Over the past 8 months I have had the good fortune to spend time in Beijing, Paris, Zurich, and Marrakech, Morocco, speaking with leaders of governments, the military, religious institutions, humanitarian organizations, universities, and other social institutions.
And in my travels I detected something I hadn’t noticed before: a meaningful deterioration in the regard with which the United States is held. Not about particular events, but a general decline in respect and admiration. Not of Americans, but of the nation’s role in the world.
I’ll blog about this more later, but Sunday’s New York Times has a series of pieces that prompt me to revisit those observations and also to use them as a teachable moment to illustrate some key principles from my latest book.
At its core, The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively is about how to win hearts and minds.
And winning hearts and minds is a necessary leadership skill at all levels: personal, interpersonal, group, large group, national, and multi-national. It’s never easy. And in the book I note that many leaders, much of the time, fail to understand what it takes to actually win hearts and minds. Rather, they default to what makes them feel good, or what may play to their closest audiences but that misses their intended audiences. In the book I note:
“This misunderstanding has consequences: corporations lose competitive advantage; not-for-profits find it harder to fulfill their mission; religious denominations lose the trust and confidence of their followers; nations diminish their ability to protect citizens and achieve national security goals.”
Sunday’s New York Times asked three prominent writers (two of whom are not American) to consider the question of America and its role in global political culture. American E.L. Doctorow, Canadian Margaret Atwood, and Briton Martin Amis each writes elegantly and movingly about the current perception of America. Each is worth reading, reflecting upon, and passing along.
I cover similar ground in the first chapter of The Power of Communication.
It’s All About The Reaction
I define effective communication as an act of will directed toward a living entity that reacts. The only reason to engage an audience is to change something: the way that audience thinks or feels or what it knows or does.
But much of the United States’ engagement of the world over the last decade has had the unintended consequence of alienating the very people whose hearts and minds we claim to want on our side. In the Times E.L. Doctorow provides a moving essay outlining how this works.
In the book I note how if we are to move people we need to meet them where they are. The bigger the gulf between “us” and “them,” the less likely effective communication will take place. Also the bigger the gap between what we say and what we do, and between our stated values and our actual behavior.
“Consider, for example, the U.S. government’s communication in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The Bush Administration concluded that it needed to win the hearts and minds of Muslim communities around the world. The Administration hoped that building support of Muslim communities would make extremist attacks on the U.S. less likely, and that the U.S. would have more flexibility projecting power to parts of the world whose population is predominantly Muslim.
In 2002 the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy developed an advertising campaign called the Shared Values Initiative to reach communities in predominantly Muslim countries. It bought more than $5 million of advertising on television networks during the Muslim holiday period of Ramadan. The campaign, hoping to dispel myths about the treatment of Muslims in the United States, showed Muslims living happily in America. Individual Muslims spoke into the camera or while the camera showed them at their jobs—a firefighter, a teacher, the owner of a bakery. They gave first-hand testimony about their positive experiences of living in America—of being Americans and also of being Muslim.
But the campaign misfired. It did not meet Muslim communities where they were. Rather it spoke past them.
A 2008 analysis of the Shared Values Initiative by Dr. Amy Zalman, published by the EastWest Institute, showed that the campaign was doomed from the start by a misunderstanding of the audiences to which it was directed. Dr. Zalman is a national security consultant based in Washington, D.C., whose practice focuses on strategic com- munication and public diplomacy.
Dr. Zalman’s EastWest Institute paper begins by noting that ‘good communicators reveal, in speech and action, that they under- stand the motivations and aspirations of their audiences—and it is via this understanding that they gain their sympathies.’
Dr. Zalman says, ‘A review of U.S. official rhetoric shows an all too persistent absence of this understanding, an oversight which in turn can fan rather than dampen extremist sentiment.’ She notes that in its communication with Muslim communities around the world, the U.S. government didn’t bridge a gulf, but made it wider.
Effective public diplomacy, according to Dr. Zalman, ‘begins with deep attention to how others think about themselves and their communities. Recent U.S. discourse is characterized by a lack of attention to precisely these issues. It has produced faulty assumptions that have alienated global audiences and clouded debate on violent extremism.’
The Shared Values Initiative was based on an assumption, given voice by President George W. Bush, that the terrorists hate America because of our freedoms. The entire campaign was built around this assumption.
