Intelligent crisis communications and media training and consultancy by people who give a damn

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CB3 Communications are specialists in issue and crisis management, public diplomacy and media training, providing exclusive and bespoke communications services to public and private sector organizations operating in a turbulent geo-political international environment.

Media interview

You can be articulate, gregarious, the finest after dinner speaker, suave and sophisticated, witty and always with a quick turn of phrase but amid the heady and complex environment of a media interview, a real cerebral battleground, even the best can slip up and produce that damaging but newsworthy soundbite.  Then, all your fine words and sound arguments are wasted.  It’s so easily done but can be also easily mitigated against.  Here, several tips to avoid those “I want my life back” moments:

1.  You or your PR/Press office get that phone call requesting an inteview. Seriously analyse the offer and the interviewer. Interviews are a good thing, don’t go away thinking anything else, but closely examine each interview request and do some research on the journalist – what’s their objective, do they have an agenda, what have they reported before?

2.  Consider the “what’s in it for me” question. You need to know your own objectives.  Without knowing that, how can you measure your success or ROI after a media engagement?  If doing the interview doesn’t service your objectives, then consider why you’re doing it at all.  As we said, generally interviews are a good thing, especially when they serve the interests of all parties – you, your organisation, the journalist and the public.  If not, alarm bells should be ringing.

3.  Contextualize. You are unlikely to be giving an interview in isolation, others will be talking – in the media, on the internet, in pubs and cafes.  Be aware of the situational context you are entering, including who your audience is and how they see the world.  Claiming one thing but being unaware that others are seeing it very differently will place you in a far from influential position – even if you are speaking fact.  It’s the ‘nothing to see here’ factor when it’s obvious there is quite a bit to see.

4.  Plan it. Based on your objectives, develop messages to service them (not just say the right thing).  Identify supporting ideas, get hold of supporting information, identify your ‘red lines’, seek out newsworthy soundbites, garner and be utterly sure of critical facts.  Prepare for obvious and tangential questions.  This is where a bloody great big whiteboard comes into its own and writing down your thoughts and ideas wil help mentally anchor your plan in your head.

5.  Practice, practice, practice. It’s an old cliche but if you fail to prepare, you are prepared to fail. Do serious Q&A and make sure that whoever is helping you gives you a hard time – if you are senior in your organisation, they have to be confident enough to deliver a little truth to power.  Further, that Q&A (as well as your planning) must not be ego-centric, it must be coming from a perspective outside the organisation.  What is obvious to you may not be obvious to others and vice versa.   To this end, an external mentor or media trainer may be worthwhile investing in. And it’s not just about your words – visuals, or non-verbal communication, have to be practiced.

Investing time (if you’ve the luxury) in all of the above is vital.  A good PR/press office will have a lot of this already done beforehand, although obviously not all.  Take the time and the interview will go smoothly, as long as you use the usual tips and tricks of media interview conduct (bridging, rhetoric, using figures, soundbiting etc).  But just two other things to do during the inteview:

6.  Listen.  Journalists and the public can easily recognise when you’re in transmission mode and it will annoy them.  They both want a flowing dialogue, with reasonable responses to reasonable questions.  If it’s apparent you’re not listening, you’re on the way to alienating them, regardless of what you say.

7.  Think before you speak. Your first answer may not always be the best.  If you’ve planned and practised, it probably will be but just pause to check.  If the interview is a pre-record, then time is on your side – even ask for a break before you answer,  if need be.

The research, preparation and planning can pay huge dividends in interviews but unfortunately too few invest in it.  Those minutes in front of a camera or microphone can only be quality and service your needs if hours have been spent beforehand preparing.  And remember that if you’re fortunate enough to have a team to help you, use them, or call in others who can.  There’s no need to deal with this alone, after all, millions may be involved on the other side of the process.


Isn’t technology wonderful?  In a world full of information and content is king, anyone with a video camera can film, record and download to their heart’s content.  In the good old days, an organisation had to rely on expensive production companies to produce video material and then hand-deliver the tape to distribution centre.  Now, it can be done by anyone, anywhere at any time and delivered to the wires almost immediately. And so began the rise of the Video News Release (VNR).

As part of any communication strategy in the digital age, producing one’s own video material is now widely accepted.  Digital convergence has increased the demand for video, a demand driven by both print and broadcast media for web application as well as for traditional broadcast.  If you’ve something to say or promote, why wait for the media to come to you (and deliver your message in their terms) when you can produce the content yourself (under your conditions and control) and provide it to them.  Although there is always the issue of being seen as ‘propaganda or spin’, any quality content – balanced, open, well produced and edited, with relevant background information – has a good chance of gaining traction in the media – a bonus when advertising is going through patchy times.  In fact the media are hungry for these VNRs.

But here’s where the problem lies – balanced, open, well produced and edited, with relevant background information (note: balanced and open – CB3 isn’t too keen on the ‘Fake TV news’ style VNR)  Experience shows that much of the content provided through VNRs is of poor quality, even from top companies who have paid for production.  Editors at Reuters, AP, AFP etc  are constantly bombarded with VNRs which are indecipherable, poorly shot, almost unedited (or so they appear), with rambling commentary and little supporting data.  One might as well pick at random something from Youtube and try and make something of it (and there’s some weird stuff out there!).  Trying to make something useful from some of these VNRs is almost futile, disheartening and annoying – a waste of an editor’s time and the providing organisation’s effort.

Wow .. you can do all sorts with these things!

