by Helio Fred Garcia

Communication has power.  But as with any powerful tool, if misused it can easily be dissipated or cause self-inflicted harm.

The Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, and former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government, Joseph Nye, defines power as the ability to get what you want.  In his 2001 book The Paradox of American Power, Nye distinguishes between hard power – military force and economic might – and soft power – attraction.  He says that the paradox is this: the more a nation uses hard power, the more it dissipates soft power.  But it can use soft power all it wants without in any way diminishing its hard power.


Power Shifts

In his 2011 book, The Future of Power, professor Nye describes a power shift from state players to ordinary people.  This power shift changes the game for all concerned: for corporations, for NGOs, for governments, and for all others.  The power shift is this: what used to be the exclusive domain of governments, militaries, and corporations, are now the domain of regular people.

In a TED Talk at Oxford University he put it this way:

“Computing and communication costs have fallen a thousand-fold between 1970 and the beginning of this century… If the price of an automobile had fallen as rapidly as computing power you could buy a car today for five dollars.  …In 1970 if you wanted to communicate from Oxford to Johannesburg to New Delhi to Brasilia to anywhere, you could to it.  The technology was there.  But to do it, you had to be very rich.  A government.  A multi-national.  A corporation…. But you had to be pretty wealthy.   Now, anybody has that capacity… So capabilities that were once restricted, are now available to everyone.  And what that means is not that the age of the State is over, the State still matters, but the stage is crowded.”

We saw that power shift in 2011 when the Chinese government initially lied about a high-speed train crash and its victims.  But Chinese citizens took to the Chinese versions of social media, Sina Weibo and Renren, and embarrassed the Chinese premier into coming clean.

 Information as an Instrument of Power

 A new contribution to this discussion comes from Dr. Amy Zalman, in a recent policy piece in Perspectives.  Dr. Zalman, who is currently the Department of Defense Information Integration Chair at the National War College, grapples with a paradox about information as an instrument of power.

In “Getting the Information Albatross Off Our Back: Notes Toward an Information-Savvy National Security Community, Dr. Zalman notes, “while the effects of the information revolution on national security deepen, the American ability to act powerfully in these new circumstances remains shallow.”

Zalman cover

She says,

“We are virtually drowning in information —the words, images, and sounds through which humans communicate meaning to each other via various technologies, from the human voice to remote sensors. Yet, the United States wields ‘the information instrument of national power’ — as national security parlance would have it — poorly.”

Dr. Amy Zalman

Dr. Amy Zalman


She observes that rapid advances in communication technology have fundamentally changed society – not only relations between citizens and governments, but for all forms of institutions among themselves, and among those who matter to them.  She says,

“These changes are so profound as to have chipped away at the bedrock of the international system, the sovereign state. Once considered inviolable, the autonomous boundaries of states are now transgressed daily by people, news, and ideas set in motion by new technologies.

Yet no such revolution has occurred concerning the United States’ priorities when it comes to using informational power. Both in normative documents, such as the National Security Strategy, and in actual practice, the United States appears to think little of informational power as a strategic instrument.”

We Need a Mindshift to Accompany the Power Shift

Zalman argues that incremental reforms will not resolve the basic problem: The United States organizes information activities on the basis of a Cold War mindset.

“During the Cold War, it made good sense to think of the informational ‘instrument’ of power as the capacity to inject American values into populations whose governments and/or technological advancement limited their access to outside ideas.”

Hence the overwhelming success then of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.   They projected American voices to where they could not otherwise be heard.

But Dr. Zalman admonishes that we are no longer in the Cold War.

“Soon, almost everyone in the world will be able to receive as well as disseminate informational content. There are few populations that are unknowingly isolated from others’ media. The ideological landscape is variegated and complex, not bipolar.”

Zalman Callout

Consider the failure of US public diplomacy in the aftermath of 9/11:

“The failure of the Cold War/Industrial Age model should be clear from the informational debacles of 
the ‘global war on terror.’ In the decade following the 9/11 attacks, just as in the Cold War, the United States sought to “tell its story” to Muslim publics that we imagined not only as isolated from information about the United States, but as geographically secluded in Muslim majority countries.

The effort backfired among not only satellite TV- saturated cosmopolitans in Arab and Western capitals, but also provincial Afghans who in some areas had not heard of the 9/11 attacks. In both cases, the mistake was the same: the United States failed to note that people everywhere already have their own narratives, their own histories, and their own ways of articulating even the values we universally share.”