Says Dr. Zalman:
‘This first official U.S. communication campaign emerged from the view that al-Qaeda hated, above all, Americans’ freedom of religious practice. The advertising campaign…sought to differentiate the United States from autocratic states such as Afghanistan under the Taliban, and to reveal the virtues of a U.S. war against terrorism, and for religious freedom of practice. Most countries perceived the advertisements as propaganda and refused to air them, but even if they had, Shared Values would have been irrelevant diversion. As poll after poll of Muslim populations has revealed, no mainstream populations contest either the value of civil liberties in the United States or the value of freedom of worship and they do not need convincing of their virtues.’
While it didn’t do affirmative harm, the Shared Values Initiative consumed significant resources, attention, and time. Worse, it gave policymakers and the U.S. public the false impression that the U.S. was making inroads in perceptions among Muslim communities around the world. Greater than the financial and other cost, though, was the opportunity cost. While Shared Values was underway, we were not effectively winning hearts and minds. And then we invaded Iraq.
Connecting with Audiences
Communication isn’t about telling our story. That’s undisciplined, self-indulgent, and often illusory. The power of communication is getting audiences to listen—and to care.
Dr. Zalman conducted a detailed review of U.S. rhetoric that showed a persistent failure to demonstrate understanding of the audiences to whom the U.S. was purportedly communicating.
For example, for years the U.S. government, at the highest levels, used the word “jihadist” to describe our enemies. But in March of 2008 the State Department advised: ‘In Arabic, jihad means ‘striving in the path of God’ and is used in many contexts beyond warfare. Calling our enemies jihadis and their movement a global jihad unintentionally legitimizes their actions.’ Our government’s use of language transformed murderers into martyrs. And by the time we stopped, the U.S. government had been using that vocabulary for six years.
In 2009 Admiral Michael G. Mullen, then the newly appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed the failure of recent efforts to win hearts and minds in Muslim communities. He embraced the Warfighting principle of treating the audience as a living entity with its own ideas and plans. Admiral Mullen at the time was the nation’s senior-most military officer and by law the principal military advisor to the President, the National Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense. He wrote an article in the National Defense University’s journal Joint Force Quarterly, titled “Strategic Communications: Getting Back to Basics.” In it, he acknowledged that previous attempts were more focused on how we feel and less about the needs, interests, or concerns of the audience.
Admiral Mullen writes:
‘There has been a certain arrogance to our “strat comm” efforts. We’ve come to believe that messages are something we can launch downrange like a rocket, something we can fire for effect. They are not. Good communication runs both ways. It’s not about telling our story. We must also be better listeners’.
Admiral Mullen implicitly affirms Dr. Zalman’s insights about the U.S.’s failure to understand the Muslim audience for much of our public diplomacy efforts. He writes:
‘The Muslim community is a subtle world we don’t fully—and don’t always attempt to—understand. Only through a shared appreciation of the people’s culture, needs, and hopes for the future can we hope ourselves to supplant the extremist narrative. We cannot capture hearts and minds. We must engage them; we must listen to them, one heart and one mind at a time—over time.’
Walk the Talk
Dr. Zalman notes that part of our credibility gap with the Muslim world arose from inconsistency between our words and our actions:
‘Speakers will be judged by their deeds and policies as well as by their rhetoric. Communications must be crafted in which actions, policies, and rhetoric are mutually reinforcing activities…. Speakers who appear to say one thing while doing another will not be viewed as credible. Speakers whose actions, policies, and words embody a coherent intention have a greater chance of being viewed as credible.’
Admiral Mullen goes even further:
‘We hurt ourselves more when our words don’t align with our actions. Our enemies regularly monitor the news to discern coalition and American intent as weighed against the efforts of our forces. When they find a ‘say-do’ gap—such as Abu Ghraib—they drive a truck right through it. So should we, quite frankly. We must be vigilant about holding ourselves accountable to higher standards of conduct and closing any gaps, real or perceived, between what we say about ourselves and what we do to back it up.’
Admiral Mullen also notes that many failures attributed to communication actually reflect deeper problems:
‘I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all. They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are.’
That Say-Do Gap is part of what E.L Doctorow covers in the Times. Also a Values-Action Gap.
As a society we need to do a much better job at listening; at seeing ourselves through the eyes of those we are trying to influence. I fear that in the current climate of electoral bloodsport in Washington this is unlikely to happen. But the the power of communication is not about launching missiles — message missiles or otherwise. As Admiral Mullen said, it’s about listening, one heart and one mind at a time.
I’ll keep musing about these issues as I continue to speak about the book and about the power of communication. Your thoughts welcomed…