“Won by ideas”

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The late Colonel Harry Summers liked to tell a tale familiar to many who served in Vietnam. In April 1975, after the war was over, the colonel was in a delegation dispatched to Hanoi. In the airport, he got into a conversation with a North Vietnamese colonel named Tu who spoke some English and, as soldiers do, they began to talk shop. After a while, Colonel Summers said: “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.” Colonel Tu thought about that for a minute, then replied: “That may be so. But it is also irrelevant.”

If that conversation were to be held in today’s vocabulary, it would go something like this.

Colonel Summers: “You know, you never defeated us in a kinetic engagement on the battlefield.”

Colonel Tu: “That may be so. It is also irrelevant because we won the battle of strategic communication—and therefore the war.”

On a contemporary note, a US officer returning from Iraq said privately: “We plan kinetic campaigns and maybe consider adding a public affairs annex. Our adversaries plan information campaigns that exploit kinetic events, especially spectacular attacks and martyrdom operations. We aren’t even on the playing field, but al Qaeda seeks to dominate it because they know their war will be won by ideas.”

For five years, Americans have been struggling to comprehend strategic communication as they have seen the standing of the nation plummet around the world and political support at home evaporate for the war in Iraq. They have lamented the seeming failure of their government to persuade the Islamic world of America’s good intentions while Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda operate in the best fashion of Madison Avenue.

A perceptive Singaporean diplomat and scholar, Kishore Mahbubani, was asked two years ago what puzzled him about America’s competition with Osama bin Laden. Mahbubani replied: “How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world’s greatest communication society?”

From “Strategic Communication”, Parameters,  Autumn 2007, by Richard Halloran.

It is fairly easy to read the contemporary political situation in Australia into the anecdote above. Labor may well say that the Liberals have never defeated them on the floor of parliament. The Liberals respond that they may have lost those engagements, but they have won the strategic communications battle over Labor’s chief legislative achievements.

Recently, Peter Hartcher from the Sydney Morning Herald used an old military analogy from the British withdrawal from Afghanistan to shine a light on Labor’s woes.

While I think Hartcher’s analogy was fairly stretched and unconstructive, it is worth looking at strategic communication theory to see what progressive activists and communications practitioners can take. For example, most political strategists read Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz, and study military history.

“Strategic communications” is closely tied to positioning — to paraphrase: it is the efforts to engage and understand key audiences to create, strengthen and preserve conditions favourable for the advancement of an organisation’s interests, policies and objectives through coordinated programs, themes, messages and products. Positioning aims to devise the most favourable future for an organisation and achieving that future.

The focus on tactics — the daily engagements in parliament or the daily news cycle — takes away the time needed to develop a long-term plan for success.

Halloran has some useful things to say about communications in conflict situations.

Successful strategic communication assumes a defensible policy, a respectable identity, a core value. In commercial marketing, the product for sale must be well-made and desirable. The strategic communication stratagem hasn’t been built that can pull a poor policy decision out of trouble. Strategic communication begins with identifying audiences. In military terms, what are the targets? In most cases, that should be fairly easy—the government and public of an ally, the pro-American leaders in a neutral nation, the dissidents in a potential adversary, American citizens regardless of political party or geographic region whose support is essential. Some may be immediate believers, others may be dubious. All need to be addressed.

I’ve argued that Labor’s chief problem in recent times has been the erosion of its product, through “brand extension” into non-Labor policy categories. Without addressing those “product” issues, no amount of communications efforts (or “spin”) will work.

A basic, but difficult, political communication challenge is who are you talking to? A criticism of The Global Mail was that it said its audience was everyone, and subsequently its audience was no one. By communicating all the time, on every issue, as Labor is constantly pressured to do, you water down your key audience — diluting your message like the proverbial hose turned from a focused stream into a fine mist.

This is a challenge because of what Halloran calls “eavesdropping audiences” — which makes it increasingly difficult to craft unique messages for each audience.

Strategic communicators should be aware of what might be called “eavesdropping audiences.” The pervasive nature of communication technology today—news agencies, radio, television, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, movies, blogs, cell phones—makes it impossible to address a discrete audience. A single audience may be in mind but many other groups will hear, see, or read about the transmitted message. You cannot say one thing to one audience and something else to another.

The recent ACTU Congress is a good example of eavesdropping audiences. While the many speeches by union leaders, by Gillard and Kelty were appropriate for the audience of union officials in the conference centre, they were presented by the media in a very negative light.

