Archive for the ‘Communications’ Category

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First World War Propaganda: Thoughts and Lessons

January 8, 2017

In writing about the emergence of public diplomacies as part of the practice of statecraft I’ve recently run up against the First World War and the importance that was given to propaganda. My main concern has been with the way that First World War affected the development of public diplomacies after the conflict but in doing this work I’ve been forced to think about two other issues;  how was the term ‘propaganda’ used in the period used and how should we analyse the effects of ‘propaganda’ during the First World War?  This is important as not only is ‘propaganda’ part of 21st century political discourse but also of academic discourse.  I’ve commented before that I’m not a big fan of the idea as an analytical term.  So three sets of thoughts on the meaning, effects, and relevance of First World War propaganda.

The concept: In looking at the First World War one struck by 1) the frequency with which the term ‘propaganda’ is used and 2) compared with later periods, certainly by the 1940s, the lack of nuance.  Essentially ‘propaganda’ is ‘the internet’ of the era: something new is happening but the conceptual frameworks for thinking about it are not well developed.  This is consistent with a general pattern I see in the history of public diplomacies that practices are improvised first and rationalized afterwards. Obviously the people who are doing ‘it’ have some idea what they are doing but the differentiations of the 1940s – publicity, political warfare, propaganda, information; white/grey/black; source, message, channel receiver aren’t there so ‘propaganda’ gets thrown over everything.  This doesn’t immediately change after 1918   many people (Hitler, Ludendorff, Northcliffe) believe  it to have produced such big effects (collapse of Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany)  it is also approached as this huge thing that can has to be explained in sweeping concepts ie Lasswell’s ‘control of public opinion through the manipulation of symbols’.

Why was ‘propaganda’ given such importance?  It was a way of talking about the importance of public support (and lack of support) for the war.  Where support was lacking authorities were quick to attribute it to enemy propaganda.  The comparison with the Second World War is also helpful here.  First World War states had to improvise organizations to mobilize people and resources to fight the war, often relying on civil society organizations, ‘propaganda’ was used to cover this process.  This also means that there was a close relationship between propaganda and organization.  Propaganda was a tool to build organization but organization created the capability to mobilize the population.  As we move to the present there has been an increasing tendency to treat ‘propaganda’ as communication and to lose sight of this organizational dimensions.  In the later war, drawing on the experience of 1914-18, states construct bureaucracies to carry out these mobilizational tasks.  Further, states have much systematic programmes for monitoring morale and repressing dissent.  There is still lots of ‘propaganda’ but it is broken down into specific tasks and harnessed to state organizations so for instance that ‘publicity’ to encourage growing vegetables by the Ministry of Food is differentiated from political warfare carried out by the Political Warfare Executive.  In the First World War this organizational and conceptual differentiation it much more embryonic.

The Issue of Effect:  Recent historical writing (for instance Mark Cornwell’s The Undermining of Austria-Hungary) has made the point that in the post 1918 period there were lots of people on both sides who had an interest in emphasizing the role of ‘propaganda’ in causing the collapse of the Central Powers rather than really analysing what happened.  On one side were the Allied propagandists who could write about what they did (activity and outputs) and could see the collapse of Germany and Austria-Hungary (outcome).  On the other side were those who could see the outcome plus some of the outputs and were quick to connect the two.  Neither group were keen to think about the question of context (activity+implementation+context =outcome).  The impact of propaganda activity cannot be separated from the context in which it occurs.  Effects have multiple dimension.  Some people may be directly affected by an activity but if you cannot produce strategically significant effects leaders are not going to be proclaiming the value of the effort.  Leaving aside the case of the United States, First World War combatants had never waged conflicts with such a level of protracted mobilization and where all, to greater or lesser degrees had significant unresolved social tensions that were exacerbated by the war.  Any discussion of the effects of propaganda needs to locate the activity in the context.

Some pointers to current issues and questions for future research, that I’ve taken away from this work on the First World War.

