At the core of any good Communications Strategy is a narrative strategy (NS) that not only explains what we are doing but does so in a manner that tailored to all of the target audiences (TAs) involved, be it for home, partner/coalition audiences or any of the regional and local audiences caught up in the conflicts. I cannot stress enough that understanding a nation’s intentions is far more than soundbites of information expressed in press conferences.
For audiences outside the West in particular, storytelling or narrative is the preferred method of communicating everything from local history to current events. If we do not develop and execute a comprehensive NS that dominates the media on all levels, we will fail to communicate effectively. Without aggressively employing an effective NS we will continue to be in a reactive mode to adversaries like ISIS who fully understand and employ an effective NS to recruit, radicalize, and exploit their actions.
While NS is currently a “buzzword” in policy circles, I have found that few truly understand the concepts.
Narrative (or rather lack of) is in my opinion one of the three most tragically flawed aspects of our (if one actually exists) US communication strategy followed by social media (collection, analysis, and dissemination) and a whole of government information entity/agency.
As an Information Operations Officer, I learned the hard way that any Information Campaign devoid of Strategy, planning, resources, and a compelling narrative was much like the old camp race where runners tie their legs together and race. Yes, you can get to the finish line but you will work harder, go slower, and likely experience more than one spectacular mishap en-route. In yearly deployments to Afghanistan 2009-2013, I slowly through trial and error realized increasingly improved results in IO campaigns as my skills with narrative improved. I now have had the good fortune to have become acquainted with some extraordinary experts regarding Narrative whom can speak professionally about the reasons that Narrative is an imperative and how it works. Dr. Ajit Maan, Dr. Patrick Christian and Alan Malcher, MA in particular have become invaluable allies and mentors in regard to narrative.
As narrative pertains to our strategy, the bottom line, as noted by Dr. Maan, is simply that we need a compelling narrative (story) to explain the meaning of our intentions and actions. The President, in an Oval Office address last fall, was trying in a very short period of time to deliver the meaning of how we are or will engage the world regarding ISIS, or as I and many others prefer to call them, DAESH. Additionally, addressing DAESH in a region that is a veritable minefield of complex underlying grievances is even more difficult to explain. Fourteen years into this conflict regarding extremism we still struggle to easily explain just what we are trying to do and why.
Part of the reason that this is so difficult is that the components of clearly viewing our challenges are rife with social, cultural and geo-political nuances. The same words in English do not necessarily translate well to those speaking different languages in different areas of the world. This is true for both our adversaries and our Allies. Not only do words matter, but so does culture. Another but equally demanding reason for clearly and regularly communicating our narrative is that even for people fully immersed in the crisis we now face, the issues are so complex that we must make every effort to keep everyone, allies and adversaries alike, fully understanding of our intent and actions.
Storytelling outside the West is often culturally one of the most important and convincing methods of effective communication. In our case, we must use our narrative much in the same manner as did Aesop or Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). We must use our story/narrative to make a point(s) in a manner that will keep the attention of the audience. So what is the “moral of our story”? What are the points we must compellingly make? How do we hold onto to our audiences? How do we help everyone understand such a complex problem set? These are some of the most important questions in developing our narrative.
Before we wade further into our specific narrative we must know also acknowledge another critical point. Even though we must have an over-arching narrative we must also develop multiple supporting Narratives that speak to Western, international, regional, and local audiences.
Dr. Maan calls these interactive narratives and I defer to her expert opinion for further refinement of this concept. Supporting or interactive narratives are all related to the overarching narrative. They tell much the same or very similar story but in a contextually nuanced manner that captures/holds the attention of different but related audiences. The same story and words will not speak the same meaning to different audiences in large part because we live in the West and regional/local indigenous audiences see the world through vastly different eyes. This point demands that the communicator of our narrative by all accounts should be the best culturally attuned messenger. For example, POTUS may well communicate our narrative overview to US and Western audiences but someone “on the ground” in, say Syria or Iraq, and at the local level may well be a mayor, tribal chieftain or a Special Operations Forces team leader. How do these different messengers make the narrative understood?
The Narrative at the POTUS or Secretary of State level may sound something like the following:
The US, in pursuit of our own and our friends’ security and interests, is in a conflict with extremists usurping legitimate Islam as a tool of power. It is not only security that compels us to act but we, as a significant and responsible Global partner and acting on our inherent American values, have a moral duty to act in defense of the helpless. Much like our partners, we realize that these evil-doers have nothing to do with Islam nor do their barbaric actions reflect the tenets of Islam. The terrors they inflict on innocents are continuing to do immeasurable harm to decent citizens regardless of faith, ethnicity, culture, or region. They are evil, plain and simple, and as partners of the civilized world we intend to pursue justice and stability in the interest of all civilized States and their citizens. We intend to continually increase our ongoing support for degrading the immense human suffering, support stability by way of supporting safe mechanisms for hearing grievances, aggressively pursue diplomacy as a key component of grievance resolution and most of all, pursue security by relentlessly targeting all extremist leadership and support of extremist organizations. We do not care where these evil doers hide; we will find them, destroy them and effectively build capacity for all responsible partners that support our efforts. We realize that this effort will not be accomplished quickly or without the pain of financial and human sacrifice. It is though, our moral responsibility to act and support all those that share our concerns.
