by Steven R. Corman
Hi there. Long time, no blog. That’s in part because I was attending a conference entitled Strategic Communication for Combating Terrorism sponsored by the NATO Center of Excellence for Defense Against Terrorism in Ankara, Turkey. The workshop featured 15 experts on strategic communication, including fellow blogger Matt Armstrong of MountainRunner.
Considering that we did not coordinate our subject matter in advance, there was a remarkable amount of convergence among the presentations. I summarize six main themes here for your reading enjoyment, as a way of documenting the current thinking on the main problems of strategic communication against terrorism.
The strongest theme had to do with engagement. Speakers stressed the importance of increased engagement with strategically important audiences and communication channels. The four aspects of this theme were:
- The need to view strategic communication as a two way process of communication. This contradicts the traditional view that communication is a one-way process of transmission and highlights the importance of strategic listening and dialog, and resonates with our white paper on 21st century strategic communication.
- The importance of personal contact between NATO personnel and target audiences and populations, so as to better understand their views, interpretations, and culture.
- The need for NATO communicators to improve familiarity and engagement with the New Media.
- The critical factor of engagement with policy formulation, treating policy as an aspect of strategic communication rather than the traditional system that treats strategic communication as a way to “sell” policy that is often unpopular with strategic audiences.
Many speakers addressed the radical changes in the media landscape over the last decade that have changed the role of the traditional media and created many new types of media. These changes represent an increase in the overall importance of the media and a growing need for engagement with the full spectrum of media channels. Adapting to the new landscape is critical to the success of NATO strategic communication efforts.
New media has been a hot topic in strategic communication for some time. Next week I will be speaking at a conference entitled Legitimising the Discourses of Radicalisation: Political Violence in the New Media Ecology sponsored by the University of Warwick International Security Initiative. I will endeavor to post a report on the discussion there.
Numerous speakers noted the revolutionary increase in the complexity of 21st Century strategic communication systems due to factors like globalization and the burgeoning media landscape already mentioned. These changes not only make the strategic communication system more complicated but provide opponents with the ability to adopt more complex and agile organizational forms.
In the past best strategic communication practices were concerned with control of messages. But new realities create a system with levels of uncertainty that make control impossible (another theme in the white paper linked above). Treating 21st century systems as simple and controllable when they are not leads to negative outcomes and strategic communication failures. This presents a significant challenge for NATO communicators because their practices and systems were developed in the last century, when control-based communication was more practical, and are proving slow to change.
Many speakers discussed the growing importance of narrative in strategic communication, which forms an important basis for interpretation of action by strategically important audiences. NATO nations are doing a poor job of making their narratives clear, and are taking actions that contradict their narratives, thus undermining their credibility. At the same time they must do a better job of understanding and countering the narratives of their opponents.
Narrative appears to be an ascending topic in strategic communication. On my UK trip next week I will also be attending a conference devoted to the subject in London called Reframing the Nation: Media Publics and Strategic Narratives, sponsored by the Open University.
Inertia in the command systems of NATO and its member nations inhibits the change mandated by the five foregoing themes. While there is widespread agreement among theorists and operators that strategic communication practices must evolve to meet new challenges, political and organizational structures of the status quo work against these changes, keeping the alliance in an underperforming posture that reproduces outdated practices. This is perhaps the keystone problem in NATO strategic communication, because it inhibits adaptation to the new realities discussed at the workshop.