Principles of Strategic Communication (Updated)

This is Part I of two posts on describing "Strategic Communication." Part II is here. In the coming months, reports and Congressional legislation will attempt to change how the United States communicates with the world. Called "public diplomacy" or "Strategic Communication," the importance of this type engagement has finally come to the forefront of our national security debate, at least for those taking a serious look at the present and future. Irregular conflict, the present and future reality of war, is based not on our ability to "kill our way to victory" but to operate in a local and global information environment.

When there are no capitals to take or "hearts" to be "won", real security comes through enduring engagement of local and global groups in a modern proxy struggle for minds and wills. Operating "by, with, and through" such groups not only extends our reach, but acts as a force multiplier against adversaries who elicit support in the global information environment for money, recruits, and sympathetic actions. Think Hamburg, Madrid, London, and Glasgow.

This people-centric engagement has long been called public diplomacy. Anchored in sixty year old legislation and functionally headquartered in the operational equivalent of the Department of Non-State, American public diplomacy was an effective tool in the war of ideas. That was before it was neutered in the switch to techno-centric solutions and a reversion to state-centric closed door diplomacy, however.

Unlike public diplomacy, strategic communication has no history. The term comes from the Defense Community's need to fill a theoretical and practical void left by ineffective or missing communication by the Government, notably the State Department. "Strategic Communication" has appeared in several reports, many without defining it, and is sometimes described and diagramed as encompassing public diplomacy. Other times, it is used as a synonym, as it was in the National Strategy on Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication. The recent Defense Sciences Board report on Strategic Communication does include a discussion of an earlier iteration of the principles however on pages 11 - 13.

While Under Secretary Jim Glassman will likely put forward a definition of America's reinvigorated public diplomacy soon, strategic communication is moving ahead with principles. Last month, Bob Hastings, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, signed off on a "Principles of Strategic Communication Guide" that, as is the way in DoD, incorporates action not just description. The principles are a "tool to assist dialogue and instruction promoting understanding Strategic Communication." Developed through a collaborative effort between the Defense Department, the State Department, and civilians, the document is a product of the under-reported aspect of the resource advantage Defense has over State: money, personnel, and an educational system to think about such things. (And of course a Secretary of Defense who is serious about not repeating mistakes.)

If you are interested in public diplomacy or strategic communication, this is a must read. From my point of view, the terms mean the same thing, much as "Canis" is to "dog", even if "strategic" and conceptualizing SC remain misleading, but so is "public diplomacy" after the switch to self-promotion from fighting a war of ideas.

The nine "fundamental tenets" are:

  • Leadership-driven: leaders must decisively engage and drive SC processes
  • Credible: perception of truthfulness and respect between all parties
  • Dialogue: multi-faceted exchange of ideas to promote understanding and build relationships
  • Unity of Effort: integrated and coordinated, vertically and horizontally
  • Responsive: right audience, right message, right time, and right place
  • Understanding: deep comprehension of attitudes, cultures, identities, behavior, history, perspectives and social systems. What we say, do, or show may not be what others hear or see
  • Pervasive: every action, image, and word sends a message
  • Results-Based: actions to achieve specific outcomes in pursuit of a well-articulated end-state
  • Continuous: diligent ongoing research, analysis, planning, execution, and assessment that feeds planning and action

As defined above and described in more detail in the document, the principles of strategic communication offer active guidance and true to the military hierarchy, acknowledges the hierarchy while understanding the critical "last three feet of engagement", to borrow a concept from public diplomacy. While the terms are not what you'd find in a description of public diplomacy (see also this relevant and timely point), the creates a framework for action.

Personally, I like the principles. The definition could drop "orchestration" and still be valid, though I understand its inclusion as "orchestration" is a key word connected to a model described here.