Admiral Mullen Communicates

August 31, 2009 at 7:09 am 3 comments

US admiral Mike MullenIn an article for Joint Force Quarterly, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assesses America’s programs to improve communications in the Afghan theatre, which includes neighboring Pakistan. Adm. Mullen declares his dislike for the term “strategic communication,” and The New York Times calls his essay a “searing critique” of US government outreach efforts in the Muslim world.

The take by multiple media implies that Adm. Mullen is anti-communications and at odds with the Obama Administration. The further implication is that our “strategic communication” is nothing but spin and our top military officer is exposing it. A professional public relations perspective on the Admiral’s article gives a more accurate reading.

Adm. Mullen’s main admonishments:

Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises.

We hurt ourselves and the message we try to send when it appears we are doing something merely for the credit.  We hurt ourselves more when our words don’t align with our actions.

Strategic communication will never replace deeds or conceal misdeeds, hence the message shortfall that Adm. Mullen describes. He is right, and every knowledgeable PR pro would agree. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) urges a “seat at the table” for communicators, enabling them to counsel leadership and help shape actions and policies.

Elected officials, military officers, and their representatives determine our moves in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nobody should suggest that a commander check with a PR consultant before executing a military operation. But an understanding of how every action, large and small, will play out among the populace is essential. Adm. Mullen says as much when he deems most strategic communication problems as “policy and execution” problems leading to perceptions of American arrogance that abet the enemy’s cause.

Adm. Mullen gives another important warning:

We’ve come to believe that messages are something we can launch downrange like a rocket, something we can fire for effect. They are not. Good communication runs both ways. It’s not about telling our story. We must also be better listeners.

This statement embodies the movement to create conversations and communities in public relations, marketing and communications. In their excellent book, Putting the Public Back in Public Relations, Brian Solis and Deirdre Breakenridge espouse an “engagement” model for PR versus a one-way, mass-broadcasting approach. (Advertising has been criticized for the latter characteristics; Solis and Breakenridge explain how they have infiltrated PR as well.)

The issue of Joint Force Quarterly that contains Adm. Mullen’s essay includes an article entitled “Strategic Communication and the Combatant Commander”  by Jeffery B. Jones, Daniel T. Kuehl, Daniel Burgess and Russell Rochte. This piece details military commanders’ ongoing communication responsibilities and the means to fulfill them. It does not contradict Adm. Mullen’s observations; in fact, it supports his call to integrate strategic communication, not to treat it as an entity independent of realities in the field.

Ultimately, Adm. Mullen does not denounce strategic communication or denigrate America’s intention to engage the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Muslim world. He concludes:

Strategic communication should be an enabling function that guides and informs our decisions and not an organization unto itself.



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

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. James Strock  |  August 31, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Very interesting post, Jason. Fascinating that in today’s world the top military commanders have to consider communications in a way that would have surprised many of his predecessors.

    • 2. jasonkarpf  |  September 1, 2009 at 7:07 am

      It is a battlefield when the enemy must be met and defeated. It is an area where our armed forces must persevere as they liberate and protect the people of Afghanistan. We don’t just roll in, fight, win and leave.

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

    […] “Admiral Mullen Communicates,” examining concerns by the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff regarding strategic communications. […]


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