Pentagon Abandons Strategic Communication?

Tuesday, December 18th 2012

Pentagon Briefing Room, courtesy of Foreign Policy

A couple of public diplomacy colleagues have asked me what we should think of the Pentagon memo issued earlier this month, the one that seems to say Strategic Communication is out. Over. Finished.

“What did you say?” 

Does this mean the end of MIST teams at embassies? No more military websites targeting foreign audiences?  Is it the end of a fat foreign media analysis landing on your desk every morning?  No more social and cultural adaptation training for troops deploying?

Probably not. 

First of all, Defense policy pronouncements and Pentagon doctrine dumps do not suddenly appear in the form of a unilateral memo from the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. 

As the eagle-eyed Rosa Brooks (herself a veteran of the E-Ring concurrence wars) pointed out in Foreign Policy, this particular memo was cleared by no one in DOD before being slipped to a friendly journalist.   That’s a good way to get some attention, but it is not the way DOD makes policy.

I enjoyed Rosa’s candor when we were together in the Flournoy OSD/P years. As she pithily put it in her Foreign Policy article, “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.”

Now, there is no question that many public diplomacy professionals think the military’s involvement in strategic communication – and other information arts that closely resemble public diplomacy – has  gone too far.  Congressional staffers have repeatedly asked, “Why are you (the military) doing this?”  Many State officers suspect the military is treading on the diplomats’ turf.  And, to be sure, there are many military officers who fervently wish State and other USG agencies would act much more aggressively to counter the extremist message among vulnerable populations, so soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines would not have to.

Since 2001, the U.S. military has become increasingly aware that America will not win the “war on terror,” or the “war of ideas,” or anything else – with bullets.  Whether it is Petraeus with his counter -insurgency (COIN) doctrine,   Admiral Stavirdis with his “We’re All In This Together” approach at SOUTHCOM (and now EUCOM), or General Stanley McChrystal’s much over-subscribed "Leadership"  graduate-level seminar at Yale, America’s military top officers have been rethinking how we go about the the matter of “prevailing” in the kinds of struggles America will face in the 21st century.  

At the National War College and throughout the DOD schoolhouse, promotable majors, captains and lieutenant colonels are the strongest proponents of strategic communication.  Their Iraq and Afghanistan experiences have taught them – over and over again – that we do not succeed in these environments unless we engage with empathy, work to understand the host nation society, and focus our attention on the “information end state” we intend to leave behind when it’s all over.

P. J. Crowley, a military communicator with a brief State Department career, explained strategic communication thusly in his blog:  “The word strategic communicates importance, something directly related to a vital interest or a core function. The evolution of the concept of strategic communication within the military a decade or so ago reflected the emergence of a 24/7 global media environment, the interconnected world of the Internet, traditional media, satellite television and now social media and citizen journalists. In this world, governments communicate with each other and with broader society. People communicate vertically and horizontally and have access to more and better quality information than ever before.”

Despite George Little’s memo to the combatant commanders, strategic communication – or at least the need for it – will not go away.  The effort across the U.S. Government to synchronize our words and our deeds, to improve our ability to communicate consistently through our actions as well as our declarations, will not end. 

The military can’t see themselves doing “public diplomacy” – that’s for diplomats.  Public affairs is too passive and reactive for what the warfighter has in mind.  Information operations (IO) might be closer to the mark, and Military Information Support Operations (MISO) is a defined subset of IO. 

What many senior military officers are asking for is a national communication strategy, combined with Administration leadership, which results in broad, consistent and coherent interagency coordination of America’s engagement with foreign audiences.

I doubt that OSD/PA’s phrase “communication synchronization” will long endure.   I mean, how do you make a clever bumper sticker out of that?

5 people have commented on this article so far

Board member 

Summary: A career public diplomacy officer, Brian Carlson advises the InterMedia research organization on military and foreign affairs issues and manages communication strategies for private clients. 


Ambassador Brian E. Carlson, a former Career Minister in the United States Foreign Service, currently assists international media and audience analysis firm InterMedia on defense and diplomatic sector activities. authors name for more info

Author: Brian Carlson

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Strategic Communication

Agree wholeheartedly with your comments and those of Ms. Brooks in FP. This was a unilateral move on the part of ASD(PA). My concern is that those in military units with little beltway experience will see it as a directive and react accordingly. Ms. Brooks indicates that is already happening. And it won't take forever to lose the shine on this apple as we wind down the wars and go back to a garrison environment. We'll wait and see, but I wish there were codified manuals, doctrine, policy and strategy on SC that would perhaps not guarantee, but at least increase the likelihood of its continued existence and emphasis. Otherwise we'll relearn lessons in the next war,

Is Strategic Communication feeling threathened ?

Understand that there is a big emotion about M. Little's memo, especially in the ranks of SC specialists explaining everywhere that it is from no importance, but in their answer there are more violent attacks on the legitimity of the memo than on the content. Not even sure that everybody has carefully read it before to argue.

Moreover, in order to deny its credibility, I think that the SC experts should promote their specific results and the improvements made on the field, thanks to SC specific process, Here, for example, all what is quoted by M. Carlson (after a perfect analysis shared by everybody), reflects activities that are in the usual field of PA (or Cimic) that noone pretends to cancel, so his demonstration support... the memo's content. (which doesn't seem to be the aim of the post).

Finally, although very well respected and informed SC specialist explain with authority on every blog and social network that this memo has no value, no official voice (even at the "low level" of a memo) comes to confirm their assumption. I hope some energy and influence is spent to obtain it, because if a department "unilateral" memo has no value, it still has more than outraged assesments on the web... which contributes to its dissemination.

Exciting debate...

Similar comments

I recently spoke to someone from the Pentagon and two people from combatant commands who said this is not true, and the person whom leaked the memo would probably be reprimanded for doing so.

If it wasn't their idea, then it does not have value?

The Memo came from OSD (P) which stands for Policy. In plain english this means that such entity would have the authority to enact and disseminate policy. Second of all, the memo simply called for rescinding a term that was improperly coined in the first place, but to use Communications Synchronization as a process within the DoD to support the "Whole of Government" approach through such actions. "Strategic Communications" implies just that ,strategic messaging and actions carried by such agencies with the authority and empower to do so, and led by State Dept., with the DoD in support through the Communications Synchronization process.

What should be of greater concerned is the fact of how Strategic Communications had been shoved down commanders' throat all the way to the Operational and tactical level, where it doesn't belong. While tactical and operational actions do support and can have effects at the Strategic level, it is wrong to give the impression that lower level commanders have responsibility for conducting "Strategic Communications". Furthermore, it shoudl also be of concern the fact that many of the "SC professionals" are increasing becoming "Madison Avenue" types with a focus on "Branding" and market share but with little to no operational focus or experience.

For my money "Communications Synchronization" fits perfectly, and it forces everyone to coordinate their narratives". If that is an issue, then let's just go back to the factually correct previous term: Defense Support to Public Diplomacy.

That's right my concern is

That's right my concern is that those in military units with experience will see the directive and react accordingly. Ms. Brooks indicates that is already happening..

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