Strategic Communication in an Era of ‘Fake News’

DR NICHOLAS MICHELSEN is Senior Lecturer in the Department of War Studies, and Director of Research in the King’s Centre for Strategic Communications (KCSC).

Strategic Communications is a term of art which can refer to a range of activities, including International Public Relations, Public Diplomacy, nation branding, psychological operations, and counter-subversion or counter-extremism activities. Clearly, these activities are not new to international relations. The importance of political communication has long been acknowledged as central to the conduct of world politics. Contemporary public debates tend to assume that, given appropriate technical expertise, it is possible to radically transform international outcomes through action at the communicative level. The evidence that this is the case is far from clear, but in an era of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, the sense that skilled communicators can easily meddle in popular perceptions has led to widespread public anxiety.

There is a perception that state, non-state and private actors have acquired a new capacity to wield influence, largely due to changes in the mass media ecology. The partial displacement of one-to-many media platforms, like the BBC, by many-to-many social media platforms is indicative of a set of trends which seem to have rendered it easier for very small groups, for example, to foster political extremism amongst disaffected populations. Foreign states and non-state actors, large and small, appear much more easily able to participate clandestinely in the internal politics of other states (meddling in their electoral and party political processes, for example). The proliferation of strategic communicators leads to considerable information overload, uncertainty and renders official messages insecure. New media technologies are believed to offer new policy tools to states, such as big data analytics, which may promise more accurate readings of popular opinion and means of communicative intervention. But a sense that states, and statesmen and women, have fallen behind in the communication-power game has become widespread in government circles.

In a recent article, with Professor Mervyn Frost, published in NATO Defence Strategic Communications Journal, Strategic Communications in International Relations: Practical Traps and Ethical Puzzles (2017), we set out benchmarks for thinking through the changing role of strategic communications and strategic communicators in world politics. We outline the importance of understanding strategic communications as ethical contestation. Strategic communicators seeks to intervene, rhetorically, in the ethical interpretation of an act or event, which provides considerable guidance towards making sense of this phenomenon. Ethical terms are central to the justifications, rationales, narratives and explanations that make up all strategic communicative actions. For those terms to make sense to interlocutors, whether states or publics, they must be rooted in common accepted frameworks of interpretation. This means, put simply, that the practice of strategic communications is always tightly bound up with the settled norms of international and global civil society. For example, one’s appraisal by others as deceitful carries the high cost of incredulity with respect to all future statements about one’s own actions in international society, a situation that North Korean finds itself in today. It is the first principle of competitive strategic communications practice to seek to identify the points of empirical weakness or ethical flaws in the account or narrative one is seeking to oppose. Actors possessing high levels of credibility have the most to lose, but settled international ethical norms tend over time to reassert themselves amongst strategic communicators of all kinds, since they serve to reinforce or erode one’s standing, even in todays complex media environment. These are practical concerns which, we argue, apply even to ‘rogue’ communicators like terrorist groups.

As the scope for secret and un-attributable strategic communicators of various kinds has increased in recent years, problems of accountability have certainly become more acute. One consequence of the changing media environment is that governments and other actors may be increasingly turning to expert private consultants for assistance. Media coverage of the international work of Public Relations firms has often focussed on high profile scandals, such as that which has recently engulfed Bell Pottinger. This highlights the value, for both the industry and for the states who seek to deploy their expertise, of greater transparency with regards to public-private relationships in the sector. Strategic Communications contractors who work for states are vulnerable to misrepresentation, as acting outside settled international norms, and the states who need their expertise may thus be deprived of a critical resource. Private strategic communications contractors bring expertise, knowledge and experience that states sometimes lack, and can offer significant assistance to states efforts in countering extremism, or countering state subversion. The King’s Centre for Strategic Communications (KCSC) is currently working to better understand when the state-contractor relationship works well, when it works less well, and how public-private relationships can be improved in the strategic communications arena. Popular misconceptions about what strategic communicators do can only be laid to rest through educating the public about what Strategic Communications is, and its necessary role in the conduct of international relations.

Image: Capt. Alyson Caddell, strategic communication director for Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa presents school supplies to a student at the Nioumamilima Primary School during a dedication ceremony on the East African island nation of Comoros, via Wikimedia.

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