Part V: Communications Strategy

January 23, 2016

Evolving Communications to keep up with evolving situations and the critical need for the currently absent clearinghouse for US Communications         

These topics are not difficult because it’s not that people don’t understand that things change but because communications of the complexity that we are discussing here require a C2 (Command and Control) structure that enables rapid and effective communications to meet those changes.

To put it bluntly, the USG does not at this time own the capacity to C2 messaging. There has been a “food fight” of sorts for years within the USG over types of messages, message primacy, release authority, legal authorities, and so on and so on. Like all bureaucracies, these battles are often about budget, hierarchy, and even finally about content. Yes, I know that I am stirring the hornet’s nest with this comment but much like the children’s story, someone has to “tell the Emperor that he’s wearing no clothes.” The point is not to stir up trouble or pursue an agenda but to put the facts on the table so that they can become part of the solution rather than remaining the problem. 



Here is the problem and there is no way around it: as an IO Officer at the tactical level, having messaging approved that would impact things at the Strategic level had no less than a ten levels of approval authority. Considering I was involved in daily operations that meant that I had little to no ability to rapidly message to local TAs in the immediate aftermath of an event that had Strategic implications. Sure, there were “work arounds” but to speak with the authority and support of the USG, there was virtually no way to do so quickly. These ten or so levels I mention were only in the military “chain of command” and if we add the different levels of Agencies and entities of the USG outside the military then who knows how many levels.


As we can see from recent events such as Turkey shooting down a Russian aircraft, an event can have strategic implications very quickly. We all know here in the US that old news is irrelevant. When there is so much on the line as there is almost daily or even hourly in the Levant, we can hardly afford to be irrelevant. Sure, it is great that DoS or CENTCOM can speak from an officially sanctioned podium but how does that help everyone below that level? Like politics, the most important influence is often local.

Communications in today’s day and age operate in real time. Social media often puts the audience in an event rather than viewing an event and as we saw in Benghazi for example, the event evolved very quickly. Benghazi is also an example of why we need not only messaging capability to impact/influence events and TAs but also to provide analysis in real-time as to what is going on. This requires a variety of SM tools common to marketers but far less so in the USG. For example, real time monitoring/ analysis on the ground can tell us what is going on, real time analysis can tell us what it means and what can or should be said. It then can help us disseminate through the most connected paths to the most important TAs and then finally, there are tools that can help us reassess, analyze and adjust a message for effectiveness according to a changing environment on the ground.

Wow, this last scenario is a head-scratcher when considering the possibilities and ramifications. This capability in order to be effective would have to exist in an OC (Operational Center) so that all relevant decision-makers would have access to information and be able to make real time decisions about responses. The OC would also have to have the ability to develop and coordinated dissemination of follow-on Strategic Communications and all other types of communication required to support our CS on a daily basis. Right now a small amount of what we described sits in the State Department, COCOM (Combatant Command) Headquarters, Regional Commands, and Country Teams. These entities, whether across the street or half way around the world from each other, are so disjointed that it makes for a version of the kids’ game playing telephone. By the time messaging is coordinated it is either so distorted or is overcome by other events.

In the aftermath of 9-11 we built, staffed, and operated NCTC (the National Counter Terrorism Center) that fuses intelligence capabilities from the disparate elements of the IC (Intelligence Community). This is a fairly good model for what can and in my opinion, should be done in the Communication world of the USG. As discussed in the earlier Strategy papers, the Non-Kinetic application of power is the key to winning America’s emerging and present conflicts in the coming decades. This begs the question, why don’t we have and entity to manage the myriad of components that make up the Non-Kinetic, of which Information is a key element?

Considering the complexity of what we have been discussing now for weeks it only stands to reason that in order to be truly effective we need an entity that has significant resources such as trained personnel, the best communication tools to include analysis tools and product/message design capability “in house.” Of course there is more to this but these are some of the key shortcomings. Of note, the President just made public a new TF (Task Force) to deal with CVE (Countering Violent Extremism). Considering the news release mention of a $5M budget to start with, I would submit that this is but a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed. Heck, just look at how much time, energy and resources are put into a Super Bowl commercial and you can see the obvious shortcomings. Even if we spent $500M it would still be a drop in the bucket compared to what forces on the ground cost and as we agreed on earlier, those forces can defeat a soldier but do very little to defeat an idea as dangerous as what DAESH for example feeds on.

