Richard LeBaron on the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications

February 11, 2013

If you didn’t see it when it came out in last year I’d highly recommend a few minutes reading this transcript of Richard LeBaron’s talk on his experience as founding director of the US  Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.  I think that there are some good lessons here.

Bureaucratic basics matter.  Among other things making sure that you have the backing of the White House and the NSC.  Get the organizational identifying code that will mean that you exist within the bureaucracy get a budget but while your doing this make sure that you are already providing some value.  He implies that previous efforts failed because of their failure to crack the bureaucratic issues.

LeBaron emphasizes the importance of forging connections with the intelligence community.  The Center made use of staff seconded from the IC and he notes that this  ‘integration of intelligence into the world of Public Diplomacy remains a work in progress, and we literally broke some new ground in the process.’  This is actually relearning an old lesson from the World Wars and the Cold War. Where you are dealing with target audiences where normal diplomacy doesn’t have access you need to make special provision to gather useful information – during the First World War the Foreign Office developed a Political Intelligence Department precisely to gather the information that its propagandists needed. Good information means good targeting and the ability to intervene in ways that are relevant to those targets.

In terms of techniques he points to the incorporation of the Digital Outreach Team into the Center  and to the preparation of templates that could be used by diplomatic posts in responding to events.  For posts facing particular threats the Center assisted with communications frameworks and staffing. They built a network that could identify and contribute material that might be useful for the center. They provided grants to NGOs developing community resilience programmes.

In terms of audience and message his basic view is that the CSCC is providing a very specialized service within the public diplomacy community.  Its job..

Hammering away at the weaknesses and contradictions of Al Qaeda is critical. Our intended audience is trying to decide whether to engage in violence. Our objective was to nudge them away from that path by sowing doubt about terrorist organizations. We were not focused on their level of admiration or distaste for the United States; we were not focused on whether they liked us or not; we were not focused on selling the American way of life. Others in the PD arena deal with those issues using a variety of other tools. Our reason for being was to help reduce the pool of recruits to violence by influencing this small group and the immediate environment around them. I did not see us as waging a war of ideas, but rather engaging in repeated focused interventions to denigrate the ideas and practices of the terrorists.

Contrary to the view that is sometimes expressed LeBaron does not see counterterrorism as an overarching theme within public diplomacy rather than a part of a broader communications portfolio.







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