Small Wars Journal

Strategic Communication: A Tool for Asymmetric Warfare

Sat, 10/06/2007 - 5:54am
By Emily Goldman

Strategic communication is a vital activity for supporting our military operations and national interest. Information can affect attitudes, and ultimately behavior. It is one of the most important tools we have to shape the battlefield months and years in advance. It is indispensable now for fighting adversaries who employ non-traditional and asymmetric means. It can be effective in shaping memories of the past as well as planning for the future.

Communication can be a strategic weapon of mass influence to assure allies and dissuade and deter adversaries. It can give non-state actors state-like power to affect world events. Our adversaries are using communication and information very adeptly to do just that.

There are many unknowns about the future, but we know our adversaries will challenge us in the realm of ideas and information. They are doing so now. They are doing it effectively. We have not yet risen to the challenge. Strategy dictates that you play to your strengths and exploit the enemy's weaknesses. Our enemies know where we are strong and where we are weak. The question is, "Do we know where we are falling short and are we committed and able to adapt to the challenge?"

Currently, OSD, DOS, USAID, the Joint Staff, and Combatant Commands are developing strategic communication plans across a range of functional issues and regional areas because of the importance of the "contest of ideas" in many of the battles we face today. Strategic communication can be a cost-effective way to operate along the continuum from persuasion to coercion.

These efforts are proceeding, despite continuing debate over what strategic communication is. A definition of strategic communication is offered in QDR 2005 and Joint Pub 3-13: Focused United States Government (USG) efforts to understand and engage key audiences in order to create, strengthen or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of USG interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages and products synchronized with the actions of all elements of national power. This definition is unsatisfying. It conflates the "what" with the "how." Despite attempts to get broad buy-in, there has been considerable push back on this definition and the term continues to be used differently by different people inside government. Part of the reason is that strategic communication is in fact many things. It is a tool and instrument of power to support our national goals. It is a means to influence attitudes and behavior. It is a process of listening, understanding, and engaging audiences. It is a process of coordinating messages across our government and with our allies, and of synchronizing and integrating information with other instruments of national power. Strategic communication is both words and deeds.

At its core, strategic communication is a perception strategy. It is the massing of information, ideas and actions to align the perceptions of key audiences with our policy objectives. It is achieved through the synchronized promulgation of information, ideas and actions over time with means and content that are tailored for multiple and diverse audiences. This is a more succinct definition that allows us to begin developing a framework and doctrine for effective strategic communication. It highlights the fact that all communication is not strategic. Communication is strategic when the scope of communication activities are geared for multiple and diverse audiences (rather than a generic or specific audience); when it occurs continuously through time (rather than being discrete at one point in time); when communication is receiver-centric, or tailored for suitability to audiences (rather than sender-centric); and when words and actions are marshaled to advance policy goals.

Types of Communication

Strategic communication, like war, rests on core principles. We can apply the principles of war to guide our strategic communication efforts.

"Mass" requires that we exploit all communication models, mediums, time frames; that we reinforce words with deeds to alter beliefs on issues of importance to our national interest. One problem in the GWOT is the misdirected efforts that have gone to improving the US image abroad. It matters far less that others like us than that they don't try to kill us.

"Objective" means setting clear policy goals; understanding our audiences; and tailoring messages to audiences.

"Offensive" means shaping the information environment, not only reacting to enemy words and actions.

"Surprise" dictates that we use disarming words and actions to undermine the adversary and attract the uncommitted.

"Economy of Force" requires that we focus all resources on key objectives, both direct and indirect.

"Maneuver" means listening, monitoring, adjusting, and adapting. It is prudent to delegate down to lower levels for speed and responsiveness.

"Unity of Command" demands that we identify a lead to coordinate messages, synchronize words and deeds, and execute rapidly and continuously.

"Security" means communicating to others our rules of engagement.

"Simplicity" requires use of clear, consistent core messages and actions that flow from policy goals. General Petraeus succinctly captured our goals in Iraq: Unity; Prosperity; Security.

