In the US government, Strategic Communications is the overall name for the combination of public affairs and public diplomacy. Public diplomacy, which I have discussed before, is the government communicating directly to citizens overseas, without the interference of their own governments. Public affairs is the interface of the military, department of state, and other civilian arms of the government to the formal media, both foreign and domestic.
Strategic communications is then the attempt to forge a unified and effectively persuasive message across these functions, and others closely related, such as in-theatre military psychology operations. Unfortunately, at a time when communicating our message has become essential to victory in the war against Islamofascism, our government's practice is so badly behind the times that it may require direct action by the citizenry to make up the gap.
It is generally accepted that US strategic communications since the beginning of WWIV has been nearly as impotent as our military has been effective. Those participating in the effort don’t disagree. A notorious recent study by the DOD's Defense Science Board, written by a panel drawn from both State and Defense, stated:
"Strategic communication is a vital component of U.S. national security. It is in crisis, and it must be transformed with a strength of purpose that matches our commitment to diplomacy, defense, intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security…. To succeed, we must understand the United States is engaged in a generational and global struggle about ideas, not a war between the West and Islam. It is more than a war against the tactic of terrorism. We must think in terms of global networks, both government and non-government." (p. 2)
(NB: The original report is here if you wish to check my excerpts. Cites are to the pagination of the original paper report, not the large PDF file.)
Dilemmas and Disruption
In business and high technology, the notion of the "innovator's dilemma", advanced by Clayton Christensen, is now so well accepted as to be trite. For any not yet bombarded with this meme, it is a way of explaining the frequent failing of businesses that are otherwise well-managed to anticipate and respond to innovations that eventually end up damaging or destroying their own enterprise when in the hands of insurgent competitors. It observes that many technologies have characteristic adoption ('S') curves whose effect is to facilitate learning and scale economies by winning incumbents. A new technology will have neither the maturity nor scale economies to address the incumbent's existing market, or to appear significant in scale. However, it may find toehold markets where its immaturity and other drawbacks are overlooked due to other benefits. New competitors take hold and grow in this protected niche, igniting their own adoption and learning curves, which may eventually overtake the incumbents' own technology and market base.
When you see the phrases "disruptive technology" or "two curve problem", you are in the presence of this meme, which is often appropriate to a crisis situation precipitated by change.
Is strategic communications perceived to be at such a point? Judge for yourself from the language of the DSB report:
"The argument of this report, then, is that this dynamic must be changed. In essence, this means the U.S. must adopt the strategies and tactics of the insurgent, not the incumbent: waging a proactive, bold and effective U.S. strategic communication effort." (p. 50)
If there is a two curve problem lurking here, what is its nature? It will be no surprise at all to denizens of the blogosphere, who have first-hand knowledge of both the means and the results:
"Al Jazeera, CNN, and other television networks dominate discussion of the information and media environment. But a host of information technologies — in addition to satellite TV — are creating greater global transparency: cell phones, wireless handhelds, videophones, camcorders, digital cameras, miniaturized fly away units used by TV crews in remote locations, high resolution commercial space imaging, blogs, and email. Many are cheap; costs are declining. …. Transparency creates threats and opportunities – and changes in the strategy/tactics dynamic. Tactical events can instantly become strategic problems (digital cameras in Abu Ghraib). On the other hand, transparency can show strategic threats more clearly and enhance the capacity to undercut an opponent’s political will and ability to mislead (embedded media in Iraq)….. Information saturation means attention, not information, becomes a scarce resource. Power flows to credible messengers. Asymmetrical credibility matters. What's around information is critical. Reputations count. Brands are important. Editors, filters, and cue givers are influential. Fifty years ago political struggles were about the ability to control and transmit scarce information. Today, political struggles are about the creation and destruction of credibility." (pp. 19-20)
Narrowcasting. Internet. Digital media. Channel bypass. Attention economics. Brands. Trust. Yes, we've heard this before.
War and the Second Curve
An aside here: I'm fully aware that the report also made some pointed observations about US policy; after all, it's the use of those passages for thrashing the administration that has made the report notorious. I read them more as "Don't blame us if we can't sell inherently unpopular measures." Fair enough. In the context of a war, which is the attempt to impose or break will by force, there will be unpopular policies – else why the war?
The necessity of measures not saleable by persuasion is inherent. I'm concerned here with the framework within which strategic positions and particular measures which may be saleable are communicated. In the struggle to destroy Islamofascism without precipitating the Armageddon that Al Qaeda desires, our efficacy in communications may determine what fraction of our goals are met by force, and which by conveying that our ends are just, though our means may be necessarily inimical at times.
