Strategic Communication by Any Other Name

by Steven R. Corman

There has been some dispute in our little corner of the blogosphere lately about whether strategic communication is a good term for describing the government’s efforts to communicate strategically.  Matt Armstrong commented on this in the course of reviewing the latest plan from the DoD to get their strategic communication house in order.  Craig Hayden brought it up while commenting on the Brownback Bill, which would create a new coordinating authority for strategic communication.

I disagree with my blogging colleagues who find fault with the term.  For his part, Matt objects because

Unlike public diplomacy, strategic communication has no history. The term comes from the Defense Community’s need to fill a theoretical and practical void left by ineffective or missing communication by the Government, notably the State Department. “Strategic Communication” has appeared in several reports, including a recent Defense Sciences Board report, without a definition. What it is has varied by the speaker. Sometimes it described and diagramed [sic] as above public diplomacy. Other times, it is used as a synonym.

First, strategic communication does have a history.  There’s no doubt that the phrase has gotten very popular lately.  But I found a dissertation on the subject published in 1970 [1], and a textbook on it from 1985 [2].  The term has been used for decades to refer to civilian business functions like public relations, marketing, branding, and so on, which (for better or worse) figure into U.S. public diplomacy efforts.

There has also been writing about strategic communication in government for years, though not by that exact name.  A 1957 book by Dyer is titled Political Communication as an Instrument of State.  In 1964 social science luminaries Morton Deutsch, John C. Harsanyi, Harold H. Kelley, Anatol Rapoport, and Thomas Schelling edited a volume called Strategic Interaction and Conflict: Original Papers and Discussion.  And there are other examples from the 60s and 70s.

I have seen strategic communication pretty consistently defined (albeit sometimes implicitly) as comprising four functions: Public diplomacy, public affairs, information operations, and international broadcasting.  At least that’s what I teach to my students.  I am told that this functional definition originally came from an Army Colonel or General, but I’ve not been able to track that down (if anyone knows, please let me know).

Finally I don’t think public diplomacy is an inherently clearer term.  As Bruce Gregory points out, there is not a lot of agreement on exactly what it involves.  It might only be the stuff USIA used to do.  Or it might include international broadcasting too, though some folks like Kim Elliot feel strongly otherwise.  There is disagreement about whether, if it’s “diplomacy,” the defense department can do it.

Craig worries that “strategic communication” is a misguided label because it is:

a master term links what some call “public diplomacy” to the instrumental aspect of propaganda in the pejorative sense. …This institution created overtly proclaims itself in a way that carries the historical baggage of propaganda and manipulation (it may as well be called the Ministry of Information)  perceptions that already exist in the crucial target audiences for the Center’s activities. Why play into the foreign suspicion of U.S. advocacy that masquerades as impartial international broadcasting?  Symbols, names, and language matter.

But first, we mustn’t assume that the meaning of these terms are stable.  Propaganda is a good example.  As Sourcewatch points out, it was not always a pejorative term.  At one time, what we now call “public diplomacy” would have been called “white propaganda.”  Whatever term is adopted could come to have negative connotations if bad things are done in its name.  Craig’s “Ministry of Information” example is an illustration:  What’s bad about giving out information?

Second, while foreign audiences might react negatively to the term, they are not the only important audience.  The domestic audience surely expects the government to be strategic in its communication, in the sense of having some goal in mind that the communication is directed toward achieving.  Moreover, people doing the activity should probably think of it that way.  Framing provided by labels is important for both of these audiences too.

Though I agree that words and labels are important, actions are far more important.  If this new strategic communication entity does good from both domestic and international points of view, then it probably won’t matter very much what it’s called.  On the other hand, if we call it the Sweetness and Light Department and its main accomplishments are to deceive international audiences and further ruin the reputation of the the U.S., then the name won’t matter very much either.

[1] Logini, P. (1970).  Strategic communication: A model of communication, choice and behavior in conflict situations.  University of Pittsburgh.

[2] Conrad, C. (1985).  Strategic organizational communication.  New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Update 10-1

A reader attributes the military definition of strategic communication to Jeff Jones, former 4th PSYOP Group Commander, former NSC Director for Strategic Communication, writing in a 2005 edition of Joint Force Quarterly.  Jones’s formal definition is:

the synchronized coordination of statecraft, public affairs, public diplomacy, military information operations, and other activities, reinforced by political, economic, military, and other actions, to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives.

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