Prescriptions for Effective Use of Information as an Instrument of Power

Dr. Zalman calls for a new conceptual framework and a new alignment of resources to mobilize power within that framework.  It consists of the following:

  1. Retire the Cold War/Industrial Age Information Model.
  2. Instill a New Framework of Information Power. Using information powerfully today requires the ability to
    • “Act in accordance with the fact that actions, as well as intended communications, relay meaning to others
    • Use different kinds of communicative media to distribute and collect information
    • Develop and sustain networks required to tackle multi-disciplinary issues
    • Engage other stakeholders by aligning goals and interests on an issue-by-issue basis
    • Navigate the symbolic territory of adversaries, friends, and key stakeholders. By ‘symbolic territory,’ I mean that landscape of historical memory, stories, images, figures of speech, and metaphors through which people understand and relate their experiences.”

3. The education of professional senior leaders should reflect and promote a new framework of thinking.

4. The United States Government should organize informational activities to generate informational power.

“Today, we need a new model that reflects the fact that all government actions and activities are potentially communicative, and that this situation poses both risks and opportunities. Every agency should house an office of informational power to develop proactive communications risk strategies, to exploit opportunities for mutual engagement— whether military exercises or agricultural exchanges— and to coordinate with other USG agencies.”

Lessons for Leaders and Communicators in Business and Other Realms

Whether at the national level or at the level of individual business enterprises, NGOs, not-for-profits, and other organizations, we need to think differently about telling our story.

It’s not about telling our story.  It’s about connecting with our stakeholders, and having them share in our story.  We need to be as good at listening as at sending messages.  We can’t direct until we connect.  Or as I say in The Power of Communication, we can’t move people until we meet them where they are.  But that means knowing where they are; caring about where they are; and mobilizing resources to actually connect.


Your feeback welcome.



by Helio Fred Garcia

About two years ago, just before the publication of The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively, I began teaching as a guest speaker in the Public Affairs Leadership Department at US Defense Information School (DINFOS) at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland.  I am usually the first speaker on the first day of a weeks-long Joint Senior Public Affairs Officer Course,  Joint Senior Non-Commissioned Public Affairs Officer Course, and occasionally also the  Joint Intermediate Public Affairs Officer  Course.  I teach five to six times a year, and I’m honored that both The Power of Communication and my US Marine Corps Gazette Schulze Essay are required readings.

Helio Fred Garcia at US Defense Information School

Helio Fred Garcia at US Defense Information School

Each course is different based on the rank of the students, but my role is the same: on Day One, even before they get formal instruction from senior military and national security officials, to help students understand decision criteria and how to push back on senior officers or civilian leaders who might be making questionable decisions.   My session, Ethical Decision-Making for Public Affairs Officers, works them through decision criteria for maintaining trust and confidence, complete with case studies, and closes with the Abu Ghraib case study.  In each of the sessions I have come away impressed with the students’ sophistication, aptitude, and integrity.  And also at the frustration they sometimes feel when they can see things about to go awry but are unable to intervene.

Helio Fred Garcia teaching Ethical Decision-making for Public Affairs Officers at DINFOS, April 28, 2014

Helio Fred Garcia teaching Ethical Decision-Making for Public Affairs Officers at DINFOS, April 28, 2014

Meeting My Mentor

On my last visit, by sheer coincidence, DINFOS was hosting a VIP guest: my dear friend and mentor, the crisis guru Jim Lukaszewski.  No single practitioner has had a more meaningful impact on my work than Jim.  He became my mentor more that 25 years ago.  We have worked together, taught together, published together, and I have been much the better for all of it.  It was Jim who initially got me involved with the Marines 24 years ago.  And Jim who first encouraged me to publish, 26 years ago.  And when I decided to start my own firm 12 years ago, Jim very generously helped me understand how to do it with a minimum of mistakes.  He has encouraged me and challenged me and helped me for more than a quarter century.

Double Whammy

So although we happened to be at DINFOS on the same day by chance, and completely unrelated to my class, we decided to make the best of it.   I invited Jim to speak to my students during my session.

Helio Fred Garcia with Crisis Guru Jim Lukaszewski at the Joint Senior Public Affairs Officer Course at DINFOS April 28, 2014

Helio Fred Garcia with Crisis Guru Jim Lukaszewski at the Joint Senior Public Affairs Officer Course at DINFOS April 28, 2014

Jim helped the students better understand the ways their bosses make choices and how to influence those choices.  And I was able throughout my remarks to point to where I had gotten those ideas in the first place — the other fellow in civilian clothes in the classroom.