The technical capability – a decent camera and basic software – to produce good VNRs is everywhere.  The wise have embraced the idea of providing self-generated content to the media, even encouraged their people to do so (with some degree of control).  That’s far from dumb – it’s very smart.  But the knowledge to use that technical capability has been lacking, as many working in the newswires, those who will get the good content out across the globe, are attesting.  They want, they need, the content but they need it to be good (not necessarily excellent – there’s room for a little grittiness).  The more work they’ve got to do to make a mish-mash of poor quality material into something they’re happy to use, the less likely the can use it and, even if they do, that it’ll attract attention.  (Same principle applies with press releases – make the journalist’s life easy). It’s not rocket science and not a new problem – the effective use of technological resources must be matched by the human capability to utilise them, which will involve a degree of training and experience.  Unfortunately, as in many cases involving social media, organisations have failed to recognise this.

It’s not difficult – you don’t need cameramen, editors, soundmen etc – your people, be they in PR or on the front line, can do it.  They just need to be given the knowledge (and we’re not talking about the camera manual here) and training to do it.

Good VNRs can be invaluable, be they internal interviews, product promotion, disaster reporting or simple news release.  But if they remain dumbed down, due to the sheer lack of training and competence of those given cameras and told to ‘get on with it’, then they’ll be consigned to the Youtube hinterland (note: if they’re good Youtube will enhance their value anyway).

Millennia ago, huge lumps of rock with exotic names such as Gondwana, Vaalbara and Laurasia bumped around and the Himalayas, Alps and Andes popped up, changing the very nature and condition of life on planet Earth.  It took a while but the results are magnificent and you can’t exactly miss them – the results of monumental but subtle tectonic shifts.

Likewise, the societies and environments within which we live, breathe, work and sleep, are undergoing shifts of similar proportion, and although the visibility of these shifts is less clear, the results may well be as massive as the impact of mountain ranges and deep sea valleys of their tectonic forebears.

The convergence of the digital information technology and the continuing dominance of the market , have over the last decade or so provided a vehicle for decentralized organizational capacity, not only at a local level but on a global scale.  This phenomena has encouraged a new global economy: an  informational economy, in which, as Manuel Castells, guru of modern culture, states, “the capacity to work as a unit in real time on a planetary scale” becomes a reality.

This economy is reliant upon the capacity of organizations to create, analyse, process, navigate, disseminate, manage and apply information in accordance with the desires and drives of the market.  This is especially true of finance, where information is a critical resource, but increasingly the information economy and the ability to act collaboratively using information is making inroads into manufacturing, design and research.  The value of the potential of information economy processes is the degree of utter synergy which can be brought about through mass use of know-how and the management of that.  Such a fine example is Linux, whereby, simply put, one organization, using a collaborative informational process enabled through ICT, has achieved what no one single conventional company could ever hope to achieve, producing output which conventional human resources, financial and time constraints prevent.

Successful organizations in this economy are those capable of generating, managing and utilising information efficiently; and are flexible enough to respond to rapid changes in the economic environment, increasingly forced by institutional, cultural, societal  and technological change. Collaborative or networked enterprise increasingly play a part in securing organizations’ roles in the economy. Connectivity also contributes to overall performance, along with how well the objectives of its networked and collaborative components are aligned with the goals of the enterprise itself.  At heart, survival in the competitive informational economy demands constant information driven innovation.

These things take time but before you know it .....

Of the environment within which these organizations operate, or the society with whom they interact, several tectonic shifts are taking place, concerning labour, perception, space and time.

Labour is becoming a global resource and, as Castells discriminates, is breaking up into two spheres: generic labour, and informational producers. Labour markets, no longer restricted by powerful unions, have new kinds of workers (women, youth, immigrants), new work environments (offices, high-tech industry) and a new organizational structures (the network or collaborative enterprise). Flexitime and temporary employment have also changed the workplace.

Perception is also being altered as networks, providing increased access to data, and readily available technology allow the convergence of electronic data – text, audio and video – to provide a viruality of perception, a confluence of opinionated, and therefore biased, reality.  Further, technology allows the easy ‘mashup’ and altering of such data, changing narratives.  The result is that ‘reality’ is metamorphosed through network filters and electronic data forms the real data of experience, from mainstream media through to Second Life.

The nature of space and time is also evolving. Where once power resulted from presence at a location, movement or flow is becoming congruent with that power, Society is increasingly structured around flows of information influenced reactions, creating rapid real world reactions out of information derived ideas, opinions and decisions.  A logic and meaning is enveloped within networks.  Time is increasingly speeded up – product life-cycles shortened, news dissemination almost real-time – but also increasingly, perceived sequences and rhythms are being interrupted or shuffled in perception.

Of course networks and collaborative ventures are nothing new but in the 21st century these are beginning to pervade entire social structures, as networks, as well as their participants, take on the status of societal actors  Presence or absence in the network, and the activity of one network toward another, determine social domination, performance, and change.  The complete and utter effectiveness of networks may be questioned, especially given the ability of the human element to be empowered through collaborative or networked activity – the real world still places legitimate constraints – but that it is changing the way that nation states operate is clear.  Information is now a primary currency but is no longer the preserve of and controlled by the state, presenting challenges to the governance and democratic process, as the informed citizen, increasingly either globally networked – of the Net -  or locally entrenched – of the Self,  accesses masses  of time-shifted, altered, biased, framed and constantly flowing data, either over wide spectrums or selectively tunnel-visioned.

Through these complex prisms, “in a world of global flows of wealth, power, and images, the search for identity, collective or individual, ascribed or constructed, becomes the fundamental source of social meaning.”  Like it or not, networks are causing tectonic shifts that the San Andreas fault would be proud of.


As the debacle of Syria and the international community’s dire response to it rumbles on, questions are raised over the role of strategic communication and its utility.

As many begin to really appreciate the value of strategic communication, empirically studied in RAND’s “Victory has a Thousand Fathers” and found to be a highly important pillar in a multipronged approach, capturing the essence of strategic communication appears to be as slippery a prospect as ever.

Its utility is laden with difficult issues, not least from the starting definition which is variously described in different fashions depending on who one talks to, which government or organisation they represent, the particular context and the phase of the moon.  But the inherent issues remain locked solid.

