Strategic Ambiguity, Communication, and Public Diplomacy in an Uncertain World: Principles and Practices

by Bud Goodall, Angela Trethewey, & Kelly McDonald

There is widespread recognition that the U. S. public diplomacy efforts worldwide have failed. In response to this image crisis, the Pentagon, State Department, and other agencies of the federal government are currently seeking new models for message strategy, coordination, and alignment.

There are two major reasons for failures of communication in public diplomacy: (1) reliance on an outdated one-way model of influence, and (2) an inability to prepare for, or respond to the jihadi media and message strategy that has thus far dominated local cultural interpretations of U.S. diplomatic objectives.

These failures can be addressed if the U.S. recognizes the need for a new way of thinking about ambiguity as strategy in strategic communication initiatives. Strategic ambiguity recognizes that a powerful vision for change among diverse constituents requires an ability to empower local interpretations of its meaning in order to build relationships to that vision without insisting on a fixed meaning for it or alienating potential allies because of it. Ambiguous but mindful communication practices are required in uncertain times, particularly when dealing with audiences we neither fully understand nor trust.

Five principles to guide strategic communication policy are: (1) practice strategic engagement, not global salesmanship; (2) do not repeat the same message in the same channels with the same spokesperson and expect new or different results; (3) do not seek to control a message’s meaning in cultures we do not fully understand; (4) understand that message clarity and perception of meaning
is a function of relationships, not strictly a function of word usage; and (5) seek “unified diversity” based on global cooperation instead of “focused wrongness” based on sheer dominance and power.