Guest Post: The Rosetta Stone for Strategic Communication? More like Speak 'N Spell

By Matt Morgan

In the most recent issue of Joint Forces Quarterly, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, has put his name on a short commentary that states, "It is time for us to take a harder look at "strategic communication."

The apparent point of the piece is that the admiral believes the military has walked away from the original intent of Strategic Communication, allowing it to "become a thing instead of a process, an abstract thought instead of a way of thinking."

The article presents a number of reasonably good points, most notably the conclusive statement that we need to pay much more attention to what our actions communicate. Unfortunately, the overall effect of the essay makes the Chairman appear late to the game in the eyes of those most engaged in SC concept development. For the most part there is little here to disagree with. But the central argument offers very few substantive observations not already addressed in the USJFCOM Strategic Communication Joint Integrating Concept. Furthermore, it doesn't so much as bother to acknowledge the DoD's own SC principles [PDF 1.5Mb], which include -- among others -- Dialogue, Understanding, Credibility, and Unity of Effort; all key themes presented more or less effectively by the Chairman.

But what is most noteworthy about this editorial is the fact that the writing itself is painfully acerbic -- a tone that is wildly off the mark. For this, there is but one reason: The principal authors of this piece were on the attack. In the process of counting coup on their enemies, however, the writers have exposed a gap in their own understanding of U.S. military leaders' capacity to observe, understand, and adapt.

Unfortunately, the reason for this gap can be laid at the feet of a few members of the Chairman's own personal staff. Over the past few years, Adm. Mullen's Public Affairs Office has systematically refused to take part in DoD's various attempts to develop its integration processes or other Joint Staff and DoD efforts to coordinate organizational communication. As such, select members of the office appear ignorant to the efforts of other professionals across the U.S. military. They have failed to be the good listeners they claim to hold in such high esteem, and have consequently produced what reads like a condescending lecture from the Chairman.

Let us all be clear as to what this is really about. This is a turf war, and the authors have committed the ultimate sin of a staff officer: They have used their boss' visage to advance their agenda, and in the process drawn an unfair portrait of a senior leader blind to the most progressive thinkers in his organization.

The authors are quick to undermine the term Strategic Communication, writing that the Chairman doesn't care for it because, "We get too hung up on that word, strategic." I don't know who the "we" is in this case, but I can assure the Chairman that this is only true among those afflicted by what I call the "Type A" misunderstanding; that is, those who cannot get beyond the most literal comprehension of the word strategic. Oh, yes, a few of these types are out there. But when it comes to military leadership, anyone who has ever used the now-cliché term strategic corporal has at least a basic understanding of the notion that tactical actions can affect communication -- for better or worse -- at the strategic level.

The stated thesis of the essay, however, is belied by its conclusion:

Strategic communication should be an enabling function that guides and informs our decisions and not an organization unto itself. Rather than trying to capture all communication activity underneath it, we should use it to describe the process by which we integrate and coordinate.

Ah, there it is. The fear of subordination revealed.

Contrast this closing paragraph with the SC JIC, which describes SC as an "integrating function that occurs across the full range of military operations" which serves to "inform operational decision-making." What's more, it states that "This involves listening as much as transmitting. It applies not only to information, but also to physical communication -- that is, action that conveys meaning."

The old PA-paranoia is really at the heart of this editorial, exhibited by the implication that some are trying to place "all communication activity" underneath SC--the same paranoia which can be seen as far back as this 2004 memo [PDF, 87KB]. The article is really far less about clarifying the Chairman's view of SC.

There's nothing new here. Yes, it's damn important, but it's not new. Really, the biggest weakness of the article is not in what it fails to represent, but what it misrepresents. The argument that we can't or shouldn't organize to a process is hollow and exposes the fact that good old bureaucratic in-fighting is what really keeps us from getting better at this. Sure, I recognize that some of the COCOMs may be moving in the wrong direction -- but the process of listening, understanding, and informing decision-making requires organizational support. Isn't the Joint Staff itself a great example? There are 1,200 personnel in that organization -- but then there are lots of PowerPoint slides to be built.

Here's the long and short of it: DoD needs to be in the SC business--etymology of the term be damned. The generation of leaders that has come of age in this war--those who have real experience on the ground--they know what SC is, they know how to do it, and they are getting better at it. If the Chairman can shatter the rice bowls and inspire the force, we can succeed. Unfortunately, essays like this muddy the water and inhibit adoption of a valid approach to integration.

One final point: There was a "strat comm" plan to rebuild Europe -- that's precisely what the Marshall Plan was. Sure, the term strat comm wasn't around then. But then neither was the Joint Staff.

Lieutenant Colonel Matt Morgan is the Director of Public Affairs at US Marine Corps Forces Command. His comments above are his own.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MountainRunner.us. They are published here to further the discourse on global engagement.

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