A supporting/interactive narrative at the regional level might be communicated by some forward Military commanders, regional diplomats, or high profile US citizens coordinating humanitarian aid (HA) such as USAID or recognized NGOs. It will by default speak to the narrative spoken by POTUS but be nuanced to “connect” to a regional audience. It may sound something like:
We Americans and Allied partners, along with our regional partners are continually cementing all available regional partnerships in pursuit of eradicating the evil of an extremist and wholly discredited movement that is attempting to hijack one of the world’s great religions for their own evil purposes. Here in the region, we daily see both the grave results of evil as well as the true courage of responsible partners banding together for the most noble of causes, the eradication of evil and the relief of human suffering. The reasons we support these partnerships is complex but two of the most important reasons are; First, we and the responsible people and states of the region, can no longer stand by while evil destroys the lives of innocent people and secondly, everyone, not just those in the region, suffer from the effects of catastrophic instability.
Every day, the partnership between Western and regional partners grows stronger and the physical strength and emotional draw of DAESH weakens. This is always the case when good and decent states and citizens band together against evil. It is easy to see the corollaries between today’s anti-extremist efforts here in the Levant and the coalition of global powers that eradicated the evil of Nazi led evil ideology during the Second World War honorable and decent citizens regardless of race, culture or citizenship are today combining their courageous efforts to once again destroy evil.
We also regularly see that even with the destruction of evil and states that support it that there will be much work to be done in building a stable regional foundation that will prevent further attempts of evil-doers to establish a foothold for their selfish interests. We have no illusions that this will be easy and know all too well how many challenges there are regarding grievances, some spanning millennia.
Part of our combined efforts in building an enduring foundation of stability will be to support any and all responsible mechanisms that provide for hearing and resolving grievances. We also realize that no mechanism will or could ever exist without security which means pursuing increased capacity of responsible regional partners must be part of the overall effort. Included in our capacity building much of the focus will be on resources that guarantee security so that the most critical of our goals can be met, which is to mitigate the inestimable human suffering that has been visited upon innocents regardless of religion, culture or statehood. DAESH, despite their illegitimate claims of statehood has failed at the first requirement of being a state, the care and protection of all its citizens.
Although many of the partners operating here in the region hail from Western cultures, we clearly and irrevocably support our local partners in their undeniably correct assertions regarding the failed attempts of DAESH to represent any legitimate aspect of Islam. We of the West, though not qualified to argue the religious aspects of Islam, support unflinchingly the qualified condemnations of DAESH by the respected and recognized Religious authorities from around the Globe and especially here in the region. Again, and let us be clear, no respected religious authority regardless of sect recognizes DAESH as anything but evil-doers usurping Islam for their own selfish and barbaric reasons. These are not the words of the West but our trusted and respected Muslim partners that hail from region.
Finally, the eventual and certain outcome of the anti-extremist coalition will be; the destruction of Extremist capability, degradation of their evil and hypocritical ideology and a stable Levant that has for the first time in decades. a real chance at a bright and prosperous future on the world stage.
These two narrative examples must be supported with interactive narratives at the local level that speaks to each TA be it tribal, local, village, or otherwise. The key here is language, cultural nuance and appropriate trusted communicators. This local level of narrative has tremendous advantages because much of the narrative communication can be accomplished F2F (face to face) by trusted communicators whether Special Operations Forces, coalition partners, and trusted populace leadership.
The bottom line to interactive narrative is that each and every version must relate to the overarching and be delivered by the right messengers using the right language(s) and observing the most culturally nuanced approach. As you can see from the two examples above, both speak in different but supporting manners to key lines of effort described in the strategy outlined in earlier segments of my articles. They may not say so in the clearly delineated manner of Western military planning but there is little doubt as to the meaning.
Finally, in regard to narrative, we must tell our story often, at every level and with the best culturally nuanced communicator. When notable actions or events occur, we must repeat a version of our narrative that addresses the action/event and clearly articulate why that particular event/action speaks to our overarching narrative. An important note here is that by way of years of experience messaging in support of operations, I found that there was no message that resonated as clearly as one that was connected to a visible action by the intended TA. For example; It was always much easier to “sell” reintegration in Afghanistan after successful targeting of Taliban leadership. When “local” Taliban saw demonstrable success against their leadership they were far more receptive to coming off the battlefield by way of Reintegration than before their leaders were targeted.
As a brief summary note to the narrative discussion I would like to add that the bottom line to narrative in a comprehensive strategy is that no one, ally, foe or affected populations need be confused as to our intent. We must tell our story, tell it often, tell it to everyone in the most culturally nuanced way possible and we must highlight our actions regularly that are demonstrative of our intent and as communicated in our narrative