Adjutant General(Retd.) & GCTC Executive Board Member
Strategic communication became popular as a term, about three decades ago, from the times of the First Iraq War (1990-1991). Strategic communication is a vital activity that supports the military, in peace and in war. If planned well and intelligently executed it can affect attitudes and behaviour. It can be used as the most important tools to shape the environment. It is also indispensable for fighting adversaries who employ non-traditional and asymmetric means. Strategic communication deals with the challenge of influencing and convincing others to think and act in ways compatible with own objectives.
It has been taken as means to enmesh and amalgamate communication with a laid down agenda and an overall plan. Strategic communication is not manipulative or negative as propaganda is deemed to be. Basically, strategic communication is a perception strategy that provides information, ideas and actions, to align the perceptions of key audiences with our policy objectives. It is also about long-term engagement over decades and generations to win the hearts and minds of diverse audiences, and to influence future generations. We are living in an entirely new information environment and are engaged in the war of the information age.
The all-important question is that have we measured up to the challenge of this change, or have we fallen way short? In short, have we yet risen to the challenge posed by adversarial propaganda? The fact of the matter is that often it seems that strategic communication is being undertaken as if by rote. For instance, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram carry out the same caption, picture or write up –like “details of martyrs of 1948”. Though each medium addresses different audiences, lack of imagination and story-telling prowess for these social media platforms comes out starkly.
It is necessary to delve also into strategic narratives, which are a type of storytelling, and like all good stories, they need a compelling plot, a climax, and a conclusion. In the military, a strategic narrative is a special kind of story, it builds on the strengths of the organisation, what it is doing and where is it going in the future. The narrative reinforces why Army exists and what makes it unique. There can be other context of the narratives. The cornerstone of a strategic narrative is a shared purpose, for example between the Army HQ, and the Command HQ. This shared purpose is the outcome that all are on the same page. The narrative then becomes a journey over a longish period, months, and years and may be decades!
We are fighting networked adversaries that enemy have highly professional and sophisticated propaganda machinery that exploits electronic media, internet, social media to disseminate messages globally, to recruit adherents, to radicalise population and provide pre-recorded videotapes and audiotapes to show their success rates. Our adversaries are certainly communicating effectively. In fact our adversaries are using communication and information very adeptly, actually more effectively in communication than actions on ground. If strategy dictates that you play to your strengths and exploit the enemy’s weaknesses, our enemies’ use where we are weak, imaginatively. There are many unknowns about the future, with the expertise that our adversaries have gained; they will continue to challenge us in the realm of ideas and information, through infinite media.
When we get ready to accept Strategic communication as an imperative, we will have to design the schema concerning who should be reached and in what way. The field of strategic communication is fairly wide and complex and would consist of trained professionals, who incessantly develop news, disseminate information to within the organisation and to public at large. They will rely on the right medium to propagate. And then decide on regularly undertaking audit through experts who understand perception and sentiment analysis. Strategic communications fuses the pushing and the delivering. If we recognise the importance of strategic communication for the Army, then five postulations are proffered:
- Select the Media and methods of Outreach. The media and the methods of outreach is glut in the market, from traditional print and audio-visual media, social-media, blogs, vlogs and even Wikipedia. The selection of each must be different, addressed to a particular audience, if required carrying separate narratives. For professional messaging YouTube and podcasts can be used to disseminate position. To this are amalgamated interviews, sound-bytes and media briefings which are regularly undertaken. Each one must carry clear premediated message – and not repetitions like number of launch pads and terrorists waiting to cross the Line of Control. Same figures have been repeated for so long, that they do not even merit a small corner news item, and is of no interest to the viewers! These give an impression that senior leaders have nothing to say. Press releases and rebuttals are also not the right method; they do not get adequate reportage, and seems propagandist!
- Constancy and Synchronization. Indeed Strategic Communication and Strategic Narratives are not an ‘one time effort’. It necessitates constancy of the narrative that develops into a continuity and would be impression forming. Googling information, which is the norm among people, should bring out the constancy of the theme. Various tiers in the Army have to be on the same page, and fully comprehend what will follow, where and how. There is a greater need for consistency, which seems lacking.
- Total Professionalism. The strategic communication and developing of narratives is no place for amateurs and for on-the-job-trainees. It has been stated that the more senior you get, the less of a specialist you become as you mature into a generalist. There is need for social-media specialists, IT technicals and sound experts, front and back-ender and public information staff. To build right narratives, the organisation would require even psychologists and sociologists. Strategic communication is a serious business, in many ways in the current era more important than even operations. There is also the importance of planning for damage control, as some events will go wrong, and which may have even international repercussions. For example, the case of the individual tied on a Gypsy in Kashmir! As a case in point also, Balakot, that we did well, and yet be immensely defensive in the communication thereafter.
- The Army, in fact the services, are intensely secretive and very hierarchical organisations. In the era of social media, to retain total secrecy is well nigh impossible, especially on issues of welfare, pay and emoluments, and terms and conditions of service. The media too keeps at the heel, seeking ‘breaking news’ The Army has to learn a significant measure of transparency, which will inevitably promote accountability and provides information to the rank and file, as to what is being done. Time is ripe to avoid the prevalence of military secrecy over military transparency. Of the organisation, we have to build confidence and, respect for the truth, there should active dialogue and exchange of ideas. Military leaders must understand that they are the driving force of strategic communications.
- Committing Veterans for Strategic Communication. Old Soldiers don’t die, they just fade away, is rather a melancholic catchphrase that is about one hundred years old, but made immortal by Gen Douglas McArthur is his address to the US Congress on 19 Apr 1951. Currently, fortunately, the veterans are being bestowed long lives, and hence sufficient time post-superannuation ‘not to fade away’. A large number have no axes to grind, love the Army and even without seeking remuneration, would like to plough in energies to create narratives, and undertake strategic communication through multifarious channels or work back-end.
In sum, this was not a theoretical treatise about Strategic Communication. Communication must be taken as a strategic weapon to assure organisation and dissuade and deter adversaries. Strategic communication is not an additional activity; it is part and parcel of the planning process and conduct of operations. Actually, it must be taken up even prior to an operation, with the buildup of the narrative, the selection of media, and dissemination is essential. Most General officers feel that they are both senior leaders and senior communicators. In actual fact, the audience is the best judge, of good communicators, those who repose confidence, and give a feeling that they can be relied upon. However, strategic communication for senior officers, especially with those with charisma, can be a force multiplier. The Army must focus on the need to broaden the baseline communications skills of all Army officers and make them all communicators. The Army also must recognise that its communications professionals (implying strategic communicators) need to be more broadly capable, culturally aware and able to operate in volatile, uncertain and stressful information environments.