Effective Influence & Strategic Communication: Some Conjectured First Principles

This is a guest post by Dr. Lee Rowland. Guest posts are the work of and reflect the opinion of the respective authors. The are shared here to further the discussion around strategic communication and public diplomacy.

We are making progress. Fresh back from the IO Institute’s Influence and Propaganda Conference, I am excited by the future of our discipline and the quality work that is being done. The event, hosted in Verona NY by the Association of Old Crows in partnership with the MountainRunner Institute, brought together military practitioners, commanders, academics, media, consultants and others, for a range of talks and discussions relating to propaganda, strategic communication, public diplomacy, information operations (IO) and influence. There was considerable agreement about where we are and should be headed. Most notably, the need to measure the effects of communication initiatives and their influence on behaviour was widely spoken about; as too the need for consistency across all words and deeds in line with an expansive, dialogic model of communication. 

Confusion still reigns though. Especially, how do we integrate the many existing theories, ideas, research findings and field-reports into a coherent, widely accepted and scientifically validated methodology for conducting effective communication and behavioural change programmes? Influence could potentially serve its purpose in the 21st Century, as there will be no shortage of global problems to address! Yet, without compatible integration, without a measurable scientific approach, and without a systematic framework, conducting campaigns and interventions with a robust informational core will suffer from poor validation and verification: in short, the effects of our efforts will be unquantifiable.

In response to this damning possibility, I propose 10 principles for effective influence and strategic communication. I offer them as a set of fundamentals by which influence should be conducted, evaluated and constrained; however, they are open to refinement and criticism. Whilst not immutable, they could help to move forward, to help cohere what we do. The principles are derived from a combination of science, experience and real-world campaigns – thus distinguishing the usable from the merely elegant – and are aimed at establishing a foundation to assist commanders in theatre, and those at home working in government.

TAA Process

The following four principles pertain to the process of conducting Target Audience Analysis (TAA) and specify the overarching approach that should be taken:

Target Audience Analysis (TAA) is NOT the same as Cultural Understanding

For any influence attempt to succeed, an understanding of local customs, values and beliefs, rituals, practices, historic context, arts, societal structure and other cultural idiosyncracies is essential. But cultural understanding is only the very beginning of TAA. No degree of understanding of Afghan culture will provide the key insights needed to inform a practical strategy to get honest young Afghan men to join the Afghan National Police. To do that, we need robust data-driven analysis of the motivations and group dynamics involved, as well as expertise in the behavioural sciences.

Apply Diagnostic Science

The diagnosticity of evidence is the key to conducting proper TAA. It is not about quantities of Information, but about data that proves to be insightful according to criteria about Influence. Consider a doctor. He would be a poor practitioner if in response to your symptoms of a fever, a sore throat and a rash he took your temperature – hundreds of illnesses have associated high temperatures. On the other hand, inspecting the rash by pressing a glass to it and seeing if it disappears is a sure fire way to diagnose Meningitis (if it doesn’t disappear, you’ve probably got it). Correct diagnosis for influence relies on knowledge of what to look for and what constitutes good quality diagnostic evidence. Without it, we are simply gathering information, and at risk of being smothered under a titanic weight of (largely useless) research data.

Adopt the audience’s perspective

We need to get real. Kids do not stop throwing stones at soldiers in Iraq because we print colourful, targeted leaflets that foist our message (‘Please don’t throw stones’) onto the audience – no matter how ‘resonant’. There is too much hot air spoken about communication being audience-focused, when instead it should be audience-centric. This requires a Copernican shift of perspective that will no doubt encounter deep resitance from the hardcore, old school church. But it will be a cold day in hell before people do what we want them to do just because we want them to do it. Eisenhower was right when he stated that ‘motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it’. Change the word ‘motivation’ to ‘influence’, and ‘art’ to ‘science’, and we’re in business. An audience-centric understanding of what children in Iraq like and want (to relieve boredom and have fun), is the key to designing a successful influence campaign: the distribution of footballs.

Ensure the Quality of Quantity

Given all this talk about science, it may come as a surprise to hear that quantititaive research is NOT the way forward. There appears to be an obsession with metrics that is unwarranted. The best research that I have been involved in has had a disproportionally large qualitative component. In fact, if we scrapped all the polling and surveys that are being done in Afghanistan right now, we would lose almost nothing. The recent Asia Foundation poll that showed 84% think the ANP is honset and fair is wildly off target. Qualitative data collected in September showed that disillusionment, low confidence, and fear of the ANP is rife in Kandahar. We then used this qualitative foundation to test a model using quantitaive data about how this situation perpetuates, and to investigate possible solutions. The mixed-methods approach, of exploring deep and wide through extensive qualitative research, and then refinment and formal hypothesis testing through quantitative research, provides our only hope of getting this right.

