Transforming Strategic Communications to Fight Terrorism Since 1492

A poster of an old photograph of four Native American Indians dressed in traditional garb and carrying rifles states: "Homeland Security -- Fighting Terrorism Since 1492." This message provides a rarely considered viewpoint regarding U.S. policies. It also imparts a cultural clue about a critical transformative shift needed in U.S. government strategic communications.

Without a major adjustment in our approach to international power, partnerships, and possibilities, America will continue to wane in its ability to positively influence foreign audiences, costing lives, untold dollars, and risks to our own security. Proclaiming transformative communication principles as the preferred approach to our strategic communications efforts can help reduce a cross-cultural blind spot preventing optimum international relations. It can also create openings for breakthrough outcomes not currently imaginable while catapulting the U.S. forward into an inspirational global partnership role.

Credibility and perceptions have a great deal to do with how a message occurs to those it impacts. Americans tend to be unaware that throughout today's Latin America, pictures of the revolutionary figure, Che Guevara, are prevalently displayed. For forty years Che has been revered as a hero for standing up to capitalist practices blamed for social inequalities and poverty. Similarly, pictures of Osama bin Laden are commonly exhibited in Muslim countries around the globe for his perceived heroism in standing up to the Western infidels.

At a 2006 Middle East Policy Council meeting in Washington DC, the speakers shared that Iraqis perceive Americans not as liberators but as occupiers primarily interested in their oil, the establishment of permanent military bases, and the conversion of Iraqis to Christianity. Without exhaustively producing messages (and behaviors) to dispel those perceptions, Iraqis are left with viewpoints that lend support to those impressions, echoed in the claims of insurgents.

Until Americans effectively address and counter these stories by offering a convincing narrative of the U.S. as a David image rather than that of a Goliath, anti-American sentiment will continue to be fueled not just in the Middle East, but in Russia, Asia, and Africa, for instance. Meanwhile China is quietly partnering with countries to win hearts and minds (along with critical resources) without firing a shot.

Transformational strategic communicators are guided by a powerful shared vision, appreciate the importance of taking in another's perspective, and act upon what is heard with integrity. Their methods are authentic, respectful, solution-oriented, and data-driven. They emphasize power-sharing, win-win outcomes, stress feedback loops and stakeholder buy-in, and highly value listening.

Unproductive messages are shifted to statements that take responsibility for the outcomes achieved. Winning and blaming are traded in for finding solutions to problems at hand... solutions not only for the U.S., but for our allies, enemies, and the world. What is required, however, is a willingness to let go of the need to be right, feel superior, or a sense of entitlement about having things our way.

While boundaries are respectfully honored, coercion, manipulation, and deceit are actively avoided along with the downside those methods reap. Consequently, transformational communications approaches, along with their messengers tend to be highly regarded and inspirational to those they attempt to influence.

These communication approaches capable of producing breakthrough results are readily available and are already practiced by many U.S. government and Defense Department personnel. They have been gleaned from within fields like conflict management, negotiations, and even advertising. Works related to mediation and breakthrough thinking such as appreciative inquiry and quality management also contain a plethora of communication gems. While often used by individuals and within pockets of government, these gems do not, however, appear to represent an overarching U.S. government policy approach.

While a great deal of information exists that can be applied to transformational strategic communications, simple lessons are often overlooked by U.S. representatives, spokespersons, and media moguls of every political stripe and persuasion. Abstaining from name-calling and expressions of bravado while striving to grasp the viewpoint of those we hope to positively influence are some of the "no-brainer" practices.

For example, a U.S. military commander in Iraq recently talked about the need to kill or capture "Islamic maniacs." He seemed to be completely unaware of how this descriptor might discourage non-violent Muslims from lending their support. On the other hand, another commander involved with helping poor villagers install a vital water pump respectfully commented: "Just because we're better off doesn't make us better." It's not hard to see which message evokes genuine support for Americans.

Last year a senior Congressional leader called Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez a "thug" in response to his disparagement of the U.S. President. Those who work with street gangs appreciate how communications critical of a gang leader, even when the gang members do not like their own leader's behavior, will cause such members to stand up for their leader. Righteous indignation or just telling the "truth" (that is usually a point of view anyway) can get in the way of what is needed to achieve desired outcomes.

While it would be helpful for U.S. leaders, national spokespersons, and the media to model more transformational messages, everyday Americans can challenge ineffective, old paradigm approaches while expressing their own transformational messages of cross-cultural interest and respect, their sense of shared power and partnership, and a willingness to collaboratively seek problem-solving possibilities. They can also avoid name-calling and bravado while sincerely striving to understand diverse perspectives of not just the international community, but of their fellow Americans as well.

Leaders, however, can help to motivate constructive behaviors at times. We might be wise to continue to heed the transformational strategic communications advice of one American leader who, despite overwhelming obstacles, managed to achieve astounding and noble outcomes by offering a message such as:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

These words were part of a message from President Abraham Lincoln to Congress on December 1, 1862, one month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the newly released documentary "In the Shadow of the Moon," the astronauts spoke about how the achievement of the Apollo 11 mission in landing on the moon was perceived around the world as a triumph of human kind. The world proudly exclaimed "We did it!" and the U.S. became the ultimate beneficiary.

As Joseph Campbell, the American mythology professor once said, "When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness." Perhaps the power of transformational strategic communications lies in the fundamental appreciation of how the most inspirational messages are not about us or them, rather they are about the inclusive "we."