Public Engagement 101: What Strategic Communication Is, Isn't, and Should Be

By Lord, Kristin M. | Joint Force Quarterly, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Public Engagement 101: What Strategic Communication Is, Isn't, and Should Be


Lord, Kristin M., Joint Force Quarterly


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We need to get back to basics." With these words, Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for a hard look at U.S. strategic communication in Joint Force Quarterly 55 (4th Quarter 2009). Admiral Mullen rightly noted that actions speak louder than words, that credibility and trust are key, and that the United States undermines its own power when our government fails to live up to its promises and our nation's values. He called on Americans to be better listeners and to engage foreign audiences, not to arrogantly fire off messages like so many verbal missiles. (1) On all these points, Admiral Mullen is correct. His serious consideration of strategic communication is a welcome contribution to an often stale debate.

This article builds on the Chairman's recent articles and speeches, arguing that public engagement is a powerful instrument of statecraft that can advance our country's broader national security strategy in concert with diplomatic, economic, and military instruments. It can be used to amplify and reinforce the messages sent by our actions. It can also build critical long-term relationships, increasing the odds that the messages we intend our actions to send are actually the messages received.

Strategic communication can realistically accomplish these objectives. Yet to get back to basics, we must also recognize strategic communication's limits and when failure is a result of the application, not the tool. Like any instrument of policy, strategic communication has not always been used well. This is an indictment of the craftsmen, not the craft. We need to rethink, not reject, public engagement as an instrument of national security policy.

What Strategic Communication Is--and Isn't

Strategic communication--or as my colleague John Nagl and I prefer to call it, strategic public engagement--is the promotion of national interests through efforts to inform, engage, and influence foreign publics. (2) Its importance is growing due to the spread of pluralistic governance, increasing importance of transnational challenges such as transnational crime and terrorism that require global cooperation, widespread availability of cheap and instantaneous information and communications technologies that devolve power to individuals, and limits of force in theaters where the application of violence actually mobilizes support for our enemies. The use of armed force and traditional diplomacy will always be critical. However, they must be bolstered by a comprehensive effort to engage publics, who hold the ability to confer legitimacy and tangible support.

Increasingly, foreign publics have the power to facilitate or block the achievement of American national security interests. Whether the United States seeks to undermine support for various Taliban groups, convince allies to devote more resources to Afghanistan and Pakistan, build global pressure on Iran, or place a new command in Africa, public support is crucial. Engaging foreign publics is also essential to counterinsurgency strategies, whose success hinges on popular legitimacy. Not unlike the Cold War, ideas and ideologies are central to current security threats. Then, as now, the ability to win support for a political ideal, attack competing visions, and undermine the people and networks that hold those competing visions is necessary for success. Military might remains critical, but engagement, persuasion, and the power of an appealing vision are also essential to achieving national security objectives.

Actions speak louder than words, but they are interpreted in a highly contested marketplace of ideas. As public diplomacy guru Marc Lynch points out, "Everything is subject to spin, framing, and interpretation." (3) Even verifiable facts are interpreted differently by different audiences. For instance, was the death of an Afghan interpreter during the recent rescue of a New York Times reporter a tragic and unintentional event or yet another sign that allied troops value Western life over Afghan life? …

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