The Riddle of Strategic Communication

    Over the last few weeks it’s gradually percolating through my brain that in the defence community ‘strategic communication’ is understood in a broader way than the ‘everyday’ use of the term and that I really need to get to the bottom of what’s going on.   In my mind when non-defence people talk about  ‘strategic communication’ they mean  a deliberate communication activity that aims to influence or persuade its audience. 

    So far so good.  In the defence community SC has additional connotations.   It represents the way that the whole set of government actions and messages can affect audiences. For instance from the US DoD 1055 report on Strategic Communication from earlier this year (via Moutainrunner) we get .

    “In this report, we describe “strategic communication” as the synchronization of our words and deeds as well as deliberate efforts to communicate and engage with intended audiences.”

    If strategic communication is understood in these terms it then implies that any activity is potentially communication and that strategic communication requires coordination of all messaging  and activity.

    SC has become a central defence community concern in the last few years particularly in relation to operations in Afghanistan.  Dennis Murphy(2008)  quotes a participant at a 2007 seminar that the SC  ‘plane is being built as we are flying it’. Essentially SC is being employed at the same time that the idea is being defined.   Last year the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs (Mullen 2009) criticised the term.  In his view the  effort to organize for strategic communication with coordination mechanisms was getting in the way of the central insight that  that what you did was also communication.  In Afghanistan the important thing was to focus on the actions rather than getting the communications organization right.  Mullen underlines this point by pointing to the impact of Taliban deeds rather than their communication strategy.   This is important given the fragmentation of the military, security, development, relief, governance efforts in Afghanistan.  Strategic plans to coordinate them have a somewhat hollow ring (eg).    Mullen’s views make sense but I get the impression that the confusion between the ‘broad’ (SC is everything we do)  and ‘narrow’ (SC involves disseminating messages or information)  versions of strategic communication is not unusual.

    It seems to me that this broad idea of SC is being asked to do too much work.  One one hand it is recognizing the importance of multiple audiences and the impact of communications technologies on conflict but it is drastically underdeveloped as theory of strategy.  At the moment a key concept from the narrow version of SC, audiences, has been transposed to the broad concept.  Within communications studies the audience is regarded as pretty complex (and controversial) issue.  Treating complex groups of people, some of whom want to kill you, as audiences doesn’t strike me as the best way to understand what you are trying to do.

    What would help is a communications theory of strategy – that is one that treats conflict as a communications process.

    Off the top of my head two earlier versions of this would be

  1. Thomas Schelling’s (1960, 1966)work on strategy is explicitly organized around the idea of conflict as a communication.  The problem is that it operates at such a high level of abstraction that it is difficult to put into practice (also coercive diplomacy didn’t work so well in Vietnam).
  2. In Social Order and the General Theory of Strategy, Alexander Atkinson argued that  the difference between Mao and western concepts of strategy was that people’s war theory achieved its ends by attacking the opponent’s social order hence undermining the ability to field and maintain the armed forces.  Following this line of thought one way to look at the broad concept of strategic communication is as the effort to attack an opponent’s ability to mobilize resources while maintaining one’s own capability.
  3. Atkinson, A. (1981) Social order and the general theory of strategy. London ;Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

    Mullen, M.G. (2009) ‘Strategic Communication: Getting Back to Basics’, Joint Forces Quarterly, 55: 2-4.

    Murphy, D.M. (2008) ‘The Trouble with Strategic Communication(s)’, IO Sphere, 24-6.  Winter,

    Schelling, T.C. (1960) The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Schelling, T. (1966) Arms and influence. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.


The Problem of Definitions

I’ve been doing a lot of teaching recently – hence the absence of postings – and this has been confronting me with the issue of definitions ie : public diplomacy, strategic communications, soft power, information operations.  Students have to wrestle with different understandings of these terms.  From a pedagogical point of view this is good but thinking about this leads me to a broader conclusion.

A  problem for scholarship in the PD studies area is the willingness to let the field be defined by organizational definitions of what it is we are studying.  Government organizations develop definitions of things that reflect amongst other things: current policy priorities, turf wars, aspirations, defence of budgets and the latest intellectual fashions not academic rigour or clarity.  These definitions are essentially political: can all the different interests involved actually live with the compromises involved?  The result is definitions that lack intellectual coherence and yoke together different ideas.   Organizational practices  are often seriously at odds with the definitions.  From an academic point of view an organization’s definition of public diplomacy (or anything else) has to be taken as ‘this is the way that organization x defines concept y at a particular moment in time’ rather than a definitive statement of what the concept really is.  The issue for the scholar is then to explain why organization x has that definition and the implications of that definition.

From a scholarly point of view public diplomacy and related terms have to be seen as umbrella concepts that cover a range of activities that differ across time and across countries.   If we are to develop a broader understanding of what PD institutions do, what works and why it works we can’t allow what we study to be defined by definitional trade offs arrived at in interagency working groups.

Public Diplomacy and Nation-Branding

The relationship between public diplomacy and nation branding is not always clear.  I get the impression that a lot of PD practitioners and academics like to draw a clear division even though there are many overlaps between the activities.  For instance a general desire to improve the perception of your country is, on the surface at least, little different from a branding effort.

