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Basil Jarrett | What the military can teach us about communications

Published:Thursday | March 30, 2023 | 12:29 AM

LAST WEEK, I wrote an article outlining how poor planning around communications possibly helped to exacerbate the collapse of two American banks two weeks ago, and implored banks and financial institutions here in Jamaica to prioritise crisis communications planning and implementation in their daily operations. A number of communications professionals in the banking sector messaged me in agreement, but complained that far too often they are brought in at the back end, essentially to act as firefighters putting out the blaze, as opposed to being integrated from the start as “fire prevention”, to predict and prevent fires in the first instance.

And they are right. Far too many times, communications is seen and treated as an afterthought, rather than a baked-in part of daily operations where it can be much more useful and proactive.

A GREATER ROLE FOR COMMUNICATORS

A part of the mission of any communications department or division must be to assess, prevent and manage emergencies and risks, and lead and coordinate the communications response in order to contain the situation and support response, relief and recovery. In other words, communication managers must be more closely integrated into both the operational and risk management cycle in a more predictable, capable, dependable, adaptable and accountable manner.

By doing so, organisations can better ensure that their key stakeholders are enabled and empowered to make informed decisions during emergencies and crises. This involves engaging communities and community actors, managing rumours and misinformation, and building capacities to support crisis response.

YOU CANNOT, NOT COMMUNICATE

Sounds simple and straightforward, doesn’t it? Except that for many managers and leaders, this appreciation of the critical role of strategic communications is extremely limited. Part of this challenge is that many in leadership roles do not properly understand that you cannot, NOT communicate. Everything about you or your organisation sends a message. The products you sell or don’t sell, the people you employ or don’t employ, the friends you keep or don’t keep. Every aspect of your operational activities sends a message about who you are, what you value, and where your priorities lie. Certainly, no leader would deny the importance of effective communications and the ability to communicate well, but not enough appreciate the distinction between PR and this strategic approach to communications.

To be clear, this strategic approach is not the same as strategic communications, and the difference is not too subtle. In simple terms, strategic communications is the integration of effective communications skills, tools and techniques in order to achieve a company’s marketing or public relations goals. It involves developing marketing and media strategies to reach target audiences with relevant and compelling messaging and synchronising these messages consistently across multiple platforms.

LESSONS FROM AFGHANISTAN

The strategic approach to communications, however, is an altogether different beast. To demonstrate, allow me to give you a quick military lesson in counterinsurgency operations coming out of NATO’s experience in Afghanistan post 9/11.

When NATO started fighting insurrectionists in Afghanistan, it soon discovered that the problem of Taliban fighters could not be won simply with bombs, bullets and bayonets. The Taliban threat was existential and almost infinite as every new day, a new insurgent was born to take up his dead father’s Kalashnikov. And when that new insurgent was killed, he would be replaced by his son, and his son’s son, and his son’s son’s son. You get the drift.

Every day, a new wave of disaffected Taliban youth would take up arms and take up the fight. Sprinkle in some religious extremism and you have the perfect recipe for the longest war that the US has ever been involved in. Eventually, NATO had to reassess its approach to counterinsurgency operations, realising the importance of understanding the local population, building relationships with key stakeholders, and conducting operations in a way that minimises harm to civilians. This last piece is critical. It only takes one ill-timed or misplaced drone strike to undo years of positive civil military relations and civilian approval.

FOCUS ON THE EFFECT

In other words, NATO’s doctrine stressed the need for a comprehensive approach to communications that involves not just PR, messaging and military action, but also political, economic, and social measures. This is where the strategic approach to communications was born. This approach puts the desired effect of a particular action as the focus of the activity, and not just the message to be delivered by military spin doctors. Thus, the communicative impact of everything that the military did had to be taken into consideration, and not just what military communicators said. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the sword can also send a mighty, mighty message.

So what does this mean for business and the government? Well, in its simplest terms, managers and leaders must begin to pull their communicators closer to the decision-making table, to give a perspective on the communicative impact of planned actions. It also means that communicators must begin to expand their skills beyond simply PR mastery, and begin to think more about how operational decisions can be more closely twinned with communications outcomes.

Businesses have always looked to the military for ideas on how to generate strategic advantage, and with good reason. When managers, leaders and communicators begin to adopt these approaches, I predict greater impact and outcomes.

Major Basil Jarrett is a communications strategist and CEO of Artemis Consulting, a communications consulting firm specialising in crisis communications and reputation management. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.