9 Principles of War Applied to Strategic Communication

To effectively support our policy goals, we must recognize that communication takes place in four domains. The physical domain is where action takes place. The information domain is where information is created, manipulated, and shared. In the social domain, information is interpreted through historical, cultural, political and social experiences. In the cognitive domain, understanding is created in the minds of individuals.

Data from the physical domain is transmitted through an information domain; it is mediated by a social domain; and it is interpreted in a cognitive domain. The interpretation of our words and deeds can result in changes in attitudes or behavior, ideally in support of our policy goals.

DoD competes with numerous actors -- from other governments to the entertainment industry -- for space in all domains. Effective strategic communication requires that we are successful in operating in all domains. In the physical domain, we have to manage the "say-do" gap. Our credibility is undermined when actions appear to undercut words. Not only do our words and deeds have a strategic communication impact, but so does their absence. What we do not do and say is just as important as what we do and say. There may be cases where we want to communicate ambiguity by creating a "say-do" gap. When this is the case, we must consciously make that decision.

In the information domain, for audiences to listen, we must use the communication channels that they trust. These channels may not be those we believe are the most credible to us, or that we are accustomed to using.

We live in a world where information is abundant, even in remote places. When information was hard to obtain and disseminate, strategic communication depended on controlling its transmission. Now that information is available in difficult to penetrate areas that are under adversary control, strategic communication will depend on the credibility of the messenger. What makes a messenger credible can vary across societies and cultures. It is likely to depend on cognitive and social beliefs as much as the truth of a message's content.

In the cognitive domain, we must understand the frames of reference others use to interpret the messages they receive, and ultimately try to alter them. As an example of communicating with Middle Eastern cultures, the most effective communications are processed in an emotional framework. The western world communicates using logic and reason. A USG Spokesperson on Al-Jazeera can be hailed as a great success from a USG viewpoint, but Middle Eastern audiences could find that presentation to be cold and unemotional. Additionally, Middle Eastern cultures generally enjoy -- literally thrive on -- conspiracy theories. While the Shi'a claim that the USG is responsible for both past (particularly the 1991 uprising that was put down by Saddam) and current problems, the Sunni claim that the USG, Israel, and Iran (the Shi'a) are conspiring to eliminate the Sunni from Iraq.

In the social domain, to be effective, we must anticipate and shape how concepts -- not simply words (like democracy and freedom) -- are translated. All people rely on cognitive frames and decision-making short-cuts to ease the demands of information processing and to eliminate cognitive dissonance. Those cognitive frames are reinforced by history, by personal experiences, upbringing and education, and by culture and collective beliefs. This means that better and more accurate information will not change attitudes and behavior if senders and receivers do not share underlying cognitive frames and social values. If we consistently work to break down stereotypes by engaging in disarming, and unexpected, behaviors, our words and deeds can create cognitive dissonance among fence sitters.

The US faces unique strategic communication challenges. Some are obstacles that can be overcome; others are constraints that we must accept.

First, because we are the most powerful state in the world, we have many diverse interests. This creates a large number of audiences that we need to reach on a number of topics ranging from economic policy to combating terrorism. Our adversaries, all weaker actors, can focus their efforts and resources on fewer audiences and fewer objectives.

The most prosperous corporations understand that public relations challenges change as their firm grows. Similarly, strategic communication problems for States change as they grow more powerful and prosperous. Global leaders experience more attacks, greater skepticism and more criticism. Challengers, on the other hand, are usually the ones that employ offensive, active strategic communication to establish credibility with constituents, and to discredit their adversaries. The result is that US leaders often find themselves on the defensive, and tend to use strategic communication reactively. US leaders can and should employ offensive strategic communication as well as defensive strategic communication.

Second, we have an open and transparent political system. Democratic debate is misperceived by some, and exploited by others. For example, recent Congressional debates on sanctions against Pakistan harmed our image in that country, even though that resolution failed. Excerpts from C-SPAN coverage of Congressional debates have appeared within 24 hours on Jihadi websites. A Senator's comments regarding dividing Iraq into three parts have been cited as proof that the USG plans on changing Iraq and the Middle East. An article in Armed Forces Journal discussing "The New Middle East" was quickly used as "proof" that the USG was planning to change borders of countries in the region.

