Comprehensive Communications: Winning hearts and minds is about persuasion


Comprehensive Communications or communicating comprehensively?

My God, this is the end of diplomacy!” So Lord Palmerston apparently retorted when the first telegram was delivered to his desk in the 1840s. Certainly as far as he had known it until then he was probably right. For Palmerston it was a seminal moment, heralding the nineteenth century information revolution, which would result from the separation of the means of communication from the means of transport. Palmerston, of course, was the then British Foreign and Colonial Secretary whose name, at the height of the Pax Britannica, became synonymous with the concept of gunboat diplomacy that defined the second half of the nineteenth century. Foreign intervention was a much simpler business then than in the age of the Pax Americana, carried on outside direct public gaze and away from what the BBC’s Nik Gowing describes as, the ‘Tyranny of Real-Time journalism’. Public Diplomacy has perhaps now become the defining term as far as foreign affairs is concerned as the digital successors to the simple telegraph define our times.

But the digital revolution has not been the only factor that has redefined the relationship between foreign affairs, diplomacy and the use of force. As General Rupert Smith asserts in his book The Utility of Force, there has been a fundamental shift in the reasons why and how wars are fought. Rather than the interstate industrial wars of the twentieth century, the new paradigm is of “war amongst the people”.  The insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan and the uprisings of the ‘Arab Spring’ in North Africa and now Syria are prime examples of this paradigm shift. These new wars are, in a classically Clausewitzian sense, much more about achieving specific political outcomes than the old wars of the past. They have not been about territorial domination or national survival but about ideology, legitimacy and representation. As such they have been about the essence of politics, the lifeblood of which is opinion, belief and the power of persuasion.

Counter-insurgency theory has long recognized the centrality of the civil-political aspects of any campaign. In 1952 Sir Gerald Templer, who was the British High Commissioner charged with defeating the communist insurgency in Malaya, wrote to a colleague “the shooting side of the business is only 25 percent of the trouble and the other 75 percent lies in getting the people of the country [Malaya] behind us.” Indeed it was Templer who first coined the well-worn phrase about the “battle for hearts and minds”, which is now even being used by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as al-Qaeda leader. As Templer recognised, winning hearts and minds was not about the hard pushing power of force but about the soft pulling power of persuasion and attraction. In the global information age this is even more important than it was in 1950s Malaya.

Soft power, as Joseph Nye has written, is about getting others to want the outcomes that you want. It co-opts people rather than coerces them. Politicians in democracies instinctively understand this. Firstly they have to persuade and attract voters to get elected and once in government they need to explain why they do the things they do. They also know that they have to listen and respond to what people think about their actions. Most also understand the old adage that all politics is local and that they need to focus on the grassroots if they want their programs to work and to get re-elected. And yet in the area of foreign policy they seem to have little understanding of how the nature of power has changed and even less about how to wield the softer versions of it. Certainly there has been much discussion about it. Indeed the previous administration in the United States constantly bemoaned the apparent lack of understanding for American engagement abroad. To remedy this President Bush appointed a succession of public relations professionals as Undersecretaries of State for Public Diplomacy to sell US foreign policy. But by focussing only on the process of presentation and marketing rather than the policies themselves he failed to understand the nature of the soft power they were hired to project.

Nye argues that a country’s soft power rests primarily on three resources: its culture, its political values and its foreign policies; but only when they are perceived as being attractive, are lived up to and are seen as legitimate and having moral authority. In other words it’s what you do rather than what you say that counts. President Bush’s problems were not so much about presentation or packaging but more about how his message and policies were perceived by the communities and people who were most affected by them. The Muslim world in particular simply didn’t like what they were being sold. From their perspective US culture, values and policy were no longer seen as attractive, legitimate or having the moral authority they perhaps once had.  The pictures from Abu Ghraib prison for example did untold damage to the US reputation in Iraq and the wider world. Nevertheless, this focus on the technical process of presentation, marketing and communication has gained considerable traction and developed into the doctrine of what is now referred to as Strategic Communications. But what Strategic Communications actually is remains the subject of considerable debate and academic discussion.