  1. Influence activities work best on divided targets. For instance, in attacking the Central Powers the Allies could work with nationalist and socialist networks. Divisions allow the attackers to play on existing lines of cleavage but they also inhibit repression and control.  The authorities in Berlin and Vienna were playing a difficult balancing act and were not in a position to clamp down on their opponents,  these divisions also inhibited their own counter propaganda.
  2. This leads to a corollary to arguments about indexing (elite consensus limits the sphere of permissible dissent in the media) and CNN effect (lack of policy certainly leads to media influence on policy).   Elite consensus/policy certainty also enables repression of dissent further reinforcing elite + media consensus (and spiral of silence?).
  3. What’s the relative importance of counter-narrative versus repression or counter-organizational work in dealing with foreign influence operations?  During the 1920s the country that was most sensitive about propaganda was the UK, not least because the Comintern was constantly using agent networks to mobilize against imperial rule.  However, as far as I can see the British response was not counter-narrative but surveillance, arrests and deportations.   In discussions of foreign influence operations and how to counter them breaking up organizations where feasible is an important part of a response.
  4. This leads to a question about changing media environments.  The academic literature on propaganda tends to treat it as a media/communications phenomenon while political writings (eg Communists, Nazis, US/UK political warfare) always connect it to organization.  How does social media effect this communication/organization balance?  Can you get the effect of organization without the costs/risks of building one.

That’s question for another day.

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The CNN Effect circa 1910

July 14, 2016

Having dug pretty deeply in the literature on the impact of the media on policy making I recently discovered that I’d missed Oron Hale’s Publicity and Diplomacy.  Published in 1940 it examines the role of the press in creating the hostility between Britain and Germany in the quarter century before the First World War.

It’s valuable for two reasons

Firstly,  the research design is rather more sophisticated that a lot of the more recent writings on the topic as Hole recognizes that he needs to look at firstly, the effect of the press on policy makers, secondly, the effect of the policy makers on the press in both countries and thirdly, at the interaction across national boundaries.  Of course this is something that it’s much easier to do in a historical study where documents and memoirs are available that it is in a more recent period.  The mass circulation press (along with the expansion of the franchise) was still something of a new media at this point and policy makers gave it a great deal of attention because of their perception of its mediating role between public and policy makers, policy makers and public and across borders.  Policy makers studied the press to track public and party opinion. They were also aware that they could address audiences at home and abroad through the press but balancing the two was not easy. Press coverage could be partially managed by policy makers but was partially autonomous and this generated plenty of scope for misunderstanding.  The overall thrust of the analysis is that from the Boer War there was growing mutual antipathy between the press of the two countries.  As with other studies that look at media coverage over time (eg Bahador 2007) he sees a ratchet effect where repeated escalations in tension do not fully recede, at the core of these escalations was the naval arms race.  This is important because the reduction in tensions between the two governments from 1912 was not reflected in the press and he sees the sustained period of tensions as producing the alliance system and perspectives on Germany that led Britain to enter the war in 1914.  If this study was published today you’d probably see constructivist and structurationist themes at work.

Secondly, it also suggests that it’s very easy to overstate the differences between the diplomacy and media of today and those of a century ago.  Contrary to our image of ‘secret’ diplomacy Hale finds that there were few developments that did not find their way into the press.   Hale provides plenty of examples of journalists willfully placing the most negative interpretations on events.  The German representative at the Algeciras Conference in 1906 complained that he’d been the subject of  three fabricated interviews in one week.  During the Boer War a news agency operating from London did good business selling fake news calculated to appeal to the anti-British German press.

 

Hale, Oron J. 1940. Publicity and Diplomacy: With Special Reference to England and Germany, 1890-1914. New York: Appleton Century.

Bahador, Babak. 2007. The CNN Effect in Action: How the News Media Pushed the West Toward War in Kosovo. New York: Palgrave.

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Twenty Years of Digital Diplomacy: Part 2

October 23, 2015

In my previous post I noted that the way that we talk about ‘digital diplomacy’ is still the same despite 20 years of practical experience but why is this?

