Theoretical Implications of Strategic Communication: Part 1

March 12, 2011

On Thursday I gave a talk to a UK military audience on the evolution of public diplomacy since 9/11.  One of the issues that I touched on was the rising prominence of strategic communication in US government thinking in recent years. Strategic communication has also become an important idea in the UK military.  From the reaction I got there’s quite a lot of scepticism about the idea and its associated practices.  I think part of the reaction parallels the comments that Admiral Mullen made in a recent article (link in this post) where he argued that elaborate organizational structures for strategic communication were actually getting in the way of what really needs to be done.

In my earlier post I made the point that  strategic communication really needs to be embedded in a theory of strategy that treats  strategy as communication.  I pointed to two types of strategic theory that could be seen as trying  to do this:  Maoist people’s war and Schelling’s strategy as bargaining.  What I didn’t say  is that the problem with Schelling’s version is that it is too abstract to be helpful in the real world. Maoist theory embeds influence activities in a concrete social context which is a much more helpful way to look at things.

The third approach that I had in mind but didn’t include in the post is the analogy with marketing and in this and a following post I wanted to develop this thought.

In recent decades there is a tendency to place communication closer to the centre of organizations.  In general communication has moved from a situation where an organization does something and then communicates it to a situation where what the organization does is defined as communication.   If you look at the development of marketing thought the logic of branding is that  it is the brand that provides the organizing logic for everything they do.   The material elements of the company eg manufacturing or logistics are there to support the brand experience.   This is quite different from the idea of developing a product and then figuring out how to sell it.

This hasn’t just happened to companies. In  her writings on political marketing Jennifer Lees-Marshment postulates the evolution of British political parties through three phases;  from a product orientation to a sales orientation and finally to a marketing orientation.  In the first phase parties come up with the policies that they like and don’t worry about what the public thinks – these are the right things to do. In the second phase the parties develop mechanisms to sell their policies through external communications.  In the third phase they develop policies based on what their chosen market wants.  The overall process is one by which the party moves from an internal orientation to an external one.   In looking at the development of political parties in the UK (and in other countries) this dynamic is clear. The communications dimensions of the party become more powerful while at the same time internal party democracy is suppressed in the name of message discipline and the leader and the communications team become more dominant.

The central element of this paradigm shift is moving from a situation where an organization does something and then communicates it to one where the basic activity of the organization is redefined in communication terms.  It is this redefinition of the core activity that is the crucial element of the paradigm shift.  In the public diplomacy area this means the rise of the fusion perspective where diplomacy and public diplomacy are conceptually and practically integrated rather than being treated as distinct activities.  Because diplomacy is defined as relationship management and public diplomacy is increasingly being reconceptualized as being about relationships this fusion is conceptually quite easy.  It’s all about networks and the key choice is which networks to focus on building and operating through.  In some circumstances it may be a very narrowly defined ministry to ministry network in others its can be a much bigger and more inclusive network.

However I think that the challenge is much greater in the area of strategic communication because  of the aspiration to integrate military activities and provide a national level and whole of government concept.  In the second part of this post I’m going to raise some theoretical problems to this whole enterprise.

Lees-Marshment, J. (2001) Political Marketing and British Political Parties: The Party’s Just Begun. New York: Manchester University Press.

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