Strange Annual Cycle in PD/SC Definition Debates?

by Steven R. Corman

A debate has once again re-ignited over the relative meaning of Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication, sparked this time by a keynote by Bruce Gregory at GWU on October 5.  It was rejoined by Amb. William Rugh in an email exchange with Bruce, both of whose comments were posted and re-rejoined by Craig Hayden.

Reading these posts I got a strange feeling of deja vu.  Checking on this, I found that–sure enough–last year at about this same time we were discussing the same issue.  My contribution is here with links to the other debaters.

Hmm.  Methinks there could be a pattern here.  More evidence:

  • Constance Philipot has been blogging on SC/PD over the last month.
  • The Wikipedia page on Strategic Communication (which mentions the definitional debate) was last edited on October 24, 2009.
  • Blankley, Dale, and Horn did a piece on PD/SC at Heritage in November of last year.
  • Dennis Murphy published an issue paper dealing with SC/PD in January 2008 (meaning he must have been writing it in the Fall).
  • Richard Halloran discusssed the issue in Autumn of 2007.
  • James Jones’s JFQ piece on Strategic Communication was published in the 4th Quarter of 2005.
  • The Congressional Research Service published a report on PD that addressed its relationship to SC on Oceober 31, 2005.
  • The 2004 DSB Task Force report on Strategic Communication was released on September 23.

So there clearly seems to be a greater-than-chance tendency to debate PD/SC in the fall.  What could explain this?  I offer a handfull of postulates (from least to most serious, and not necessarily mutually exclusive):

  1. Astrological alignments:  The autumnal equinox happens at this time of year.  According to this page, “Mercury is Retrograde, conjunct Saturn, and square Uranus. In order to make the changes we want to make, we need to take care of business. What we will need to do– again– this Autumn is: Review details we glossed over, judgments taken out of context, listen more carefully, and make the distinction between words spoken for the effect and the real meaning. Then, when we have fulfilled our word, we can make changes.”
  2. Change of seasons:  Our colleagues in the cold-weather states, realizing that winter is setting in, get cranky/contentious.
  3. Academic calendar:  Energized by summer break and relieved that the beginning-of-the-semester crush is over, academics get frisky and start debating, drawing-in people from the government.
  4. World events:  Conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan heat up this time of year, making SC/PD a more salient topic.
  5. Issue-attention cycle:  Downs (The Public Inerest, Vol 28, 1972) theorized that public attention to an issue follows a set of stages in which an “alarmed discovery” figures prominently.  So every year there is some alarmed discovery with respect to PD/SC in time to heat up debate for the fall.

Without giving the evidence (you can check for yourself), I note that there also seems to be a counter-peak of discussion of PD/SC following the vernal equinox each year, and these same postulates might be applied to that.  Your comments and additional postulates are encouraged.

7 Responses to “Strange Annual Cycle in PD/SC Definition Debates?”

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  1. john brown says:


    Great piece. You have introduced key elements defining an often “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” debate: Astrological alignments; change of seasons: academic calendar…

    My own recent effort at humor (yes, could it be, in the final analysis, all that we have left in these hard times?) can be found in a Huffington Post on a PD-related topic (“cultural diplomacy”) that may amuse you:

    I would be intrigued to take part in the PD/SC debate … Warning: At a British Embassy luncheon pertaining to this topic not long ago I perhaps impolitely proclaimed that SC — the term, that is — was an “offense to the English language.”

    I don’t want to blame my dear father for such comments: but he, a diplomat, was also a published poet.

    He liked clear and simple words.



  2. Steve Corman says:

    John, thanks for your comments. While the post is to some extent tongue-in-cheek, I honestly do find it kind of curious that this issue seems to crop-up with such regularity, and I wonder what’s behind it.

    I will agree that “strategic communication” is not very poetic, but it is certainly prosaic…most if not all communication is strategic, including (especially) PD.

  3. Mark Laity says:

    As Chief Strategic Communications at SHAPE I only wish the definitional debate was only restricted to autumn.

    Since being propelled into this job I have spent far too much of my time on the in-house baseball of PD v SC v InfoOps v PA.

    I have previous suggested that a clever Info Ops ploy would be to try and get the Taleban and AQ to have some internal feuding over their information doctrine, and then while they’re distracted, arguing with each other, and not pushing stuff out, we could just get on and fill the space…

  4. Gregory Garland says:

    Thanks, Steve, for your way-out-of-the-Beltway perspective, including the levity. To play upon an old adage, scholarly angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly.

    I also appreciate Mark’s comment. We might actually be more effective if we focused more on the “stuff” rather than definitions and structure. Stuff like narrative, as the COMOPS team has tried to do. Stuff is what we do in the field because it’s really all that matters at the end of day. Of course in saying this, I risk prompting a heated debate on the meaning of “stuff,” right down to the multiphasic Power Points.

  5. Steve, it’s really a very important issue in military circles. Military culture is locked into doctrine and definitions (very different than other in USG). The problem is not within the SC, IO, PA community (or at least not a serious problem), it’s outside. The importance is that we need to coopt those that give us resources: sr. military leaders, congress, etc. If they don’t get it we don’t get to continue to push the rock up the hill.

  6. editor says:

    Dennis, agreed. I didn’t mean to make light of the importance of the issue, just kind of surprised by the apparent regularity in the cycles of debate (in which I myself participate). As I said in the response to John, I really do wonder what’s behind it. There might be some value in figuring it out.

  7. Craig Hayden says:


    This post is very amusing. And I do think it’s odd that this community is still drawn back with centripetal force to the definitional question. Something tells me this isn’t the result of some academic impulse toward more analytic distinction and rigor.

    Instead, the definitional debates are less about definitional clarity, and more about staking claims on authority and responsibility – which ultimately leads to communication strategy (and perhaps, ethics -e.g. international broadcasting).

    I do think that the definitional debate is more important within the DoD, for reasons others have already articulated. But I also think the reason we always seem to come back to this debate in the larger discussion about public diplomacy is the lack of leadership on public diplomacy. The interagency process reveals how this is getting resolved without a clear compass, but until it’s spelled out in ways that make it less novel and more integral to the process of foreign policy – we’re going to keep debating what “it” is.