Worth Reading: “Strategic Communication: Getting Back to Basics” by Admiral Michael G. Mullen, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Force Quarterly

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Taking Strategic Communication Seriously

The United States government is finally taking strategic communication seriously.

This week President Obama used all the instruments of diplomacy to advance the US foreign policy agenda, including getting Russia, France, and Britain to stand with the US against continued nuclear development by Iran.

President Obama’s wins at the UN and in the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh this week are just the latest indication of a more mature and intentional foreign policy that aims at influencing world leaders and the world community in ways that increase the security of the United States.

An important element of this new approach is a renewed emphasis on effective public diplomacy.

Effective Public Diplomacy =

Influencing, not Bullying

Last year I wrote a post about US public diplomacy, and how much of it missed the mark.

I noted that effective communication isn’t about pushing messages to audiences, but rather about provoking a desired reaction from those audiences.

I also quoted Dr. Amy Zalman, who wrote an East-West Institute concept paper, Countering Violent Extremism, that included this observation:

“Good communicators reveal, in speech and action, that they understand the motivations and aspirations of their audiences—and it is via this understanding that they gain their sympathies.”

Dr. Zalman then reviewed US public diplomacy directed toward the Muslim world, and concluded:

“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.”

Dr. Zalman gave a compelling example: For six years the U.S. government, at the highest levels, used the word “jihadist” to describe our enemies. But in March of last year 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.”

Joint Chiefs Chairman on the Need to Foster Understanding and Support

This month the senior-most US military officer took up the cause of effective communication as a critical element of accomplishing the US military mission in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the world.

Admiral Michael G. Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has just published a column in Joint Force Quarterly, a publication of the National Defense University.

The column, titled “Strategic Communication: Getting Back to Basics,” notes:

“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 is the nation’s senior-most military officer and by law is the principal military advisor to the President, the National Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense.

He affirms Dr. Zalman’s insights about the US’s failure to understand the Muslim audience for much of our public diplomacy efforts.

Dr. Zalman had said that effective public diplomacy

“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.”

Admiral Mullen, in turn, says:

“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.”

Aligning Words and Action

Similarly, Dr. Zalman notes that part of our credibility gap with the Muslim world arose from a 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.”

He 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.”

Everything Communicates

Indeed, focusing merely on our words and not on the consequences of our actions is counterproductive.

But for much of the last decade American public diplomacy focused on what we wanted to say, and ignored how our actions could be perceived by audiences we were trying to influence.  And when the US government was called on the inconsistency, its tendency was to ratchet up the rhetoric even further, to discount the validity of the audience’s perception, or to try to distract critics.

Admiral Mullen takes this problem head-on:

“To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate.”

Building Trust: Fulfilling Promises

This summer I posted on trust, and noted that the Ethics Resource Center defines trust as “the natural consequence of promises fulfilled.”

Intriguingly, Admiral Mullen emphasizes the need for trust among those we hope to influence.  Alignment of words with actions is a form of delivering on promises.  So is living our stated values.  When we act in ways that are inconsistent with our words, or with our stated values, we lose trust, and with it the ability to influence stakeholders positively.

Admiral Mullen says says that our biggest problem with public diplomacy is that we have failed to earn credibility with our stakeholders:

“Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust, and we haven’t always delivered on our promises.”

Humility is Strength

Finally, Admiral Mullen addresses the issue of arrogance.

A recurring theme of this blog is that humility is strength, and that absent humility there’s a good chance of humiliation.  But many leaders confuse bluster with effectiveness, and mistakenly assume that humilty is weakness.

So it’s reassuring that the senior-most military leader makes the case for humility:

“I also hope we learn to be more humble, to listen more. Because what we are after in the end—or should be after—are actions that speak for themselves, that speak for us. What we need more than anything is credibility. And we can’t get that in a talking point.”

It’s refreshing to see a serious discussion of effective communication and stakeholder engagement take place at high levels of the policy community.

It’s a reassuring sign for our nation, and also for those who take strategic communication seriously.

But taking communication seriously doesn’t mean inventing “gee-whiz” tactics or, in Admiral Mullen’s words, sending message missles downrange.

Taking communication seriously means, as the title of Admiral Mullen’s essay suggests, getting back to basics: recognizing that effective communication requires taking stakeholders seriously.

As the famous 19th Century strategist Carl von Clausewitz said,

“In strategy the most important things are very simple.  But that doesn’t make them easy.”


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