Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

On the Nature of Strategic Communications

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

On the Nature of Strategic Communications

Article excerpt

Strategic communications, as now generally understood within the Department of Defense (DOD), encompass (to use the bureaucratic terms of art) public affairs, "defense support for public diplomacy," and military psychological operations (PSYOP). That there has been something less than smooth cooperation among these various components is hardly a secret.

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In the fall of 2001, for instance, the Pentagon established an Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) with significant funding of its own to plan and coordinate a joint and coalition campaign to shape the communications battlefield in the war on terror. This promising initiative promptly blew up. In early 2002, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld felt compelled to disestablish OSI when press accounts alleged that the office was placing so-called disinformation in the American media (later investigation showed the charges to be false or grossly misleading). Evidently, these attacks were inspired from within the Pentagon itself by elements of the DOD public affairs community. Continuing tension between the PSYOP and public affairs communities over the fundamental nature of strategic communications remains perhaps the most serious impediment to more effective action by the Defense Department in this critical arena. (1)

Truth Versus Journalism

The OSI incident highlights the powerful constraints imposed on the U.S. Government in the strategic communications arena by American political culture--more specifically, the culture of the so-called mainstream media. These constraints operate in several ways. Most obviously, the media directly shape the strategic communications agenda by defining what is newsworthy, setting the standards by which news is reported, and framing news items in what might be called a narrative of their own. Anyone familiar with the operating environment of the media understands the power of such narratives and how difficult it is to correct the impression they initially make on an audience. Second, and not so obviously, the media form the strategic communications agenda by shaping the outlook of those laboring in the strategic communications vineyards. In fact, many of these people were trained as journalists, worked in commercial journalism before joining the government, and are deeply invested in the fundamental assumptions of the media world.

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Among these fundamental assumptions is a set of beliefs about what I shall simply call "truth"--about what constitutes truth in the context of journalism as well as the value of truth so understood. A careful analysis of these beliefs can help us understand the limitations of contemporary journalism and thereby provide some necessary perspective on the proper tasks and challenges facing strategic communications by governments.

Perhaps the overriding characteristic of journalistic truth is empiricism. By this I mean that journalists anchor their stories by reference to observed facts or to facts or opinions derived from contact with living individuals. The problem, of course, is that facts do not simply speak for themselves and also that recitals of facts by themselves are unappealing as a practical matter to the mass audiences for whom journalists write. So these facts are embedded in a story that links them and tries to make sense of them (the "narratives" I mentioned earlier). Good journalism is defined by skill in melding facts with narratives. Bad journalism has two extremes; the more dangerous is the extreme that purveys narratives at the expense of facts--often disguised through a selective use of facts or indeed of invented facts or pseudo-facts. Spectacular cases of bad journalism of this sort are not especially rare these days even in American media of the highest prestige (The New York Times being a recent case in point). It is also worth noting that such journalism is more the norm than the exception in many other parts of the world, and particularly in the Middle East. …

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