Getting a handle on Strategic Communication

I have been in many discussions over the past few weeks concerning DoD’s efforts at “Strategic Communication.” In one discussion I was asked, “just what is ‘strategic communication’ and why can’t DoD get a handle on it?”

A fair question and one I’ve heard often. I thought it time to put this down in print. “Strategic Communication” is the deliberate application of information and boils down to: Who do I need to know What, Why do I need them to know it, When do I need them to know it, Where are they, and How do I reach them. A relatively simple task that scales with the complexity of the goal you are planning to achieve. It is also a matter of situational awareness as a friend of mine pointed out, “As I reflected on our discussion, I thought about my old commander, Maj. Gen. John H. Admire, Commander of the First Marine Division, and his saying for good situational awareness. He told us to ask ourselves, ‘What do I know? Who needs to know? and Have I told them?'”

Strategic Communication is a process to enhance situational awareness of an organization’s movement toward a goal in which there are many stakeholders. The same process exists in other efforts such as the Military Decision Making Process. In commercial business administration and marketing it is known as backward planning. The process itself is well know but we haven’t related it to the process of communication. The process begins with the goal and works backward to plan how to achieve it. Which brings me to the second question, “Why can’t we get a handle on it?”

I believe it is because we have the wrong mental model for strategic communication. In some circles the model is depicted as an orchestra. In an orchestra everyone has their instrument and their piece of the music but they must play in tune and time with every other person. While this model has it’s truths, I believe it is inaccurate for communication. To communicate means to “share” or “to make common.” Communication is about action, moving something from one place to another. Communication is about doing things; human beings doing. This orchestra model leaves out the audience. They have either to like the music or not but are not considered part of the outcome.

Let’s review Jack’s Laws of Communication:

Jack’s 1st Law of Communication – In absence of a net force, information at rest will remain at rest.

Jack’s 2nd Law of Communication – Information experiencing a net force experiences Communication. Therefore, Communication is Information in action.

Jack’s 3rd Law of Communication – For every Communication (Information in action), there is an equal and opposite Communication (Information Reaction).

Communication is about “doing” things.

And now let’s review Jack’s Laws of Information:

Jack’s 1st Law of Information – Information is power, but only powerFUL when communicated.

Jack’s 2nd Law of Information – Information AS power is measured by the difference between communication “intent” and “effect.”

Jack’s 3rd Law of Information – Proficiency in wielding information as power is the difference between reacting and responding.

As I mentioned, Strategic Communication is the deliberate application of information.

I believe a better model is that of a movie. Every movie begins with “The End.” No producer will put a dime to any project until he, the director and the writer know what they want the audience to leave the theatre with. Then the project is put together line upon line, frame by frame, scene by scene in a logical sequence of the situational awareness of the characters that takes audience from one place to another; moved from one understanding to another. It is about storytelling and to tell a story you must have in mind the end from the beginning.

It is also important to understand that it is everyone’s responsibility to become situationally aware.

To paraphrase Maj. Gen. Admire, we too many times don’t ask ourselves, “What don’t I know? Who knows what I need to know? and How do I find them?”

Strategic Communication is about engaging and being engaged by all the stakeholders and helping them understand events as they occur in the accomplishment of the goal. For the US Government and especially the DoD the public is a primary stakeholder, an audience whose actions have a direct effect on the outcome.

Those charged with communicating with the public are the Public Affairs Officers. Public Affairs Officers too many times are not at the planning sessions, sometimes by omission sometimes by commission. This goes for businesses and their public relations people as well. They are left out of the planning and therefore unable to know the nuances of why what is happening is happening or what it actually means to the goal or objective. They can be very good at reporting on the events that are happening, but without an understanding of the original reasoning behind why an action is being taken they cannot explain it well in the proper context.

It is not for the Public Affairs Officers to create the perceptions or understanding they want, but to communicate the commander’s intent and explain events within that context. The role of the Public Affairs Officer is not to just be a trusted advisor to the commander or the flak jacket you put out in front of the press. The Public Affairs Officer is to be a trusted member of the team that works to build understanding between the commander, the command staff, the troops in the field and the public. Promoting and enhancing situational awareness is a command responsibility that falls to the Public Affairs Officer; but again, it is everyone’s responsibility to become situationally aware.

We must ask ourselves: What do I know? Who needs to know? Have I told them? What don’t I know? Who knows what I need to know? and How do I find them?

Charles J. “Jack” Holt III is the Senior Strategist for Emerging Media for the Dept. of Defense and adjunct lecturer at Georgetown University.

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 “Getting a handle on Strategic Communication

  1. Most recently, the Secretary of Defense signed a document out to Congress which laid out Strategic Communication for DoD. It is, in short, the process we use to coordinate our communications principally, though not exclusively, with other departments, agencies, and the USG generally.What you describe very aptly is the role of Public Affairs as it has evolved over the last decade. PA plays a very important role in Strategic Communication but it is only one of several players.
    When DoD comes together to ensure its communications are coordinated within the Strategic Communication process, those sitting around the table include planners, PA, Information Operations (including Military Information Support Operations/Psychological Operations), and advisors such as yourself.
    When people outside of one of these professions asks “what is Strategic Communication,” what they usually expect is a list of programs and activities and this, bluntly, is not the meaning of SC within DoD.
    I would encourage everyone to read the Secretary’s unclassified report to Congress on Strategic Communication submitted in January 2010. The report won’t please those looking for that ‘laundry list’ but it will make it clear what SC means to DoD.

  2. ErsatzG7 refers to the 1055 report, named after the section of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that required it. An overview and link to the report is available here.Also, the White House (NSC) 1055 report is available here (while a strategic was required but an org chart was delivered).

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