Guest Post: PSYOP for everyone

By Christopher Paul

An Army intelligence officer I met recently at a conference related an anecdote to me about the psychological operations (PSYOP) personnel his team was co-located with on a previous deployment. He shared that the PSYOPers would get upset when they perceived the actions of maneuver elements as impinging on (or ignoring) their domain: “They can’t do that without talking to us, that’s a PSYACT [Psychological Operations action]!”[1] The intel guys would overhear this and then tease them about their protective approach to influence.

This exchange prompted me to think carefully about the tensions implied in the possessiveness of the PSYOP personnel to other soldiers’ influence efforts. On the one hand, maneuver and line forces far outnumber PSYOP forces, and are the preponderant face of coalition forces to the populations in the area of operations. The words and deeds of these forces do contribute to influence; all the better if that contribution is thoughtful and positive. On the other hand, the release of various PSYOP products follows a strict process including audience analysis, message planning and development, and a rigorous review for approval. This sometimes lengthy (but certainly necessary) process increases the effectiveness of these products and decreases the likelihood that they are embarrassing or detract from influence goals. Maneuver forces freelancing influence efforts circumvent this process and take on much greater risk. What is the proper balance between leveraging the influence opportunities inherent in the behavior of all of the military elements in an area of operations and controlling and coordinating influence efforts for more certain effectiveness and reduced risk? What is the line between routine well-intentioned and positive behavior and PSYACTs which should be planned to correspond to PSYOP goals?

I don’t have the answer to those questions, but I have a notion that might be a step forward independent of those answers. What if we change the way we think about PSYOP to be inclusive instead of exclusive, and make a corresponding change in how we employ PSYOP personnel?

Consider the relationship between civil affairs (CA) forces and civil-military operations (CMO).[2] Like PSYOP, CA is a discrete military organization with its own personnel and force structure. CA forces conduct CMO, as do all other elements of the force at the commander’s discretion. CA units integrate with and support the CMO efforts of their (much more numerous) line unit colleagues. Civil affairs units engage in their own independent activities, but they also help plan and enable the efforts of these other forces.

PSYOP forces are the only personnel in the U.S. government who are trained to conduct influence. What if we make the relationship of PSYOP to the (intentional or otherwise) influence efforts of maneuver units similar to the relationship between CA and CMO? If PSYOP forces worked alongside and spent more of their time helping maneuver units focus the influence content of their actions and utterances rather than letting them stumble through on their own, what could we accomplish? True, using PSYOP forces in this training and direct support role would reduce the number of PSYOP products they would have time to produce, but I think the trade-offs are worth considering. Perhaps PSYOP personnel would be less inclined to be possessive about the influence efforts of maneuver elements if they were routinely involved in helping those maneuver units convert well-intentioned behavior into well-intentioned behavior with a firm foundation in the science and practice of influence.

Dr. Christopher Paul is a Full Social Scientist at the RAND Corporation and is the author of Information Operations — Doctrine and Practice, Wither Strategic Communication?, and coauthor of Enlisting Madison Avenue. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the opinions of RAND.

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.

[1] page Glossary-16 of FM 3-05.30 defines a Psychological Operations action (PSYACT) as —“An action conducted by non-PSYOP personnel, that is planned primarily to affect the behavior of a TA.”

[2] JP 1-02 defines civil-military operations as “The activities of a commander that establish, maintain, influence, or exploit relations between military forces, governmental and nongovernmental civilian organizations and authorities, and the civilian populace in a friendly, neutral, or hostile operational area in order to facilitate military operations, to consolidate and achieve operational US objectives. Civil-military operations may include performance by military forces of activities and functions normally the responsibility of the local, regional, or national government. These activities may occur prior to, during, or subsequent to other military actions. They may also occur, if directed, in the absence of other military operations. Civil-military operations may be performed by designated civil affairs, by other military forces, or by a combination of civil affairs and other forces.”

10 thoughts on “Guest Post: PSYOP for everyone

  1. Chris,Great points. I recall the discussion you led the post with. Two days prior I was part of a debate between a NATO PAO, a PSYOPer, a UK IO’er (yes, that’s now a term), and “New Media” leader for the DOD. While it sounds like the beginning of a joke, the discussion was serious. What I drew from the conversation was the content was not the issue but the tactics and more importantly the planning process. PAOs are generally (not absolutely) reactive and do not plan their informational activities as that would suggest the dreaded word: influence. Not generally being planners (the PAO admitted planning isn’t his or his colleagues’ strength) they are excluded from the planning process either because they don’t want to be “tainted” by association or, as another colleague told me, they don’t hold the security clearances to be in the room.
    Informational-based activities are essential to success on the kinetic and non-kinetic battlefields. There must be a general acceptance that proactive engagement, that includes choosing a medium and informational preparation of the discussion space, is not by definition misleading or worse. It is smart engagement in a “now media” world.
    Again, great post, Chris.

  2. I’m surprised that a man who could write “Information Operations – Doctrine and Practice” doesn’t recognize IO when it occurs!PSYOPers are not the only people in the U.S. government trained to influence – that is also part of the role of IO, and why PSYOP is one of the core elements of IO. The example provided in the post is a perfect example of what IO truly is – the synchronization, coordination, integration and deconfliction (SCID) of activities in the Information Environment. It is not the role of PSYOP to help maneuver elements focus their influence actions, no more than it is the role of the CA Planner to coordinate Community Relations (COMREL) events. PSYOP should do PSYOP – that’s what they are paid to do – and they generally do it very well. It is the role of the IO Planner to help the Commander shape the environment.
    For the PAOs out there, this is exactly why you are invited to the IO Working Group (IOWG). It’s not a question of trying to turn you to the “Dark Side”, and you can’t be “tainted” by something that is not released to the outside world. It is critical that all actors involved are aware. It is only through that awareness that you can avoid information fratricide … and that will “taint” a PAO!

