Not Your Grandparents' Strategic Communications: Part One

There's much talk these days about the say-do gap in communications. The best communication narrows that gap between what you say and what you do. Certainly anyone in a position of authority (parent, teacher, officer) may be able to get away with a wider gap, but what when what you do impacts global public opinion or company-client relations?

This is where understanding strategic communications pays off. At the recent National Summit on Strategic Communications in Washington, DC, speakers from government, industry and the military shared insights from a lifetime of learning, including those teachable moment missteps and stories of success. Here are some highlights from this inaugural gathering:

A Seat at the Policy Table: In a public policy context, strategic communications never sets the agenda, but is integral to policy formation and execution. Price Floyd of the Department of Defense said that it refers to aligning words with the actions of all elements of national power. Words and deeds must be in sync. You can't take a moment off from thinking strategically about everything you say and do. You can almost guarantee that your enemies or competitors will take full advantage of your down time.

Seats and Tray Tables in Upright Position: Strategic communications is no longer a discreet capacity. At one time a separate public affairs or public diplomacy office was seen as sufficient, or worse, an afterthought. Edward R. Murrow, director of the U.S. Information Agency under JFK, was furious when his agency was left out of the planned invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in April 1961. Murrow was never in favor of this risky "adventure" into a country whose president was held in such high regard. But he didn't like to be the last to know. He is said to have exploded with this famous line: "Dammit, if they want me in on the crash landings, I'd better damned well be in on the takeoffs." This was before fax machine, cable television, Internet, and social media like YouTube and Twitter. Today, even the takeoff position is too late. Strategic communications is relevant to all programs and personnel in your organization from the moment you are envisioning that flying machine.

Paging Willis Conover: In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush Administration adopted a domestic-style political campaign strategy to explain the global war on terror. What may have worked for an American audience -- the use of the word "crusade" to explain the president's resolve to a nation just attacked by terrorists -- conjured up negative historical associations overseas. Interviews with foreign media were arranged, but more interviews resulted in falling goodwill in the world. Why? Because the selling approach with words did not match actions (Abu Ghraib). What we know today is that asymmetrical warfare needs asymmetrical communications. Wikileaks needs monitoring and response as much as any Larry King Live show. The era of the cookie cutter approach is over. If our failures have taught us anything, it's that we have to look at every operation differently -- this is jazz and not architecture.

My bottom line take on all of this:

We need to think more like Lady Gaga in a NATO cap. She never stops creating messages and visuals that appeal -- and repel, but are always memorable.