The Pentagon's Public-Affairs Battle

January 15, 2013 Topic: State of the Military Region: United States

The Pentagon's Public-Affairs Battle

After endless controversy, Defense isn't doing "strategic communication." But the function remains crucial to success in war.

The Pentagon’s chief of public affairs recently announced that the Department of Defense would abandon the term “strategic communication.” The banishment has one advantage: It cuts through the Kafkaesque contortions in which the Pentagon has ensnared itself by treating the art of communication as a process. The public affairs staff proposes a vague new term, “communication support.” No wonder government makes people wary. The actual practice of strategic communication remains necessary and vital, while its absence in a world of asymmetric threats is dangerous.

In the military, many see public affairs as informing – just the facts, ma’am – not influencing. In politics and the corporate world, where that notion is well understood, public affairs is conducted specifically to influence. Any brief examination of how the Pentagon handled the Abu Ghraib controversy (for which former official BG (Ret.) Mark Kimmitt’s adroit strategy and tactics merits praise)—or the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch, an exercise in hype—shows that public affairs folks don’t flinch from casting the military’s actions in the most favorable light.

Much of the controversy over strategic communication at the Pentagon was the bitter fruit of a controversy that exploded in 2001 when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld established the Office of Strategic Information (OSI) within the office of Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. Feith grasped that after 9/11, neither the Pentagon’s public affairs office nor the State Department’s public diplomacy, in his words, were “equipped to promote initiatives to fight jihadist ideology.”

Heated debate and misinformation about OSI fed to the press caused Rumsfeld to shut down OSI. An unfortunate decision, it hamstrung the Pentagon’s ability to develop and execute a workable communication strategy in dealing with challenges from hotspots including Egypt, Iran and China.

Too often bureaucrats seek simple solutions to complex and often shifting challenges. What matters is that the Pentagon recognize that it has the right, responsibility and duty to forge communication strategy. The art of strategic communication is critical. That art is the use of words, actions, image or symbols to influence the attitudes and opinions of target audiences, shaping their behavior in order to advance interests of policies, or to achieve objectives.

Leaders throughout history have understood and executed powerful communication strategies to achieve results. As Admiral Mike Mullen, who found himself frustrated with the difficulties in defining strategic communication, readily acknowledged about Afghanistan: We cannot “kill our way to success.” Information warfare is an essential component of any strategy. History vindicates that judgment.

Julius Caesar’s Commentaries were written to justify his actions as a military commander. Caesar was a great man for his era, but the Roman Senate wanted to know that Roman blood and treasure had been well spent. His Commentaries and those of other Roman commanders promoted their own standing, but also proved integral to maintaining their authority.

Napoleon was the first to see the power of newspapers to arouse popular support for his approach to total warfare. Lenin, no stranger to violence, saw that cinema could influence attitudes. Hugo Chavez identifies with Simon Bolivar, but his mindset in handling the media echoes Napoleon. Both desired press coverage that avoided criticism while glorifying them as heroes. The Declaration of Independence was less about pumping up the colonials than influencing France to support the Revolution.

One U.S. president who comprehended the importance of information strategy was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike’s goal was to defeat Communism, not co-exist with it. He believed in the power and necessity of information warfare (including the now pejorative term “propaganda”). Distrustful of government departments, he centralized the activity in the White House. His team forged and executed communication strategy that bolstered Western values and discredited Communism. It was a solid decision and well executed.

Communication strategy is as vital today as it was two thousand years ago or under Ike. The notion entails more than putting out information through public affairs. It is broader than psychological warfare (inside the Pentagon now called Military Information Support Operations), which is but one component of strategic communication.

In today’s world of asymmetric conflict, kinetic and information strategies need to be forged integrally. Military officers are neither recruited, nor for the most part naturally gifted, for what is at heart political communication—influencing the attitudes, opinions, and beliefs of a populace to support military strategy.

The function is critical to mission success. The Pentagon can jettison the term “strategic communication” in favor of a new phrase. But the capacity, talent and will to forge and execute communication strategy remains essential to national security.

James P. Farwell is a defense consultant and author of a new book, Persuasion & Power: The Art of Strategic Communication (Washington: Georgetown U. Press, 2012). Rich Galen is a political analyst in Washington, D.C. who spent six months in Baghdad working with the Strategic Communications Group in 2003-2004.