An obvious explanation that follows from the ‘tech narrative’ is that the world is changing fast and that MFAs are changing more slowly so they still have the same need for adaptation. There’s something to this but this is claim that needs to be more critically evaluated.  For instance MFA web sites have already become thorougly institutionalized so it’s nothing have happened.  I’m always suspicious of claims that organizations have to adapt to their environment without clear evidence about mechanisms.  For instance is it possible to show that MFAs that have been laggards in adopting digital diplomacy have performed worse that those that have been more enthusiastic adopters in any area other than adoption of digital media?

There’s also a political-cultural dimension in the interaction between the prevalent social narrative of technological transformation and the popular image of the diplomat as a reactionary. This image long predates Twitter – the French and Russian Revolutions proclaimed the death of diplomacy, revolutionary America and revolutionary Iran two centuries apart tried to transform it – but in hard times digital diplomacy becomes a way that MFAs can signal their relevance to sceptical politicians and publics. For instance the relationship between US Secretaries of State and Congress often (eg Rice and Clinton) seems to resolve into a ‘money for modernization’ deal. In this situation ‘digital diplomacy’ becomes a symbol of modernization and modernity.

How can we push the discussion of digital diplomacy forward?  I think the key requirement is move ‘digital’ out of the narrative of technology and reembed it in the reality of diplomacy and foreign policy. In working on the comparative history of public diplomacies  I’ve been very struck by the persistence of patterns, institutions and ideas in national diplomacies. Although in tracking developments across time you see national diplomatic systems dealing with similar issues the continuities are also very obvious.   These continuities come from international factors (relationships, geopolitical situations) and domestic ones (the national political economy, national self-conceptions, the broader mode of governance) the result is the persistence of national styles. From an analytical point of view this tells me that there cannot be a singular ‘digital diplomacy’. From a prescriptive point of view it suggests that instead of attempting to conform to some abstract model of what a digital diplomacy should be MFAs should focus on embracing digital in a way that works for them.

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Why Isn’t Germany More Unpopular? (Is Angela Merkel the Answer?)

January 7, 2015

I really will get on with writing about counter-propaganda soon but in the meantime Angela Merkel is visiting London today and this reminds of an issue that has been bugging me for a while: why isn’t Germany more unpopular in Europe?

Hang on you say ‘Germany is up there at the top of the Nation Brand Index what are you on about?’

You don’t need to dig very far into the business pages to encounter two arguments about the Eurozone. Firstly, the chief beneficiary of the Euro is Germany which has been able to boost its exports because the Euro is a weaker currency than the Deutschmark would be.   Secondly, this economic success has made Germany the financial bastion of the Eurozone with the result that it is in imposing its deflationary ordoliberal policies to the rest of the zone. Hence rather than pursuing counter-cyclical Keynesian policies the Eurozone countries are largely pursuing self-defeating policies (see for instance the last five years of Paul Krugman columns in the New York Times)

OK so we have one country imposing self-interested policies that damage the interests of other countries. Wouldn’t we expect those other countries to vigorously resist and given the consequences are unemployment for national leaderships to be pressed to take a hard anti-German line by popular movements and a hostile media? The result might be that an Angela Merkel visit would end up like Richard Nixon in Venezuela in 1958...But with the exception of Greece I don’t see any real animus against Germany or Merkel (for example).

How do we explain this? I assume that part of this is the acceptance among Eurozone Europeans that the benefits of the Euro outweigh the costs. But I also wonder about the extent to which it is Angela Merkel herself that produces the effect. Partly this is about her skills as a political leader but also a matter of style. She’s so benign that she deflects most of the ‘fourth reich’ references and can’t be placed by the media within the traditional frames of German power. Hence the colourlessness of Merkel contributes to the hegemony of Germany within Europe because of the difficulty of mobilizing hostility against someone who seems so personally inoffensive.

This leads to a wider question about the role of national leaders in shaping national images. We all know that the image of the US took a bounce when Barack Obama took over from George W. Bush. We also know that conflict is associated with demonization of enemy leaders but how about an opposite process? Are countries more or less tolerant of other countries where the leader is seen as benign or threatening independently of the ‘objective’ level of conflict between them. There’s a sizeable literature on personalization in domestic politics maybe it’s an issue that deserves more attention in international relations.

