Channeling Sun Tzu, Not Orwell’s 1984

billboard

Billboard in Afghanistan extolling the virtue and loyalty of the Afghan National Security Forces.

Sadness. Shock. Disbelief.

These are the emotions I felt reading a recent report by the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College indicating the U.S. military’s information operations (IO) and strategic communication efforts were bungled in the very places they were needed most to curb Islamist extremism. As I’ve blogged about before, it’s mindboggling that the suggested reason is large contractors hoping to make an easy buck pushing sales/marketing/attitudinal communications to enact change versus the more effective behavioral/strategic communications approach.

In this post, I am detailing three examples of what appear to be extremely counterproductive communications efforts in Afghanistan that upset and shocked me. Two are from the U.S. Army War College report, written by Dr. Steve Tatham, Great Britain’s leading military expert on strategic communication and IO, and a third is from media reports:

  • Doublethink Billboard: As shown in the photo above, billboards were put up across Afghanistan extoling the virtue and loyalty of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The problem is corruption is widespread in Afghanistan and the ANSF is hardly immune. In the words of Dr. Tatham:

 “[I]n a society where corruption is endemic, where successful passage through a checkpoint will almost certainly require the giving of some money, such attitudinal communication does not stack up against the pragmatic reality of life on the ground.”

The billboards remind me of George Orwell’s book 1984 and its 2 + 2 = 5 and doublethink (i.e., sometimes they are five, sometimes they are three, and sometimes they are all of them at once). While such an approach might work in a dystopian novel, it is not a fit with building a trust-based democracy in real life.

  • Corruption-Covering Campaigns? Afghans citizens intensely resent the corrupt political patronage networks that replaced the Taliban. According to the Brookings Institution:

“Murder, extortion, and land theft have gone unpunished, often perpetrated by those in the government. At the same time, access to jobs, promotions, and economic rents has depended on being on good terms with the local strongman, instead of merit and hard work.”

What was done about the scourge of corruption from a communications perspective? USA Today reports IO campaigns were used to bolster corrupt Afghan officials:

“A Feb. 10, 2010, cable from then-ambassador [Karl] Eikenberry recounted a meeting between State Department and military officials with Abdul Raziq, an Afghan border police official.

Raziq, Eikenberry wrote, said he wanted to improve conditions on the Afghan-Pakistani border in Kandahar province and fight corruption. Coalition officials proposed a campaign including local radio spots, billboards and ‘if credible, the longer-term encouragement of stories in the international media on the reform of Raziq, the so-called Master of Spin.’”

A year earlier Harper’s Magazine had published an investigative piece about Raziq’s drug trafficking. While use of the term “if credible” in the excerpt above comforts me a little, the possibility of communications being used to fake reforms and prop up a drug trafficker is depressing (corruption = bad governance = fueling support for “honest” extremist governance alternatives). This example too is a bit Orwellian.

poppy billboard

Billboard in Afghanistan reading: “Poppy. Poppy is damaging the Pashtun’s house, country, community and future generations. What do you think? Contact us on this number.”

  • Doublethink Billboard II: Per the photo to the right, billboards were put up in Afghanistan reading: “Poppy. Poppy is damaging the Pashtun’s house, country, community, and future generations. What do you think? Contact us on this number.” Surely, the question toward the end was not designed with Orwellian doublethink in mind? In the words of Dr. Tatham:

“[I]t might be argued that far from ‘damaging the Pashtun’s house,’ poppy shores it up by being extremely profitable, providing a source of income to farmers that they would not be able to derive from vegetables, fruit, and wheat. Indeed, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) John L. Cook believes that in Helmand and Kandahar: ‘The poppy is king providing, either directly or indirectly, nearly 80% of all jobs in these provinces.’”