The question of how strategic communication informs and guides policy formation, support objectives and permeates deep-held beliefs and values can generate considerable communication in itself.  How and the degree to which strategic communication is managed, especially within an information-rich and technologically dizzying environment, at all levels is debated and scrutinised on both sides of the Atlantic.  Deciding the mechanisms, both organic and external, to employ equally can invite headaches and ethical dilemmas.

In multilateral organisations, abutting national and non-governmental entities, synergy of communicative action – considered a mainstay of the strategic communication ‘profession’ – can be but a glint in the dreamy-eyed politico, yearning for some coherency of message and consistency of action in order to close the ‘say-do’ gap.  And then, even if a concert of communication is glimpsed, internal machinations and concerns over domestic public opinion often prevail to muddy an already turbulent stream of collective consciousness.  Even within the major publics, diverse interests drive the agendas, colliding and careening off each other, refusing either to be harnessed within or at, sometimes utterly violent, odds with strategic objectives.

The information environment itself poses considerable and rapidly evolving challenges.  Not only do domestic audiences create world views, opinions, attitudes and behaviour motivated through ever more multi-spectral channels, and increasingly contribute to those mediums, but publics in far-flung places across the globe, places rife with geo-political angst, do so equally, often with little understood effect and consequences.  Events in the Middle East have indicated the catalysing effect of such technology – even NATO are now actively cogitating over this.

The very nature of human interaction and collective capability is evolving swiftly, in which the ways in which we cooperate, contribute, co-opt, consult and create are subject to new dynamics.  As such, the manner of top-down hierarchy is giving way to flattened networked linkages, diffusing power from traditional nodes to looser organisms.  And the feedback loop in these new dynamics is growing in volume, ignored at one’s peril – strategic communication can no longer be a one-way street.  This is all occurring within our own settings and within disparate, distant and devolved social entities, with profound effect.

In the early 21st century we are only just beginning to grapple withthese issues and realise the complexities of a vortex of new politics, new technologies and new societies,  all subject to and fonts of masses of information.  An understanding of that information, its utility and its management is now an imperative, utterly essential and fundamental to any who wish to operate in this vortex.

Put simply, communication is defined by the response you get.  In today’s complex geo-political environment, strategic communication is defined by how you get the response needed.


The battlefield and the theatre of war are, politically speaking, highly charged spaces to which the granting of access for the media is a problematic issue involving a relationship that can be both fraught with tension and laden with mutual benefits for the reporter, the public and the military. The difficulty of reporting from such a setting in terms of the logistical, personal, political and technological aspects of this media/military relationship clearly must impinge on the success and failure of war reporting. The features internal to the media itself are more critical factors that determine an inability to present accurate and objective reports on modern warfare. In particular the media is tethered to the need to present to an audience and bound to interact with political agendas.

A rather fundamental point at the outset is that, excluding new, digital, social media, traditional media as we conceive of it today in the Western world – newspapers, television and radio principally – are all mass media. Even if we can speak of the political or intellectual leanings and registers of tabloids and broadsheets, and think about the likely listeners of commercial and non-commercial radio, the media remains a product of the industrial age that has brought new information within reach of all the socio-economic classes of modern nations. In doing so, following Anderson[1], it can be argued that the media has aided the creation of a sense of nationhood through shared reliance on particular sources of information.

The fact that all media products are designed to sell stories to be digested by a mass public means that they are tailored in specific ways that distort their objective validity. The war reporter and, perhaps to an even greater degree, the editor and the media magnate, makes stories for an audience. Wolfsfeld[2] notes four specifics of media output in the area of war which condition the form and content of stories. Of these four, ‘immediacy’, ‘drama’ and ‘simplicity’ are, in a sense, watchwords for the successful sales pitch of any product to a mass market. Carruthers[3] points out that all war reporting, no matter how good, can give the reader or viewer a distorted impression of the society where the war-zone is located because of the need for simple, attention-grabbing, bite-sized pieces of news means that the only (or at least dominant) impression given, for example of life in Palestine, is through the series of violent incidents which make the news. Indeed, as news media has become more instant and more global with the spread of cable and satellite television and the internet in the last decade, these traits, deleterious to the production of detailed and truly representative reporting, have become more ingrained.

The fourth trait which Wolfsfeld highlights concerning media presentation of warfare is ethnocentricity. On a basic level this means that the press focus on the role of their own forces to the exclusion of other parties. Badsey[4] shows that that the ethnocentric media coverage of the first Gulf war by the British press led the public to believe that the RAF contribution to the air strikes was as much as ten times the actual total of just three percent of all the sorties made. Ethnocentric biases make sense editorially because in wartime, public concern is for the country’s own forces, but this bias necessarily means an incomplete account of the war. Ethnocentrism also bleeds into the use of the media for propagandist purposes, and these will be discussed shortly.

The very fact of setting out a saleable product for consumption by a mass public means that it is “no good expecting the media to produce a totally balanced view of any situation” (Hudson and Stanier[5], p309). The general tendency is to misrepresent the situation by favouring the dramatic and the sensational and to neglect critical contextual information which may not be as dynamic and interesting to an audience – as such we are given a subjective and doctored presentation of the facts. Philosophically speaking, an objective viewpoint in any case might be something to be sceptical of, given the cultural, social and political lenses that condition our viewing and interpreting of the world around us. In the case perceiving the ‘true’ facts in a battle scenario where the senses are assaulted with such intensity, a lack of objectivity becomes even more understandable. As Hudson and Stanier[6] point out, the journalist is a human being with a personal and emotive perception of the conflict enveloping him or her, a person who will be likely to project their own views onto their reporting.

