Principles of Strategic Communication

This is Part I of two posts on describing “Strategic Communication.” Part II is here

In the coming months, reports and Congressional legislation will attempt to change how the United States communicates with the world. Called “public diplomacy” or “Strategic Communication,” the importance of this type engagement has finally come to the forefront of our national security debate, at least for those taking a serious look at the present and future. Irregular conflict, the present and future reality of war, is based not on our ability to “kill our way to victory” but to operate in a local and global information environment.

When there are no capitals to take or “hearts” to be “won,” real security comes through enduring engagement of local and global groups in a modern proxy struggle for minds and wills. Operating “by, with, and through” such groups not only extends our reach, but acts as a force multiplier against adversaries who elicit support in the global information environment for money, recruits, and sympathetic actions. Think Hamburg, Madrid, London, and Glasgow.

This people-centric engagement has long been called public diplomacy. Anchored in sixty-year-old legislation and functionally headquartered in the operational equivalent of the Department of Non-State, American public diplomacy was a useful tool in the war of ideas. That was before it was neutered in the switch to techno-centric solutions and a reversion to state-centric closed-door diplomacy, however.

Unlike public diplomacy, strategic communication has no history. The term comes from the Defense Community’s need to fill a theoretical and practical void left by ineffective or missing communication by the Government, notably the State Department. “Strategic Communication” has appeared in several reports, many without defining it, and is sometimes described and diagramed as encompassing public diplomacy. Other times, it is used as a synonym, as it was in the National Strategy on Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication. The recent Defense Sciences Board report on Strategic Communication does include a discussion of an earlier iteration of the principles however on pages 11 – 13.

While Under Secretary Jim Glassman will likely put forward a definition of America’s reinvigorated public diplomacy soon, strategic communication is moving ahead with principles. Last month, Bob Hastings, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, signed off on a “Principles of Strategic Communication Guide” that, as is the way in DoD, incorporates action, not just description. The principles are a “tool to assist dialogue and instruction promoting understanding Strategic Communication.” Developed through a collaborative effort between the Defense Department, the State Department, and civilians, the document is a product of the under-reported aspect of the resource advantage Defense has over State: money, personnel, and an educational system to think about such things. (And of course, a Secretary of Defense who is serious about not repeating mistakes.)

If you are interested in public diplomacy or strategic communication, this is a must-read. From my point of view, the terms mean the same thing, much as “Canis” is to “dog,” even if “strategic” and conceptualizing SC remain misleading, but so is “public diplomacy” after the switch to self-promotion from fighting a war of ideas.

The nine “fundamental tenets” are:

  • Leadership-driven: leaders must decisively engage and drive SC processes
  • Credible: perception of truthfulness and respect between all parties
  • Dialogue: multi-faceted exchange of ideas to promote understanding and build relationships
  • Unity of Effort: integrated and coordinated, vertically and horizontally
  • Responsive: right audience, right message, right time, and right place
  • Understanding: deep comprehension of attitudes, cultures, identities, behavior, history, perspectives and social systems. What we say, do, or show may not be what others hear or see
  • Pervasive: every action, image, and word sends a message
  • Results-Based: actions to achieve specific outcomes in pursuit of a well-articulated end-state
  • Continuous: diligent ongoing research, analysis, planning, execution, and assessment that feeds planning and action

As defined above and described in more detail in the document, the principles of strategic communication offer active guidance and true to the military hierarchy, acknowledges the hierarchy while understanding the critical “last three feet of engagement,” to borrow a concept from public diplomacy. While the terms are not what you’d find in a description of public diplomacy (see also this relevant and timely point), they create a framework for action.

I like the principles. The definition could drop “orchestration” and still be valid, though I understand its inclusion.


8 thoughts on “Principles of Strategic Communication

  1. Yet another interesting post. I’ll try to digest all of that and think through it. So, no thoughts for now.However, a small note: There seems to be a typo with the last to links in the post, both are leading to the same article at the GBR FCO website.

  2. I think that the fundamental tenets are a very good start, but my concern is about execution. Principally, while commanders are responsible for execution, they will largely rely on their PAOs to spearhead those efforts. Since current PAO doctrine places more emphasis on media facilitation and avoids advocacy, then I worry that the end-states will be watered down “inform” effects rather than more active “influence” end-states.

  3. Rob, I agree the weak link is the PAO. They need to move away from facilitation and passive acceptance of method, mode, and topic of somebody else’s choosing. Education is required and it seems the right steps are being made in the right direction. First example is the fact PAOs own the above and are propagating it.

  4. Re: comments above on SC Execution and the role of PAOs.Execution – This is the most difficult question being faced – how do you “do” SC, at what level is SC done, etc. SC seems to be the flavor of the week. Everybody recognizes the importance, everybody want to be part of it, and as a result we aren’t doing it very effectively. SC is a Whole of Government (WOG) issue. The military doesn’t “own” it, it is an inter-agency responsibility that should be “led” by the State Department (in my view). Within the military channels, there should be less focus on “doing” SC, and more of a focus on “supporting” SC.
    PAOs – The military is still hung up on the “friction” between Information Operations (IO) and Public Affairs (PA). This silly feud can still be exemplified by the caption in the DOD Diagram you posted. IO is listed as “Information Operations PSYOP”. Forget that PSYOP is only one of five Core Elements of IO (including Military Deception), it is highlighted because of the irrational and misplaced fear that the PA world has about PSYOP – and OSD-PA has been the defacto lead for policy discussion (the recent OSD IG Report now recommends that OSD-Policy should be the lead). Until we can wrap our collective minds around the necessity to both inform and influence a target audience, we will continue to spin our wheels constantly reinventing new terms and organizations. Yes, I realize that merely using the term “target audience” will cause some PAO’s to feel faint!

  5. For what it’s worth, in my experience, the first problem with far too many PAOs and their leadership is that they only think they understand the tenet, “Leadership-driven: leaders must decisively engage and drive SC processes.” Leaders think all they have to do is tell their PAO to do “it,” and PAOs think all they have to do is, well, “do it.” As a result, you end up with LEADERS not talking to anyone but their PAOs, and PAOs not talking to anyone but each other. “Strategic Communication” isn’t achieved because leaders up and down the chain of command aren’t really communicating with each other about resourcing and executing the organization’s SC initiatives. Instead, they’re only telling their PAOs to, “get the word out.”

  6. Hello, Everyone:Let me preamble a bit and confess that I am not trained or experienced in the military. I am a communication guy with an academic and Federal government background with a focus on health and safety applications. I will certainly offer shallow, foolish, or silly ideas, but want to try and contribute if possible.
    That said, I’d like to offer a critical requestioning of the nine principles: Given these principles, what is NOT strategic communication?
    Anyone who uses communication as a main function could, would, and should follow these principles. Teachers with a class; supervisors with subordinates; officers with soldiers. Nothing in these principles distinguishes something “strategic” from plain old “effective.”
    These principles seem too low level, more tactical than anything a dictionary meaning of “strategic” would require. Where’s any principle about vision (the desired or feared future) or larger political or military goals the communication enhances or enables?
    Again, my lack of military experience is probably showing here and I apologize for my ignorance and inexperience.

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