Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Military Man Points the Way, Again, On Strategic Communication

This article also appears in

An Admiral Sets a New Course
Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian general, may not be a household name but he laid the groundwork for the way in which the modern military thinks and plans strategically. In 2001, the Boston Consulting Group condensed and rearranged his voluminous writings into a neat little book (Clausewitz on Strategy: Inspiration and Insight From a Master Strategist) that provided some important lessons for the battlefields of the business world.

Indeed, many of Clausewitz’s observations translate quite well to the issues surrounding successful communication: defining objectives, understanding the audience and their agenda, adapting to changing conditions, clear accountability and communication channels, and, ultimately, changing a behavior.

In the case of executing U.S. foreign policy, however, something has been lost. In his recent “From the Chairman” column in the Joint Force Quarterly, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warns that we’ve “walked away from the original intent” of strategic communication by allowing it “to become a thing instead of a process, an abstract thought instead of a way of thinking.”

Admiral Mullen reminds us of some important truisms not only for the successful execution of policy but for communicators everywhere:

Understanding. We need to start with research and data gathering. The key, of course, is turning the information into insights that will help guide the strategic initiative. What is it that our audience believes? What should be said and done to influence them? What might be our common ground?

Listening. Gaining a greater understanding of the issues and concerns, and building trusting relationships are endeavors with a component of mutuality. “Good communication runs both ways. It’s not about telling our story. We must also be good listeners.”

Relationship Building. It takes time. It’s an investment. “Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises.”

Trust and Credibility. The issue above speaks loudly also to follow through and perseverance. “We hurt ourselves more when our words don’t align with our actions.” And what we say and do cannot be just for show; they cannot be delivered expediently. “We’ve come to believe that messages are something we can launch downrange like a rocket, something we can fire for effect. They are not.”

Accountability and Ethics. Behavior is important. Ethics cannot be optional; they cannot be episodic. “We must be vigilant about holding ourselves accountable to higher standards of conduct and closing any gaps, real or perceived, between what we say about ourselves and what we do to back it up.”

Tone. It’s not just the substance that’s important; the way in which we communicate has a lasting impression. An unambiguous message that is encased in civility and mutual respect is the best case. “I hope we learn to be more humble...”

Admiral Mullen deserves a salute from us civilians for elevating the discussion on strategic communication, and highlighting the importance of how we go about shifting perceptions in the attempt to elicit behavior change. Now, more than ever, we should take heed of the lessons inspired by Clausewitz who, as expressed in the BCG book, offered "new ways to order thinking in disorderly times" and provided a "steadiness in charting strategy in an unstable environment."
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