The issues of sensationalism and ethnocentrism lead us to consider not only how the media may be unable to present an unbiased viewpoint, but in what cases it is their specific purpose not to be unbiased. Even from the observation that all parts of the diverse media spectrum cater to audiences, we can see that the media is a political entity. It is not disinterested. To increase circulation, the media can take a political line in support of the general political leanings of their readership. In this sense, many cases of the use of sensational scoops and images are not an ‘effect’ of the media, but a policy of the media. Indeed, the media can take it upon themselves to make their sensational journalism into a lever for changing the opinion and policy of political elites – the ‘CNN factor’ (Badsey[7], p245). Conversely, political elites may use the media to change public opinion – what Morgenthau refers to as the use of ‘information policy’[8].

A few examples will illustrate these politically motivated biases and distortions more clearly. Modern war, and the tighter control of information and opinion that often accompanies heightened security risk, goes almost hand-in-glove with media propaganda. Whilst the Nazis realised early after taking power that radio could be “the ideal instrument of propaganda” (Tuza[9], p5) the British were slower to use the media to boost public morale or to demonise the enemy. In 1935-6, newsreels showing German rearmament and arguing for the British to follow suit, used fabricated collages of steel-helmeted troops, Hitler inspecting regiments, mass rallies, battleships, Jutland memorials, and a stirring Church of England soundtrack, ‘For Those in Peril On The Sea’ (Pronay[10], p82). The message appealed to the memory and stereotypical lexicon of the British working classes. A Pronay[11] says, the “same old, strutting, aggressive Germans (were) up to the their old tricks again”. Later on in the war Orwell and others were using the BBC World Service to try to chip away at Axis morale by debunking the propaganda of Goebbels and the Japanese (Tuza[12], p10/11). Moving forward in time, the censorship of the media by Mrs. Thatcher during the Falklands conflict amounted to an official demand for subjectivising ethnocentrism: “It is not ‘the British’; it is ‘we’. And it is not ‘the Argentinians’; it is ‘the enemy’” (Hudson and Stanier[13], p306).  She further prevented the BBC from interviewing Sinn Fein leaders and IRA terrorists, shutting off alternative perspectives on the conflict in Northern Ireland and its effects on the mainland.

This discussion highlights how the media is an enmeshed in politics, even if not all the media is run by a Murdoch or a Beaverbrook, with their own outright agendas. In times of war, the politicisation of information becomes even more keen when critical opinion, morale and lives are at stake. From these inbuilt flaws of the media, fall thoughts on the engagement of the media on the ground in the context of military operations, and the difficulties for reliable correspondence that are thus presented.

Obviously the tendency of the media to simplify does little service to accurate reporting of the complexities of conflict, especially in modern warfare where the battle lines are often so much more blurred than in past eras. In making war on terror or insurgency movements for example, it is all the more trying for the journalist to present the scenario on the ground in clear detail when often the military themselves are confronted with insurmountable problems of defining the enemy and their movements and motivations.

The realities of battle have always meant that a journalist will require, either to remain distant from frontline fighting, or to be under the protection of military forces. Naturally the practice of being embedded with military forces means that similar work on the opposing side is never possible. The perspective of the journalist is likely to get tied to that of one unit or one place. Putting aside the flying bullets for a moment, access to transmitting and editing facilities as well as other supplies, means that the reporter’s movements are unusually restricted in war correspondence. Not only does this mean in pragmatic terms that the journalist only sees one part of the theatre of war, but also that the tone and emotive content of that their reporting is likely to become coloured by the morale and experiences of the regiment to which they are attached. Pushing this to its most subjective limits it becomes possible that journalists over-empathise with their protecting unit, and compromise the chance of a balanced, if not objective viewpoint.

In the modern era, media organisations rely on flexibility and speed in order to keep up with the competition, especially when television channels broadcast twenty-four hour news and websites are updated on a constant basis. Reporters can no longer be afforded the luxury of taking weeks of investigative work to uncover an unusual angle on developments; rather, in television work especially, the focus is on covering events and subjects in similar snippets and at the same rate as the competition. Journalists are often given only short-term contracts to work in areas of conflict or potential conflict and never become fully immersed in local cultural, geographic or linguistic knowledge. Their reports on the contexts and nuances of conflicts and of the participants, can never be expected to reach the same level of analytic depth, as if they were afforded time to specialise (Serfaty[14], p236).

Naturally the relationship between the military and the media is sometimes uneasy. The gathering of information by the media, and the broadcast of details of military whereabouts, capabilities and movements, is another obvious area for tension. The media demand for their public sensitive information which often the military would rather not give.

Also within common military understanding of the media and public opinion is an adherence to what Badsey[15] refers to as the ‘sandcastle’ model whereby initial public support for military action is eroded by the reports sent back by media crews. The media thus may operate under a tense relationship, constrained by military rules and by military requests for the government to control the media. The fact of erosion of public opinion commonly turns on particularly shocking images of conflict. The military might be justified in feeling aggrieved for the media intrusion. There is a clash of expectations – the military are trained to expect the worst of war, whereas to a large extent many journalists are sent to the field unprepared for the horrors they might encounter (Serfaty[16], p236). If they sensationalise a story because of their personal outrage or disgust, and this transmits to a similarly unprepared public, the military have another grounds for being suspicious of media intrusion into strictly military affairs.

This last point is a neat unison of the main strands of this discussion. The media is presented with an immensely difficult task to objectively present information about warfare – the war correspondent tells a story rather than gives all the facts. Tied to the expectations of an audience, the media is bound in many ways both to the effects of subjectivity and the interference of politics into a quest for a ‘true’ report. The internal dynamics of the media and its audience itself are, I would argue, the most important reasons why the media can never present war accurately. It is not that they dominate over the difficulties ‘on the ground’, but that even here, some of the tensions between the military and the media are connected to the problematic of making the military face the media’s civilian audience.

