Hearts and Minds, 2009

June 12, 2009 at 2:29 pm 4 comments

General David Petraeus

General David Petraeus

Agence France-Presse reports the United States and its allies will step up the “information war” in Afghanistan.

 “US and NATO officials increasingly see public relations as crucial to turning the tide against the militants who have successfully spread their message through radio, the Internet and mobile phones,” according to the story.

The battle for “hearts and minds,” per Lyndon Johnson’s quote about where ultimate victory in Vietnam was to be won, is genuine. It is not glorified spin or soundbites. It is not the Nazi propaganda machine’s descecration of news and history. I wrote an article for AdWeek about the need for a cabinet-level department devoted to communications, as we had faced a century of adversaries who understood the power of “the message.” 

Duties for a “Department of Communications” would include:

  • Understand audiences domestic and foreign, interpreting their motivations, cultures and needs.
  • Utilize communications channels from grassroots to global, comprehending the effect each has on a target audience.
  • Receive input from key audiences since effective organizational communications is always bi-directional.
  • Advise the president in a forthright manner, establishing a source of counsel as unvarnished and valuable as a secretary of state reporting on sensitive international negotiations or a secretary of defense assessing troop readiness.

America’s escalation in the Afghan info war is essential to victory, and military leaders such as General David Petraeus are describing a methodology similar to the steps I list above. The Taliban are adept communicators, shown by their mix of channels to exhort and intimidate: leaflets, radio, the Web, mobile phone images.

Imagine how Goebbels would have delighted in the Taliban’s most modern tools–beaming photos of slaughtered civilians to handhelds in the Blitzkrieg’s path. Imagine if the Nazis had dominated the depiction of the Battle of Britain in an isolationist America. Instead, we seized the technological and informational advantage as Edward R. Murrow reported on live radio “This…is London,” describing a heroic people under bombardment, strengthening our resolve for the fight to come.

When the truth spreads, populations reject the Taliban’s barbarous presence. Disillusioned Pakistanis in the Swat Valley who have lived under Taliban occupation are assisting government forces in retaking the region. A cellphone video of a Taliban commander flogging a young woman has become a rallying symbol.

Whether they are in cubicles or a battlefield, people must give and receive information. Failure to uphold this communication mandate leads to failure, period. Companies collapse. Wars are lost. President Obama has pledged a renewed commitment to Afghanistan with changes in military leadership and techniques. Taking it to the enemy in the information war will prove that commitment.


Entry filed under: Crisis Communications, Leadership, Media, Public Relations. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

Everything Old is New Again Trojans and Tide Join Tigers in PR Ignominy

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. James Strock  |  June 13, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Terrific points, Jason. In a wired world, where more and more stakeholders have the capacity to communicate their views, it’s essential communications be at the top of any government’s strategy generally. Instead, communication still tends to be considered after the fact, as an add-on to communicate one-way. This needs to change….

  • 2. Walt Norwood  |  June 30, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Great post Jason! The challenge I see for any administration is communicating at the various user levels and the way the world news projects those communications back to unintended consumers. Communications directed at village leaders in Helmand will be related to the physical force the US will use to free and defend the area from the Taliban while improving the overall security and well being of the inhabitants. Very tactical, graphic and localized. The world news organizations juxtapose this level of communication with national level policy & procedure stuff and point to the inconsistencies as policy differences and strife between national staff and local commanders.

    My only problem with a cabinet level position to handle this type of thing is with how large the staff would have to be. I believe the reason Presidents have a (1) Press Secretary is to reduce the number of people remembering the story to deliver.

    • 3. jasonkarpf  |  June 30, 2009 at 4:22 pm

      As you served our country as a Marine, I appreciate your thoughts, Walt. I understand the concerns regarding a new cabinet department and a new bureaucracy. My reasoning for the department focuses on inconsistency in message. At times we have strong communications leadership coming from appropriate White House staff. At times certain cabinet departments (e.g., State and Defense) set their own communications agenda which can create problems. I wrote the AdWeek piece in 2004. The importance of social media during 2009’s unrest in Iran has underscored some of the points I made back then.

  • 4. Update from the Afghan Communications Front «  |  January 25, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    […] “Heart and Minds 2009,” supporting the announcement of a stepped-up “information war” in Afghanistan. […]


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