Part III: Communications Strategy

January 23, 2016

Welcome back to Part 3 of our series regarding what is important in a CS (Communication Strategy) to support Operations in Syria and the Levant.
I would like to inject a hearty thank you to what seems to be an ever growing number of readers. It’s encouraging to see so much interest in what we’ve been discussing. 

Moving forward, I would like to again note that each portion of this Series includes links to the previous papers. Those papers include, recommended Strategy, Lines of Effort and Communication Strategy discussions. I admit, it is an intimidating amount of reading for busy people and I apologize for that. The problem is, the problems we’re facing regarding Extremism and associated Terrorist activity is complex to say the least. The attached reading, though what I consider abbreviated is really just scratching the surface of our challenges. I am hoping though that those of you reading them will see them as helpful in charting a course going forward.

The links follow this paragraph and precede Part 3. Parts 1&2 were an Overview of a Communication Strategy and focused on the all-important characteristics of Narrative and Credibility. As we move forward, many of the aspects of the first two topics will recur. Just like building a house though, each topic becomes foundational and part of the framework as the house rises and begins to take shape.  We will have to briefly discuss the foundation and the frame though in order to be coherent in the current topics. I promise though to be judicious in how much backtracking that we do.

Today’s portion was third on our list in the “pre-read” paper and talks about the relationship between actions or as in IO (Information Operations) observables and messaging.
3. Relationship of actions/observables to Communications

As that we’ve already made reference to the relationship between actions/observables to credibility and a resonating message, let me just add a couple more notes.

In the last topic we discussed the relationship between observables and messaging. From a cultural perspective, there are different nuances that should be observed depending on the TA. The one thing that is universal though is that folks tend to be willing to hear messages far more when they are coupled with actions. For example, every time there is a mass shooting in the States, pro and anti-gun lobbies go into crisis mode. Everyone wants to talk about guns. As we grow further from the event, interest lags and it’s much more difficult to leverage the emotional “hooks” of the event to achieve an action. This particular dynamic is no different outside the West and in fact, as discussed earlier the dynamic is probably more acute.

What is important in the above example as it pertains to our Strategy is that observables on the topic of Extremism and its impact on multiple TAs (Target Audiences) occur nearly every day and all across the region. These are opportunities to sustain messaging that supports the LOEs in our strategy and as regularly reinforced by way of our Narrative. As that this CS (Communication Strategy) is in support of a recommended Operational Strategy there are also 5 recommended LOEs (Lines of Effort) which were discussed in the Strategy Papers. Because we are correlating the CS to the Operational Strategy I’d like to give everyone some examples of what I mean by associating observables to messaging for each of our LOEs. 

Here again for reference are the 5 identified LOEs to our recommended Strategy;

  • LOE1: Diplomacy

  • LOE2: Relieve Suffering

  • LOE3: Grievance Resolution

  • LOE4: Capacity Building

  • LOE5: Kinetic Targeting

LOE 1: Diplomacy

The US, its partners and even our less than complicit and unofficial ‘semi” Allies like Iran and Russia are regularly involved in some type of diplomatic effort regarding Syria, Iraq and the Levant. Although DoS and some media often talk about these efforts and the challenges, we must find a way to amplify the aspects of these efforts that relate to our Strategy re-balancing the region. Again, our narrative should be explaining the “why” of these diplomatic actions but if we don’t regularly amplify the tenets of the talks that speak to our Strategy then we’re allowing the emotional connection between TAs and our Narrative to lag. When attention lags, an effort to re-educate must be advanced after a sustained period of non-discussion. The re-education takes time and resources that are better applied to progress rather than a “two steps forward/ one step back” method. One of the most significant downsides to this lag is that the perceptions of those most affected in the region begin to believe they are being left to fend for themselves. This “feeling” of being left alone, erodes the credibility that we discussed in the last topic.

