Reaching a wider audience (above: a cat listens to the live broadcast of the BBC Today Programme on Radio 4 at the British base in Basra Palace, 2006)

Monday, 23 June 2008

What is Strategic Communications? Spin?

Strategic Communications or “StratComm” (depending which circles you mix in) seems to have seeped across the pond into Britain. Academics are still trying to define the term which is being used in the States for everything from traditional PR, selling military action to presidential campaigns. Is this the new (polite) way we can use the word “spin”?

"The fact that there is no national security strategy for strategic communications—or even a government-wide definition of "strategic communications"—seven years into the War on Terror is nothing less than a travesty" - Tony Blankley and Oliver Horn, The Heritage Foundation

This week I ran a strategic communications course for the UN’s senior public information officials. I didn’t really attempt to define it – but I did attempt to DO IT. (No, NOT communicate strategically) – I mean strategise about communications (confused?) With interesting results, the more and more strategy (thinking ahead) is applied to all communications activities (and in this I include public diplomacy, public information, media engagement and all influence activity) – the more it becomes clear to me that a bottom up approach is more effective (like the one’s used by the Taliban and Al Q).

What do I mean by “bottom up approach”? (and I do hate myself for this consultant chatter). I mean, talking to the masses, the people, the young, the victims and those directly affected by an issue as a priority over engaging with senior leaders. This has always made sense but in the shift towards greater emphasis on the voice of the people (and iReport is a good example of that – even if it is just lazy journalism) it is even more the case.

As a former diplomat the idea that you speak to society rather than society’s leaders as a means to bring about change, goes against the grain. But I now firmly believe that quiet handshakes between world leaders and high level bilaterals are not the best way to communicate your message, or influence, or alter perception. And it is self-fulfilling prophecy – once a community recognises itself as an important target audience, its view of itself will change and society will become empowered. In the words of Derrick Ashong “No society can develop without an understanding of it’s own worth.”

So for me, StratComm is about a lot more than “spin” – it is as much about research – about listening, consulting, understanding and planning as it is about talking to journalists and those who inhabit the corridors of power.

Friday, 6 June 2008

The Media as a Public Diplomacy Channel

When people think about “communications” they sometimes think of telephones, or if slightly more in the know, they think of the media. In my work I am often at pains to explain that if you have a message, the media may not always be the best method of communicating it. Depending on who you are talking to, sometimes more trusted methods, like music and dance, art and humour can carry a message further than traditional media, which is being seen as unreliable, as audience-fatigue sets it.

But in a blog about Public Diplomacy, I can’t leave the media out. I have just returned from Bonn, where I attended the Global Media Forum. The subject was Media in Peace Building and Conflict Prevention and the people there all seemed to think that traditional media was a powerful tool in building perception.

“We have to rely on the International media to tell our story” Itai Mushekwe, Journalist and refugee from Zimbabwe.

It is clear that governments fear the power of persuasion and influence that broadcasters and the print media have. We heard moving first hand accounts of journalists who had been beaten, imprisoned and even killed in their quest for the truth. Before going to the conference, I posted a handful of media orientated questions onto the blogcatalogue discussion boards, much of which was met with a barrage of hate and cynicism about “da medja”. But like any business - you will find those with integrity and those without. The greedy and lazy exist everywhere. I can only assume the hatred and mistrust I witnessed for the industry is directed at the tabloids, at transparent propaganda and at the ideology of huge media corporations, not the scrupulous who are driven by search for truth. The people I met are from the later group and their oppression is evidence of their ability to be catalysts for change. In her keynote speech, Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Shirin Ebadi said as much.

“Journalists are important in the fight against fear and ignorance” Catholic Priest, Apollonaire Malu Malu from DR Congo.

Whilst it is clear that traditional media channels influences opinion, I did NOT agree (as you see from my entries on Celebrity Backers and Rice pushing for Arab support) with Vincent Brossel’s (from Reporters without Borders) talk of how European governments could help by BEING VOCAL about human rights abuses in China. So far, how has “being vocal” been effective? Maybe “being vocal” was a short for "a carefully researched public diplomacy strategy that may include, to some extent, the spoken word". I hope so.

And the power of the spoken word is almighty. Clearly I prefer the written (electronic) one, maybe because I live in a society where there is approximately one computer per household. Africans aren’t so lucky and share one between 300,000 (and I don’t expect there is much sharing going on). Literacy levels are not high, so radio is a hugely powerful tool for communicating. As Radio Entrepreneur, Rose Kimotho from Kenya said “Radio in Africa is important, because it is considered the gospel truth”. She went on to describe how the mis-use of vernacular radio had heightened tensions during recent Kenyan unrest. But I was more interested to hear about how radio could contribute to peace building, rather than hear examples of its abuse. I was fortunate to be seated next to David Smith, from Okapi Radio, which broadcasts into DR Congo. Funded by international donors, Okapi advocates the development of democratic life, economic, social and cultural life and contributes to the formation of a responsible public, who are open to dialogue. I also sat with Gordon Adams who has been working on radio communication in Afghanistan. So I didn’t let Rose get me down (as she did several other delegates).

I do, of course have more to say, but will save it for next week's entry. For more on the conference, I blogged for the World Bank too whilst I was there – Blogging for Peace is an introduction and touches on the distinct lack of “new media” in the room, and The Media has a Responsibility? discusses whether responsibiltiy lies with the consumer and the editor, or with everyone (a pet subject of mine which I have been know to rant on about before).