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Reviewing the FCO Communication Capability Review

January 30, 2014

Over the last couple of years British government departments have been subject to Communication Capability Reviews conducted by the Government Communication Network.  These involve a group composed of other government communicators plus outsiders wandering around the Ministry interviewing people and looking at your paperwork – if you’ve worked in the UK public sector or related organizations you will have doubtless experienced something similar.  Anyway I’ve just spotted the Review for the FCO conducted in June 2013.  It’s eight pages so if you want to get a sense of where communications at the FCO is it’s a useful snapshot.

The external reviewers are PR people from a hotel chain,  a corporate PR consultancy and the BBC and the result is what you would expect if you asked corporate PRs to look at an MFA.

They start off by commenting that the FCO is different from other government departments because among other reasons;  communications is a core business, the audience is primarily overseas and the communications capability is distributed across 270 missions.

The FCO communications review of 2011 basically tried to do more with less by reallocating resources away from the centre to directorates and as far as our reviewers are concerned this was bad because this means that the ‘FCO lacks strategic communications resource’.  Here’s an extract from the “areas of challenge”

Status of communications – Communications as a discipline is not widely understood within the FCO. It has not been invested in. While Press Department is widely respected – and used as the main route into the Engagement and Communications Directorate (ECD) – other parts of the communications function are significantly less visible. There is little understanding of the services offered by Engagement and Communications Directorate. There is a lack of clarity on the roles and responsibilities of the various staff who deliver communications activity (Engagement and Communications Directorate, embedded communicators, Senior Regional Communicators and communicators in post, for example). Recruitment is problematic.

Strategic planning – There is no strategic planning process or capability, no overarching communications strategy and no clear narrative targeted on overseas audiences. As a result, policy and communications are not fully integrated: communications is not an integral part of the business planning process. The majority of communications activity therefore is tactical and focused on short-term issues. Posts are unclear whether to amplify messages developed in London or tailor them, taking local issues and concerns into account.

Capacity – The reviewers do not believe that FCO communications resources are used as efficiently as they should be. In particular, the current structure provides insufficient ‘surge capacity’ to support priority policy areas, Foreign Secretary-led initiatives and in-year crises. The large number of locally-engaged staff with little knowledge of UK priorities exacerbates this. The current research resource is under marketed and underutilised. Some internal communications activity is duplicated by embedded staff. Overall, however, the reviewers do not believe that the FCO should increase the amount of resource dedicated to communication.

Capability – FCO staff are intelligent, articulate and committed. However, the current mix of diplomatic staff and communications specialists is sub optimal. Many important issues are dealt with by generalists with insufficient experience of communications and insufficient knowledge of where to go within the FCO for professional communications guidance and support. There is difficulty in ensuring the right level of skills development for diplomatic staff working in communications roles.

Delivery – The lack of strategic planning and lack of clarity over communications roles and responsibilities has led to inconsistent performance in areas including digital, campaign management and delivery, and evaluation.

So what do they want:

A clear vision for communications, an integrated communications plan, a centralized planning and delivery resource, a framework to clarify roles, etc.

There may be something to this but I have a distinct feeling that after starting off by acknowledging how the FCO is different the review then goes on to ignore the fact.  The more I study the history of public diplomacy the more you see that whole area is marked by a number of recurring tensions.  This report manages to hit on several of these tensions but rather than recognizing them simply asserts answers.   Five tensions stand out:

  1. The big question.  What does communication mean in an MFA?  To what extent should communication be a separate function at all? (Remember that in 1953 it was Eisenhower’s psychological warfare advisers like CD Jackson who opposed creating the USIA because everything we do has a psychological effect).  The extent to which comms should be a separate function really depends on your diplomatic concept.  Diplomacy and PD are becoming more linked.
  2. Global strategy vs local adaption?  Absence of global strategy is not necessarily a bad thing if it allows more effective local communications.  I’m up to my eyeballs in the early Cold War at the moment so for an example look at the very rapid disillusionment with Truman’s  Campaign of Truth what looked good in Washington didn’t work in the field.
  3. Centralization vs decentralization.  Same as above but where do you put the resource and control? There are arguments for both.
  4. Specialist communicators vs diplomats.  The FCO has generally leaned towards giving generalists communications experience (see Drogheda Report of 1953)
  5. Locally engaged staff versus home personnel.  Of course the former have local knowledge, language etc but less understanding of the national priorities.

