Part IV: Communications Strategy

January 23, 2016

Hello again all and thank you for returning for Part 4. Today’s part in the series will address points 5 and 6 of our “read-ahead” which addresses the essential “5 W’s” of who, what, when, why, and with what medium that must be considered when preparing and executing messaging that supports our current battle with extremism in the Levant. Again, each of these parts of the series are part and parcel of a complete white paper but due to length is broken up here. The “installment” approach is to make it a bit easier to fit the substantial reading into everyone’s busy schedule. As with all papers in this series, the links to previous postings are included to help everyone keep the weekly posts in context with the whole effort.
Thank you to all for again tagging along as we sort out what I believe to be pragmatic and helpful recommendations for communicating our intent, execution, and future efforts to combat extremism and its impact on one of the world’s most strategically important regions.

1. Who or what are we talking to?

This topic is very much aligned with the last one in part 3 but there are a couple of points to be made. Tailoring a message or series of messages to individuals as opposed to groups that those individuals are aligned with or impacted by are two different things. The message may be similar, but the emotional “hooks” are often quite different. For example; when messaging rural, tribal centric Sunnis in western Iraq, it may be of critical importance to “individualize” a message to the members of a tribe or sub-tribe by discussing the strength of numbers required to combat DAESH intrusions into their tribal territory or basic needs such as security, food and shelter etc.  When speaking to the leadership of those tribes which likely have an alliance network with other tribes, the same message about security may be in the form of assisting in acquiring more support at the Provincial or State level.  Both messages are about security, empowerment and survival but the words and emotional “hooks” are different.

The same line of thinking applies when messaging at the Operational and Strategic level. Individual States and their contributing forces and resources have their own unique interests even though they may be committed to a common goal or objective. Again, an example; Messages that speak to Turkish involvement/ contributions to the anti-DAESH fight are all too different than those that would help explain events to Western EU partners.  Much like we discussed in the Narrative portion, the intent of the messages may be the same but the messenger, nuance and influential factors will often differ. These subtle nuances are at the heart of what must be considered each and every time messaging is prepared for execution. I’ve found in past efforts to execute a sort of mini checklist before ‘going to print” or “on air”. The description I use for this checklist albeit simple is not all inclusive but will most certainly provide at least a 90% solution when considering any effort that involves influence by way of messaging. The next part of our discussion revolves around my mini checklist or as I prefer, the 5Ws of messaging.
2. The 5 W’s of messaging

  • Who are we talking to and who is doing the talking?

  • Why are we messaging

  • When do we message

  • What is the message

  • With what medium (s) do we communicate

I have no doubt that for those of you still reading after the first article or two are coming to the understanding of just how interwoven all of the discussed points are. This is a critical understanding and you’re to be congratulated. A CS (Communication Strategy) is by default a dimensional effort as opposed to a linear one.   Most people are “hard-wired” to think linear. Military campaigns are also often conceived in linear fashion. This is one reason that IO (Information Operations) planning does not always mesh well with a military or a National Security Strategy Campaign plan. Yes, it’s there in the annex but it’s very hard to integrate dimensional with linear efforts.  This is not a criticism of anyone because in my opinion/ experience, most folks are just “wired” the way they are as either linear or dimensional. Some people have the ability to see and act in both but they tend to be the exception. The bottom line here is that those executing any plan or strategy must give full appreciation to both the Linear and Dimensional aspects of a plan rather than focusing on the type of “wiring” they may have.

The 5Ws of a CS are about as dimensional as can be. The application of any Communication strategy can be executed in nearly as many ways as can be imagined. That is why at this stage of our discussion it’s important to see this strategy as a guideline, not a road map. Road maps are linear and usually don’t allow us to see or understand the variety of nuances in the topography along the route. Based on earlier points, you can all now imagine just how many types of messengers are required and the number of messages to be delivered by that list of messengers. If you also factor in the regions, TAs (target audiences), their plethora of indigenous languages/ cultures and diversity of communication mediums the complexity often seems insurmountable.