Third, effective strategic communication requires both language skills and cultural understanding. It took the USG decades to develop these capabilities in the Cold War. We are now just beginning to rebuild and reorient the USG's linguistic and cultural expertise. The tri-department initiative of the Departments of State, Defense and Education to increase US education in Arabic and other languages critical to the Global War on Terrorism was an important step. USG departments and agencies are in competition for these valuable resources. We need to think of new ways to manage these national assets.

Fourth, our government is composed of large bureaucracies, which are slow to respond and difficult to coordinate. Our adversaries have the luxury of flatter organizational structures, which increases agility, speed, and coordination.

Fifth, we operate under legal constraints that our adversaries do not. The State Department continues to divide its focus between foreign and domestic audiences. The ability of DoD to provide support in the former arena can be stopped cold by a legal ruling regarding conflict with The Economy Act -- even in a specific case when the original concept of support came from a Combatant Command headquarters.

Finally, we suffer from a credibility problem and are continually playing public relations catch-up. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was seen by Eastern Europeans as the oppressor and we were viewed favorably, as the liberator. In the Middle East, the United States is cast as the oppressor, and now as the occupier, giving the adversary a clear credibility advantage over us.

Despite these challenges, strategic communication is a cost-effective tool for supporting our military objectives. It has a role to play in assuring our friends, dissuading potential competitors, and deterring and defeating our adversaries.

To execute strategic communication requires a planning methodology, based on an understanding of the four domains. The first step in the methodology is to define our policy goals. Effective strategic communication requires clear, consistent core messages that flow from policy goals.

Next, we need to identify the target audiences and conduct an audience analysis that assesses current perceptions and the desired effect on perceptions we would like to achieve. It is useful to think of audiences in terms of constituencies and adversaries. Our core constituency includes those who accept US core goals -- like freedom, individual rights, tolerance, rule of law, pluralism, and responsible governance -- as desirable. A broader constituency that we must try to reach includes those who may not identify with our core goals but who desire related goals -- like improved health, education, opportunity, family and personal betterment, personal dignity. Adversaries are those who reject core goals and who would compromise related goals. We should try to capture as broad a constituency as possible with our words and deeds.

Next, we must identify themes and tailor messages and actions for audiences. Where possible, we should frame messages to appeal to a broad and diverse audience. We already have creative examples of how the global war on terror can be framed to appeal to a broad diverse audience. "Sovereign Challenge" is a network for sovereign nation collaboration toward a global anti-terrorist environment. It sends the message that you don't have to be a US ally to be part of global combating terrorism network. What it says is that "Those who are not with the terrorists are with us." This is a much more palatable concept for other nations to accept and allows them cooperate with us in counter-terror activities without associating them with other USG policies that their domestic audiences might reject.

We can also learn from our experiences with political campaigns. Just as our domestic audience abhors negative campaign ads, there are advantages to focusing on positive campaign messages, on the goods and goals to be achieved that will appeal to a broad constituency.

How we identify the adversary in our messages is also important. We must capitalize on the tension between the constituency and adversary, to invoke the adversary as a threat to constituency interests. This can mobilize the constituency in support of our goals. However, imprecisely targeting the adversary may alienate other audiences by making them feel targeted too. For example, identifying the threat as "Islamic extremism" alienates many in the Muslim world because "Islamic" denotes a religion. Islamist denotes an ideology, and is a better descriptor of the threat. But ultimately, it may be more advantageous to delete all reference to "Islam" and focus on violent extremism in order to avoid the "us versus them" or "Islam versus the West" narrative that Al Qaeda uses. Language is immensely important and we must be effective "strategic listeners" if we are to be effective strategic communicators. An important start for DoD was to contract for an organization that finds and reports adversaries' information that is found in public domain, open source media with the goals of speed, accuracy, and an unclassified format that is readily useable.

We must recognize that messages intended for one audience are received by other audiences. Even what we say to each other -- in Congressional debates -- is overheard in world of global communications and is manipulated and distorted by adversaries to serve their agendas.

