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.