Confessions of a Strategic Communicator

Tales from inside the Pentagon's message machine.

I must have sinned egregiously during a past life, because when I arrived at the Pentagon in spring 2009, I was handed responsibility for the can of worms known as "strategic communication." I was a newly minted political appointee in the Office of the Secretary of Defense's policy shop and no one, including myself, knew quite what I was supposed be doing with my time. But my résumé included a four-year stint as an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times. This apparently qualified me as a "communications" expert, so strategic communication policy was deemed an appropriate addition to my murky portfolio.

It should go without saying that in and of itself, writing an opinion column reflects no qualifications beyond the having of opinions. I started my job at the Pentagon with plenty of opinions -- many half-baked -- but a mind blissfully free of expertise relating to "communications," strategic or otherwise. Opinionated ignorance is the hallmark of a happy political appointee, however, so I plunged resolutely into my new assignment.

For the better part of the 27 months that followed, I spent much of my time trying to figure out whether strategic communication was an idea whose time had come, or a non-idea whose time should come to a rapid end. (Readers with an interest but with limited attention spans can even look at the highly unofficial illustrated history of DOD strategic communication I put together in late 2009.)

If you believe what you read in the media, the Pentagon recently opted for the second view. "The Pentagon is banishing the term ‘strategic communication,'" trumpeted USA Today on Tuesday, "putting an end to an initiative that had promised to streamline the military's messaging but instead led to bureaucratic bloat and confusion." This, the paper reports, is the upshot of "a memo obtained by USA TODAY."

But reports of strategic communication's demise are greatly exaggerated. The memo obtained by USA Today -- also obtained by yours truly, and available here -- isn't really about the demise of strategic communication at "the Pentagon," which is, after all, an awfully big building.

On the contrary: this latest memo is just another shot fired in the ongoing skirmish between those who believe that strategic communication is merely an unnecessary euphemism for "communications" -- meaning, basically, press statements and talking points -- and thus should be controlled by public affairs offices, and those who believe strategic communication is a confusing term, but one that has nonetheless come to stand for something complex and important, something that has more to do with "strategy" than with "communications." I'm in the latter camp.

But let's look at that memo. It's been agitating a corner of the blogosphere since Tuesday, mainly because its contents and import have been misrepresented (or just misunderstood) by the media. The memo is from Pentagon press spokesman and Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs George Little to the commanding generals of the various combatant commands. It explains Little's decision to stop using the term "strategic communication," which he believes causes "confusion." According to Little, "the more accurate terminology, which will be used in future Joint Publications, is communications synchronization." The memo also complains that "over the last six years we learned that [strategic communication] actually added a layer of staffing and planning that blurred the roles and functions of traditional staff elements, and resulted in confusion and inefficiency. As a result, this year we stood down those staff elements."

"So what?" you ask. Quite right. What we have here isn't a DOD-wide policy change -- it's just a badly drafted memo explaining that OSD's Public Affairs shop is changing its terminology and internal structure because it finds strategic communication confusing.

Why Little felt the need to inform combatant commanders of his confusion is unclear, but his memo doesn't change anything for anyone at the Pentagon aside from his own staff. It's not a directive or instruction from the secretary of defense; it's not a policy document; and it's not doctrine or military planning guidance -- although Little seems to assume he'll be the guy writing joint doctrine in the future.

That's not terribly likely, as Little's memo is also a product of bureaucratic original sin: according to Pentagon insiders, the memo wasn't coordinated or cleared with the Joint Staff or the Policy office before going out. That's a big no-no, and likely to generate powerful new antibodies.

Neglecting to clear memos with other offices before leaking them to the press is standard practice for bureaucratic power grabs, of course, and Little's memo certainly counts as such. The Public Affairs office, he asserts, is "continuing our leadership role in communication and reminding those in the communication business that most things previously termed [strategic communication] are in fact Public Affairs responsibilities."

This passive-aggressive bureaucratese illustrates one of the reasons sane government employees try to keep strategic communication out of their portfolios: it's one of those things that people can't stop fighting over.