Continued engagement sustains emotional engagement in the TA which, when properly messaged encourages TAs to engage decision-makers to move towards our objectives. In this case, we must “connect” our messaging/ narrative to our overall objective of “rebalancing the region”. A quick note here about “rebalancing” the region; I’m not talking about rebalance or “sphere of influence” discussions in the classic Diplomatic sense but merely pursuing the objective of balance in the sense that we achieve a more stable atmosphere in the Levant where State and non-State actors back away from a war footing and the acute fear of activity by those they see as adversaries. In a sense, this definition of “re-balancing” is a sustainable de-escalation of hostile agendas.

A large part of messaging before, during and after Diplomatic activity is to explain in common terms what was intended, what happened and what to expect next. Diplomatic activities, like every other field has a very specific language that is more often than not misunderstood by people on the outside. Local audiences, especially those experiencing conflict related suffering want to know, in the most immediate terms how will this impact my life today.  E.g. Will the shooting stop today? Will the aid come to my village today? Was DAESH driven out of the village of my family? Etc. etc... Those at the Strategic and Regional level also have different concerns. Messaging about Diplomatic activities is just like any other type of messaging in that it must relate to a specific TA.

Every Diplomatic event has the potential to either give hope or degrade hope in an affected population. As that this is a very emotional issue for those on the sharp end of the conflict related suffering, every effort must be made in order to help all TAs to better understand just what each Diplomatic headline means. Some of this understanding must be in the nature of “expectation management” as that typically, Diplomacy is a very long and protracted affair. Relating messages about achievements and/or hindrances to a Diplomatic event must also be tied religiously to our overarching Narrative. Remember, narrative tells the “why” of our story and most assuredly, everyone suffering wants to know why, when will it stop, who is doing what in order to make it stop and can they expect relative stability any time soon.
LOE 2: Relieve Suffering

Every day in the Levant, the EU and the US there are heroic efforts ongoing that are focused on mitigating the overwhelming humanitarian issues resulting from the sustained conflict in the Levant. The heroes are both Government and Private and they are providing countless observables every day across the conflict zone. As one of the most important LOEs in our strategy we must focus the attention of those affected on just how much is being done, highlighting the gaps and illustrating just what is going on to address those gaps. If we are to build credibility and stake out the moral high ground requisite to erode the DAESH narrative, then messaging re; relief is essential.

​Again, I’m not suggesting that we are in a perpetual state of messaging “look at me and what I’m doing” but there is a way to repeatedly message at the Strategic, Operational, and most importantly, the Tactical level about what is being provided, what will be provided and critically, that it is being provided regardless of ethnicity, religion, Sectarian affiliation or otherwise. It’s one thing to say “we care,” but quite another to say it while standing next to a pallet of food, water, medical supplies and tents.

Particular interest in messaging at the Tactical level should be accomplished in areas where recent targeting of DAESH/ Extremist leadership has occurred. There are a variety of reasons, some classified but essentially, HA shown delivered in areas that provide Coalition Military forces greater access to previously dominated by DAESH is a clear sign to both those affected and DAESH that progress is being made and victory is imminent for anti DAESH fighters.

Messaging success with a picture in a recently reclaimed area also denies DAESH or our adversaries the opportunity to say that they still hold the turf. DAESH may use dishonest graphics but nothing sells like the truth and it’s hard to deny a picture that shows a local “power-broker” like a Cleric, tribal Elder, or Mayor standing in front of an aid pallet in the town square.
LOE 3: Grievance Resolution

For those of you that have been looking at the ME (Middle East) for more than a couple of years it is all too apparent that the number of conflicts and grievances are seemingly endless. While we are currently focused on DAESH, Syria, Iraq, and the Shia/Sunni divide, these are but a few of the large scale grievances. There are also things like Tribal/cultural/ethnic issues across the region, the Israeli/Palestinian issue, water rights in nearly every country, income inequality, Sectarian issues, Geo-political issues like oil and trade. These are just a few.

