Center for Strategic Communication

By Kelly McDonald

National and international fronts in the Global War on Terror, as described by President Bush and leadership in the intelligence and military communities, are mediated. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld candidly admitted in 2006 at the Council on Foreign Relations, “Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today’s media age, but for the most part we, our country, our government has not.” In the backdrop of a theatre of operations spanning the globe and requiring all the intelligence, law enforcement and military resources of the United States, the realization of the importance of communication should not be underestimated in the planning and conduct of anti-terrorism operations. Defense Science Board Chairman William Schneider, Jr. wrote, “Effective strategic communication can prevent a crisis from developing and help diffuse a crisis after it has developed. To win in a global battle of ideas, a global strategy for communicating those ideas is essential.” It should be heartening, then, that our nation’s leaders are attempting to re-align our communication. The nation’s updated strategy document, National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, released late last year by the White House, identified strategic and tactical roles of communication in the fight against terrorism. Military planners have been discussing similar concerns with strategic communication for over three decades.

In this spirit, acknowledging both the historic drive for better strategic coordination and the present need for savvy communication in the war on terror, Pentagon plans for training Army officers in strategic communication recently made the news. While the program includes a master’s degree in policy management from Georgetown University, the program’s message design is heavily informed by practices and principles taken from the nation’s advertising industry. As reported in initial coverage on a wire service story, “One executive said any message from Washington would lack credibility and should be conveyed instead by U.S. industry through a tourism campaign.”

It is challenging to imagine how the imperative of the Department of Defense planning document might be translated into a “tourism campaign.” Planners and soldiers alike need to conceive of and use strategic communication not as an instrument of mere propaganda or a sales pitch, along the lines of Vance Packard’s influential publication, The Hidden Persuaders, first published in 1957, but rather as a vital resource for coordination and collective action that functions in a challenging and dynamic environment.


In a CSC white paper published last year Goodall, Trethewey, and McDonald argued one of the primary failures of present efforts at public diplomacy is the over-reliance on repetition. Avoiding the pitfalls of simple repetition can begin to bridge the connection between strategic goals and the tactical effectiveness on the ground for service personnel. Returning to the same message time and again, despite complicating or variable conditions only serves to undermine the credibility of those bringing the message to the public.

Instead, Corman, Trethewey, and Goodall suggest in a recent white paper replacing the failing “message influence” model of communication – popularized in the 1950’s and 1960’s – with a model of “pragmatic complexity,” allowing for a purposive function of strategic communication. Drawing from the work of Niklas Luhmann, the model suggests that

Communication is not an act of one mind transmitting a message to another mind. It is a property of a complex system in which participants interpret one-another’s actions and make attributions about the thoughts, motivations, intentions, etc., behind them. The issuing of a message by one party and its receipt by another may initiate this process, but that is far from the end of the story.

In this view, messages are more complicated than a flier or announcement for a destination hotel in a resort city listing amenities in the room, distances to memorable sites or area restaurants and entertainment. The initial message is an entrée or opening for subsequent communication as parties are “locked in a relationship of simultaneous, mutual interdependence” The point is not to see messages as a simple information transfer but rather as composite interactions which have evolve in time and in relation to circumstances.


Though the imperative for strategic thinking has been long discussed by Pentagon planners, getting there has been more challenging. Seeing communication as having both emergent and holistic properties requires a greater degree of complexity and nuance in understanding its function. That is, communication arises from interaction and is additive—the system of communication as a whole emerges beyond the actions of individual participants. As Brian Fishman, a senior associate with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point noted, “I don’t think there is a purely tactical level….[t]he strategic level goes down to the platoon leader.” For soldiers on patrol in Anbar province in Iraq, the distinction between strategy and tactic is virtually immaterial. They are interacting on a daily basis with the Iraqi military and civilian leaders, merchants and the public in the local area, their area, regional and national command officers. The soldiers on the ground talk daily to different audiences and must explain and account for their actions both locally and globally. The soldiers could not simply repeat their daily talking points over and over again without taking into account the broader information environment they operate in.

Looking at message complexity allows communicators to see strategic communication operating in an environment where, as the pragmatic complexity perspective suggests, “less is more” and “failure is the norm.” A typical advertising campaign – like a Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s tourism promotion – relies on repetition and presumed ability to make success emerge where nothing previously existed. Given the competing and at times conflicting audiences soldiers on the ground must report to, it would be impossible for them to have an answer for every question given the security climate. Soldiers should know that a positive reception to any message they might bring to local populations is not likely—something that won’t simply be reversed with more enticing graphics, louder volume, or picturesque scenery. More direct, earnest, and succinct communication is likely to produce a better result than a repetitive and diversionary campaign would. The recent efforts to introduce strategic communication into the training of officers and enlisted personnel is a laudable goal but, tragically, turning the design over to Madison Avenue will likely only make the training ineffectual—or worse.

Further Reading

· Corman, S. R., Trethewey, A., and Goodall, B. (2007). A 21st century model for communication in the Global War of Ideas: From simplistic influence to pragmatic complexity. Report #0701, Consortium for Strategic Communication, Arizona State University.

· Goodall, B., Trethewey, A., and McDonald, K. (2006). Strategic ambiguity, communication, and public diplomacy in an uncertain world: Principles and practices. Report #0604, Consortium for Strategic Communication, Arizona State University.

· Jervis, R. (1997). System effects: Complexity in political and social life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

· Weick, Karl E. and Sutcliffe, Kathleen M. (2001). Managing the unexpected: Assuring high performance in an age of complexity. Jossey-Bass Publishers.