“Strategic Communications” - only two words, but two that are often misunderstood. They’ve been touted around aplenty of late, in relation to Afghanistan in particular (in light of the Obama administration’s review of the Afghan situation), as well as, a decade on from these interventions, Kosovo and East Timor. What does the expression “strategic communications” mean? And why does it matter that governments and international organisations get it right?
Strategic communications matters because it’s essential to the success, or otherwise, of conflict or post-conflict interventions and stabilisation operations by the so-called “international community”. While Governments usually go to great lengths to explain new domestic policy ideas and their implications to their electorates, similar efforts to win consensus at home and overseas for interventions abroad have traditionally fallen short of the mark.
Why, for example, are we in Afghanistan? How many American or British citizens can answer this? And how many different, and probably conflicting, answers would we get? What reasons would the numerous ‘internationals’ working for any number of organisations and NGOs in Afghanistan provide? And, most importantly, what about the Afghans? Have we successfully explained our presence, our aim, and our objectives to them? It’s probably now generally accepted that, in relation to Afghanistan and Iraq, strategic communications was given neither the time nor the resources that were necessary. Instead it was an afterthought, an add-on, rather than at the heart of both the planning and implementation of operations where it should have been… right at centre…an essential part of policy formulation….a top priority.
Top priority it was afforded a few months ago, however, when strategic communications was given a central role on a UK cross-government civilian-military training exercise. Practising strategic communications was one of the exercise’s key aims and objectives, and Albany Associates was hired to advise. The fictitious scenario was as follows: a made-up country, on the verge of collapse (rebellion and war, humanitarian disaster) and surrounded by unstable neighbours, asks the international community to intervene. Under a UN mandate, the UK leads an international military-civilian intervention to stabilise the country and the region. Some more details: the fictitious country has little home-grown media (and what little exists is widely distrusted); the population is largely illiterate; the country is ethnically and linguistically extremely diverse; the diaspora is influential; there are tens of thousands of refugees and IDPs on the move; there are various rebel groups; and regional neighbours are prone to trouble-making. As the storyline unfolded in the host country, the wider region, the UK, EU member states, the US, and at the UN, cross-government strategic communications was put to the test.
If strategic communications can be defined as creating benign and enabling environments for the effective implementation of policy and programmes, how did we do during this fictitious stabilisation operation? Was public opinion and behaviour encouraged to support and contribute to the UN-mandated UK-led intervention? And, if so, how was this done in such a complex and complicated environment, with so many actors, audiences, grievous parties, languages and cultures? And, crucially, what strategic communications lessons were identified for the future? What still needs more work?
Here are some thoughts (and if the obvious is being stated, it’s because the obvious doesn’t always get practised): It is vital to establish and dominate the narrative from the outset. Someone else will if you don’t. At the centre of the cross-government (MOD, FCO, DfID and Cabinet Office) influencing strategy for this exercise was a ‘core script’, agreed by HMG departments before the exercise began and continually updated in theatre as circumstances changed. The building and sustaining of a credible narrative, one that understands the context and culture of the host environment, is essential to any stabilisation operation. A core script enables the co-ordination and agreement of messages between HMG departments, and can help prevent the emergence of mixed and inconsistent messages that will damage credibility. So-called golden hours at the beginning of a stabilisation operation can be extended if things go well, but they can also be curtailed if things go wrong.
There is a strategic communications aspect to anything and everything. Each and every contact with any target audience is a conduit, and every action has a positive or negative communications impact. A disconnect between public messages and actions on the ground must be avoided. Strategic Communications Working Groups, comprising military and civilian representatives from HMG, were established during the exercise. They met every other day and provided a constructive forum for cross-government discussion on substantive issues. All departments engaged positively, took direction and even changed direction to realign themselves with strategic guidance.
There are always many different audiences with whom to engage. Concurrent and multi-level activities need to take place within an overall strategic plan. Public diplomacy, media relations, grassroots communications and media development are all vital to foster understanding and support from UK and international audiences (donors, other troop contributing nations), regional neighbours and, most importantly, the various and varied audiences in the host country.
Know before you start a stabilisation operation how people get their information. Reliable research and opinion polling at an early stage is extremely useful. Local traditional methods of communication are key. Forget about the press releases and media facilities: go grassroots. Street theatre, taxi drivers taking radio cassettes to villages in places you can’t always get to, festivals and gatherings which bring together tribal leaders and elders…these are the methods of disseminating information, encouraging dialogue and the exchange of ideas. But new media technologies can also play an essential role in grassroots communications… … what was one way to get messages to refugee and IDP camps that were, for a time, largely inaccessible? Mobile phones and text messaging. The information will spread. Local ownership is essential. If there isn’t a home-grown radio station or several, start one. Developing the capacity of the host country’s media is a medium-term goal, but it needs to start early on. As does technical assistance, if it’s needed, to the host country’s government information service.
Strategic communications needs to be resourced properly. On this point, lessons can be learnt from UN missions where the need for coherent departments of press and public information is largely understood. Flexible funding, adequate staffing and/or expertise readily available (spokesperson, press officers, a writing team, radio, TV, web and new media, print and design teams, polling, outreach and influencing), equipment, and translation and interpretation capacity are all essential.
But perhaps the most important point of all is this: strategic communications needs to be directed from a high level as a strategic issue. It is not just a question of tactics on the ground. The importance of strategic communications to the stabilisation operation in our fictitious country became very much understood during the course of exercise. The priority now is to pass on the lessons learned, establish doctrine and encourage the development of a formal system of training and knowledge transfer.
Sarah Fradgley is an independent Communications Consultant.