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The Riddle of Strategic Communication

November 28, 2010
    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,  http://www.au.af.mil/info-ops/iosphere.htm#08winter

    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.

     

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