When referring to strategy in war Clausewitz talks about the relationship between means and ends. For the strategist, he says, individual successful engagements are the means which, when combined, lead to the achievement of the ends that produce the desired political outcome. Much of the discourse about strategic communications – which can be turgid in the extreme – surrounds the semantics of the means rather than the ends. It struggles worthily over the detail of what constitutes public affairs, public diplomacy, information operations or psychological operations and who should or should not be involved in doing them. As a result rather than combining, the means become stove-piped and the ends or strategic effects are lost.

The problem with the term ‘strategic communications’ is that it has come to infer a doctrine that is the preserve of a specialist few. Leaders and laymen alike acknowledge its importance in selling policy but have little understanding of its role in shaping it. They rely on expert practitioners to deliver it and to absolve them of any responsibility in its coordination. It is still not understood that every action communicates something, that everyone is a communicator or that it is a two-way process where listening is as important as speaking. Doctrine has become doctrinaire and there is a danger that matrixes and metrics will supplant reflection and creative thought. Genuinely strategic communications requires a comprehensive multi-dimensional approach where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. ‘Comprehensive communications’ is therefore a much better term for describing clearly the marriage of means and ends that is required to communicate strategically.

The concept of comprehensive communications also mirrors the ‘Comprehensive Approach’ already used by NATO governments as the way to coordinate diplomatic, military and economic instruments when managing international crises. It is an inclusive rather than an exclusive concept that is widely understood across governments and within government and therefore less likely to be captured by narrow specialists. Nevertheless, the nature of communications in the information age also requires governments and institutions to become much more agile and responsive. They still have to adapt to the full implications of digital technology, which calls attention to the drawbacks of slow decision making and hierarchical communications.  Institutional inertia must be overcome, as speed is now an imperative not a luxury. Information can no longer be controlled. At best it can only be managed. These realities are still things that are only fully understood by digital natives who have grown up with the technologies rather than the digital immigrants who haven’t. It is of course the greying digital immigrants who still occupy most senior government positions.

But agility requires delegation and senior managers must be prepared to allow their subordinates to engage more in the information space. For this to happen requires as much emphasis on internal communications as it does on external audiences. Developing clear and coherent core narratives that are widely disseminated laterally as well as vertically is crucial in the management of devolved and agile information networks. Dominating and keeping up with the external narratives that drive people’s perceptions of issues and ideas is central to a comprehensive communications approach. Narratives are constructed by the stories that ordinary people hear and then propagate amongst their friends and beyond. In Darfur the tradition of storytelling beneath trees is perhaps the best possible example of grass-roots communications – literally speaking. Faced with the extreme challenge of communicating the Darfur Peace Agreement to a remote, diffuse population across a vast region in 2008, we gave a great deal of thought about how best to reach and engage Darfuris and devised a culturally sensitive horse festival, which attracted tens of thousands of men, women and children. It worked.

Effective communications strategies will therefore always put local people and individuals at their centre and identify the conduits and platforms that will carry the stories we want to. To do this requires all communications programs to build in a significant research capacity and an ability to understand local information ecology, culture and practice from the start. This also means considering the conventional media environment and how it can be assisted through media development initiatives or by helping with content and infrastructure.  In Somalia, where we support the African Union, our communications are comprehensive in every sense of the word, be they working with journalists, supporting the Mayor of Mogadishu’s festival, the reopening of the National Theatre or engaging Al Shebab militants on the frontline

Comprehensive communications means understanding the essential connection between politics, the political process and communication. In so doing it also means recognizing the adage that all politics is local and therefore the preeminence of a grassroots focus. It’s not about messaging and media but about policy and people and the stories they tell one another. This requires programs to be research-led, agile and responsive. It implies listening rather than just speaking and it requires an inclusive approach across all departments of government that works both vertically and horizontally. Achieving this and adapting to the effects of the digital revolution requires a significant change in current institutional culture and the flattening of hierarchical management structures. Whether this can be done represents a challenge much greater than that posed to Palmerstone when that first telegram landed on his desk 170 years ago.

Simon Haselock, Albany Associates

An abridged version of this article first appeared in Communicate Magazine, September 2012, entitled “Winning hearts and minds is about persuasion”

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