​As we discussed earlier, the key to mitigating adversarial influence in Afghanistan after a Kinetic event or in day to day support for our overall strategy was to own the Information space. We did not get this right all of the time but when we did, it demonstrated beyond challenge the power of well-orchestrated Information Operations.  Considering that in the Levant we currently have far more kinetic events than BOG (boots on the ground) I can hardly see how we can either mitigate adversarial influence or exploit a success without a greatly streamlined C2 structure for Communications. Kinetic, as we discussed in the Strategy portion is but one of 5 LOEs (Lines of Effort). From personal experience, although less exciting than the Kinetic, the Non-Kinetic has far more to with eroding Extremism and its underlying grievances than the Kinetic. Unless we develop and support a C2 Communications structure that has the capability to operate at the speed of modern events we run the risk of being irrelevant in all 5 LOEs.

Why sometimes the right message is an action and not words

There is an old adage in IO that is still occasionally relevant and important. Sometimes, albeit not often, staying quiet and letting our actions speak for us is the right answer and the only answer. As that some of the reasons for no or delayed response cannot be discussed in this forum there is an example that is worth mentioning here.

This example would be when/if we are publically challenged by extremist propaganda to respond to something they’ve said, I would recommend silence followed by a swift and publically verifiable Kinetic action. After that action, our messaging afterwards should merely be that our response to DAESH is demonstrated by our resolve and our action. In this case, graphics/ photos of the Kinetic action should be employed. The last thing we need to do is to get into a “back and forth” public “tit for tat” with Extremist propaganda. This would feed their ego, legitimacy and implied dominance of the Information Battlespace.

The school-yard comparison to this example is one that nearly everyone can relate to. When taunted on the playground by a bellicose and persistent bully, often the best response is to just wait until there is an audience and then punch them squarely in the nose, turn and walk away. The punch/action is the message and says more than any amount of “tit for tat” verbal jousting ever could.


Here is where we come full circle in a Communication Strategy. If we agree that DAESH is a movement and a movement requires as much non-kinetic effort as does the Kinetic then by default, we must not run the risk of being irrelevant by failing to communicate effectively about what we’re doing and why. This is a monumental effort to be sure, but again, I think we no longer have any choice but to “get busy.”

Each topic covered hopefully will provide the reader with better insight into the complexity of the key components of a communication strategy to support our overall strategy. Developing the “no kidding” CS with a list of capabilities, messengers, messages, and timing is a monstrous task. At some point and with continued interest we can maybe tackle this piece. The challenge though is that we require input from relevant staffs, agencies, and entities to get a grasp on just what is available. This is tough to do from the outside, but we could apply a bit of imagination based on everyone’s input that is interested. Again, this point is just another reason why the USG must have a centralized entity to manage this task as well as build the completed CS.

The points I’ve covered in the preceding pages are insights garnered after nearly a decade of effort as an IO Officer for the US Army. They are my opinions although to be sure, I have been mentored and influenced along the way by some of the brightest and most experienced of experts. My hat is off to them and their contributions are most heartily appreciated. The lessons and opinions included here also have come as an honest review of earlier tactics that either failed or achieved less than possible due to gaps that we have discussed in this paper.

If anyone was expecting a silver bullet I’m sorry if this paper did not live up to that standard. The uncomfortable truth is that there is no silver bullet and success will only come by adopting the common sense and significant expenditure of labor, resources and investment. I wish I could give you better news but like all effective communications, truth equals credibility and real answers.

The bottom line though is that we must start regularly communicating effectively about our intent and degrading the “brand” of our adversaries, be it Extremist or those they are aligned with. We must either recreate an Agency to harness and execute our strategy or dramatically streamline the C2 between the myriad of “players” involved in our strategy. Talking about it and/or think tanking a strategy is not an option at this point. We are in crisis mode whether we like it or not. If we get this effort right the system or tool will be available for any crisis we meet in the coming years and decades. The hard lesson of our countless Irregular Warfare challenges is that influence is every bit as important as a tank or an F-16.

My final word here is to once again thank everyone, readers and contributors alike. A special “thank you” goes to my colleagues at the Narrative Strategies blog and HRI (Human Resource International) for their steadfast support, encouragement and friendship.

All my best and please never hesitate to reach out if there is any way I can help anyone to implement or expand the ideas discussed in this series.


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