As events change, the messengers and messages must also evolve. Of importance also are how many mediums there are to use as dissemination platforms and especially which ones are available or resonate best within different TAs.  This short paragraph is illustrative of how daunting it is to effectively execute a CS in such a challenging area of the world. The fact that it is daunting, hard to explain to the uninitiated and requisite of so many assets, authorities etc.… is one reason that we just may not have had an effective CS since the end of the Cold War when we actually had a US agency to manage the effort. Near the end of this paper, this topic will reappear but for now, let’s get back to the 5 Ws.

 Much of the 5 Ws discussion is covered in earlier points regarding cultural nuance, relating observables to messages etc. A few words though need to be added and especially in regard to “when” and “with what medium” do we message.

Once we have the right messengers and messages we must know when to use them so that they effectively influence the right TA and also of importance, at the same time do no harm to partners that sows “dissention in the ranks” between us and our Allies. Often times the “when” to message is situational dependent.  By example, Our Narrative and interactive, supporting narratives must be expressed regularly so that there are no misconceptions about our intent and our actions. Some people call this “white noise” but I don’t believe this to be true. Much like propaganda, the truth also needs regular and clear dissemination in order to become part of the emotional foundation of our TAs.  Throughout this discussion the recurring theme of how complicated this crisis is demonstrates conclusively that we must be steadfast in intent but make a far greater effort to communicate clearly regarding the oft times confusing and misleading intricacies. In the following examples I will occasionally highlight in bold and italics to indicate some of the 5 Ws in order to illustrate my points.

The issue at the forefront of US political discussion right now re; Islam and Muslims is a very good example of the first “W”, or what. There is no doubt that many of our regional TAs sense a “war on Islam”. Extremists are very forthright in “selling” their narrative regarding this cornerstone issue. The hate regularly displayed in the US and Western press towards Muslims also increases the risk of undermining the very Allies we need as our credible messengers to erode the ideology of the Extremists. In fact, the shrill tone of Islamophobia, (the what), plays so neatly into the Extremist narrative it’s almost as if they were in some way orchestrating the cacophony of Western Islamophobia.  As that our narrative is the vehicle for explaining the sometimes subtle but critical differences in fighting DAESH but not Islam we must make every effort to employ our narrative or salient parts of it far more regularly (the “when”), with surgical precision and deprive Islamists of this windfall of propaganda. This point alone justifies regularly explaining, by way of our Narrative, whatwe’re really up to and why. Again, I cannot emphasis enough that everything we message must in some fashion be tied to our overarching narrative.

Another item on the “when” list is any and all instances that highlight the hypocrisy of DAESH and their fighters. Evidence of rampant hypocrisy is regularly visible online and in SM but the ability of the US and its partners to expeditiously (when) turn these instances into a valuable influence weapon and amplify them appropriately does not currently exist. We need the ability, along with regional partners to analyze and disseminate in a manner that does the most good. This includes technical tools within SM (Social Media) that help to identify the most appropriate material. (Social Media is an example of “with what medium”) We also must have the best analytical tools available that will not only identify the material but also analyze the most effective dissemination paths (connectivity analysis) that enhances the viral potential of our messaging.  Klout scores, connectivity analysis and network analysis are just three of a variety of technical applications needed but not yet effectively employed.

Wrapping DAESH and their minions of foreign fighters in shame due to evil and hypocritical behaviors(what) is a well-established tactic for influencing behavior of recruits, potential recruits and fighters(who) that are already disenfranchised. Shame that is conferred on recruits by SM publically “outs” fighters to their families and support networks at home for evil and un-Islamic behavior. Shaming (again, shaming is the “what” of our actions) when coupled with degradation of morale due to leadership decimated by kinetic means is a powerful combination of punches to the gut of DAESH.

Ideology is both DAESH’s strength and its vulnerability. Every day, respected clerics (who) across the Sectarian spectrum of Islam condemn DAESH fighters and actions as un-Islamic. Sadly, Western Media does nearly nothing to improve the dissemination of these invaluable condemnations. When we talk about degrading online recruitment, it is my belief that robust, regular (when) and nuanced amplification of the condemnations by respected clerics in Global Media would pay measureable dividends in diminishing recruitment (why).

