“Strategic Communication” Defined

It has been said that the term “strategic communications” is used with such ubiquity that it becomes almost meaningless.

Perhaps that’s one reason why the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (OASD-PA) announced recently that it will “avoid using the term ‘strategic communications’ to avoid causing confusion.”

I’m of the opinion that reports of the demise of the term “strategic communications” are greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, this still begs the question of definition.

What strategic communication is, what it involves, and what it accomplishes is a hot topic of discussion in myriad channels. I’m thrilled that upwards of 375 people – fellow professionals all – have joined our new LinkedIn Group: National Summit on Strategic Communications. (Join us at http://linkd.in/M7BiXF).

For centuries, strategic thinkers have touched on the concept of “strategic communication” and its value. Some 2,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher and strategist Sun Tzu, wrote: “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

More recently, columnist Richard Halloran correctly observed that there should be no great mystery about strategic communication – or an unnecessarily complicated definition of it.

In short, he wrote, “strategic communication”

  • is a way of persuading other people to accept your ideas,  policies, or courses of action
  • means persuading allies and friends to stand with you
  • it means persuading neutrals to come over to your side (or at least stay neutral)
  • and in the best of all worlds, it means persuading adversaries that you do have the power and the will to prevail.

Dennis Murphy, who taught at the U.S. Army War College, agrees, adding: “Communication is very important in ultimately achieving those desired information effects. But how military operations are conducted also is a key component of strategic communication, since actions send very loud and clear messages.”

“Effective strategic communication,” Murphy says, “requires an organizational culture attuned to the information environment and recognition that strategic communication … consists of many capabilities that are an integral part of the commander’s arsenal” (or a CEO’s toolkit).

“Staff expertise may be available to support these efforts,” … but “trained staff is less importantthan a unit culture where the commander (or CEO) both recognizes what strategic communication is (and isn’t) … and emphasizes strategic communication as important to successful … operations.”

Similarly, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Christopher Paul of the Rand Corporation said he believes that definitions must respect what he calls “the unassailable core” of strategic communication.

  • First, is a fundamental belief that it is important (and acceptable) to attempt to inform, influence, and persuade in pursuit of your objectives. (Yes, there are those who assail the concept of “influence.”)
  • Second, it is critical both that your objectives — the desired effect sought through communication – be clear. Vague goals – whether they be military, government or corporate – do not imply measureable indicators of progress or value.
  • Third, actions speak louder than words. This truism is absolutely central to an effective strategic communication construct. Strategic communication that includes only traditional communication, such as messaging, press releases, media relations and the like, or even the new social media, is all but doomed to fail.

The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs – Admiral Mike Mullen – in a critique of the U.S. government’s approach to winning hearts and minds – rather famously suggested that … “It is time to take a harder look at “strategic communication.”

“Frankly,” Admiral Mullen said, “I don’t care for the term. We get too hung up on that word, strategic. If we’ve learned nothing else … it should be that the lines between strategic, operational, and tactical are blurred beyond distinction. This is particularly true in the world of communication.”

…and here’s the important point…

“Beyond the term itself, I believe we have walked away from the original intent of strategic communications. By organizing to it — creating whole structures around it — we have allowed strategic communication to become a thing instead of a process, an abstract thought, instead of a way of thinking.”

“To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions … and much more about what our actions communicate.”Actions are the new words. We have a responsibility to educate the enterprise about how behaviors and actions play in an environment that is ultimately transparent.”

In response to the recent OASD-PA directive, Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University, took a view that “strategic communication is 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 … 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;” (read: how people outside our company or organization view us.) “Think in advance about how what we do and say will be perceived, and plan activities accordingly.”

Rather than squabbling about the term, we should focus on integrating the valuable insights the term “strategic communication” has come to reflect.

The goal is not merely to shape the opinion, sentiment and perceptions of audiences of individuals, but to spur them to action, continuing behavior and ultimately advocacy.  Those actions, when successful, give people confidence in the decisions they have made, and turn actions into ongoing behaviors.

The Arthur W. Page Society – an organization of corporate communicators – says it well in a seminal paper on “Building Belief: A New Model for Activating Corporate Character and Authentic Advocacy.”

It is no longer sufficient to manage reputations and brands – our external personas – whether they be military, government or corporate – separately from our workforces and cultures. They need to be synchronized and managed as one.

The digital revolution has brought transparency to every move and action. It has empowered the world – and every individual – to demand authenticity: The product and service performs as advertised; the employer treats me as expected; manage­ment’s behavior is consistent with the organization’s stated values.

At stake is not just the efficacy of our work, but the success and even survival of our enterprises and institutions.

Now that’s strategic.

Robert W. Grupp

President, Strategic Communications Leadership Initiative www.thescli.com


[To participate in discussion aimed at forming a new construct for “strategic communication,” attend the National Summit on Strategic Communications on May 8-9, 2014 in Washington DC, where  top leaders in business, military and government communications, public relations and public affairs will identify strategies which enhance engagement for their organizations and share methods to increase the value and improve the practice of strategic communications.]