public diplomacy

The Pentagon Drops Strategic Communication: Behind the Name Change

There are a number of competing and overlapping terms to describe how governments communicate with or relate to their own citizens and those of other countries, including strategic communication, public diplomacy, public affairs, information operations and global engagement. Depending on who is saying what to whom and where, different authorities, funds, channels or even laws can apply.

For example, by law, the United States government cannot “propagandize” its own people, but is permitted to try to “persuade” others around the world to support U.S. interests and actions. It can “inform” anyone about U.S. policies, actions, history, culture and opportunities.

When the State or Defense Departments communicate with the American people, usually through the media, it is called public affairs. How the State Department interacts with global audience is termed public diplomacy. When the Department of Defense does something similar (but usually with a short-term objective) it has been known as strategic communication — until recently.

But late last month, the Department of Defense issued a memorandum announcing that the term strategic communication is out, and communication synchronization is in. Why the shift and what does it mean?

According to the memo, strategic communication, which has been a joint responsibility of DoD’s Public Affairs and Policy communities with lots of interested players on the margins, created bureaucratic and functional confusion regarding military planning and oversight. As Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs George Little wrote, “most things previously termed ‘SC’ are in fact Public Affairs responsibilities.” This makes sense.

But are strategic communication and communication synchronization the same? Not necessarily.

Communication synchronization can be viewed as constructing a narrative and sustaining it across the bureaucracy. The United States is actually pretty good at this. Take one recent celebrated example. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, echoed talking points about Benghazi developed by the intelligence community when she appeared on several Sunday shows five days after the attack. The criticism from some Senators has been that she should have been less, well, synchronized.

The word strategic communicates importance, something directly related to a vital interest or a core function. The evolution of the concept of strategic communication within the military a decade or so ago reflected the emergence of a 24/7 global media environment, the interconnected world of the Internet, traditional media, satellite television and now social media and citizen journalists. In this world, governments communicate with each other and with broader society. People communicate vertically and horizontally and have access to more and better quality information than ever before.

United States policies, pronouncements and actions receive relentless scrutiny. In order to gain international understanding and support, to the extent possible, what we say and what we do need to complement and not contradict each other. Strategic communication is about keeping our words and deeds in the same zip code, or offering a quick and coherent explanation when one or the other strays beyond the established narrative.

This can be very difficult, particularly when policies and priorities, or interests and values, collide.

More often than we’d like to admit, our actions look one way to us, but are perceived very differently half a world away. Think of the bin Laden raid in Pakistan. From Kalamazoo, taking bin Laden off the battlefield was a no-brainer. From Karachi, it was a violation of sovereignty and a national humiliation.

Recognizing that the raid, necessary as it was, would inflame Pakistani public opinion, the initial description of the operation by President Obama was carefully constructed to try and mitigate these vastly different perceptions between the two countries. That’s strategic communication.

It’s not clear that communication synchronization addresses situations where our actions, no matter how well we attempt to explain them, have potentially far-reaching public policy consequences. Despite assertions to the contrary, the United States had no trouble communicating in Iraq. But what we viewed as liberation, others viewed as occupation. What we described as a war on terror, others perceived as a war against Islam. Our narrative was clear and consistent, but carried high costs we are still paying in a critical part of the world.

Going forward, the United States must recognize how consistent words and actions translate into effective and sustainable policies, regardless of what you call it.


About P.J. Crowley

Former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Spokesman for the U.S. Department of State and now a Fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication (IPDGC) and Professor of Practice at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.


6 thoughts on “The Pentagon Drops Strategic Communication: Behind the Name Change

  1. P.J. — I’m surely among many who appreciate very much this clear and insightful summary of the issues around Strategic Communication and its various communication cousins, including definitions of key terms. It’s a great explanation of how Communication Synchronization and Strategic Communication differ.

    Your piece leads me to wonder if perhaps one problem with the term Strategic Communication is that it winds up simply being redundant as an operational term, even if it remains important in a descriptive / prescriptive sense.

    In other words, synchronization is a particular step (or series of steps) that takes place — including Communication Synchronization across Public Affairs, Public Diplomacy, Information Operations, and any other international affairs and military communications. It has a specific operational meaning.

    But perhaps Strategic Communication ultimately just means doing PA, PD, etc. … strategically. For example, you cite the bin Laden raid example to describe strategic thinking in crafting a message to go out via both Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs channels — a message anticipated to have a big impact, i.e. at the strategy level. It’s not some separate type of communication, nor is it communication to some separate audience, nor is it communication about some special category of topic. It’s simply strategically done (although you might well reply, there’s nothing simple about it!). And since, in today’s media environment, there is no longer any such thing as a message that can be channeled to reach only domestic PA audiences or only international PD audiences, presumably this sort of strategic thinking should be the default for both PA and PD.

    What do you think about this explanation for why Strategic Communication may have begun to seem redundant, at least as a thing that specific staffers and teams were supposed to do?

    Of course I realize your blog piece is also about the much larger and more central issue of whether good policymaking can take place in the absence of consistency between words and actions. You also spoke about this in some detail during the recent IPDGC panel on Public Diplomacy in the Next Four Years.
    (If there are any readers of this comment who may be interested, the link is here:

    Posted by Mary Jeffers | December 5, 2012, 11:20 am


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