Every affected community in the Levant is normally saddled with multiple unresolved grievances and are no doubt agitated to the point of action at their lack of ability to have these addressed. The bottom line is that even with a Syrian resolution, the “pots will continue simmering” as that most of the citizens of the Levant believe that the outside world only cares about what is affecting it at the moment and in their eyes it is likely refugees and terrorism.

It is likely that this LOE is the most difficult to associate to an observable. That does not mean that it should not be high on our list of priorities. Any event such as a budding alliance between anti-DAESH groups or the settlement over road or water access that is achieved by way of mediation should be aggressively marketed and couched in the terms of “grievance resolution” by way of non-violent means. Although this is a tough one, we also must in our Strategy orchestrate the building and sustainment of conflict resolution professionals/organizations that facilitate collective resistance. The truth is, and it’s not pretty is that there are very few professionals trained and experienced in resolving conflicts grounded in non-Western indigenous populations. 

As a quick “shout out”, I’d like to recommend following Dr. Patrick Christian on LinkedIn who is renowned for his work and research in this all too critical field. He can be found also as one of the charter members of the collaborators.

The bottom line here is that we must have more observables to this critical component of building a sustainable anti DAESH coalition.
LOE 4: Capacity building

All too often, CB (Capacity Building) is seen exclusively as being military centric and also, all too often that is because CP is military centric. In a long term fight with civilian populaces as a COG (Center of Gravity) we must find a way to build reliable non-military capacity in affected countries and regions that will be advantageous to empowering a stable populace.

In support of this LOE we must consider building capacity for beleaguered and affected countries/regions across the spectrum of Governance. This applies especially to those aspects that affect quality of life issues for the populace. Extremism may be a virus built on ideology but chaos, grievances and failed states are the Petri dishes that empower a virus to become an epidemic. There may be no cure or vaccine for this epidemic but we can certainly erode the catastrophic impacts on the populaces that enable anger, fear and discontent to grow to into extremist violence.

Affected populations looking for a “way out” of their circumstances are by default limited of hope. If they can’t see or hear prospects for improvement they have little to no choice but to tackle their problems by way of the easiest most accessible means. All too often extremists like DAESH, HAMAS and HEZBOLLAH have used this dynamic to their advantage. That is why; the observable/ messaging piece of this LOE is of critical importance.

Every day, there are countless acts of aid rendered across the Levant. Those acts provide the observables. These acts, when applicable must be coordinated to build a stable foundation for Capacity Building. The acts that contribute to basic needs such as security, food, water, shelter etc.… speak to stabilization but what’s missing is the “so what”. It’s not enough to just say or suggest we’re meeting basic needs but to tie these efforts to the stability requisite to the sustainable capacity of host nations to manage and support their citizens. Education, governance, infrastructure maintenance and civil structure are all non-military aspects of CB. These things occur, but are we messaging or explaining the “why” of these actions?

Here again, a sub-narrative comes into play as we tie the observables to our narrative in a manner that speaks to the long term goal.  For example;

This year, in refugee camps around the region “so and so” (the US, Allies, NGOs, partner nations and entities)”, along with basic needs, provided education, occupational/ professional training, classes in governance and civil structure to affected populations yearning to go home. The intent is two-fold:
1. to help these innocent citizens acquire the knowledge and strength to one day in the near future return home as capable citizens that are better prepared to support and build a stable state and most importantly, 
2. to mitigate the inestimable suffering imposed on these citizens by DAESH and their former oppressive Governments. 

While it is our moral responsibility to render aid to the suffering, we also acknowledge that it is everyone’s best interest in the long run to achieve stability and with populaces better prepared to support long term stability. 