  3. As a PAO, I am thrilled to hear anyone who works in the information domain reiterate that, “It is only through that awareness that you can avoid information fratricide.” Indeed, it is only through the SCID my IO colleague describes that a commander can be certain his influence activities (yes, you too PAO) are enabling the force’s realization of stated objective(s).And for any of the PAOs who think this kind of SCID is prohibited in doctrine—or by some more obscure policy, such as the infamously poorly-written 2004 CJCS memo (CM-2077-04) on the IO/PA relationship—consider the current CJCS Special Areas of Emphasis for Joint Professional Military Education (28 Apr 09). In the discussion of building partnership capacity (SAE1), this area of emphasis is described to include “improving DOD communication mechanisms in domestic public affairs and influencing potential adversaries and non-state actors.”
    I don’t think you need to have a doctorate in English to understand that the use of “domestic” here is used to differentiate between PA’s mandate to “inform” domestic audiences, and its operational requirement as one of the commander’s influence capabilities.
    So when it comes to Chris’ point, I disagree that “PSYOP forces are the only personnel in the U.S. government who are trained to conduct influence.” PA personnel are very much trained to influence… it’s just that the Defense Information School has yet to confront the issue of influence with anything resembling intellectual honesty.
    Hence, most PAOs graduate DINFOS thinking they have no role in influence and should avoid very necessary operational collaboration with all the other IO capabilities (which contributes to the unfortunate side effect of refusing to let other IOWG members so much as buy them a beer… which we all know is criminal.)

  4. One more thing, Matt: For anyone (especially PAOs) to claim that PAOs are excluded from the planning process because they don’t hold the security clearance to be in the room is a copout. The vast majority of operational planning takes place at a level where any commissioned officer has the required access. At levels where higher clearances are required, the PAO billets are coded accordingly. And if the PAO doesn’t have the clearance, that’s the command’s own damn fault. It’s not that the individuals don’t possess the ability to be granted clearance; it’s because the command is too short-sighted and/or ignorant to write the billet requirement accordingly.

  5. Wow Matt … how did you form the opinion that PAOs are reactive and don’t plan? We’re obviously a bit different — we have a PR Corps (as much as I shudder when I have to wear the accoutrements) and no IO functional area. Over the past five years we’ve very much shifted our PAO training from media relations shite to information domain planning in the support of ops.Our PAO’s must complete our Army all-corps officer training (the Air Force and Navy don’t have a category) course (when I first swapped into the role they didn’t have to which frustrated the hell out of me) up to and including competing for Staff College. Before they become eligible for 03 they must have completed an Intro to Joint Warfare course (How to conduct joint planning)as well as a heap of speciality courses. Before they hit 04 they need to have done Joints Ops Planning, Info Ops Planning either CIMIC or Psyops Plans and some other speciality stuff. By the time their at 05 they’re looking at campaign planning and usually have an appropriate Masters in Org Comms or similar tucked away.
    Planning has now become much more important than reacting. We can use civvies to deal with media enquiries in most cases. The uniforms are out the back ensuring the synch and coord of activities to achieve intended effects.
    By Default (From my opinion if is by design because that’s where I want to go) some of our PAOs have become the lead IO Planners in the Army and across Defence.
    From my Coalition experiences I know there are some PAOs that want to plan … the issue is they get caught up in the day to day fight have dealing with media noise. In reality (and what we try to do) is make dealing with the media noise a command responsibility allowing the PAO to support the force and the commander with coordinated activities. The real issue is that there are 12-14 of us in the whole Army (and a similar number of Reservists)

  6. All good points. I was recently asked to brief a group of non-influence folks heading to Afghanistan, at the NATO School; the topic was supposed to be “PSYOPS in ISAF.” I was asked to brief on assets, line-and-block charts, the means available, sample products, etc. Instead I chose to ignore that, and instead spent my allotted time trying to (a) convince everyone in the audience that they were all PSYOPers (by their actions, policies etc) and (b) how they could best fulfill this unexpected role. I fully agree that limiting ourselves to “inside the box” thinking that only trained PSYOPers should do PSYOP is vastly underusing our potential as an organization. The challenge, however, then becomes getting the “informational objectives” (to avoid the dreaded ‘influence’ word) out to everyone, and – whether they’re lawyers, logisticians or leaders – getting them to understand that they have a part to play in this fight. Thanks for your post.

  7. JAS, from my discussions, your training is substantially different than ours. To Matt Morgan’s point that billets are setup properly for the right access, he’s closer but from many conversations that track nearly identically, it is a combination of the Command not demanding enough of the PAO and the PAO self-limiting participation to avoid ‘tainting’ or other reason.

  8. More often than not, the “PAO self-limiting participation to avoid ‘tainting'” is a convenient excuse. While there are certainly great PAOs out there who get it… all too often I find key billets occupied by lazy planners or, worse, self-important lords protecting their sad little fiefdoms.

  9. Matt X 2. I saw the self-limiting piece go to the extreme in 04 at MNF-I when they formed MNF-I Stratcom. It was amazing to watch attempts to destroy a successful organisation from those who apparently knew better. Even the famous JCS Memo was inspired from the the PAO front who was fighting against the whole process. It was only through the perseverance of the BG at the time that it was held together. Unfortunately when he left the physical separation was instantaneous.Here’s me thinking that with a bit of time to reflect someone would’ve recognised how successful it all was. Apparently not.

  10. “If PSYOP forces worked alongside and spent more of their time helping maneuver units”
    They do, that all they do!

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