I could write pages on how these examples are likely to harm Afghanistan’s fledging democracy and fuel extremism. I’m limiting myself, however, to five communications blunders not fully developed in my previous post on Dr. Tatham’s report (but I could go on and on about communications blunders too):

  • Framed as Lies: As I have written about before, not only do you need to communicate truth (which should go without saying), you need to be very careful to avoid framing your message in a way that contradicts widespread perceptions, even if these perceptions are wrong. Perceptions lag reality, and fighting perceptions will only trick the brain into perceiving you as the liar, even when you are the one telling the truth. (Of course, using deception to trick military adversaries into surrendering, panicking, etc. are obvious life-saving exceptions, but that is another subject…).
  • Create Unrealistic Expectations: Audience members who give you the benefit of the doubt will expect messages that appear to be lies to become reality at some point soon. In the examples above, many Afghan citizens would expect a virtuous ANSF and local government to be delivered in the near term along with livelihoods as lucrative as the drug trade. When something more or less promised is not delivered, disillusionment and mistrust intensify (disillusionment + mistrust = potential support for governance alternatives).
  • Aimed at a Mass Homogenous Audience: A tenant of behavioral/strategic communications is targeting audience segments who are accessible, amenable to persuasion, and closely related to the survival of undesirable behaviors. The Colombia case study I recently blogged about is a great example. The examples above are unsophisticated and target a mass homogeneous audience.
  • Divert Money from Potentially Powerful Policy Tweaks: A tenant of effective social marketing is changing bureaucratic processes along with public outreach to nudge adoption of desired behaviors. This approach recently became more mainstream after the best-selling book Nudge came out in 2008, but it has been being fine-tuned for decades in social marketing circles in the health and environment sectors. Getting back to the ANSF example above, if audience research revealed Afghan citizens have a low opinion of the ANSF, and, as a result, potential recruits do not join or quickly quit, implementing, enforcing, and advertising policy tweaks that make ANSF service more culturally acceptable would be a better use of limited funds. As one of my communications professors once said: “If you have a restaurant owner as a client and your client wants you to use public outreach to counter customer complaints about dirty bathrooms, strongly recommend hiring more janitors first.”
  • Divert Money from Potentially More Effective Communications Channels: Billboards are not an ideal communications channel in Afghanistan for two reasons. First of all, only 28 percent of the population is literate (43 percent of men and 13 percent of women), so most Afghan citizens cannot read them. Secondly, advertising is not accepted as an everyday part of life in Afghanistan. Unlike in the heavily consumer-based societies of the West where ads are taken for granted, Afghan citizens are not as used to seeing them (or at least until not after foreign troops arrived), and an unwritten contract between marketer and potential customer does not really exist. Mobile and radio, for example, would likely be more effective and, done right, would come across less Orwellian.

Most sadly, some of these types of blunders have been known for centuries. Sun Tzu, the renowned Chinese military strategist, wrote sometime around 500 BC the following in the Art of War:

“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections.”

Tzu recognized hearts and minds as key to military victory. Over and over, he states forms of the following:

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Just imagine what could have been possible if the U.S. military and its contractors in Afghanistan had been channeling Sun Tzu vs. Orwell’s 1984?

Editor’s note: In the interests of full disclosure, some of my past and present clients and employers do anti-corruption, anti-fraud, and good governance programming on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and domestic federal agencies, so I do not see the above issues through a military lens.

Case Study: Behavioral Communications Done Right

Editor’s Note: I am pretty upset about the U.S. military’s mind-boggling bungling of information operations (IO) and strategic communications programs, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here’s a positive post on psychological operations in Colombia to break up what will be a series of critiques (I have another post planned on why lying, except in battle planning in the spirit of Sun Tzu, is counterproductive to stabilization and democratization). Also, on a full disclosure note, a previous employer/client of mine worked with the Colombian government to run outreach campaigns in Colombia on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development, so I am beyond thrilled peace may be in reach for the Colombian people.

PsyOps done rightNews coming out of Colombia during the holiday season warmed your heart. The end of Latin America’s longest insurgency may be in reach, and the government’s heart-warming Christmas campaigns targeting Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla fighters (better known as the FARC) are a case study in how to do behavioral communications right.