This is but one example of messaging, with the point being that it explains why we are building capacity, towards what goal and ties whichever action/ observable to our Narrative. When it comes to Capacity Building and supporting messaging, virtually no act or effort should be without the full support of media, Public Affairs and put into context/reinforced by Department of State. The bottom line here is that tying observables to our Narrative must be messaged and at least partially interpreted regularly, eloquently and clearly to deny our adversaries their interpretation of our actions. It is also important here to note that when local citizens see investment in “what comes after”, they will start to believe more fervently in seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. This is an emotionally charged advantage not to be overlooked. If we want to empower a populace, few things solidify hope better than visible signs of investment in their future.
LOE5: Kinetic Targeting/ Security

Messaging to correlate kinetic activity (Kinetic targeting) to our Narrative is the one aspect we do fairly well at this juncture. We’ve had a lot of practice. Still, no successful mission whether killing DAESH leadership, degradation of DAESH infrastructure and DAESH fighters being demoralized, abused and their revelations of DAESH hypocrisy should ever go un-reported. We do regularly report on deaths, number of sorties etc.… but the one area of messaging the Kinetic/Security piece that needs refinement and amplification is the “why” of our kinetic efforts.

The relationship of targeting efforts and associated inroads into DAESH held areas as observables to messaging cannot be oversold. These successes, much like the previously discussed CB become “beacons of hope” to those affected populations raptly listening for any and all positive news regarding an end to their intensely personal crisis. These messages must accurately portray kinetic successes but not “over sell.” This also builds our credibility. There are few things worse for those suffering than to have their hopes dashed by overly zealous expressions of optimism. Success is being made, DAESH (as a military/state) is being diminished but what matters most to refugees is that they still cannot yet go home safely.

We will discuss later the means of “selling” kinetic success but just to introduce an important thought, this is one of the areas that SM (social media) offers enormous advantage.  For example: showing the airstrike that decimates DAESH leadership and logistics in a particular village in SM with a short “so what” post is invaluable. Pointing out the dishonesty of DAESH when they deny their losses (as they often do), is important as that it erodes the credibility of their successive messaging or posts. Pointing out in posts that they are barely holding on to an area by way of SM also builds morale in opposing forces and sways momentum. DAESH fighters and especially leadership thrive on SM and the best way to “beat them at their own game” in regards to kinetic success is to show a picture/graphic in SM of their losses, infighting (demonstrable by executions in their ranks) and defeats at the hands of local opposition fighters. Destroy their narrative and their morale and you degrade DAESH.

There is an important but uncomfortable note to this topic. The US military and associated USG entities that have the capacity to relate these targeting observables to messaging are relatively meager in comparison to what our adversaries have. The Presidents new TF (Task Force) is still nascent and by all accounts far less resourced than required. If there is more development to this point by the end of this series of papers, we’ll certainly revisit this topic. What we’re discussing is great but if we don’t have the capacity to act on our recommendations then it’s all for naught.

4. Cultural nuance as it pertains to a variety of Target audiences

It is virtually impossible to emphasize this point enough. Hands down, culturally attuned and delivered messaging has been the US’s most significant deficit these past few years, or more specifically in the post 9-11 era. The whole point of messaging is to make yourself understood. How many of us have used “machine” translation on Google or similar platforms? For those that have, a simple conversion of word meanings does little to help us “get the point”. It may “get you in the ballpark”, but with near certainty, the actual intent as well as the attention of the reader is lost. Often, a mistranslated passage may even offend or denigrate a reader. This can be on an epic scale or just enough to render a message unworthy of consideration. Either way, the deficit of language and its attendant culture contributes enormously to the regular misunderstanding of our intent. As noted in our last paper, failure at cultural nuance also speaks directly to a failure at credibility. This does not just mean the message itself but the “right” messenger is also “the weakest link”.

Even when the messenger and those messaged are from the same country, speaking the same language, culture plays a critical role in credibility. As that I’ve had a difficult time explaining this concept to US persons before, I generally will default to an analogy:
Simply explained in US terms, a political message developed in say, rural Mississippi with all the nuance of the rural Deep South will likely fall flat when delivered to someone in Lower Manhattan and especially if delivered by a messenger with a heavy Southern accent. It’s not that one or the other is necessarily smarter or more well informed, it’s just that the lens they see the world through is vastly different. 

