Strategic Ambiguity, Communication, and Public Diplomacy in an Uncertain World: Principles and Practices

by Bud Goodall, Angela Trethewey, & Kelly McDonald

There is widespread recognition that the U. S. public
diplomacy efforts worldwide have failed. In response to
this image crisis, the Pentagon, State Department, and other
agencies of the federal government are currently seeking
new models for message strategy, coordination, and
alignment.

There are two major reasons for failures of communication
in public diplomacy: (1) reliance on an outdated one-way
model of influence, and (2) an inability to prepare for, or
respond to the jihadi media and message strategy that has
thus far dominated local cultural interpretations of U.S.
diplomatic objectives.

These failures can be addressed if the U.S. recognizes the
need for a new way of thinking about ambiguity as strategy
in strategic communication initiatives. Strategic ambiguity
recognizes that a powerful vision for change among diverse
constituents requires an ability to empower local
interpretations of its meaning in order to build relationships
to that vision without insisting on a fixed meaning for it or
alienating potential allies because of it. Ambiguous but
mindful communication practices are required in uncertain
times, particularly when dealing with audiences we neither
fully understand nor trust.

Five principles to guide strategic communication policy
are: (1) practice strategic engagement, not global
salesmanship; (2) do not repeat the same message in the
same channels with the same spokesperson and expect new
or different results; (3) do not seek to control a message’s
meaning in cultures we do not fully understand; (4)
understand that message clarity and perception of meaning
is a function of relationships, not strictly a function of word
usage; and (5) seek “unified diversity” based on global
cooperation instead of “focused wrongness” based on sheer
dominance and power.

Comops Publication PDF View Full White Paper (PDF)