2013 NATO Strategic Communications Conference

NATO SC Conf photoAlbany recently spent a couple of days at the annual NATO Strategic Communications Conference in Riga, Latvia, where the overarching theme, as as at the Comprehensive Communication Masterclass, was centred around narrative.

A timely talking point was, inevitably, the current and forthcoming issues of ‘narrating the exit’ from Afghanistan. However, central to that was the conceptual, theoretical, philosophical and practical essence of ‘narrative’ in general.

Several speakers highlighted the folly of and myths surrounding the notion of an ego-centric master narrative within strategic communication. Time and again, the reality of misunderstanding, or not understanding at all, narratives existing within the historical and cultural frameworks of publics, raised its head. Tony Quinlan (Chief Storyteller of Narrate – @tquinlan) highlighted the value of real, gritty and diagnostically evaluated narrative landscapes,raising some counter-intuitive results from areas as far apart as gang culture in Mexico to sanitation in Bangladesh. Equally Dr Montgomery McFate (@pentagondiva) burst open some key myths about integrationist campaigns, the increasingly old school Message Influence Model, cultural universalism and the malleability of belief systems.

All healthy stuff. When NATO communication conference audiences start bandying around terms such as schema and archetypes, there is obviously some valuable intellectual action going down in the room. (Although note that terms such as engagement and dialogue were less forthcoming) . The question is – how can such cerebral workings be brought to fruition to achieve had objectives in the real and challenging circumstances that NATO, and others, find themselves in?

Well, there may be some hope there. The Latvian government have committed to developing a NATO Centre of Excellence for strategic communication, something long overdue. This very welcome move is in its early stages and is a timely response to another conference theme – training. But to make it a real game-changer when it comes online in late 2014, it will take real commitment, innovative thinking and open minds from across the NATO community. Without this it could be destined to become a white elephant.

Let’s hope not.