"Strategic Communication" Is Vague: Say What You Mean

By Paul, Christopher | Joint Force Quarterly, January 2010 | Go to article overview

"Strategic Communication" Is Vague: Say What You Mean


Paul, Christopher, Joint Force Quarterly


The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms tells us that strategic communication consists of "[f]ocused United States Government efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of United States Government interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power." (1) This definition causes some problems. Although it is generally reflective of prevailing thought on strategic communication, it is vague and imprecise. It is not always clear what is and what is not part of strategic communication. Worse, this definition belongs only to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD); the rest of the interagency community does not subscribe to (nor does it explicitly reject) this definition. None of the relevant interagency partners (including the U.S. Department of State, National Security Council, Broadcasting Board of Governors, U.S. Agency for International Development, and potentially others) has a formal published definition of strategic communication (or strategic communications, pluralized as it is often used outside DOD). Many individual scholars and specialists have offered definitions, but these vary considerably. (2)

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Despite this lack of an agreed definition of the term, there is a vague impression of consensus that when one of us says "strategic communication," we all know what we are talking about, and we know that it is important. This perception of mutual meaning is in some sense correct, but the lack of a precise and agreed lexicon is preventing deeper shared understanding and making it harder to identify specific problems and solutions in this arena. The solution is simple: when talking about strategic communication, say what you mean.

Elsewhere, I have argued for a broad and inclusive definition of strategic communication. (3) What I offer here is not in contradiction to it. At the enterprise level, I maintain that all of the actions and utterances of representatives of the U.S. Government contribute potential information and influence, and that those activities can be harnessed and synchronized in support of national or theater strategic objectives. Where I am breaking new ground is in identifying discrete elements of the strategic communication enterprise and advocating that those employing the term immediately specify which element or elements they are talking about.

Five Elements

I find that the term strategic communication is usually meant to denote one or more of five things:

* enterprise level strategic communication

* strategic communication planning, integration, and synchronization processes

* communication strategies and themes communication, information, and influence capabilities

* knowledge of human dynamics and analysis or assessment capabilities.

Enterprise level strategic communication was touched on above and is "capital S, capital C" Strategic Communication. This is the commonly shared understanding of the term, and it embraces a potentially broad range of government activities and encourages their coordination toward national or theater strategic ends. This term is useful only to indicate what general activity domain a discussion is targeting and to remind everyone that all actions and utterances have information and influence potential--and that this potential can be harnessed and aligned in support of national or theater goals. Any deeper discussion of strategic communication requires a more careful specification of what, exactly, we intend to talk about.

Current DOD strategic communication cognoscenti regularly expound that "strategic communication is a process." (4) The community, however, would be better served by specifying this as strategic communication planning, integration, and synchronization processes and by leaving the broader umbrella term in place and inclusive of other elements. …

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"Strategic Communication" Is Vague: Say What You Mean
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