When the miltary do their business, they regularly ‘engage targets’. When a missile is thrown into a surface-to-air missile site, it is very much a one-way transaction, precisely designed to prevent two-way transaction of fires! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having the ability to put steel onto a target rapidly, precisely, decisively and overwhelmingly – hard power has its place. But the very wording of this phrase causes problems for those in military public affairs, media operations and public diplomacy.
Engagement should be, and is in political and foreign policy circles, a two way process. Further, when communicating in military interventions, peacekeeping, post-conflict reconstruction and development, all too often we refer to ‘target ‘audiences, normally referred to as ‘publics’ amongst public relations professionals. However, a target is something to aim at, to attain, to achieve; it infers a one-way, omni-directional action. Referring to an audience as a ‘target’ encourages, in the a parlance of PR Guru James Grunig, one-way communication. Even if military or foreign policy communicators do conduct two-way asymmetric communications,i.e. conduct deep research and cultural analysis, before conducting comms campaigns, they often still end up aiming at a ‘target’.
The cornerstone of effective communications relies not only in knowing what those ‘publics’ are about – how they think, what makes them tick – but also what they want and need (eg, marketing will fail utterly if the product is not what the publics/consumers want or need, no matter how good the product is). This requires two-way symmetrical communications, or dialogue, with people, not targets. Otherwise, one ends up communicating messages, ideas and products that simply will, at best, not resonate and, at worst, produce animosity.
Strategic communication itself is a multi-facted beast, which includes internal conversation in order to distil one’s raison d’etre. Without that essence, strategic guidance and objectives will be ill-formed, creating inefficiency, even harbouring unseen but certain failure. Without understanding what can be achieved – in other words finding those objectives which serve both one’s own and the concerned public’s (in this case a foreign population’s) needs – achieving policy aims will always be hampered. Vague, unachievable objectives, as a result of a failure to broach coincident needs after neglecting to engage in a dialogical communications, are harbingers of policy disaster. The targeting mentality of communications can only encourage this. As a practical example, such results are summed up by a US Civil Affairs officer:
‘We have built so many schools that the Iraqis do not need. You
know what happens to them? They get blown up, because no
teachers show up, because no students come, no books are there,
the [mujahideen] walks in, they blow them up. It happens time
and time again, we give them something they do not ask for, they
do not need, because it’s something that we can do.’
They may not have asked for them but did anyone even hear what they did ask for? A little bit of dialogue with people, not dictating to targets, would go a long way to prevent such policy failures.