The award-winning Christmas campaigns, taking place the last four years, are strategically designed to motivate guerrilla fighters to sneak out of the jungle and surrender their weapons at the time of year they are the most homesick and vulnerable. Colombia’s Ministry of Defense, in conjunction with the Lowe SSP3 ad agency, runs the annual campaign, which mixes advertising with social marketing’s promptsbarriers elimination, and influencer messaging. Moreover, the positively framed ads and holiday light references elicit feelings of happiness around the prospect of defections and remembrance of religious values.

The campaigns get better and better every year:

Here’s a YouTube video from this year’s campaign. You don’t even have to speak Spanish to be moved:

 

I could go on and on about how strategically sound the annual campaigns are in terms of conceptualization, design, implementation, and evaluation, but others, such as the World Economic Forum, have already done this.  I love the way the World Economic Forum ended its evaluation piece last year:

“Wider societal impact was achieved: In addition to the direct effect on guerrillas, the campaigns also had a broader impact: to some degree they changed the context for the conflict, and improved international perceptions of the country.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The campaigns, and all of the accompanying press and social media coverage, have had a unique ‘humanizing’ effect which led to wider shifts in perception and behavior:

  1. The campaigns made guerrillas increasingly feel they are still part of society, even though they have chosen to stay on the fringes. They made them feel wanted and nostalgic;
  2. Crucially, the campaigns changed the military’s disposition to welcome the demobilized “enemy” by reminding them that these combatants are as human as they are after all; and,
  3. By touching the hearts of ordinary Colombians, the three operations helped smooth the reinsertion into society process by destroying some barriers that existed against accepting demobilized guerrillas in their workplaces or in their neighbourhoods.

The over-riding message is that even in the most challenging of circumstances, communication can be a powerful tool of behavior change.”

Surely, there had to be a way to design similarly effective behavioral campaigns in Afghanistan or Iraq respectfully eliciting the warm fuzzies via moderate Muslim traditions to achieve key objectives?

Parallels with ‘Fake’ Mandela Signer Hiring Problem?

fake-signerWhat do the South African government officials who hired the “fake” sign language interpreter for Nelson Mandela’s memorial have in common with U.S. military commands charged with contracting communication firms for information operations (IO) and strategic communication efforts?

Apparently, hiring people without the necessary expertise because they have no background in the area.

According to a fascinating report by the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College (tip of the hat to the Public Diplomacy, Networks and Influence blog), the IO and strategic communication efforts the U.S. military funded in places like Afghanistan were bungled for this very reason:

“Concurrently, there appears to be an absence of intelligent customers. While staff colleges and military academies prepare military officers and diplomats for career service, experience shows that corporate understanding of even the most basic principles of influence are exceptionally weak. This is not a criticism of individuals, more a statement of fact…. Unfortunately, the operating environment has now changed radically from that which prevailed during [commanding officers'] formative years. This unfortunately makes them highly susceptible to very persuasive and convincing sales talk from communication contractors. Why would you NOT buy an IO program from a company that, say, boosted sales of a particular car by 30 percent? Superficially, it seems logical, but the nuance of the type of communication, and the precise effect sought, is lost on busy military people who have no background in this area,” writes the author, Dr. Steve Tatham, Great Britain’s leading military expert on strategic communication and IO.

Assuming everything he writes is true, and I have no reason to suspect otherwise, I hope the report becomes required reading for U.S. military commands involved in strategic communication and IO. Besides the revelation frighteningly parallel to the Mandela signer fiasco, the report does an excellent job explaining must-know information about the differences between various disciplines within the science of communication. Dr. Tatham breaks them into three models:

  • Informational communication: For the military, these are “no spin zone” public affairs officers charged with being first with the truth while balancing the need to constantly and promptly keep target audiences informed of current events. In U.S. federal government contracting circles, this is also a must-have skillset for people charged with communicating to the U.S. Congress and senior policymakers to avoid crossing the lobbying, “self-aggrandizement,” or “puffery” line.
  • Attitudinal communication: Dr. Tatham categorizes commercial marketing and advertising as attitudinal communication—focused on reinforcing positive attitudes or dislodging negative attitudes rather than behavioral outcomes. He cites frighteningly wasteful examples of U.S. military contractors using an attitudinal communication model to influence foreign audiences while paying little attention to measures of effectiveness or target audience analysis (in my personal observations, crossing the lobbying, “self-aggrandizement,” or “puffery” line is another major pitfall when contractors targeting U.S. audiences only understand this model). He also notes U.S. and NATO doctrines are based on an attitudinal communication model and, as a result, are entirely top down (quite scary considering information and communication technologies power bottom-up communication and organizing). The problem, Dr. Tatham says, is selling something like toothpaste is simplistic next to selling U.S. military objectives, such as reducing the number of insurgent recruits or opium poppy growers in Afghanistan, and the impact required to make a difference is vastly greater:

“[I]t is important to remember that the consumer, by their presence in the toothpaste aisle of the supermarket, has already made a decision in their mind to make a purchase; their behavior has already been set. Indeed, that behavior would have been pre-determined by their upbringing (always clean your teeth before bed), their education (not cleaning your teeth will cause you painful medical problems), and other social or cultural factors (for example, guys with bad breath don’t get girls!). All the advertiser has to do is switch the consumer’s behavior from one brand to another—the key is that the consumer was already going to buy toothpaste…. A conversion rate of 10 percent (i.e., 1 in 10 buying a different brand of car or toothpaste) would be considered outstanding and for a large company may well prove highly profitable. But in military operations achieving a 10 percent change in the behavior of, say, an insurgent group or a hostile community is highly unlikely to be game changing in the context of the wider conflict,” he writes.

  • Behavioral communication: Dr. Tatham terms communication focused on mitigating or encouraging specific and pre-determined behaviors as behavior communication. The U.S. military’s IO (at least when practiced without user error) and social marketers from the health and environment sectors fit within this model. He notes, without referencing cognitive dissonance theory, that “behavioral communication can also be surprisingly effective in changing attitudes.” He also notes, unlike the attitudinal communication model, this model necessitates solid target audience analysis and attention to behavioral measures of effectiveness. For this reason, he recommends the U.S. military refocus on behavioral communication and rethink the commercial marketing contractors it employs:

“Commercial marketing is not the kind of discipline that is equipped to deal with behavioral outcomes or scenarios that are more complex or require more nuanced definitions. It is this author’s view that marketing principles are simply not effective enough to drive U.S. military capabilities and development; and that the end of that road will only be failure. Further, it is this author’s view that only a scientific approach will do. This approach must be based on the sciences pertaining to human behavior, in all its myriad manifestations and with all its bewildering complexities, and not the limited perspective of consumer behavior, or the misguided assumptions of attitudinal psychology,” he says.

Fingers crossed any new revelations about U.S. military communication contractors do not have any additional parallels with the fake Mandela signer. That story has gone from bad to worse.

P.S. Don’t have time to read Dr. Tatham’s report? Then view the 6-minute YouTube video below with a take similar to his on the three models.

Visualizing the Disruptive Power of ICTs

Here’s a graphic showing why information and communications technologies (ICTs) represent the power to influence behavior and affect large-scale change at a reasonable price for the first time.

Success PowerPoint Table2

The graphic’s four cells show how ICTs represent a disruptive technological shift to public communications:

  • Cell 1: Until recently, most traditional advertising and public communications campaigns used the approach shown in Cell 1. Because stakeholder groups were too large to engage efficiently or cost effectively, you set objectives and defined solutions with minimal or no input from stakeholder groups. This often proved ineffective, especially when behaviors being addressed were high risk or high cost.
  • Cell 2: Many funders of public communications campaigns focus on harnessing influencers to affect desired change from within the systems of stakeholder groups. This is the second most effective way to bring about change. Until ICTs’ recent user-customization and responsive designs, however, a debilitating obstacle was mass producing campaign materials at a reasonable cost responsive to stakeholder groups’ diverse solutions and needs.
  • Cell 3: Some funders of public communications campaigns focus on responding to the needs of stakeholder groups with solutions that have worked elsewhere. The major problem with this approach is stakeholder groups often feel little ownership over—and motivation to carry out—solutions you dictate, especially in the absence of influencer champions within the system. Like with Cell 2, a debilitating obstacle in the absence of ICTs was mass producing campaign materials at a reasonable cost that were useful and appropriate.
  • Cell 4: The approach for Cell 4, the opposite of many traditional advertising and public communications campaigns, allows stakeholder groups, not funding organizations, to set their own objectives, define their own solutions, and customize their own ICT-based campaign materials. Involving those who would benefit most from a good outcome is always a strong motivator, representing the optimal strategy to affect lasting change. Alcoholics Anonymous and Neighborhood Watch organizations are good examples of this approach in action. Only with ICTs, however, is this approach possible without infinite funding.

Of course, Cell 4 also means understanding and rethinking why and how you do things (especially if you are still stuck, even partially, in Cell 1) to create a web of engagement fueling lasting change with many hands.

We certainly live and work in an exciting time.

Editor’s note: The graphic is adapted from a similar one I recall seeing at some point on why affecting large-scale change via communications is nearly possible without grass-roots support.  It’s basically an after thought from last week’s post on 3 Ways ICTs Remove ‘Classic’ Barriers to Action.

3 Ways ICTs Remove ‘Classic’ Barriers to Action

19900100 Berlin Brandenburger Tor Mauer MenschenUsing public communications to get people to change their behaviors and routines can be hard. If it were not hard, there would be no smokers, drunk drivers, overweight people, new HIV/AIDS infections, etc. But thanks to information and communications technologies (ICTs), some of the barriers classic communications theories pointed to as repressing behavior change are today smaller or, in some cases, eliminated.

Here are three ways ICTs make affecting change a little easier:

  • Precise notifications and reminders. According to the Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA), every single instance of behavior involves four specific elements: (1) a specific action (2) performed with respect to a given target (3) in a given context (4) at a given point in time. An example would be a mother in a developing country taking her child to a health clinic when vaccination stocks are available and the child needs a vaccination. Without ICTs, it would be impossible to notify the mother about her child’s opportunity to get a needed vaccination at the ideal time, and a mother’s promise to a healthcare provider to get her child vaccinated would be easily forgotten if made weeks or months before the vaccination was necessary. With SMS text messages and/or email, notifications and reminders can more easily be delivered with ideal real time precision in terms of action, target, context, and time.
  • Community support. Both TRA and Diffusions of Innovations Theory stress people are likely to act if they perceive community support/social pressure to do something. Online communities—whether ad hoc like Occupy Wall Street or organized like professional communities of practice—can boost the perception “I am not in this alone,” “people I respect want me to do it,” and people like me are doing it” necessary to invoke action. Further, online communities can point people to ways to (1) overcome perceived barriers to action and (2) enhance their sense of self-efficacy—two crucial elements for invoking action according to the Health Belief Model and Social Cognitive Theory.
  • Bridging opportunity and motivation. ICTs not only can empower people with precision in terms of action, target, context, and time (see bullet one above), designed correctly, they also can reward people’s intrinsic motivations—both personal (e.g., autonomy and competence) and social (e.g., membership and generosity). Without ICTs, it is harder to bridge opportunity and motivation, decreasing the odds of eliciting the behavior you want (it probably goes without saying that all kinds of theories, not just ones related to communications, recognize the importance of rewards in invoking desired behavior). As Clay Shirky writes in Cognitive Surplus:

“Users will only take advantage of opportunities they understand and that seem interesting or valuable… It doesn’t matter how much you want users to behave a certain way. What matters is how they react to the opportunities you give them. If you want different behavior, you have to provide different opportunities.”

Bottom line? Realizing the full potential of ICTs means understanding the value-added they bring—built on the basics of timeless communications principles.