I guess that if you get senior corporate PRs as reviewers they just recommend the things that they think give them status.  Diplomatic communication isn’t PR so next time the government communication networks wants to do one of these reviews maybe they should get at least one reviewer from another MFA.

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Russian Media in the Post Soviet Space

January 15, 2014

There’s a minor excitement today after the refusal of the Russian government to grant a visa to David Satter of RFE/RL.  I’ve no idea if there’s a connection but Satter authored a report published last week by the Center for International Media Assistance on The Last Gasp of Empire: Russia’s Attempts to Control the Media in the Former Soviet Republics

This looks at the impact of Russian media in most of the states on the periphery of Russia.  Satter argues that in most of these countries even including the Baltics Russian media continues to play an outsize role and is frequently used to exert pressure on recalcitrant leaders or to support cooperative ones.  More broadly the popularity of Russian media affects local perceptions of the world. In some countries Russian media seems more reliable than local media outlets that are dominated by authoritarian leaders.

Satter doesn’t think that this is a good thing but apart from a couple of paragraphs in the summary of the report he doesn’t have much in the way of policy suggestions.

Apart from the propensity of Russian operators to make life difficult for those that oppose them there are structural issues at work.  Many people in the post Soviet space speak Russian even if they’re not members of the Russian diaspora and in a situation where an adjacent big country and a small country share a language you would expect the big country’s media to attract a large share of attention because it’s likely to have better programming.  This is basic media economics.   Interestingly Satter points to cases where Western channels have cut deals that appear to give Russian channels a monopoly on their programming in the former Soviet space.  One response would be  Western controlled Russian language entertainment channels but I don’t see that any governments are going to put their hands in the their pockets for that the moment particularly when we can assume that Russia will do its best to keep these channels off terrestrial and cable systems.

 

 

 

 

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Digital Diplomacy: Forget the Hype and Just Get on With It

September 10, 2013

I’ve been meaning to write about digital diplomacy for a while.  Two weeks ago Ben Scott (formerly one of Hilary Clinton’s crew at State) and I , were in Tallinn to talk  to Estonian ambassadors and this forced me to think about the issue.  I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a sceptic about the whole thing but perhaps less so than I realized.

The argument for digital diplomacy typically advances in two parts.  1. The world is being revolutionized by digital technology.  2. Diplomats should use social media.  What I’m sceptical about is actually 1 but I’m totally on board with 2.

The problem with the revolution argument is that it really depends on the loss of perspective that I commented on here.  The reason that diplomats should use social media is exactly the same reason why I don’t think that there’s a revolution:  diplomacy has always been a matter of networks.  Diplomats are expected to build networks in order to find out what’s going on and create influence.  Ben made the valuable point that one of the great contributions of social media, particularly Twitter is as a tool for listening, by identifying important voices in country it offers a rapid way to get a broader understanding of what’s going on from there they can think about intervening in debates.  As a mode of gathering information and insight  It’s exactly the same thing, as  that staple of diplomatic routine, reading the papers

There is a bit of a digital diplomacy backlash going on at the moment (examples here and here) but the problem is not with the practice but with the overblown claims derived from the radical technology literature which tend to abstract the impact of digital media from any social, cultural or political context.

The point is not that social media changes nothing but it is better seen as part of the evolution of diplomatic practice. In a way the potential of Twitter is that it allows a diplomat to more rapidly explore the networks of their host society than it would be possible to do using other methods.  Jules Jusserand was the French Ambassador in Washington from 1902 to 1925 if you don’t have 23 years to build your networks maybe twitter is a useful accelerant to the process.