[1] B. Anderson  – Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983)

[2] G. Wolfsfeld – Media and the Path to Peace (CUP, 2004) p16

[3] S. Carruthers – The Media At War (St Martin’s Press: New York, 2000) p169

[4] S. Badsey – ‘The Media, The Military and Public Opinion’ p244 in S. Badsey (ed) The Media and International Security (Frank Cass, 2000)

[5] M. Hudson and J. Stanier – War and the Media (Stroud, 1997) p309

[6] ibid. p309

[7] S. Badsey – ‘The Media, The Military and Public Opinion’ in S. Badsey (ed) The Media and International Security (Frank Cass, 2000)

[8] H. Morgenthau – ‘The Principles of Propaganda’ in his Truth and Power: Essays of a Decade 1960-70 (Pall Mall, 1970)

[9] J. Tuza – Conversations with the World (BBC Books, 1990)

[10] N. Pronay – ‘Rearmament and the British public: policy and propaganda’ in J. Curran et al. Impacts and Influences: Essays on media power in the twentieth century (Methuen, 1987)

[11] ibid. – p77

[12] J. Tuza – Conversations with the World (BBC Books, 1990)

[13] M. Hudson and J. Stanier – War and the Media (Stroud, 1997) p306

[14] S. Serfaty – ‘Neither Hero nor Villain’ in S. Serfaty (ed.) The Media and Foreign Policy (1990)

[15] S. Badsey – ‘The Media, The Military and Public Opinion’ in S. Badsey (ed) The Media and International Security (Frank Cass, 2000) p244

[16] S. Serfaty – ‘Neither Hero nor Villain’ in S. Serfaty (ed.) The Media and Foreign Policy (1990)

Facebook revolution

The space created by humanitarian crises, conflict, revolution or disaster is always rapidly filled by actors of many persuasions – governments, belligerents, the ‘people, the media, the international community, NGOs, specialist, the military and others.  And within this space, communication, its audience and, increasingly, its technology, are fundamental to achieving objectives, whatever they may be, from the defeat of an enemy to a shift in political culture to saving lives and alleviating suffering.

In this space, as in everyday human existence, communication or, more correctly, information has a currency, and it could be argued that in this space, the value of this currency skyrockets.  Indeed when the stakes are high, information is undoubtedly power.

But is that power, to do good or bad, effectively and efficiently used?  Can we, given the utter complexity of the human creations of such environments, ever hope to harness its power.  One need only look to events in the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Tehran, to see communicative power unleashed, but is it a case of unbridled brute force of communication, catalysed by technology but not sparked by it?  And as such, is equal brute force being used, literally and metaphorically, to stymie or dilute the informational tidal wave?

To fathom the nature of this power, one can look to several mechanisms of communication, from the ‘hidden persuaders’ of advertising through to the idea of ‘Facebook revolutions’, from the slippery techniques of the snake oil salesman to grassroots activism.  But it is undoubtedly the latest generation of, not only, technology but its users that are really multiplying the power, but not necessarily the control, of communication and information.

The Director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, recently pointed out: “Ten years ago, the number of people who had access to the Internet was 361 million; today it’s 2 billion. In the year 2000, 300,000 people in Pakistan were using cell phones; today it’s 100 million. You can’t say technology doesn’t matter.”  The sheer exponential advance in numbers is staggering and its influence, as a capability not an ideal, is changing the way people, from Berlin to Benghazi, are utilising and succumbing to informational power.   Take Palestine, a fulcrum of power plays.  Today’s youth, as individuals, are just as their fathers and mothers were, with the same wishes, problems, drives and angst but there are significant differences.  Unlike previous generations, they are collectively informed and, crucially, networked.    The public sphere, from Ramallah to Rotterdam, is morphing, and rather rapidly.

Africa and other parts of the developing world, that public sphere is changing rapidly, thanks to “digital leapfrogging”, whereby areas which have had no or limited analogue communication systems are being catapulted into the digital age.  No longer subject to the linear progression of technology, these areas have embraced digital, especially mobile telephone, methods.  From Khartoum to Kabul, people who have never had access to basic communication equipment are making their first telephone calls and text messaging on hand-held devices similar to, or even more advanced than , those available to subscribers in the developed world.

This technology is a catalyst – providing the capability to do what has already been done for eons vastly quicker.  Yet, as with chemical catalysts, it does not actually become part of the reaction, it does not form part of the final compound.  As with the current ‘Facebook revolutions’, the initial constituents of grievance, repression, anger, resilience, intellect and determination are not changed by a catalyst, technology, but the rate of constituent reaction is raised dramatically.  Catalysts by themselves are often pretty dormant, inert, as it is with communication technology – useless without a human – but place it amongst people with unheeded desires, needs and drives, then the fireworks start.

Whether one subscribes to Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘it’s all over-hyped’ position or Clay Shirky’s ‘here comes everybody’ perspective, it is without doubt that the already violent, unpredictable and cluttered space in which the aforementioned actors find themselves is itself undergoing seismic shocks through this catalysis.  From Madrid to Mogadishu, technology catalysed tectonic shifts are now endemic in the strategic communication environment.  Ignorance is bliss but futile; haphazard attempts to reclaim a degree of power or control often fail or even backfire; debate and cogitation fuel the coffers of communication conference organisers.  But honest, gritty and tough grappling with this catalytic effect, requiring an open mind, dogged determination and a great thirst for answers, is unavoidable if communication is ever again to be effectively and efficiently utilised by those who practice it.

Wordle - Strategic Communication_1299157495269

Strategic communication in the foreign policy, development and security arena – what’s that all about?

It’s about contributing to policy and guidance, providing strategic counsel, nurturing linkages and relationships between policy mechanisms, coordinating between national, international and non-governmental entities.

It’s about communicating in a highly charged, ethically challenging, fast moving, traditional and digital, multi-spectral, politically sensitive, conflict-ridden and culturally diverse environment.

It’s about employing media relations, advocacy, lobbying, grassroots activism, de-radicalisation, crisis management, new technologies and old.

It’s about the utility of forums, blogs, twitter, facebook, TV, radio, print, street chatter, posters, networks, crowdsourcing, mobile technology and academic discourse.