TAA Foci

The following three principles pertain to the foci of the TAA process and specify what the research should investigate:

Set Behavioural Objectives

The human world is the totality of our behaviour. All problems that we have faced and will ever face are behavioural. You want people to hold favourable attitudes towards you because it means they are more likely to act favourably towards you (e.g. they will pick you for the netball team and not the other guy). We provide information to people, say, a phone number, so that they may use it to call us. And so on. I have yet to think of a single instance where communication is not intended to have some effect – however tacit – on present or future behaviour. Thus, any strategic communication should be designed based on clear behavioural objectives. In other words, what are the effects, desired or undesired, of this communication, or attitudinal shift, or environmental alteration? Oh, and by the way, unless you have the self-discipline of Marcus Aurelius, attitudes are not very predictive of behaviour, so let’s not waste too much time on them. In fact, often a behavioural change causes the corresponding change in attitude. In Britain for example, attitudes towards wearing seat belts became positive only after wearing seat belts became the law.

Social Forces precede Resonant Messages

What is the first thing that people do when they hear a fire alarm? They look out into the corridor and see what every one else is doing. The message is loud and clear – it could not be more resonant. It has our best interests at heart; it aims to save our lives. Yet still we are most concerned with what everyone else is doing. No one wants to be the goon standing out in the parking lot alone. When it comes to doing influence it is imperative that we understand the importance of group norms, the social and behavioural dynamics, and the pressures of minds on minds that shape the totality of our behavioural interactions. Our reality is determined in large part by what we think others are thinking, and why we think they think it. When push comes to shove, it is not facts, information, attitudes or resonant messages that change people: people change people.

Go for the Group

And thus, in line with the preceding principle, we are not so much interested in the thoughts and opinions of individuals, but in those of the group. This is tricky. It means that, rather than researching aggregates of individuals, which often yields unrealistic scores (no one has ever had 2.4 children), research must aim at discovering group-level traits that are endorsed and shared by its members with respect to the group. By that I mean, it matters not whether the majority of individuals in an audience are motivated by large wads of cash, but rather whether they would be motivated by large wads of cash if everyone in their group knew about it – I am reminded here of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl.

Measure of Effectiveness (MOE)

These final three principles are concerned with evaluation of the TAA process and the resulting influence campaign. They are dealt with particularly briefly because to go in beyond this would necessitatte levels of technicality beyond the scope of this article.

MOE is not a nice idea…

..it is imperative. Without it we are sticking a wet finger in the wind. Science is useful because it verifies things; it goes beyond intuition and experience (useful though they are). The complexity of the human behavioural and communications environment (especially in theatres of conflict) means that simplistic MOE (like the sort that marketing delivers) is poppycock. We need a fully integrated, robust and data-driven MOE that is interwoven with the whole process from start to finish. To do this we need to…

Adopt the Holsitic Systems Approach

Modelling and understanding complexity is the realm of advanced computational modelling, such as system dynamics, inter alia. Kilcullen advanced a systems approach to COIN, and the same is demanded in influence.

Systematic NOT Scattergun

In order to conduct influence operations according to the principles set out above, we need to have a scientifically sound systematic methodology that is used by allied troops and continuously monitored and updated by trained experts. If we are all doing our own thing, all having a go, all dabbling in our Victorian gentlemen’s laboratories, then effects, counter effects, third-order effects et cetera render our desired effects somewhat lawless, wild, and uncontainable. Attractive though that may sound, we need somehow to civilise the process.

We have the technology and the scientific understanding to do all that I have laid out. The question is, do we have the will? Are we going to get serious about this, or will influence remain the preserve of small groups of interested and intelligent enthusiasts, banging their heads against a brick wall?

Dr. Lee Rowland is a behavioural scientist with the Behavioural Dynamics Institute, and Strategic Communication Laboratories, London. He was formerely a lecturer in psychological research at Oxford University and an ex-Royal Marines Commando. Recently he has been involved in conducting TAA and MOE for influence campaigns in Afghanistan, as well as providing training for the British defence sector and writing articles on issues concerning influence and strategic communication. He lives in London, alone.

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