Halloran’s article usefully includes some concrete advice for strategic communicators. For experienced public relations practitioners, this advice will seem self-evident, but as James Lacey (quoted below) notes, despite the proliferation of communications advice, we still see mistakes made.

James Lacey, a reserve Army colonel and a freelance journalist, once wrote: “Thousands of officers who spend countless hours learning every facet of their profession do not spend one iota of their time understanding or learning to engage with a strategic force that can make or break their best efforts.” The same could be said of leaders in other walks of public life. Thus the role of the printed press, television news, and radio news are needs to be underscored. They are an essential element of strategic communication—not the only element, by any means, but one that is vital to successful mass communications. Seven basic principles for dealing with the press are:

  • Project a professional and civil attitude, neither pandering to the press nor evincing hostility. The old saying applies: “You catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a barrel of vinegar.” Besides, the journalists own the printing presses and buy ink by the 55-gallon drum.
  • Understand that there is no such institution as “the media.” The press, television, and radio are too diverse, too competitive, and too unruly to be classed as an institution. The biggest difference is between print and broadcast. Print reporters need time and explanation; broadcasters need pictures and sound bites.
  • Learn the ground rules, which is press lingo for the rules of engagement. Know what is on the record, on background and not for attribution, and off the record. The safest rule is always tell a journalist only what you want to see in the newspaper or on the air.
  • Lying to the press is never permissible. Idealistically, it would be an ethical violation. Realistically, the liar will probably get caught and his credibility will be destroyed. A time may well come when you need the press to believe you, and they won’t. Lastly, the truth is easier to remember the next time around.
  • Mind your own business and discuss matters pertinent to your nation, service, rank, and position. Never speculate since what you say could be overtaken by events. Never answer a hypothetical question, for the same reason. Never submit to an ambush interview, when the camera catches you off guard.
  • Anticipate, don’t wait for the news to happen, go make the news. Muslims are killing more Muslims than are Americans, but US officials rarely make a point of this. Also, be ready to react as the press and TV will be there. Like Murphy’s Law, assume that “what can leak out will leak out.”
  • Never let a mistake stand. Form robust “truth squads.” Uncorrected mistakes get into the public domain and databases to acquire a life of their own and are often repeated and compounded. Moreover, journalists don’t learn unless their mistakes are pointed out.

This last piece of advice is particularly apt in my view.

When Clinton was looking at re-election, he created a political communication ‘War Room’ whose role was immediate response to negative stories: rebuttal and correction. This effective approach — which allowed Clinton to constantly stay on top of the negative smears directed against him by the Republicans — was ignored by John Kerry’s campaign. It took him days to respond to the Swift Boat attacks, by which time the mud had stuck.

Obama’s campaign set up the “Fight the Smears” website, specifically designed to have immediate response to Republican lies against him.

In Australia, the dangers of letting “uncorrected mistakes” into the public domain are apparent. During the pink batt “scandal”, Labor was slow off the mark responding to the accusations that the home insulation scheme was responsible for deaths, when in fact, fires and deaths actually went down as a result of the program.

But before we get to these important tactical considerations, we need to get back to the basics. Who is the audience? Where do we want to be? What is the best way to get there? We can have a strong tactical team, but as the history of recent US military engagements have shown, even the strongest military in the world can’t win wars if it doesn’t know what victory is.

There should be no great mystery about what strategic communication is nor an unnecessarily complicated definition of it. In short, strategic communication is a way of persuading other people to accept one’s ideas, policies, or courses of action. In that old saw, it means “letting you have my way.” Strategic communication means persuading allies and friends to stand with you. It means persuading neutrals to come over to your side or at least stay neutral. In the best of all worlds, it means persuading adversaries that you have the power and the will to prevail over them. Vitally important, strategic communication means persuading the nation’s citizens to support the policies of their leaders so that a national will is forged to accomplish national objectives. In this context, strategic communication is an essential element of national leadership.

This article is titled “Won by Ideas” because underlying strategic communications is the importance of ideas and values, and of leadership. The marketing Law of Singularity says that success comes from a “single bold stroke”. In military terms, artillery gunners are trained “make bold corrections because the eye often underestimates the distance to the right or left, up or down that the gun’s aim must be adjusted to hit the target.”

So it is with strategic communication. Labor needs that “bold correction” — not just a quick fix, a change of leadership, a new announcement. We need to recapture that “single stroke” that led us to victory in 2007, in 1983 or 1972.

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