And I was delighted to see that DINFOS also assigned two of Jim’s books, which I also teach in my NYU courses and recommend to clients: Why Should The Boss Listen to You: Seven Disciplines of Trusted Strategic Advisor, and Lukaszewski on Crisis Communication: What Your CEO Needs to Know About Reputation Risk and Crisis Management.  I am gratified that my students have the chance to read Lukaszewski (the Three-Minute Drill from Why Should the Boss Listen to You is worth the price of admission!).

What Awaits Students on Their Arrival at DINFOS Joint Senior Public Affairs Officer Course

What Awaits Students on Their Arrival at DINFOS Joint Senior Public Affairs Officer Course


Paying it Forward

I have been extremely fortunate — I sometimes think blessed — that in the course of my career people have gone out of their way to help me.

This began during my first year in PR at Edelman when Jody Quinn and Mel Ehrlich each took this awkward classics geek under their wing and taught me to be a business communicator and consultant.  And six years later when Jim took me on.  And there have been countless other teachers (Fraser Seitel taught me speechwriting in 1983!), bosses, and colleagues who have taken me aside and made me a better professional.  None of us is an island.  It really does take a village.

And I take joy in paying it forward to the next generation — whether in my own firm, with my clients, with my students at NYU and other institutions.

But usually when a boss, colleague, or mentor is done, we rarely see them again.  So it was a particular joy to find myself serendipidously working again with Jim, at DINFOS.

My students were certainly the better for it.  And it serves as a good reminder that our success is not ours alone: However far we see it is because we stand on the shoulders of others.  And that every teacher is simultaneously also a student…

Thanks, Jim…

Helio Fred Garcia (L) and James E. Lukaszewski at US Defense Information School

Helio Fred Garcia (L) and James E. Lukaszewski at US Defense Information School





Even as America mourns and tries to make sense of Friday morning’s massacre in Aurora, Colorado, there are some lessons emerging on appropriate — and inappropriate — response to tragedy.

Context Drives Meaning

Context drives meaning.  Words, actions, or events that are perfectly appropriate one day may be wildly inappropriate, distasteful, offensive, or even inaccurate the next.  One key discipline for leaders and organizations is to continuously adapt to changing circumstances that may alter the context in which communication takes place.

The shooting that left 12 dead and 58 wounded in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater is such an event.

Unknown Object Read more

Two years ago yesterday BP CEO Tony Hayward inadvertently got his wish when, in the thick of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, he told a press conference, “I want my life back.”   He was sacked soon thereafter.  In the battle for public opinion – for trust, support, the benefit of the doubt – Hayward lost.  It was a failure of leadership on a massive scale.  And it began with a failure of communication.  And that failure, in turn, was a failure of discipline.

Hayward’s blunder is not unique to him.  It should be a wakeup call to CEOs and other leaders, to all whose leadership responsibilities require inspiring trust and confidence verbally.

Whatever else leadership may be, it is experienced publicly. While it may emanate from within, it is a public phenomenon.  And however technically proficient someone may be, if her or she does not communicate effectively, he or she will not lead well. Communication has power.  But as with any form of power, it needs to be harnessed effectively or it can all too often backfire.

In 33 years of advising leaders on the actions and communication needed to win, keep, or restore public confidence, I have concluded that many leaders, much of the time, fundamentally misunderstand communication. This misunderstanding has consequences: corporations lose competitive advantage; NGOs 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.

Today SmartBlog on Leadership published an excerpt from The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively, starting with Mr. Hayward’s blunder, and moving from there.

The full excerpt is published below.

General Management, Inspiring Others
Guest Blogger

Leadership communication isn’t about saying things; it’s about taking change seriously

By Helio Fred Garcia on June 1st, 2012

Tony Hayward, then CEO of BP, told the media in 2010 that he wanted his life back. He got it, but not in the way he intended. His quote was part of an ineffective attempt to show he cared about the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.

The full quote: “I’m sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. And you know we’re — there’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.” But the back end got all of the attention. He had stepped on his message.

It was the beginning of the end for Hayward. He was out of a job a few months later, having lost the trust and confidence of those who mattered to him. His blunder was a failure of leadership on a massive scale. And it began with a failure of communication. And that failure, in turn, was a failure of discipline.

A burden of leadership is to be good at communicating. If you can’t communicate effectively, you will not lead. But there’s a paradox: Unlike most other skills a leader needs to master, communication seems to be something leaders already know; they’ve been communicating their whole lives. So leaders often are unaware of their communication abilities, or lack thereof, until it’s too late.