For the last decade, strategic communication has been the subject of rancorous interagency and intra-agency bickering. Public diplomacy experts at the State Department think "strategic communication" is what they already do, and want DOD out of the picture altogether. Meanwhile, the DOD Public Affairs office has traditionally insisted that strategic communication is what they already do, and they want the policy people to stop mixing their peanut butter in Public Affairs' chocolate. Pentagon policy and strategy experts meanwhile maintain that strategic communication has only a glancing relationship to traditional "communications" and is mostly an issue of planning operations to achieve "information effects." And the White House -- which apparently hasn't seen Little's memo -- insists on referring to top Obama advisor Ben Rhodes as the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications.

So what does it all mean? When it comes to strategic communication, is there a there there? Or is George Little right to despise the term "strategic communication," take the view that strategic communication is "in fact" just public affairs, and propose replacing it with the term "communications synchronization"?

Little's claim that the term "strategic communication" causes confusion is fair enough. (Trust me: it confused me for more than two years.) Indeed, I've often felt that there's a special place in hell reserved for the person who first foisted the term "strategic communication" on the Defense Department. The term itself was a corporate import, and a pernicious one.

In the corporate world, the term "strategic communication" has been used for several decades to describe the coordinated use of activities designed to make the corporate entity "look good," such as marketing, advertising, public relations, community relations, and so on. It carries overtones of manipulation: after all, marketers needn't care if their product is "good" (or healthy, or durable, or safe, or whatever) -- their goal is just to make sure people buy the product, regardless of its actual value.

During the early years of the Bush administration, the term "strategic communication" was similarly used to cover a multitude of sins. These ranged from the foolish but relatively innocuous conviction that lots of "messaging" was all it took to counter violent extremism, to rather more sinister efforts, such as paying to clandestinely plant feel-good "news" stories in the Iraqi press. To many, the term "strategic communication" became tightly linked to other regrettable Bush administration neologisms, such as the "global war on terror" (GWOT) and the "war of ideas."

In the last years of the Bush administration, internal Pentagon reformers sought to jettison the more egregiously stupid GWOT strategic communication initiatives. Just as important, they sought to rethink the concept of strategic communication altogether. If strategic communication just meant messaging -- or "public affairs on steroids" -- it was indeed a completely unnecessary concept. If there was a there there, it had to lie somewhere else.

By 2009, DOD consensus had begun to emerge around a more nuanced understanding of what strategic communication might mean. Ideally, the term could serve as a reminder that everything is a form of communication -- that our actions (and omissions) can speak as loudly as our words, and that wise officials, military and civilian alike, must consider the "information effects" of all that they say and do -- from press statements to changes in force posture.

This understanding of strategic communication -- which is reflected in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review and other key DOD documents -- has very little to do with traditional press and public affairs activities. In this view, "strategic communication" refers to the thoughtful integration of issues of stakeholder perception and response into policymaking, planning, and operations at every level. Public affairs, information operations, and traditional public diplomacy are tools that can support and enhance strategic communication, but they aren't the same as strategic communication. Strategic communication, in this view, is less about what we have to say than it is about considering how others may interpret our words and actions.

What strategic communication boils down to, in some ways, is a simple plea: learn, engage and listen; try to understand how people outside the United States view U.S. actors; think in advance about how what we do and say will be perceived, and plan activities accordingly. Invest in developing the linguistic and cultural knowledge necessary to do this. Recognize that sometimes we're going to make people angry, but try not to piss people off by accident.

Of course, this still begs the question: why call all this "strategic communication"?

There's really no good reason: it's just an accident of history. In my first months at the Pentagon, I tried hard to get rid of the term, which carries negative connotations for many. In the end, more experienced voices persuaded me to give up this quest: the term may be confusing, but it's been in use for over a decade within DOD by now. There have been studies and reports on strategic communication -- some quite smart -- and DOD has promulgated an official definition of strategic communication, discussed it in congressionally mandated reports and memoranda from the secretary, and integrated it into military planning guidance. It's not a great term, but by the end of 2009 I concluded that DOD was stuck with it. Rather than squabbling about terminological changes, I felt we should focus on integrating the insights the term strategic communication had come to reflect into policymaking and planning.

Now, OSD's Public Affairs office is proposing that the term strategic communication be replaced with "communications synchronization." It's George Little's prerogative to use whatever phrasing he wants to describe the work of his office, but I think the proposed new term is even worse than the old. "Communications synchronization"? To me, the term has a rather fascistic ring. Though I'm sure this was not the intent, it suggests a rigid determination to make all utterances hew to a narrow party line. Mostly, though, it just misses the point, which is that strategic communication isn't about "communications." Little's memo could have been written in 2002 or 2006. It hearkens back to the days when DOD leadership imagined that disciplined use of the right "messaging" would "win the war of ideas," and ignores a decade of accumulated wisdom.

