Guest Post: How to win the GWOT – or whatever it’s called today

By Mark Pfeifle, Jonathan Thompson

America has the finest military and diplomatic leaders in the world. They know how to win on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. Yet, despite those winning ways, there are times when they become victims of circumstances rather than drivers of events. At such times, some may falter with the media and public, and when that happens, they too often lay blame the results on bad press coverage.

Earlier this decade domestic and international audiences wanted to understand what our military leaders and diplomats were doing in Iraq – what was working, what wasn’t, and what the future held. We understood that people wanted a constant and understandable dialog then, and we know they now want the same about Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We need people skilled at understanding the motivational factors of societies and communities – domestically and abroad. We have some, such as Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, and Ambassadors Richard Holbrooke and Adam Ereli, who understand the public’s increasing need for information. Many are meeting the mark, yet others are still learning.

Consider the Pentagon official who was hostile to supporting engagements with talk-radio and Internet media that were not part of the Pentagon’s established press corps. Or the seasoned diplomat who refused to meet with journalists because it was more comfortable speaking on background and via telephone so “… I can exit the discussion any time I want…” Or, beyond such individual missteps, the collective cultural misunderstanding that led to demonstrations after soccer balls bearing Koranic symbology were distributed to Afghan kids to kick around.

These examples demonstrate a lack of understanding in how some people think and react in the 24/7 competitive marketplaces of ideas. Many national security executives fail to see that communication is a discipline requiring hands-on experience with proactive and reactive messaging, that includes talking directly to an intended audience and the media. We learned from our experience that there are inviolable rules in winning hearts and minds: Repetition, clarity, brevity, imagery, and vision must match action.

Fixing some of the communication problems facing our country needs instant attention.

1. Require every military branch to create two active duty and reserve general officer positions in strategic communication, and make them eligible to reach the three-star rank. Likewise, the State Department needs at least two individuals of Ambassadorial rank dedicated to public and international communication.

2. Establish an Undersecretary of Defense for Integrated and Strategic Communication to oversee public affairs, military public communication, international communication and strategic communication efforts.

3. Congress must fully-fund the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Don’t reconstitute the US Information Agency, instead give the Undersecretary the funds to direct our nation’s international message apparatus. Start with a $500 million budget and annually increase it.

4. Leaders must empower communicators to take action, with a seat at the table.

5. Require national security departments and agencies to have a career senior executive in the number two position in communication entities.

6. Require agencies to establish world-class learning programs for communication and public affairs organizations.

7. Pay experts more. Government pays scientists and lawyers above its pay scale, why not its communication experts?

8. Require the deputy national security advisor for strategic communication to present quarterly updates on initiatives and measures of effectiveness to members of the National Security Council and Capital Hill.

9. Rather than obsess on processes and terminologies – arguments over definitions of strategic communication – focus on substance, outreach, and credibility.

Today, perception is the intersection where competing interests collide. We need to enhance communication initiatives that create consistent narratives with credible conversations, and include a stream of lasting images delivered via traditional media and social networks. In this manner, we can collectively reinforce and explain our national policy.

We have fallen short of the mark in successfully communicating to a skeptical audience – domestically and internationally. We need experienced and knowledgeable communications heads, with staffs to support them.

Winning the battles and wars of tomorrow is not just about bombs and bullets. Winning requires expertise at communication and outreach. We won’t win if we don’t get this right.

Mr. Pfeifle was a Bush Administration Deputy National Security Advisor and Mr. Thompson was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. Currently, Mr. Thompson is an executive vice president and Mr. Pfeifle is a vice president in the Systems Media Group at S4 Inc.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of They are published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: How to win the GWOT – or whatever it’s called today

  1. Excellent advice—every bit of it. Unfortunately, DoD seems to be moving the opposite direction. What’s more, it appears that the department is going so far as to blatantly ignore the strategic communication roadmap set out as part of the 2006 QDR. In effect, it’s been cast it aside (FU Congress?)Of course, the esteemed authors of this post would not be surprised to discover that the “Pentagon official” they reference in the fourth graph is still the enemy of progress; as is the Army press officer who recently told a class of ICAF officers that “the internet has run its course.”
    On a point of criticism, however, this post is missing something invaluable to those of us still working for the demagogues who suppress innovation and independent thought: We need their lessons-learned. We need a path to progress from those who tried before and encountered nothing but dead ends and ambushes at every bend in the trail.
    “We won’t win if we don’t get this right”? Indeed. But surely Mark and Jonathan have some advice to offer. These ideas are not a simple, “Aha!” They’ve been thinking on this for quite some time. We should be allowed to understand, gentlemen, what was it which inhibited implementation of this ‘way-ahead’ three years ago?
    Perhaps more to the point—who must a man roll to get things moving? (That is, any notional man who might be so inclined…)

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