Now, what should the US government do about adapting its strategic communications, from both its military and civilian components, to the existence and apparently burgeoning growth of this second curve of communications technology? Let's start with a mini-quiz: Following are two passages, both about the uses of the deployed armed forces in a strategic communications context. One is drawn from the recommendations of the DSB task force, one is an outside writer. Your job is to detect which is which. No fair Googling. Passage one:
"Therefore, in the next war, while the media provide the global cosmopolitan perspective, the troops themselves may well provide the American one. The fact is that most grunts can’t stand to be portrayed as victims. The quietly mounting trend of American soldiers and Marines writing about their experiences and posting them on weblogs rather than having their experiences interpreted by transnational journalists is proof enough…. The parts are all in place for an explosion of this type of commentary. Almost all the troops have their own laptops and access to cybercafes at their bases. The American perspective does not whitewash problems or claim a situation is better than it is, but it does promote warrior virtues and submerge the cult of victimhood…."
"Among the assigned tasks was to define “lanes in the road” regarding Public Affairs, Public Diplomacy and PSYOP…. Major military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq—followed in each case by a very difficult post-conflict phase—produced unprecedented demands on already undermanned and under equipped PSYOP forces…. U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) received a significant plus-up in fiscal year 2004 (FY04) for PSYOP and Civil Affairs; $205 million for the next five years for PSYOP forces and equipment—including a trans-regionally focused PSYOP unit—and significant increases in both reserve and active duty force authorizations for Civil Affairs."
The language of government reports is distinctive, shall we say, so you have likely spotted the first as the interloper. In fact, it's a passage from Robert Kaplan's recent article in Policy Review. The real point is to spot the one that reflects second curve thinking. I submit that's also the outsider's work.
Kaplan's second curve piece talks about individual soldiers who are empowered, have already taken things into their own hands, and who are projecting their own ethos, a message writ both within the lines and between them. This portion of the panel recommendations (one of seven) talks about clear divisions of responsibility, focusing on official roles and resources. Which is more likely to produce an outcome both timely and responsive to the challenge?
Here's a hint: Spirit of America's Jim Hake reports Paul Wolfowitz as saying it takes him 21 days to get a memo approved, the same time it has taken SoA to get goods on the ground in Iraq.
I am not saying that the DSB's recommendations are unnecessary, but that they are insufficient. The panel ponders the business sector practice of brand management (e.g., p. 49) and market identification (e.g., p. 42) and suggests that the government should create an organizational consciousness and structure that reflects these best practices. If implemented, this will have a hope of bringing strategic communications practices up to the standards of cable television and magazine based marketing.
They will be doing this at the same time that larger companies are already moving away from these kinds of marketing due to media clutter, demographic flight, and consumer cynicism, other aspects of the same second wave of communications.
The DSB's program is a recipe for both improvement, and remaining behind the second curve. Forced to speak in terms of budgets and defined lanes and roles, it will be going up against self-organizing groups of Islamists – and Marines.
Controlling the Second Curve?
The DSB does tip its hat to the private sector, more than once. Among its recommendations are the creation of a quango foundation for strategic communications that will dispense grants to a hopefully diverse and inspired collection of grant seekers, who are undoubtedly already considering what will go into their proposals (p. 69). Meanwhile, Jihad Unspun and Spirit of America both go on their way.
I wish the governmental effort well, but second curve events are already well underway and will proceed regardless, the point of my earlier post on citizens' diplomacy. See, for instance, Mudville Gazette:
"...ponder this: An American GI in Iraq just linked to and commented about an Iraqi citizen, who was linking and commenting on a post from an ex-pat from Poland now living in Australia and providing information to the world on the situation in Afghanistan. What does it all mean? That's entirely up to you..."
Quod erat demonstrandum. Can there be a productive interface between the two approaches?
Control or even modulation of the second curve is out of the question. One of the responses to my earlier post was Paul Musgrave's, essentially suggesting that we need to be more self-conscious about our rhetoric on the net. This is the global equivalent of "Keep your voice down, dear, the neighbors can hear you." Our global neighbors have long been able to hear us, but in a voice altered and muffled by the sensationalizing, but centralizing influences of mass media. Now they can also hear the full range and chaos of our political voices, from wingnuts to moonbats, some of which may confirm the worst of the suspicions cultivated by Islamists. And now we know they hear.
This is irreversible, because there is one thing in common, across the spectrum from Freepers to Miliitant Middle to Indymediots. They will not shut up, especially if commanded by government. In this, they are American. And there lies hope, because the organizing genius of the second curve is common purpose, loosely connected. It is how Al Qaeda is organized, and likely how we must respond.
We Hold These Truths...
This makes Armed Liberal's discussion regarding common ground between the hawks and the left all the more poignant. If we differ radically on our views on means, and even on the realities underlying those means, where is the common purpose? Other than loudness, what strategic message will emanate from America? In this, the DSB report stands on its strongest ground, with three message themes (p. 56):
- Respect for human dignity and individual rights
- Individual education and economic opportunity
- Personal freedom, safety and mobility
Or as an earlier, simpler age put it: "We hold these truths to be self-evident…". If we still do, we must hope that truth will come through amidst the unstoppable cacophony of our voices. When a real second curve problem comes along, the solution is not in rearranging bureaus, but in going back to deepest principles. Can we still agree that all men, American or not, are deserving of life, liberty, and their pursuit of happiness?
If so, regardless of our strident disagreements on how we get there, it may be the best strategic communication we can send, and the citizenry can do so more effectively than our government.