UK Strategic Communication Doctrine

May 20, 2011

In one of my earlier posts on strategic communication I pointed out the growing importance of the idea in the UK now via Daniel Bennett’s Blog at The Frontline Club a link to Joint Doctrine Note 1/11 Strategic Communication: The Defence Contribution issued in March this year.

While admitting that there is as yet no consensus on what strategic communications is it announces that the UK doctrine community is working on a series of publications on information, media and psychological operations.

So what does Strategic Communication cover from a UK defence point of view?

• Public messaging designed to reassure and build trust in the institutions of Defence….

• Activities designed to engage UK individuals, communities and businesses to inform, alert and drive behaviours that build resilience…

• Activities designed to change attitudes and influence the behaviours of individuals and groups…

• Activities that reduce the likelihood of actions against UK interests by building international influence (soft power)…

• Communication in support of diplomatic efforts designed to influence friendly or hostile states…

It’s difficult not to read this document  in the light of recent discussion about the difficulty that they UK has with formulating strategy –  for instance see this earlier post and this story from The Spectator and this report from the Public Administration Select Committee  – and this directly relates to some of the comments in the report

HMG did not appear to have produced a fully integrated interagency strategy for southern Iraq until Jan 09.The absence of a coherent UK coalition and strategic narrative and the increasing unpopularity of the war created a very challenging environment for media operations. This became even more difficult when UK and US strategy diverged after the US decision to surge in Jan 07.

This neglect is magnified by today’s information and media environments. Everything we say and do is exposed to instantaneous global scrutiny, not just by conventional media with its own biases and agendas, but also by individuals able (and inclined to) transmit information and news via the World Wide Web; what is said in Helmand, is heard in Huddersfield and vice versa.

To put it crudely if you don’t have a coherent strategy you are going to have a largely insurmountable problem with you communication.  The move that the note makes is to  blur the distinction between strategy and communication.

Strategic communication is integral to strategy, both informing and supporting policy. Good strategy is usually forged from a single big idea, or a coherent collection of smaller ideas, with a clear underpinning rationale and unifying purpose. To be effective, the strategy must be instantly communicable if it is to gain traction at home and abroad. The logic of the strategy and its appeal should be compelling and easily understood. It must seek to gain and maintain the initiative and be set firmly in the context of the political purpose. It should bind the key players and the instruments of power, and in its totality should be simple, or at least capable of explanation in simple terms. Strategic communication is the means by which leaders and commanders set out and communicate the strategy. Again, this requires more than words; it requires demonstrable deeds

This sounds like strategic communication is being able to brief the strategy  clearly but the term is also used more broadly.  The blurring between strategy and communication recurs in the treatment of narrative

The narrative can also help provide a strategic focus to guide actions and a framework for decision-making. This assists individuals or teams to discard actions or proposed courses of action that do not conform to the narrative and, by extension, strategy

Part of what’s going on in the document is the acceptance of a rhetoric of an undifferentiated seamless media space and this tends to work against proper strategic prioritization.  Thinking in terms of audiences is only useful if you distinguish the important audiences -publics or stakeholders might be a better terminology to indicate groups who are in a position to actually have an impact.

What would I take away from this?

I think that there is a need to draw a clearer distinction between the situations where strategic communication is employed.  Using the same concept for communications about  the reputation of the MoD in the UK, building resilience at home and influencing groups that are directly relevant to an ongoing combat operation is a guaranteed way to create confusion.  At an abstract communication level this may look the same but in practice there are different requirements and constraints.  As I’ve argued before one way of managing this would be a national level communication (or brand) strategy that  balances all national communication priorities including things like trade and tourism as well as national security requirements.  This provides the context into which strategies relating to particular issues or operations need to fit.  The national brand strategy would remain constant over time.  This manages the problem of particular issues crowding out other priorities.

At a more specific defence/military level an important requirement is to recognize the potential tensions between strategy, communication and narrative.   Strategy has to be formulated and executed in an environment with an increased level of mediation but this doesn’t change the fundamentals of proper strategic analysis.  Strategy is about making choices explicit and this applies to communications just as much as anything else.   Yes – all actions can have  communication impacts and communication is an influence tool but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.


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