Replacing Propaganda

US Navy 091123-N-2420K-520 Capt. Alyson Caddel...

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While the works we discuss at The Peking Review tend to be book-length, we occasionally review shorter works because the pithy writing makes them as effective as books. One such work is Christopher Paul’s Getting Better at Strategic Communication, essentially a transcript of his lengthy but tight testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

I have a lengthening bookshelf of works on various aspects of strategic communication, which Paul defines as “coordinated actions, messages, images, and other forms of signaling or engagement intended to inform, influence or persuade selected audiences in support of national objectives.” What Paul does in the space of twenty double-spaced pages is provide a layman’s summary of the field.

The reason this is important is that governments generally and the US government in particular are vexed by how hard it has become to influence a given population or group. Gone are the golden days of “weapons of mass instruction,” wherein influence over or control of the media and a few persuasively-worded messages were sufficient to change attitudes. The response has not been to shrug shoulders and give up on the effort, but to try and craft new ways to win friends and influence peoples, particularly overseas. Thus “strategic communication.”

But as Paul notes in this work, if you ask ten “strategic communication” experts to define the term, you would wind up with ten different definitions. That is only one of a number of problems plaguing governments in their attempt to bring their communications skills into the 21st Century, the most serious of which is that politicians, bureaucrats, and cadres the world over still think in terms of the mass-media message pump.

By no means is this problem limited to government: enterprises and NGOs are also struggling to figure out how to remake their thinking and their organizations in an age where the internet exposes brand as illusions and messages as spin. All of these groups are groping toward an answer, and Paul provides an illumiating snapshot of where the US government is in the process.

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