Welcome back everyone to the next portion of our discussion of a recommended CS (Communication Strategy) for our previously discussed strategy against Extremists in Syria and the Levant. In previous discussions, we have looked at “leading with the NK (Non-Kinetic) and supporting the effort by way of a robust and aggressive CS. The last published portion of the overall discussion was the first part to the CS and focused on Narrative. Per the past discussion, narrative is the core of any comprehensive CS. Virtually everything revolves around it and it’s supporting or interactive Narratives. Today’s portion of the overall CS speaks to credibility. Second to narrative, there is virtually no other component of a successful strategy that matters as much as Credibility.
As always, the links to the previous discussions follow this paragraph and include links to the Strategy discussion as well as the CS Part I discussion posted the week before the Christmas/ Holiday break.
Credibility, is the second most essential element to any Communication effort after Narrative and yet the hardest element to achieve. The bottom line here is that without credibility, no message, no matter how well-crafted and executed is worth the effort. Like all messaging efforts, there is no “magic or silver bullet”. What can make a mundane but important message better, or an excellent message priceless is being credible. All that is really required is using common (or as I tend to believe, uncommon sense) sense.
An important note regarding credibility once again harkens to the nearly diametrically opposing ways that populations in the West and outside the West see a message. In the 4 decades of my adulthood I have spent nearly all of it largely interacting with folks from the Middle East and South Asia. Whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish I have noted a phenomenon that I was not raised with in the US Midwest. My observation, though not based on scientific knowledge nor applying 100% of the time has successfully guided my actions, negotiations and interactions with persons not hailing from the West. This phenomenon is that folks outside the West tend to judge a message by instinctively comparing it to the messenger’s actions. We in the West, all too often will take words on face value, pick them apart for meaning and discount the actions/ observables associated. This is not, in my experience the case outside the West. It took me a few years of doing business with Middle Eastern clients and later as an IO Officer to come to and employ this all important nuance. This nuance, though subtle, goes directly to the heart of the matter of credibility. In the previous topic re; narrative I noted the connection of message to “observable” and what I’m describing here speaks directly to that point.
Here in the West, I often, when reading the news, first look to who the author is, who do they write for and judge whether or not I will read an article and whether or not to assign some level of value to its content. In the ME (Middle East), folks tend to listen and then judge your credibility based on your historic actions and what you are actively doing at the moment. They then do precisely as I do when reading Western news, and then decide if or to what extent that they will assign credibility.
What this means to our CS is as basic as it can possibly be, if we say something in a message, we’d darn sure better be reinforcing it with an action or as is often used in IO, an observable. For example, if we say we mean to reduce human suffering, then we need to point directly at the enormous of amount of HA (Humanitarian Assistance) we are providing, more specifically at the HA we are providing that matters to whichever TA we are talking to at the moment. We often are willing to stand back and not call attention to our HA efforts because in the West, we consider it more polite, preferring a modicum of humility. I’m not suggesting that in the West this is the wrong approach but in the ME, I would suggest that we “get over” our concerns of being immodest in order to gain credibility for our message. This does not mean we jump up and down saying “look at me, look at me” but when discussing our commitment to alleviate human suffering we call attention to just how much we are doing. As this pertains to Narrative, we must also explain the “why” of our HA efforts. We’re not simply pursuing credit; we are building credibility towards a specific message.
Let’s quickly look at another aspect of relating an observable to messaging. How for example we could more effectively message about the successful targeting of 2nd and 3rd tier leaderships in let’s say… Ar Raqqa? Just like in the narrative discussion, what and how we say something matters depending on the TA. At the Strategic/ International level saying that we’ve killed a certain number of influential DAESH leadership in Ar Raqqa because they are evil-doers and their actions do irreparable harm to all. would support our overarching Narrative. The regional level messaging should say something more along the line of; we’ve killed a number of DAESH leaders that have caused immeasurable chaos and destruction to the regions of Syria neighboring Turkey and Iraq which have impeded cooperation by partners in the fight against Extremist Evil. Eliminating DAESH leadership gives all parties in the region an opportunity to achieve the stability that is beneficial to all save the evil-doers. At the local level, we would have a far better chance of resonating with the local audience if we said something like; The US/ Coalition airstrikes recently witnessed by so many of Ar Raqqa’s beleaguered citizens, killed the evil doers that have been killing, torturing and oppressing so many of Raqqa’s sons, husbands, wives and friends for the past 4 years. The point that counter’s the extremist message effectively is that we’re not saying we killed Muslims but killed evil doers, in order to protect people of all faiths/ Sects from the Evil of DAESH.
What you can see by the above examples is that the message needs to provide a reason for the TA to connect with the message. I know that when I listen to the 6 o’clock news, my interest will be heightened if I hear a story that’s on a street near where I live or it potentially impacts someone I know. The part of the message that captures the attention of the TA must be an emotional “hook” that makes the message personal to the audience. Truly understanding a TA so that the message and messenger can regularly speak to that emotional “hook” also builds credibility.
