Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Revisioning Strategic Communication through Rhetoric and Discourse Analysis

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Revisioning Strategic Communication through Rhetoric and Discourse Analysis

Article excerpt

Strategic communication is an important but contested issue, visible in continuing criticisms over the last 5 years. One critique is that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) definition of the term strategic communication is vague and idiosyncratic in relation to the definitions of other agencies. In turn, this argument runs, the lack of conceptual clarity and of shared, precise terminology hurts the implementation and further development of strategic communication. (1) Additional concerns have been raised about the lack of both domestic interagency and foreign partner coordination and cooperation and the absence of credible expertise in strategic communication. (2) Still, criticisms point to high visibility failures in strategic communication--for example, the 2001 "Shared Values" campaign and the 2012 U.S. Presidential response to the "Innocence of Muslims" video--as evidence of both strategic communication conceptual flaws and implementation failures. (3)

I propose here that strategic communication can be made more conceptually robust and draw on a more powerful and useful suite of tools and methods by borrowing from two language-focused disciplines: rhetoric and discourse analysis. Rhetoric offers an explanatory framework for how and why communication fails or succeeds, as well as practical domain knowledge for how to design and effect sound communication strategies, while discourse analysis is a set of approaches and methods to analyzing real-world language use (discourse). Rhetoric, a humanities discipline centered on argumentation and persuasion, has had practical value and been effective since Aristotle's time, but it also has an empirical wing developed over the last 60 years. Discourse analysis is a relatively recent offshoot from sociolinguistics, which brings systematic, empirical analysis to language at the micro level and features a wide range of qualitative and quantitative methods.

This issue of which disciplines, and thus which conceptual models, to draw from has high stakes because they imply different practical choices and methods. As a simple example, ask yourself: if you had to convince the authorities that you were not at place X at Y time, and if you had to convince them you were sincere, how would you do it? From an empirical perspective in discourse analysis, the answer would depend on the discourse conventions of the authorities. If American English speakers were asking you, then brevity, concision, and coming straight to the point might be convincing. However, if Arabic speakers were your audience, repeatedly proclaiming your innocence might be the right strategy. Most importantly in this example, those strategies are opposed--strategies suited for one discourse and culture would likely fail for the other.

Below are two illustrative case studies that show both the conceptual power of rhetoric and discourse analysis and also the nuts-and-bolts methods for analyzing communication and communication failures. For these examples to make the most sense and provide context, I first briefly sketch out how rhetoric and discourse analysis conceptually differ from our current iteration of strategic communication. I then recommend how DOD in general and the combatant commands in particular could effectively and efficiently operationalize insights and methods from these disciplines.

Strategic communication as it currently stands draws primarily from communications theory, public relations, and marketing. In this model, communication is understood to be primarily monologic (from a speaker to an audience) and dependent on the ability of the speaker to manipulate or tailor language to properly craft and deliver the right message to persuade or change opinions of the audience. This model also implicitly borrows from linguistic theories popularized by Noam Chomsky that treat language as having a preexisting structure that good speakers use to their advantage. It is from such a model that a ubiquitous phrase such as "controlling the narrative" can have currency and be in circulation. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.