In fact, the memo isn't even a good example of "communication synchronization": it's badly out of sync with the rest of the Defense Department, which for the most part has -- slowly but surely -- begun to integrate the concept of strategic communication into day-to-day planning and operations.

The good news? Combatant commanders are likely to give the memo the treatment it deserves, and place it right in the circular file.

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National Security

You Can Have It All … Once Your Kids Are in College

Why working men still rule Washington.

Anne-Marie Slaughter made a splash this summer with an article in the Atlantic called "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," chronicling her decision to leave a prestigious State Department job to spend more time with her teenage sons. This week, Slaughter published a short follow-up article on the foreign-policy impact of workplace policies that lead women to "opt out" -- and the factors that make many successful women unwilling to discuss these issues openly.

"[I]ndividual women and men … tell me privately that they appreciated the essay I wrote for the Atlantic," Slaughter writes, but "[m]y decision to talk in such specific gender terms is still deeply uncomfortable for many. Foreign policy is a very male world. The women who have made it are a small and close club, all committed to advancing the careers of younger women and worried that even engaging in this conversation could make it harder to break those glass ceilings."

Let me fess up: I'm one of those people -- one of those women -- who has privately agreed with Slaughter's take on women in foreign-policy jobs and the gendered nature of the workplace but has until now refrained from wading into the public debate.

But Slaughter -- whom I know and admire -- has it right: Foreign policy remains for the most part a boys' club, and that goes double for national security policy. During my recent stint at the Pentagon, I grew so accustomed to being one of the only women in the room that I almost stopped noticing it. Outside government, it's not much different. There are plenty of women in the room if the topic relates to "soft" issues like human rights or development -- but if the topic relates to the so-called "hard" security issues, such as defense and intelligence policy, those participating in the discussions are almost all men.

This magazine is no exception. Foreign Policy's top editor is a woman, but take a look at the current list of regular columnists and bloggers and count the women. Go ahead: It won't take you long, because at the moment there's only one. That's me. And, yes, I'm feeling kind of lonely.

Slaughter is also right that most women find talk of gender issues uncomfortable. Those women left outside the foreign-policy power boys' club worry that if they raise gender issues they'll be perceived as resentful whiners, asking for "special" treatment or trying to blame their exclusion on gender rather than talent. Those women inside the boys' club -- the honorary boys -- are often all too aware of the precariousness of their status and may worry that raising gender issues will cause them to be taken less seriously or, worse, that they may be perceived as self-pitying or self-serving, determined to guilt-trip their male colleagues.

Given this context, Slaughter's call for an open discussion of gender issues in the foreign-policy workplace is both important and courageous -- and she shouldn't have to be out there alone. So I'll join her, because she speaks for almost every woman I know in the foreign-policy world, and for many men too.

It's past time to rethink our standard assumptions about how the workplace "naturally" functions. In the foreign-policy world, as in many other professional spheres, success and prestige depend as much on being ubiquitous as on being talented. In high-powered government jobs, working long hours continues to be viewed as a sign of seriousness. (You're going home at 5:30? Obviously you aren't committed to protecting the nation.)

Even those outside government face pressure to be ubiquitous: Important people go to lunch-time workshops at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, hobnob at book parties and think-tank conferences, and make the rounds at the Council on Foreign Relations' holiday party.

All this is hard to do for those people with significant family responsibilities -- and in our gendered society, that means all this is particularly hard for women. (And I'm talking about affluent professionals. The difficulties faced by low-income women, who often work punishing hours out of stark economic necessity rather than the desire to climb a career ladder, are different and far more acute). Although the average man today does more housework and childcare than the average man did a generation ago, the average woman still does twice as much as the average man. Married women remain far more likely than married men to take the kids to the doctor, pack the kids' lunches, chaperone the school field trips, get up in the middle of the night with the baby, and so on. Women are also far more likely than men to be single parents.

In practice, this means -- as Slaughter has noted -- that many talented, educated women opt out in ways large and small. They skip the evening receptions because they need to be home to put the children to bed. They cede to their male colleagues the "hot" crisis issues that require attendance at weekend meetings. They decline the interesting foreign trips that would give them face time with the boss, because who's going to take care of the kids? They turn down the job close to the center of power because they don't think it's compatible with maintaining meaningful family relationships. Sometimes, they opt out altogether.

