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.