is becoming fundamental to achieving foreign policy goals.  But words are cheap, and CB3 suspects that NATO does and/or will face similar problems in achieving its communication aspirations as the US is finding.  Recent RAND research has indicated that a lack of leadership buy-in, leading to a lack of resources, vague strategy and obstacles to better coordination, are all posing significant challenges to achieving what the majority of communication practitioners see as vital.  Similar vibes were observed when examined communication management of the the European Union’s ESDP missions in 2008.

Nice branding ... but there's a lot more to it than that.

Nice branding ... but there's a lot more to it than that.

It’s difficult enough in the real world of 24/7 media, diplomatic realities and genuine propaganda, but even in the more benign and more easily controlled training and exercise environment, NATO regularly fails to take communication seriously.  This is symptomatic of large swathes of NATO not really ‘getting it’.  For example, during CMX-08, despite valiant efforts of the exercise directors, the MOC was extensively exercised, but in almost total isolation from the rest of the players – the communication bit can be a little bit problematic and upsetting, so outside the MOC we’ll pay lip service to the media and public opinion bit.  Problemmatic? – damn right it is!  Equally, many NATO exercises consider to have tested communication by conducting little tactical vignettes, thrusting journalists with cameras and microphones into the faces of Public Affairs Officers and their COs, and doing very little else (oh, there will be some good simulated news video stuff).  Nice interview, didn’t pick his nose on camera, didn’t give away any secrets, kept to the lines – brilliant.  That’s vital stuff, but it’s the tip of the strategic communication iceberg – and its the 90% under the water that is likely to sink any communication contribution to achieving strategic objectives.

In a previous CB3 Blog, it was stated that, ‘the most critical battle for ‘hearts and minds’ will not be fought in the fields of Afghanistan, the mountains of Kosovo or the streets of the DRC, but in the corridors of power of foreign ministries, defence departments and development agencies’.  This equally applies to NATO.

The point is, having Coca-Cola executives and TV channels (which is pretty good – although its style is definately staid, some creativity and flair would be welcome), nice branding and interview training is all good and well, and indeed vital.  But it is the deeper, complex and sometimes uncomfortable and contentious aspects of communications that will have to be addressed.  Budgets, strategy, relationships, analysis, personnel, ROI, private sector involvement, new media – these all have to be on the table … on the ‘boardroom’ table.  Making communication mainstream and holistic, such that it is rightly seen by everyone as fundamental (but not exclusive) to achieving strategic objectives, is key to improving the communication capability of the Alliance.

There are those in NATO who are pushing hard to apply pressure in this direction, in the face of massive institutional inertia.  CB3 applauds them.


With regard to strategic communication, a common sentiment at development, strategy, foreign policy and political conferences is that “we all know it’s not working”.

Such attitudes often spark ideas on how to make communications contribute more to foreign policy objectives, but all too often these approaches suggest changes at the tactical level, without recourse to the core of the problem; that of understanding at the strategic level.

Over the last two decades, the corporate world has recognised the rapid evolution of the information environment. As a result, public relations (as opposed to pure marketing and advertising) has made an upward transition into the boardroom, has become part of the dominant coalition. In other words, the corporate world has come to understand the nature and importance of strategic communications, harnessing its power at the core of business and having communications contribute directly to corporate objectives. This paradigm shift has not ameliorated all ills, but communications is no longer an afterthought, no longer a ‘bolt on’ at the end of the policy process. It has gone mainstream.

In the area of foreign policy, notably crisis management and post-conflict reconstruction, this culture shift is moving at a glacial rate. Currently, in the higher echelons of foreign ministries, defence departments and development agencies, communications remains a ‘bolt-on’, despite the sterling work of many working on influence, information operations, public affairs and public diplomacy.

This lamentable position is maintained largely through a lack of understanding. Many still see communications through an industrial warfare lens, from a pre-information age viewpoint, when communications entailed either getting the spokesperson in front of a camera or conducting a solid bit of psychological operations (Psyops) or propaganda against an enemy. As mission critical as many see communications, through its ability to explain, justify, persuade, influence, understand and inform, and its capacity to win ‘hearts and minds’ or ‘capture the will of the people’, contemporary guiding philosophies and methodologies espoused by senior planners are often outmoded. As General Rupert Smith states, ‘capturing the will of the people is a very clear and basic concept, yet one that is either misunderstood or ignored by political and military establishments around the world’.

When considering the poor performance of communications, many examples of failings from the fields of Afghanistan to the mountains of Kosovo to the streets of the DRC, can be cited. In the asymmetric warfare of Afghanistan, with regard to the information battleground, it is the modern ‘Western’ force which is the weaker, while the Taliban possesses the superior communication ‘firepower’. It is little wonder that some senior Commanders are stressing  that interventions must be treated as entire information campaigns in this new type of conflict; post-industrial war. And that also requires a deeper understanding of the role of strategic communications in this new conflict, both during and after.

Of course, there have been successes. The EU Police Mission in Bosnia-Hercegovina (EUPM) has successfully used modern media tactics to discourage crime; in 2001 a popular soap opera on BBC’s Pashtun service was instrumental in the success of a massive UNICEF inoculation campaign in Afghanistan, dealing with seven million children in just three weeks; the success of the ‘Kimberley Process’ is in no small part due to highly successful lobbying by development NGOs; Psyops were seen as a major factor in the rapid collapse of the Iraqi military in 2003; in 2000, the UK’s use of force, posture and profile certainly persuaded the RUF to stay away from Freetown, Sierra Leone; Oxfam, Save the Children and Médecins sans Frontières (and many others) can all point to successful campaigns to educate populations in war-ravaged countries. Although these successes tend to be the exceptions and mostly of tactical significance, the list does serve to illustrate the wide spectrum of and complex environment in which communications now feature.

In light of this new operating environment, a full review of the use of communications in war, crisis management and post conflict reconstruction is way overdue. As all communication professionals know, effective communication strategies are holistic, multi-spectral, multi-layered, internal and external, with multiple audiences and agencies, both domestic and foreign – in short, strategic. Strategic communications is an all pervasive concept: distillation of one’s own raison d’être; direct contribution to strategic guidance; internal communication; dialogical conversations; public diplomacy; boundary-spanning; social psychology; issue management; behavioural dynamics; stakeholder engagement; lobbying; narrative construction and publics analysis. The need to understand this concept at the highest level is becoming ever more crucial in the increasingly complex environments of foreign policy crisis management and post-conflict reconstruction. With this understanding will come the enablers, at all levels, that will allow comprehensive and effective strategic communication. It will go mainstream.

Yes, we need more resources. Yes, we need more coordination. Yes, we need better trained people. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that merely calling for these will bring about change. Equally, let’s not be so naïve as to think that by merely getting more resources, coordination and people that we will suddenly have sorted out the strategic communication malaise. The solutions lie deeper, in a sound and concrete understanding of what strategic communication is and what it can deliver.

If strategic communication is to contribute fully to the objectives of crisis management and post-conflict reconstruction, it firstly needs to be communicated to, and fully understood by, those who can bring about the paradigm shift. Attitudes and understanding are changing slowly but the most critical battle for ‘hearts and minds’ will not be fought in the fields of Afghanistan, the mountains of Kosovo or the streets of the DRC, but in the corridors of power of foreign ministries, defence departments and development agencies.