It’s about taking part in conversation, dialogue, consultation, education, monitoring, analysis, research, polling, cooperation and collective action.

It’s about understanding narrative, strategy, tactics, messages, identity, objectives, framing, behaviour, attitude, opinion and delivery.

It’s about appreciating sociology, anthropology, history, culture, group dynamics, behavioural ecomonics, organisational theory and psychology.

It’s about engaging with people, publics, stakeholders, governments, activists, opinion leaders, think tanks, NGOs and the military.

It’s about developing media industry, legal infrastructure, free press, media literacy, social activism, technology for development, institutional communications and public affairs.

It’s about managing media liaison, press releases, events, synchronisation, internal communications, spokespeople and social media.

But, simply put, what it’s really all about is bringing all of the above together.

That’s what it’s all about.


“So what?”

It’s a question that is under-used in any media campaign.  People utterly involved in their work, be it selling microchips or helping others, are often pushing out press releases, statements, calling press conferences to tell the world their ‘news’, only to be often dumbfounded when the media fail to report it.  That’s because they often don’t ask the “so what?” question in terms of news factors.  There are factors which make news, which raise an eyebrow, which journalistic radars lock on to and which the general public wake up to. It’s pretty obvious stuff but when down in the weeds working on a product or a campaign a myopia can strike preventing people from understanding, in media terms, what will ‘fly’ and what won’t.  Before sending that press release or calling that press conference, just check for news worthiness.  If the story doesn’t flick any of the switches below (edited from a version at cybercollege.com), it’s failed the “so what?” test.

1.  Timeliness:  News is what’s new. An afternoon raid on a drugs den may warrant a live ENG report during the 6 p.m. news. However, tomorrow, unless there are major new developments, the same story will probably not be important enough to mention.

2.  Proximity: If 15 people are killed in your hometown, your local TV station will undoubtedly consider it news. But if 15 people are killed in Tokyo, Tipperary, Timisoara, or some other distant place you’ve never heard of, it will probably pass without notice. But there are exceptions.

3.  Exceptional quality: One exception centres on how the people died. If the people in Timisoara were killed because of a bus or car accident, this would not be nearly as newsworthy as if they died from an earthquake or stings from “killer bees,” feared insects that have now invaded France.

Exceptional quality refers to how uncommon an event is. A man getting a job as a music conductor is not news—unless that man is blind.

4.  Possible future impact: The killer bee example illustrates another news element: possible future impact. The fact that the killer bees are now in France and may eventually be a threat to people watching the news makes the story much more newsworthy.

5.  Prominence: The 15 deaths in Timisoara might also go by unnoticed by the local media unless someone prominent was on the bus—possibly a movie star or a well-known politician. If a soap star gets married, it’s news; if John Smith, your next-door neighbour, gets married, it probably isn’t.

You may find it exciting but will others?

6.  Conflict: Conflict in its many forms has long held the interest of observers. The conflict may be physical or emotional. It can be open, overt conflict, such as a civil uprising against police authority, or it may be ideological conflict between political candidates.

The conflict could be as simple as a person standing on his principles and spending a year fighting city hall over a parking citation. In addition to “people against people” conflict, there can be conflict with wild animals, nature, the environment, or even the frontier of space.

7.  Numbers: The more people involved in a news event, be it a demonstration or a tragic accident, the more newsworthy the story is. Likewise, the number of people affected by the event, whether it’s a new health threat or a new tax ruling, the more newsworthy the story is.

8.  Consequence: The fact that a car hit a power pylon isn’t news, unless, as a consequence, power is lost throughout a city for several hours. The fact that a computer virus found its way into a computer system might not be news until it bankrupts a business, shuts down a telephone system, or endangers lives by destroying crucial medical data at a hospital.

9.  Human interest: Human-interest stories are generally soft news. Examples would be a baby beauty contest, a person whose pet happens to be a nine-foot boa constrictor, or a man who makes a cart so that his two-legged dog can move around again.

On a slow news day even a story of fire fighters getting a cat out of a tree might make a suitable story. Human-interest angles can be found in most hard news stories. A flood will undoubtedly have many human-interest angles: a lost child reunited with its parents after two days, a boy who lost his dog, or families returning to their mud-filled homes.

10.  Pathos: The fact that people like to hear about the misfortunes of others can’t be denied. Seeing or hearing about such things commonly elicits feelings of pity, sorrow, sympathy, and compassion. Some call these stories “tear jerkers.”

Examples are the child who is now all alone after his parents were killed in a car accident, the elderly woman who just lost her life savings to a con artist, or the blind man whose seeing-eye dog was poisoned.

This category isn’t just limited to people. How about horses that were found neglected and starving, or the dog that sits at the curb expectantly waiting for its master to return from work each day, even though the man was killed in an accident weeks ago.

11.  Shock Value: An explosion in a factory has less shock value if it was caused by gas leak than if it was caused by a terrorist. The story of a six year-old boy who shot his mother with a revolver found in a bedside drawer has more shock (and therefore news) value than if same woman died of a heart attack.

Both shock value and the titillation factor (below) are well known to the tabloid press. The lure of these two factors is also related to some stories getting inordinate attention, such as the sordid details of a politician’s or evangelist’s affair—which brings us to the final point.

12.  Titillation: This factor primarily involves sex and is commonly featured—some would say exploited—during rating periods.

It’s a simple question – “so what?”


What a weekend it was!  Not only did we behold the massive nation branding event that was the Royal Wedding but public enemy number one, Osama bin Laden, was despatched.  Both provided the news services with a tsunami of copy over a 96 hour timeframe.  Further, it provided some insight into the nature of foreign policy communications and some valuable lessons to be learnt, or at least identified.

The timing of the events was curious and brought forth a number of questions.  If they had coincided, the global news machine would have had difficulty responding.