 It is important here to note that these condemnations and refutations are most effective if they cross sectarian and regional lines. In other words, it may be good for a Jordanian Sunni cleric (who) to issue a Fatwa (what) against DAESH but if he does so with a Sufi, Shia and other Sunnis regardless of Fiqh (School of Jurisprudence) then the impact is far more effective and unifying.

The current polarization of US politics does a great deal of harm to this important effort. Considering our most significant vulnerability in the States and Western Europe comes from home-grown terror plots it would seem like a “no brainer” for both sides to go “all in” with this support but somehow the point is lost on most media. Homegrown terrorists (who) are difficult to identify therefore even harder to influence.  However, if the news online is full of counter-DAESH condemnation by credible voices from within Islam (who) we have a far better chance of the right message finding its way to the vulnerable regardless of whether it is initiated as part of a cohesive strategy (why). It’s not about control and who gets credit for discouraging recruitment. We also may never know who or what had the proper impact but at least, by encouraging and supporting amplification we increase our chances of success. No contribution should be ignored.

Aggressive messaging must also be introduced immediately (when) after successful kinetic activity that kills leadership, destroys logistics or helps reacquire territory lost to DAESH. This diminishes morale in the ranks of fighters (why). These successes must be highlighted/ amplified each and every time they occur (when). This again is a “no brainer” but as with other messaging, the US and our Allies require the mechanisms for robust dissemination and we currently do not have these robust tools/ weapons.  In the case of targeted leadership, I would also recommend converting the language of “martyred” as is seen in postings by Jihadists and replacing it with language that confers no honor such as saying “so and so was killed before he could commit another evil and heinous atrocity”. (why). It is also recommended that a summary of barbaric acts attributed to these leaders is part of the story as a way to delegitimize and dishonor them. This is even more important for Western fighters as that the attendant shame of being a terrorist diminishes the “call to honor” in prospective recruits (why).  As with the discussion above under the heading of “Culture”, each and every community that foreign fighters hail from have their own nuanced view of honor and shame.  As with a campaign I used to great effect in Afghanistan playing on organic Pashtun concepts related to Honor and Shame, these cultural overtones are powerful influence tools and behavioral modification messages.

As long as we’re on the topic of honor, shame and legitimacy, we might as well take on the issue of what we’re going to call the Extremists. As you’ve no doubt noticed, I have used DAESH or Extremist throughout this paper. In my opinion, this is a very important issue. DAESH for a variety of reasons is unpopular with the Extremists. Why it matters to us in messaging is two-fold; first, it denies them the term “State” when spoken or written outside of Arabic speaking audiences. For those of you familiar with the term/ concept “branding”, calling them DAESH outside of their home turf degrades their brand. Degrade the brand, degrade some of what is enticing to potential and fledgling recruits. As that the Caliphate and Statehood is the desired end-state of the Extremists, denying legitimacy is important. Secondly, they don’t like it and frankly, that is enough. There is merit in agitating their media effort as that it distracts and diverts attention from their overt, dishonest and barbaric propaganda. Simply put, the more attention and energy they divert away from supporting their ideology the better off we are.  There are other reasons in military applications to “provoke Extremist media” but I’ve chosen to highlight these two points as that they support our overall concept of a Communication Strategy. This entire paragraph speaks to the “why” of using select words”, such as DAESH instead of IS, ISIL, ISIS, etc.  Much in the same vein, when describing a specific individual, “killer”, “thug”, or “evil-doer” will work quite effectively rather than “ISIS Jihadist” or other such terminology.