I’ve just finished reading Keith Dinnie’s book on nation-branding  and this leaves me with a few thoughts

Firstly, one of the aspects of the NB literature is the distinction between nation-brand and nation-branding.  The former is the image of your country that exists and latter is the effort to influence it.  This reflects the realization that a lot more than your deliberate communication efforts shape how you are seen.  Because a lot of PD writing tends to focus on what countries do to influence how they look it often seems to forget that that the image is not something that public diplomats (or governments as a whole)   control.

Secondly, nation-branding practice and studies has a much stronger handle on the need to change behaviour (reality) in order to change image.  If you promise a fantastic tourist experience you need to ensure that tourists actually have one.  That may mean actually changing what happens on the ground ie training and incentivizing people who come into contact with tourists to look after them.   Ironically the argument that we need to change to make foreigners like us better is one that people accept in a business context but don’t like in a political context.

Thirdly, nation-branding practice emphasises the need to build internal consensus around the branding activity including across government departments, different levels of government, business, civil society etc. Studying how this is done and with what effect is an area that would benefit PD

Fourthly, there is a lot of nation-branding activity going on in all kinds of countries all of which provides a lot of additional evidence for the PD research agenda including insights about how national images are formed,  what kind of organization works, how sub-brands can coordinated with each other. As PD research develops it has to expand the evidence base beyond the usual range of countries.

Dinnie, K. (2008) Nation branding : concepts, issues, practice. 1st ed. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Evidence Session: Public Diplomacy and the Olympics

The Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee is holding an ‘evidence session’  (what in the US would be termed a ‘hearing’)  today on the Public Diplomacy aspects of the 2012 London Olympics.  The Committee will take evidence from Simon Anholt (the nation branding/competitive identity guru) Dr Patrick Spaven (former head of evaluation at the British Council) and the minister responsible for Public Diplomacy and the Olympics Jeremy Browne.  The session starts at 1430 (or if you are in the US 0930 Eastern) it will be streamed live here.

Foreign Office Updates

The UK government is having a bit of a data dump today.  We now have business plans for government departments plus information on who ministers have been meeting with, any gifts they’ve received and details of foreign travel.  Here are links to the FCO plan, latest organization chart and the meeting and travel lists.

The business plan has a whiff of government by powerpoint in that it’s long on bullet points and short on reasoning, there’s a little more detail in this version but not much.  There’s also lots of references to institutional changes and relatively few to international strategies.

The top line ‘structural reform priorities’

1. Protect and promote the UK’s national interest
2. Contribute to the success of Britain’s effort in Afghanistan
3. Reform the machinery of government in foreign policy
4. Pursue an active and activist British policy in Europe
5. Use ‘soft power’ to promote British values, advance development and prevent conflict

Readers of this blog will latch on to number 5 although I have to say that I’d be a lot more impressed if we had a definition of what they mean by ‘soft power’.

The British Council and Public-Private Partnerships

There seems to be some interest in the role of public-private partnerships in PD at the moment so it’s worth pointing to some issues that have come out of recent experience with the British Council.


A little background is necessary. The British Council is an odd organization in that it simultaneously operates as part of the state (technically a non-departmental public body)  as a public corporation and as a charity.   Funding comes from a grant from the Foreign Office, from income generated by providing services to the public (mostly English language teaching and conducting examinations on behalf of other organizations) and from project funding from government departments, and other private a public bodies.  Although the BC is usually thought of a ‘cultural diplomacy’  organization it actually describes itself as being in the business of ‘cultural relations’ – which seems to mean whatever it wants it to mean.  In the UK lexicon public diplomacy is something that the FCO does


The outcome of the UK reviews of PD in the middle of the decade was a requirement for the BC to take on a more strategic focus which meant refocusing resources geographically towards the Middle East and Pakistan and towards emerging economies.  Over the last few years the priority programme areas have been ‘intercultural relations’ -trust building and conflict reduction, ‘ creative and knowledge economy ‘  and ‘climate change’.


The BC experience has pointed to two problems.  Firstly, the hybrid nature of the organization where it is both promoting British education and providing advisory services and language teaching for a fee creates a conflict of interest with commercial organizations who provide similar services.    Indeed it can be argued that the fact that the organization has substantial quasi commercial businesses will tend to distort priorities.  When you first look at the structure of the BC you immediately wonder why it appears to have so many offices in some countries (eg Spain) before you realize that this is due to the fact that it runs an extensive network of language schools.

The other problem is that the strategic refocusing has shown that companies who may be willing to sponsor traditional cultural diplomacy activities such as the visit of a British orchestra to a major capital are much less willing to sponsor conflict reduction activities in less prestigious environments. A National Audit Office report in 2008 pointed to the fact that some BC offices had failed to raise any sponsorship at all.  The situation in 2008 may reflect a position mid reorganization and may have been addressed.  But it does suggest a difficulty if public-private partnerships become a performance target – organizations will be pulled into activities that generate partnership and sponsorships even at the cost of their strategic focus.