Harnessing the power of communication is a fundamental leadership discipline. Effective leaders see communication as a critical professional aptitude and work hard at getting it right. And getting it right requires becoming strategic as a first resort: thinking through the desired change in the audience and ways to make that happen. And then making it happen.

Effective communicators take change seriously: They ground their work in moving people to be different, think differently, feel differently, know or do things differently. Effective communicators also take the audience seriously. They work hard to ensure that all engagement moves people toward their goal. That means caring about what the audience thinks and feels and what it will take to get the audience to think and feel something else. It means listening carefully to the reaction, adapting where needed and not saying things that suggest they care only about themselves (I want my life back!).

Effective communicators also take words seriously. They know that words trigger world views and provoke reaction. They plan engagement so the right words are used to trigger the right reaction. Effective communicators also know that the best communication can be counterproductive if it isn’t aligned with action. And effective communicators take seriously the need to package all that an audience experiences — verbal, visual, abstract and physical — into one powerful experience.

The Discipline of Effective Leadership Communication

Six questions to ask before communicating

Effective leadership communication never begins with “What do we want to say?” but rather with a sequence of questions. An effective communicator always begins by asking questions in a certain sequence.

  1. What do we have? What is the challenge or opportunity we are hoping to address?
  2. What do we want? What’s our goal? Communication is merely the continuation of business by other means. We shouldn’t communicate unless we know what we’re trying to accomplish.
  3. Who matters? What stakeholders matter to us? What do we know about them? What further information do we need to get about them? What are the barriers to their receptivity to us, and how do we overcome those barriers?
  4. What do we need them to think, feel, know or do to accomplish our goal?
  5. What do they need to see us do, hear us say or hear others say about us to think, feel, know and do what we want them to?
  6. How do we make that happen?


Marrakech Mosque at Sunset

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.

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Now in Circulation



I am pleased to announce that The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively is now in circulation!

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Friends, I’m very pleased to announce the pending publication of my new book, The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively.  It is being published by FT Press/Pearson.

The formal publication date is May 6, but pre-orders are available now for both print and e-books, individual or bulk orders. E-book versions will be available April 26 directly from FT Press.   Amazon says that pre-ordered books should be received by customers in New York by May 9.  Bulk orders at a discount can be made at CEO Read.

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 View from the 23rd Floor by Laurel HartAt least so far, March is acting more lamb than lion here in New York City, but we’ll see what the rest of the month brings.

  • WikiLeaks: The first of a new set of emails obtained by WikiLeaks was released last week, with additional analysis from news organizations expected in the coming weeks.
  • Boycotts, Reputation and Bottom Line: With boycotts a recurring topic, this research from last fall caught our eye this past week: professor Brayden King at the Kellogg School at Northwestern University showed that “the stock price of a targeted company dropped nearly 1 percent for each day of national print media coverage.”  In addition, he found that “even if consumer behavior was unchanged by a boycott, a company’s stock price and reputation were not.” In addition, “25 percent [of boycotts generated] a concession from the target company.”
  • Limbaugh and Apology: There were ample examples of apologies and corporate statements surrounding the Limbaugh controversy this past week, including from Limbaugh himself, and former advertisers Carbonite, ProFlowers, Citrix, and others.
  • Facebook Assessment Tool: We’re fans of the US Air Force Web Posting Response Assessment, a helpful tool in evaluating online content, and were pleased to see this new Facebook assessment worksheet and checklist from the US Navy on evaluating strategy, administration, content, measurement and more, on David Rosen’s blog.
  • Newspapers and New Business Models: Newly released research from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found “for every $1 gained in digital, $7 are lost in print revenue,” highlighting the challenges many newspapers face in implementing new business models today.

I have just returned from two weeks of teaching in China, and it has gotten me thinking.


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“The nicest thing about not planning is that

failure comes as a complete surprise,

rather than being preceded by a period of

worry and depression.”

Sir John Harvey-Jones

The catastrophic loss of the Deepwater Horizon rig on the Macondo well seemed to come as a complete surprise, especially to those who were closest to it. It shouldn’t have.

Last year I blogged that the seeds of the Deepwater Horizon explosion were planted well before April 20, 2010.

The verdict is now in on the BP disaster: The sequence of mis-steps that resulted in 11 people killed and millions of barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico was the result of a failure of leadership and management on a massive scale.

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