Plan B from Team USA Falls Short

by Steven R. Corman

Just over two weeks ago, a new report from the State Department entitled “U.S. National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication” surfaced. The plan includes prescriptions for messages, methods, and organizational changes to improve the performance of the United States in its “War of Ideas” with violent extremist groups, especially those in the Muslim world. It is said to be the first time such a strategy has been documented.

Reaction to the plan so far has been largely negative .While Carolyn Walters called the plan a “step forward,” J. Michael Waller, who broke the story about the new strategy, said

This professor has given the strategy a quick read, and would grade it a gentleman’s “C” (In graduate school, anything below a B- is failure, so the strategy isn’t really ready for prime time. I’m trying to be charitable.)

Another blogger said of the plan: “It might be better than nothing, but not much,” and John Brown concluded “it would be an illusion to think this document is going to reverse public opinion.”

In my view the plan contains many worthwhile elements, but it is also fraught with contradictions, remains too focused on the traditional tools of public relations, and views the strategic communication environment as less complex than it really is.

Principles

One important principle in evaluating the strategy is that of credibility. Any effort to deliver persuasive messages depends on the credibility of the source. The key dimensions of credibility are trustworthiness, competence, and goodwill. These are perceptions that must be cultivated, and it is widely recognized that in recent years the United States has not done a very good job tending the crop.

Other important principles flow from our pragmatic complexity perspective. It holds that U.S. strategic communication is based on an outdated message influence model that emphasizes tight control of messages and their repetition through mass media channels. This old model views success as the default outcome: Well-designed messages will tend to get through and have their effect unless something like noise or distortion interferes.

In contrast, the pragmatic complexity perspective views strategic communication as an activity of a complex system, which is not subject to any one communicator’s control. Meaning emerges in a complicated dialog with audiences, and this means messages will probably not have their envisioned effects. In such an environment control and repetition must be replaced with strategic experimentation.

Analysis

In some ways the new U.S. strategy is responsive to credibility-related concerns. In a report last year we recommended that the U.S. government (1) recognize, accept, and adjust for low credibility in the short term, (2) involve sympathetic Muslims, especially those in the United States, in an effort to find more persuasive sources and messages, (3) concentrate on degrading the credibility of opponents, and (4) when directly claiming ownership of a message, use lower level officers or trusted third-parties to convey it. To its credit, the new strategy does include specific plans for reaching out to sympathetic Muslim communities, sending U.S. Muslims abroad, and helping key audiences envision the kind of backward society extremists would create for their would-be followers.

Unfortunately, the plan contains no explicit recognition of the compromised credibility of the U.S. government in the Muslim world. It aims to “broaden the reach of strategic communication by including all USG officials, high-profile Americans, the business sector and the education sector,” but focuses most of its language on “high level” government officials like ambassadors. This indicates that the U.S. government has not yet faced up to the reality of its impaired status as a source, and intends for its most visible representatives to own the messages. This does not bode well for success.

The report also draws heavily on ideas from the old message influence model of communication. This is especially evident in its reliance on traditional mass media channels. It calls for “proactive media booking” in order for “senior USG officials abroad to project American viewpoints.” Incredibly, the section entitled “modernizing communications” focuses diligently on un-modern media appearances, while stating as an afterthought that “all agencies and embassies must also increase use of new technologies.”

It does not say so outright, but the report implicitly assumes that the planned communication is going to work. Yet contradictions evident in some of the selected messages make this seem unlikely right out of the gate. For instance the report emphasizes the practice of a “diplomacy of deeds” that seeks to “underscore our commitment to freedom, human rights and the dignity and equality of every human being.” Yet as former State Department official Price Floyd points out,

I don’t know how you come out and talk about all the stuff you do, for human rights, to support democracy. . . . When people hear that, they stop and say, “What about Abu Ghraib? What about Guantanamo?”

The promotion of democracy is a pillar of the strategy, yet messages about democratic ideals will circulate in an environment in which competitors like Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi will seize on them to preach that “democracy is a religion of heresy.”

This is perhaps the most serious shortcoming of the strategy: It assumes that transmitting messages is enough, and that if we deliver them often enough and skillfully enough, they will stick. This posture is dangerous because it prevents us from believing that the messages could fail and/or be perversely interpreted. What will we do when that happens? The strategy is silent on that question. There must be more emphasis on contingency planning and experimental variation of messages to find the ones that work.

To be fair, the plan contains many good ideas, especially those dealing with engaging strategic audiences like women, children, and non-extremists in the Muslim world. Many of its messages, like “people of all faiths do not want to live in the type of society the violent extremists seek,” are excellent places to start. But to be effective as an overall strategy, the plan needs to better recognize and adjust for the limitations imposed by our degraded credibility and be more realistic about the complicated environment in which we communicate.