Regularly messaging any TA with reliable information tied to an observable builds credibility. Like the old saying regarding trust though, “it takes a long time to build trust, and only a second to destroy it”. The same adage holds true with TAs and messaging. This simply means that we must regularly message in conjunction with observables so that our TA in a region that perceives information differently from us actually starts reliably associating credibility to our messages.
This last point has been a real challenge for the US in the past. We are often so consumed by getting to the actual truth surrounding an observable that the ensuing delay offers the enemy the opportunity to “be first” in media. Remember, our adversaries also experience observables and in a messaging vacuum by us, they will fill the vacuum with their own message. There is absolutely nothing wrong with prefacing our “official statement with the following; “at this time, this is what we know to be true. If, as things develop that alter our perspective, we will be forthright with the details”. We must be first and absolutely as truthful as we know at the moment. Over the course of time, repeated and regularly truthful statements build our credibility and decreases DAESH’s even if it means being honest about a mistake.
We learned the lessons of the last paragraph by way of years of experience in Afghanistan. The SOP (standard operating procedure) we developed there proved intrinsically that this system works. Before this SOP was developed, we regularly were subjected to Taliban claims of civilian casualties because they got the first word in the media. The result was a halt to Operations which gave the Taliban a chance to recoup and degraded our credibility with the Afghan populace. Once we started publishing the results of night raids at the crack of dawn and offering “corrections” when we found out otherwise, resonating claims by the Taliban dropped to historic lows. The bottom line here is that by being first and being as honest as possible, we slowly acquired credibility.
The connection between credibility and regularly correlating the “why” of the raid as stated in our narrative also cannot be overlooked. Part of every morning’s statements about raids also included the “so what” of the raids. For example; each raid’s announcement sounded something like; “last night’s raid in Khowst province resulted in the kill/ capture of X number of Taliban leaders that have been terrorizing the innocent and decent citizens of Khowst Province”. This subtle note regarding the differentiation between Taliban and innocent civilians effectively contributed to eroding the Taliban narrative of “occupiers/ infidels oppressing Muslim/ Afghan citizens."
There is no reason to believe that the successful tactics described above regarding credibility, especially as it pertains to supporting a successful Narrative would be any different in the Levant. Is it a bit more difficult due to the larger land mass, more diverse TAs and more complex geo-political environment? Yes, it is, but we have the resources and access to the best messengers to mitigate the impact of these additional challenges. What we’re missing is a comprehensive coordinating strategy and supporting dissemination mechanisms to achieve the same results.
Finally, in this brief overview of credibility as a key component of a successful CS, I would like to add an important note suggested by a trusted colleague. This note pertains to being honest, especially when we’ve been in error as a mechanism for building trust and credibility. As part of our narrative I believe it to be wise to acknowledge our part in the destabilization of the Levant. For the informed, there is little doubt that the 2003 invasion of Iraq set some of the fallen dominoes in motion. I’m in no way suggesting that all that has occurred regarding instability or extremism, DAESH style is due to US actions. Most folks in the region, regardless of religion, ethnicity, culture or otherwise believe this to be true as well. There is a saying in IO that “it’s always easier to message something that the TA already believes to be true”. In this case, we are playing to this perceived truth and in doing so will start to rebuild some of the credibility we’ve already ceded.
To summarize the key points to this portion of our CS discussion regarding credibility I would highlight 5 key take-aways;
Recognize that regional and local TAs are “wired” differently and as often as possible message in conjunction with observables. In fact, let very few actions go unmassaged.
Be first with the message post observable and correct as necessary
Be honest even in the face of a challenging or erroneous event
Always message with the “so what” that relates the message in some way to our Strategic, Regional and Local Narratives in order to condition all TAs to our narratives’ key elements. This way no TA will ever have to ask “why”. Remember, narrative tells the meaning or the “why”.
Always place the most credible, culturally attuned messenger at the microphone, keypad or TV monitor
This concludes Pt II of this series. Although there are 9 parts, I’ll likely be weaving parts 3-5 together in the next post. You will see as we go that so much of the same material will pop up regularly. Therefore, as we build, it will not be necessary to rehash everything over again. Before concluding, I want to mention again that there are no “silver bullets” to this strategy and much of seems like very basic common sense. In fact, many of you are probably thinking “what’s the big deal” with this paper. This is another corollary to my first career as a Custom builder. Even in the most complex custom project the basic components are often the most mundane ordinary materials. It’s the vision and execution of employing those common and mundane materials in a custom manner that becomes a successful creation.
The custom CS to support our objectives in the Levant are much the same as the custom building project. We have the common sense and the resources/ materials but we need vision, execution and tools (dissemination capability) if we are to achieve our custom end state.
Looking forward to your continued interest, comments, suggestions and even critiques.
All best for everyone’s 2016