Strategic Communication on a Rugged Landscape: Principles for Finding the Right Message

by Steven R. Corman & Kevin J. Dooley

For approximately the last decade, the United States has been moving to centralize and more tightly control its messages. Accelerating this trend, U.S. strategic communication efforts under the current administration follow the dictum that effectiveness equals control of a singular message. The problems with this approach were described in a previous CSC white paper. But there is also a more basic issue: How do we know when we have the best message? Is there only one best message? A control-oriented approach to these questions means that the optimal message or combination of messages will probably never be found in the “war of ideas” with terrorist groups and hostile governments.

This paper addresses this issue by applying the concept of rugged landscapes to the problem of finding the right message(s) in strategic communication. The current U.S. approach assumes that the landscape is simple, consisting of a single, modular solution that can be optimized by a controlled, systematic search. However, the situation is more accurately described as a complex, rugged landscape, with multiple integral solutions. This means the optimal solution can only be found by an evolutionary approach using multiple, diverse search methods.

Treating a rugged landscape as simple leads to inappropriate search strategies that virtually guarantee suboptimal performance. To improve its chances of success in the search for the right message(s), we recommend that the United States reform its current control oriented strategies by applying four principles:

  1. Leap before You Look: Abandon systematic search methods in favor of techniques based on random jumps and multi-variable optimization.
  2. Use the Force: Accept, expect, and seek to exploit interdependencies in the communication system.
  3. Simplify Structure: Take steps to reduce legal and organizational interdependencies that make the landscape more complex.
  4. Accept Downside Risk: Promote changes in an organizational culture that is reluctant to tolerate the temporary performance