09 January 2009

Strategic impact of Soldier blogs

Back in November, I posted some thoughts about how Soldier blogging fits into the fundamentals of information. Now, I'd like to investigate how it meshes into strategic communication principles. Some may think it's a bit of a stretch to take the blog of an individual Soldier and expect to gain anything strategic from it. But hear me out ... and weigh in on it!
Strategic communication (SC) is a term for which it is difficult to find an agreed upon definition. Joint Publication 5-0 defines it as “focused US Government efforts to understand and engage key audiences in order to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of US Government interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of power.” The same publication goes on to state that proper “SC planning establishes unity of US themes and messages, emphasizes success, accurately confirms or refutes external reporting on US operations, and reinforces the legitimacy of US goals.” (p II-2)
The Report by the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication describes SC as “a sustained and coherent set of activities that include: understanding identities, attitudes, behaviors, and cultures, … advising policymakers, diplomats, and military commanders on the public opinion and communication implications of their strategic and policy choices, … engaging in a dialogue of ideas, … influencing attitudes and behavior through communication strategies, … and measuring the impact of activities.” (pp 10-11) Halloran articulates the ideas of SC in less formal language when he writes that SC “is a way of persuading other people to accept one’s ideas, policies, or courses of action. … [It] means persuading allies and friends to stand with you, … neutrals to come to your side, … adversaries that you have the power and the will to prevail over them, … [and] the nation’s citizens to support the policies of their leaders so that a national will is forged.” (p 6)
Taken together, these definitions and descriptions of strategic communication suggest that SC is not something that is only done by the highest levels of government. Additionally, they infer that SC is about much more than simply crafting and transmitting specific messages. Finally, they all articulate the importance of dialogue in communication; and this dialogue requires understanding of your audience, a willingness to listen, not just speak, and trust from those to whom we wish to communicate. With this understanding, new media use by individual Soldiers offers a unique way to accomplish some SC objectives.
To further explain how the military can implement SC, the Department of Defense published a guide describing the nine principles of strategic communication. These principles are: leadership-driven, credible, dialogue, unity of effort, responsive, understanding, pervasive, results-based, and continuous. By examining each of these principles, we can see how Soldiers engaging new media – specifically blogging – can serve to accomplish SC.
Three of the principles, leadership-driven, unity of effort, and results-based, require leadership action. Leadership-driven means that leaders must control the process; they must “place communication at the core of everything they do.” In this light, it is reasonable that leaders would develop policies to guide their Soldiers when they write blog entries and these leaders would also educate and equip their Soldiers to enable them to be effective blog writers. Unity of effort implies vertical and horizontal integration and coordination. In order to achieve this, Soldiers must be empowered and trusted to communicate via new media. Leaders also have an important role to “coordinate and synchronize capabilities and instruments of power within their area of responsibility.” Soldiers blogging is a new form of power that leaders now have at their disposal. SC is results-based in that it must focus on specific outcomes and then communicate to all in the organization the target audiences and themes they wish to communicate. Just as talking points are provided to Soldiers on patrol in case they are approached by the media, these talking points can be taken into consideration when Soldiers voluntarily approach the new media.
Credibility is built on trust, accuracy, and consistency. Over time, it is quite possible that bloggers can develop credibility – in fact, it has been found that individual Soldiers are generally accepted as more credible than professional spokespeople.(p 13) Concerning understanding of cultures, since the primary audience for most milbloggers is the domestic audience, there is not much concern about this principle. Dialogue is a principle that is well-suited for application in the blogosphere, since that is one of the primary benefits of new media: a back-and-forth dialogue between potentially many individuals. We understand the importance of the pervasive communication when it comes to Soldiers on patrol. There has been much discussion about the “strategic corporal” and the impact that decisions in combat of very junior service members can have in the strategic environment. That same junior service member can have a similar impact by engaging the public through blogging. To be responsive, information must be timely and presented to people who are interested in it. The social aspect of blogging enables better responsiveness as Soldiers can provide tailored information to their regular readers or post comments to other specific blogs. The final principle is concerns the continuous nature of SC: it is not something that we just do at specific times and ignore it the rest of the time. Blogs are particularly well-suited to this principle as they are often maintained on a weekly – or sometimes daily – basis, and can therefore be continuously engaging their audience on issues important to the Army.
Our current enemy has been particularly adept at using new media to their advantage. Many have written about this in an effort to energize better use of these emerging internet technologies by the United States. For example, Josten writes that “today’s form of terrorism is essentially strategic communication in the purest definition – message and action – utilizing the global communications network more to influence than inform.” (p 19) BG Eder expresses the concern that “many, especially in the military, are worried that our enemies have already occupied and dominated the infosphere battlespace.” Finally, Kimmange and Ridolfo write that “Sunni insurgents in Iraq and their supporters worldwide are exploiting the Internet to pursue a massive and far-reaching media campaign … [and] the popularity of online Iraqi Sunni insurgent media reflects a genuine demand for their message in the Arab world.” (p 3) It is clear that today’s terrorist networks have the advantage of having made effective use of internet capabilities before we have. This does not suggest that this particular battle is lost. Rather, by modifying our policies and seeking new and creative ways to engage new media, the Army can take back this piece of virtual terrain and again seize the advantage.


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