Any Public Affairs Officer (as the Americans call them) would have immediately seen the phenomenal influence value of a successful raid, any dilution of which was to be avoided.  As such, the timing would have been coordinated within an information synchronization matrix; a matrix with ‘Royal Wedding’ plastered across it in red.  Of course, other tactical considerations would have come into play but a clear avoidance of any other media event would have been high on the priority list.  To maximise effect, the media had to be utterly focused on a great victory.  And, boy, were they!

Increasingly, military and political staff are beginning to understand the nature of the information age and the power of information in the war of ideas.  In foreign policy communications, not only is the mainstream media a major factor but social, digital, ‘now’ media is a force to be harnessed.

And so it proved.  Whereas Twitter was under enormous strain during the Royal Wedding, it had its ‘CNN moment’ after bin Laden’s demise, with almost real-time tweets from a Pakistani local announcing the news through to its maximum tweet volume ever, peaking at over 4 million tweets per minute during President Obama’s statement at approximately 2330 (US Eastern Time) on Sunday 1 May.  Within two hours a Facebook page “Osama bin Laden is DEAD” had accumulated 150,000 likes.  Within nine hours the number of blog mentions was at the 40,000 mark.

It appeared that the White House had gained the upper hand on the internet.  But then came the reminder that one can never forget the tried and tested methods and protocols of good old traditional communication.

Within 48 hours, the grand narrative of victory was creaking desperately.  Despite a terrifically difficult military operation, timed to perfection and conducted almost flawlessly, the deeper requirements of communication management appeared to have been forgotten amid the euphoria. Those requirements, especially in such a big and politically important story, were detailed information to fill out and support the narrative, a careful coordination of that information, and an unerring eye toward the overall strategic objective.

In a melee of jubilation and hubris, aimed only at securing the immediate news agenda, ‘ground truth’ got lost somewhere.  Economically speaking, that ‘ground truth’ became the scarce, and therefore valuable, commodity, and it became clear that the White House was unable to provide it.  As a result, credibility wavered as Press Secretary Jay Carney gave stilted and vague statements and Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan gave varying accounts of what had actually happened.

The void created by the lack of credible ‘ground truth’, not helped by the occasional forays of the US government into misinformation and deception, quickly generated disbelief, anger and conspiracy theories within vitally important publics, not least the Muslim world and the Pakistani government.   In grand strategic terms, a mighty victory had been blunted.

There are several lessons.

That internet media is a now a goliath within today’s information ‘battlespace’ is without doubt.  But its effects are manifestly difficult to understand and predict, especially for digital immigrants, as most senior military or politicos are.  One only has to look toward the current issues over super-injunctions and Twitter to see how even very clever and senior members of the legal profession have misunderstood its nature.  A deeper understanding of digital media, through education, must be an avenue to explore.

Some in Washington have claimed that Carney’s performance, upon which so much lay, was adversely affected by his absence from the ‘dominant coalition’.  In today’s world, communication is a massive factor in deciding outcomes but is often left at the back; a soft instrument seen as a bolt-on.  Any organization wishing to play a major part in fashioning the world of the 21st century has to take communications exceedingly seriously.  In any policy or strategy, communication has to run throughout as a deep vein of life blood.   It seems that the White House may have forgotten this in its moment of glory.

Details matter.  A key requirement in any complex but far-reaching event, in any context, is that information management allows rapid and comprehensive transmission of detail to those who will be informing the narrative.  The Navy SEAL team that despatched bin Laden would probably have had helmet cameras, if not a Combat Camera Team with them.  The value of the details of the operation should have been seen as gold dust, to be sprinkled over the actual victory as they were utilised liberally in the subsequent media engagements.  The team should have fully debriefed a Public Affairs Officer, well versed in media requirements, as a matter of urgency.   It seems that, once again, the communication element was not given the priority it should have been.

Of course, it’s easy to be an armchair general (or communicator).  Undoubtedly, the environment and conditions that surround these things are very complex and some very experienced and capable people, not least Carney, were operating in difficult circumstances.  But taking a moment to think of these complexities does allow a degree of understanding of foreign policy communications.   The Royal Wedding, logistically challenging and requiring utterly detailed planning, was possibly a PR breeze in comparison to communicating through the aftermath of events in a northern town in Pakistan 72 hours later.

What a weekend indeed.  The Royal Wedding proved to be a nation branding event par excellence, whereas bin laden’s death saw the US administration coming close to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

This article first appeared in Communicate Magazine.

camera press conf mages

Exercising of media handling and management is a little discussed aspect of preparing any organisation in crisis management.  From James Snyder of NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division, here is a great snapshot portraying its value, based upon NATO’s experience, in which CB3 has played a humble part:

Management of the media during a crisis is critically important — a lesson relearned from painful experience. What is less a matter of fact and practice is how to train in crisis media management, particularly in an exercise environment, for a large organization.

NATO’s Crisis Management Exercise (CMX) is a regular high-level exercise devised by member nations to test the organization’s crisis decision-making processes. It plays for a week and involves many players at NATO Headquarters, Allied Command Operations, Allied Command Transformation and national capitals. NATO has recently invited additional “partner” countries and other international organizations.

As part of the overall exercise, the planners have incorporated a vehicle to train NATO International Staff, international military staff and national personnel in crisis media management. We set up an exercise equivalent of our existing media operations center (MOC) with personnel from across headquarters and invite nations to contribute personnel to act as a press office during the exercise. Additionally, we set up a media simulation cell as a “red team” to operate against the MOC in dynamic play.

During the design phase, we developed a news media narrative that we planned to guide dynamic media content scripted by the red team, based on actions by NATO and allies and by the MOC, in both video and print form, which would also be distributed to all players.