In much the same vein as using the word DAESH, we also must avoid using the term “Radical Islamic Terror”. I realize this is a politically sensitive topic but again, adding the word “Islamic” to any description of the Extremists only helps the DAESH narrative regarding a war between Islam and everyone else.  Finally, the word “Extremist” by itself is in my opinion an excellent choice. It confers no affiliation to Islam and recognizes all fighters as being outside the realm of normal and decent citizenship regardless of State affiliation. There is even a subtle inference of madness to the word and in the case of DAESH, it works.  For many of the same reasons we drop the word “Islamic” when we reference DAESH’s terrorism we must also stop using the term Caliphate. The point again is to detach DAESH or the Extremists from any sense of legitimacy. The “Caliphate” in reality represents to many the “golden age of Islam” for many potential recruits and by continuing to broadcast that the Extremists are pursuing/ establishing a Caliphate then we are helping them market to the Muslim Community or Umman the powerful allure of a reacquisition of glory. Words matter!

As we wrap up this portion of our CS discussion I’d like to highlight a couple of the important aspects. As we begin to communicate more clearly and regularly whether in regard to narrative (s) or in regard to an event we must apply Journalism 101 standards and ask ourselves if all the 5 Ws are included in our messaging. Have we identified the TA (s), the messengers, the facts we want to convey, what do we want to achieve with the message, speech or graphic, are we messaging at the “right” time, why we are communicating and have we stayed true to all or part of our narrative?
These questions are easily managed. Learning to fly a few decades ago taught me the lesson and value of a checklist as the key to ensuring thorough review. Recreational flying has long diminished for me but the lesson of checklists has endured. For professionals involved in Communications the lesson applies still, regardless of talent, aptitude and experience. We all get busy and it’s very easy to overlook something of importance, sometimes critically so.

The checklist is of most importance in event-driven messaging. (this is an important “when”) While we often have days, weeks and sometimes months to develop messaging that is planned, such as a policy speech or an announcement about a Diplomatic milestone. Much of the type of messaging occurring at the local and regional level is driven by events such as a bombing, rescue, successful targeting of an Extremist leader, etc. These event-driven messages or series of messages often turn in minutes, hours and days. In the heat of intense activity, it is very easy to overlook some basics. These crisis events are often the most emotional for locals, therefore affording us to the perfect opportunity to “drive a point home” or create/ expand an emotional attachment in an area or TA previously uncertain. Wouldn’t it be a shame to “waste” an opportunity because we did not check off a handful of items in our message”?

As we close out this topic I’ll make a short and impassioned plea for going “all in” in regard to SM (social media) and face to face communications. Outside the traditional mediums of radio, TV, newspapers etc., most professionals operating in or interfacing with the Levant will make it clear that SM has become a “game-changer”. More appropriate professionals than me can attest to the reasons, extent and prognosis for the future re; SM but I’m good with just agreeing. The recent announcements re; CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) online and in SM by the President is a small step in the right direction, but it’s small, even for a baby step. There are innumerable variables concerning this discussion but if we don’t go “all in” with the determination, sophistication and dedication that folks like Google, Amazon and Facebook have, we will have ceded the primary medium to the Extremists. This means, we will continue in this fight well into our children’s lifetime if not longer. Extremism is an idea and the primary medium of the idea as of now, is SM.

 The other significant gap we have in communications is at the ground level. In my years of experience, nothing sells like face to face communication by experienced communicators especially in a region so dependent on face to face communication as a trusted vehicle. If we are to operate in the Middle East, we need to win using the local rules and dynamics and not expect to effective, exclusively using Western approaches to be understood and trusted.  We’ll touch on this topic again in our closing portions in a couple of weeks.

Finally, I’ll just thank everyone again for continuing to show interest and share with their friends and colleagues. It’s true that I’m biased but I do believe that improving how we communicate with people outside the West is critical to how we meet our National Security challenges in the coming years. Your shares, inputs and valuable critiques have helped us effectively reach far more people than I expected.  I have every confidence that it is you, the readers and your “connections” that with continued input and shares will help us finally make the requisite inroads into communication Policy challenges that will make the difference.


Please reload

  • White LinkedIn Icon
  • White Facebook Icon
  • White Twitter Icon
  • White YouTube Icon

© 2017 Narrative Strategies, LLC. All rights reserved.

The content of this website and publications by Narrative Strategies and the NS team are the sole property of Narrative Strategies, LLC.