Of course, this isn't a tragedy. Affluent, educated women at least have the luxury of choice -- and when I have to choose between an evening think-tank reception and reading bedtime stories to my children, it's no contest: The bedtime stories almost always win. I like being with my children a lot more than I like going to cocktail parties. And though I sometimes (OK, often) miss the adrenaline rush of being involved in the crisis du jour, I know I'd feel even worse if I thought I was missing my daughters' childhoods. Children don't stay children forever, but I'm pretty sure that there will still be plenty of foreign-policy crises left when my kids have gone off to college.

This is perhaps my only slight disagreement with Slaughter. Unlike Slaughter, I think women can "have it all" -- they just can't have it all at the same time. Neither can men.

It's just not possible to work effectively from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day and travel to war zones and hobnob with bigwigs at receptions and conferences and be available at a moment's notice for an urgent call or meeting and write op-eds and policy papers and run the Girl Scout troop and make a home-cooked meal every night and keep an eye on the kids' math homework and sustain vital family relationships and make sure the bills get paid and the car gets fixed, all in the same week, or month, or year. No woman can do that -- and no man can do it either. It's too much.

The problem, then, is not that men can "have it all" but women can't. The problem is that we still live in a world in which social pressures tend to push men and women onto different tracks, and the nature of the workplace reinforces the impact of those social pressures, instead of counterbalancing them.

We still live in a world in which women rather than men are expected to be the primary caregivers for children, and women who are perceived as placing career over family can expect to encounter social disapproval from neighbors, their children's teachers, and even family members. Sometimes it's open, and sometimes it's subtle, but we all know it's there. (Men, of course, are caught in a different but equally painful trap: If they appear to prioritize family over career, they too are apt to be regarded with some suspicion. Just as women whose high-powered jobs take them away from family may be regarded as "unwomanly," men whose families take them away from high-powered jobs may be stigmatized as "unmanly.")

Against that backdrop, workplace cultures that prize ubiquity will disproportionally push women out. And this, as Slaughter argues, has consequences that go well beyond the personal.

On the most basic level, workplaces that drive women out when they have kids lose a lot of talented people. More insidious, if the foreign-policy workplace is mostly male, is that the policymaking process will prioritize the issues that men tend to consider important, while the issues and perspectives traditionally important to women will get short shrift. (No, I'm not wading into the "essentialist versus constructivist" debate here -- this is a comment on what the world looks like right now, not on what it must inevitably look like). Globally, there's ample empirical evidence that gender equality is strongly correlated with societal stability and economic development, but instead of setting a positive example, the United States ranks abysmally low in terms of the percentage of women in leadership positions.

It doesn't have to be this way, and it shouldn't be this way.

The workplace policies and structures that push out women also push out many talented men -- and render those women and men who stay less creative and less capable. There's a growing body of research suggesting that long hours are just plain bad for business, whether "business" means the production of better widgets or the production of wiser foreign policy. The human body and brain can only take so much before productivity, judgment, and decision-making skills begin to suffer. We don't want sleep-deprived pilots to fly planes -- why would we want exhausted, overstretched officials making vital foreign-policy decisions?

The long hours and pervasive crisis atmosphere that characterize most foreign-policy workplaces aren't signs that Very Important Work is being done by Very Important People -- they're just signs of poor management. Good managers, whether they supervise air-traffic controllers, auto workers, or the National Security Staff, recognize that human beings function best when they work in humane and flexible conditions. Good managers make sure their employees -- both female and male -- have the time and encouragement to eat, sleep, exercise, take care of basic life- maintenance tasks, and spend time with family and friends.

It's far from impossible to do this, even in the foreign-policy workplace. At the Pentagon, for instance, Michèle Flournoy, then defense undersecretary for policy, actively encouraged her staff to adopt flexible work schedules. Secure videoconferencing reduces the need for travel, and emerging technologies increasingly permit people who must work with classified information to do so remotely via smartphones and tablets, reducing the need for people to spend long hours at the office.

"What's good for business is good for America," President Calvin Coolidge is said to have remarked. That may or may not be true. But Anne-Marie Slaughter deserves a lot of praise for reminding us that when it comes to the workplace, what's good for women is good for business -- and good for American foreign policy.

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