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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.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

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