Advertisers understand this implicitly when designing an ad campaign for a Nationally marketed product yet when the US Government attempts to message through DoD, DoS, or other entity resources this very basic concept all too often falls to the wayside. The bottom line here is that we need different TAs to understand us. Yes, we may be saying the same thing to all of the TAs but their filter or lens is different and requires a different approach. This simply means that we need present the appropriate culturally attuned message creator the intent and let them prepare the message which must, absolutely must be delivered by the most carefully aligned cultural messenger. This just does not apply to words, but to graphics, timing and dissemination methods. I can think of way too many times that Communications gurus in Afghanistan wanted TV commercials to message rural Afghans. The absurdity of this thought is so apparent that it hardly needs explaining.

As that we are mostly discussing Muslim audiences when talking about the Levant, other aspects of cultural nuance that are relevant in the region are ethnicity, sectarian affiliation, statehood, tribal alignment... Just putting a “Muslim” messenger in an ad does not meet the requirement to be effective. Can you imagine an Iraqi Kurdish fighter messaging a Hezbollah affiliated populace? Yes, absurdity strikes again.  As an example of this failure:
While posted to the Eastern Afghan border and asked for a product from the unit in Afghanistan responsible for graphics, I had asked for a product that included a picture of a rural Afghan Tribal Elder and family. When, I was sent the prototype for approval it prominently displayed a Gulf Arab family complete with a man wearing a long white robe, red checkered headdress and clean shaven. His wife was wearing a relatively shorter Western style skirt and his children, both male and female in western dress. Their excuse for such an epic fail was that they had a picture of a Muslim family. For those familiar with rural Pashtuns in Eastern Afghanistan, it is hard to imagine a more catastrophic mistake.  

The bottom line here is that any communication strategy must adhere to the SOF (Special Operations Forces) imperative of “knowing your environment.” In a country of immigrants replete with citizens from virtually every culture on the planet we still seem incapable of connecting with the best cultural experts. Pepsi and Coke go to war in ads all the time and I can assure you they appreciate the nuance of messaging appropriately in their battle for market share. At war, lives are at stake, not merely the bottom line of sales. We can ill afford to continue talking at our audiences rather than actually relating to our audiences.

In Syria alone, there are 22 or 23 significant ethnic groups with dozens more sub categories. When you consider that with foreign fighters from all over the planet populating the ranks of DAESH and their ilk the subtle differences in culture are daunting. If we add Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and the rest of the complex societies in the region to the mix we have another whole set of problems in making ourselves understood.

Again, I must restate that the problems we are facing in the region are beyond complex and we are struggling to make ourselves understood by both Allies and adversaries. There is no amount of effort we can afford to spare to effectively communicate about what we’re up to and why. So far in this series we’ve discussed Narrative, Credibility, relating observables to messaging and culture. Hopefully, I am demonstrating by now just how interrelated these issues are. In fact, they are in many ways like a chain. No matter how strong independent links are, if there is a weak or failed link, the chain cannot do its job. This is not a mission for the uninitiated or inexperienced. We no longer have the luxury of failing to employ professionals any more than we can afford to send Military Academy Cadets to do the job of Special Operations Operators.

We are in fact making very good progress Kinetically against Extremists. Sometime in the relatively near future we may even recover all of the turf taken by regional extremists. The question becomes “what then?”. How do we sustain the peace? How do we communicate in support of our stability LOEs? How do we keep the “idea” of Extremism from once again sparking a large scale conflict? Yes, I know these are tough questions and are somewhat rhetorical. The answer is we cannot do any of these things if we cannot effectively communicate with all pertinent TAs. All of what we’ve so far discussed are integral parts of communicating with the region. I guess the only real question is, “can we afford to not communicate effectively and are we willing to invest in “getting it right”? This is the bottom line to why we must adopt a robust new strategy.

This concludes this week’s part of the CS discussion. Thank you again everyone for continuing down this path with me. As always, here’s the reminder to please feel free to add input, challenge my thoughts or even critique. All comments are welcome.

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