We designed the media play to have a high degree of quality and diversity. In the most recent CMX, a traditional “road to crisis” introductory video was refashioned as a hard-hitting objective documentary such as one might see on PBS’s “Frontline” or the BBC’s “Panorama.” Immediate feedback indicated that this video was important for focusing high-level attention on the exercise and synthesizing the often complex issues faced in a made-up environment. Additionally, we found that our focus on production quality greatly enhanced the experience of the game players and the challenge facing the MOC.

Media Simulation - a helluva lot more than special effects

This verisimilitude with a focus on media management training is not a usual focus in crisis exercises in our experience. This may be in part because it is not easy to do and in part because, by necessity, media simulation will diverge from exercise parameters. But this divergence is critical because the news media will almost always diverge from what an organization or government deems important in a political crisis, and it has proved beneficial to exercise this dilemma.

To help others develop strong media training models, I would like to outline three principles that helped guide us when creating our virtual media environment for the past two NATO Crisis Management Exercises.


The primary necessity in media simulation is reality: What players see should look much like what they watch on 24-hour satellite news broadcasts during a real crisis. Too often in crisis simulations the media format comes across as a video brief, spelling the issues out for consideration as if in a lecture. Otherwise, production values are so poor the players cannot suspend their disbelief long enough to take the scenario seriously.

In reality, the media take the situation with extreme seriousness, but with minimal exposition and with a high premium placed on narrative and imagery to illustrate — rather than tell — the story. The average news story, depending on the issue, is about 90 seconds long and is geared for a general audience, not a specialized or professional one. This general perception is what media professionals must contend with, and it is crucial for red teams to simulate such a reality.

Modern media coverage is driven by imagery. Fortunately, the Internet is awash with video and still imagery from a variety of sources, which can be used to create news media simulations. (Copyright concerns generally do not apply for a closed audience in a training environment.) Enormous creativity can come in to play when building simulated environments. Planners can develop locations and create characters and even corporate identities, such as NATO’s INN, our stand-in for CNN or the BBC.

Over the course of these exercises, we moved beyond the basic news broadcast format to involve other formats and expand a virtual media universe. We preproduced a business show that weirdly reported a surge in oil and commodity prices, which was “broadcast” just as those markets hit their peak in reality. We wrote an adversarial talk show modeled after BBC’s “HardTalk,” complete with a pugnacious diplomat.

We tried to think of the other aspects of an expanded media universe that affect our opinions. It isn’t just the news that makes impressions. Civil society gets involved, governments weigh in, and Hollywood certainly has its say. The war in Iraq has spawned more than a dozen films, including the Academy Award-winner “The Hurt Locker.” The war in Afghanistan has produced its own strange genre over the years, from the “Rambo” franchise to the recent blockbuster “Iron Man.” Even the former Yugoslavia spun off “Welcome to Sarajevo” and “Behind Enemy Lines.”

So for our most recent exercise, we edited a trailer from a Bruce Willis action film to promote a fake movie set in the exercise environment. A young British lance corporal produced an achingly effective humanitarian appeal that could easily pass for the real thing. We produced a tourism spot for one of the affected countries and an investment advertisement for another — both regular sightings for those who watch CNN International or BBC World News. Using our previous year’s material, we even made a spot promoting our fake INN network. All of this fills out a larger media environment. Together, it makes the crisis trainees aware of comprehensive forces at work and it gives the red team more to play with.


The media will generally approach a crisis and search for a story, or narrative thread: Who did what to whom and why. Whereas crisis management organizations tend to focus on the “what” part of that equation — the process — the media will find the “who” and ask the “why,” which is the narrative. Usually this question is impossible to answer for a general audience, which is what makes media management in a crisis so challenging.

And media simulation inceasingly has to reflect the reality of today's social, networked, mobile media

It also makes it all the more incumbent on the red team to find and exploit this adversarial narrative in a crisis scenario. Properly exploited, the adversarial narrative could (and should) diverge considerably from the central exercise design narrative. In fact, our experience at NATO demonstrated that a public information examination of the exercise design forced a greater attention on what the planners really intended to get out of the exercise.

Examples of this divergence in narrative can be culled from recent experience. Organizations like NATO and the Pentagon focus on solutions; the media focus on causes and victims. The fury over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico drew contrasts between BP’s corporate leaders and those whose livelihoods depended on the Gulf; the necessity of capping the leak and protecting the ocean and shores from an ecological disaster fell far behind in coverage. In other words, the government’s attention was on solving the problem, while the media’s attention focused on the problem itself. Crisis media simulation must reflect this.

NATO has benefited greatly from the participation of several member states in producing media for prior exercises. This has been crucial not only for the verisimilitude of the exercise, but also for the regional divergence of views on an emerging crisis. In many cases, NATO member states decided to build national-level exercise scenarios into the NATO-level Crisis Management Exercise. This gives us the opportunity to simulate a crisis scenario in a real physical environment, which is also a challenge. It is important to make the scenario look as real as possible by grounding it in a real place in a country foreign to the majority of players but intimately familiar to many of them. Given our resources, this cannot be done without close participation by the member nations. In one case, a central European country provided fully produced news broadcasts under the mark of its national news network in the local language. Dramatically written, it put into play a unique regional perspective that demonstrated the cynicism of former communist countries of official pronouncements on safety, given experiences such as Chernobyl. The Western European reaction was quite different. For an organization like NATO, reconciling dramatic divergences in public perception is a challenge in a crisis.


The more contributions we received, the better. There is never one single narrative on any one crisis, and trainees and red teams must be aware of and represent that fact. Additionally, this spreads the burden of complex and time-consuming work of producing high-quality media simulations to others, with creative consequences.

Today, the news media and public perception are inseparable from a crisis itself, but the media picture almost never matches the experience of an organization or institution going through the crisis. Creating this mirror world in exercises or simulations is critically important for training and preparing organizations and people for modern crises.

James Snyder is a member of NATO’s International Staff and has helped to plan two NATO Crisis Management Exercises.  The original article was published in the Training and Simultaion Journal and can be found here.

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