When we deliver our messages, we should be aware of which communication models, mediums and time frames will be most effective in reaching our target audience and achieving our goals. And we need to harmonize our words and deeds as we exploit all the tools at our disposal.

Several communication models are available. Monologue is the least effective for foreign audiences, but one we often employ. Monologue involves transmitting a message and informing an audience. This may work within the USG where there is a shared organizational culture and power hierarchy. We fail when we use this approach with foreign audiences.

More effective communication models are dialogue and indirect exchange. Dialogue involves an open exchange of ideas, which happens at our Regional Centers and other educational institutions. An indirect communication model is more appropriate for environments where trust and credibility are low. It allows for local empowerment of meaning and relies on trusted interlocutors. Think of the strategic effect if, in the wake of an attack by Al-Qa'ida or an associated movement, 10,000 Muslims took to the streets in Indonesia, carrying signs that say "Not in my name"; "Keep my faith pure"; "I believe in Allah; I believe in Muhammad; I don't believe in indiscriminate violence."

Strategic communication also requires that we exploit all available mediums to reach different audiences. In the information domain, this includes: radio; terrestrial TV and Cable; satellite TV; print; internet; streaming video and cellular phones. It also includes more traditional ways that information travels, like tribal councils and oral tradition. Actions speak as loudly as words: exercises; force posture; visits and person-to-person interactions at conferences and workshops; educational program; and exchanges. Reconstruction, trade and aid, or the lack thereof, can communicate our intent.

Strategic communication requires purposeful operation across time to shape the environment and react to it. We have to be able to respond to an instantaneous and continuous news stream. In some cases, there are advantages to developing campaigns over a 12-18 month period to shape the environment on a particular policy issue. Strategic communication is also about long-term engagement over decades and generations to win the hearts and minds of diverse audiences, and to influence future generations.

Finally, strategic communication can be effective across a range of issues; to act, not just react. We are working to communicate success stories, like the counterinsurgency successes we have had in the Philippines. We need to work to preserve the pro-US image that exists in places like Sri Lanka, and to curtail radical influences early on, in places like Bangladesh. It is also important to mobilize to reverse the tide on long-simmering issues, like detainee affairs.

We are living in an entirely new information environment and are engaged in the first war of the information age. We are fighting our first networked enemy and that enemy has a highly professional and sophisticated propaganda machine that exploits electronic media, most notably the Internet, to disseminate messages globally, to recruit adherents, and to provide pre-recorded videotapes and audiotapes to sympathizers. The enemy's center of gravity lies in the information domain and it is there that we must engage it. Strategic communication has become a core capability.

Emily Goldman is a Strategic Communication Advisor in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State. Previously, she served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Policy), Support to Public Diplomacy. She is an Associate Professor of Political Science, University of California, Davis. This article represents her personal views and does not represent official department or USG policy.


AffectEffect (not verified)

Tue, 10/09/2007 - 12:39pm

On the contrary, I think that the "concepts" of information dominance or superiority are rightfully excluded from what is one of the most noteworthy discussions of Strategic Communication I have ever read. While the expressions "information dominance" and "information superiority" are often tossed around (usually interchangeably) in discussion of operations in the information domain, I have never seen anything remotely approaching a useful definition for either.

Information is, by its nature, infinite. So how does one go about "dominating" it? And at what point does one achieve "superiority."

"Information Dominance/Superiority" are not valid concepts. Rather, they drawn from a twisting of terms better applied in reference to the finite domains of Air, Land and Sea; they are not useful expressions when discussing the information domain.

Further, the idea that these concepts would be "central" to information operations is not anything I have ever seen actually applied in practice--mostly because, I suspect, no one has any idea what either concept is supposed to mean, or otherwise intuits that neither is achievable.

Schmedlap (not verified)

Tue, 10/09/2007 - 12:06am

One thing that seems to be missing here is the concept of information dominance or information superiority - a concept central to information operations, which seems to be equally applicable to strategic communications. Did I miss it, or was it beyond the scope of the article? Or is there no such corresponding concept in strategic communications?