Article by Centre's expert Antti Sillanpää "Strategic communications and need for societal narratives"

This article was written for "The Riga Conference views".

"Strategic communications and need for societal narratives"


A joke dating referring to Soviet times described two presidents who competed in running.  Media of both countries was carefully reporting about every event during the official state visit, and the race got their attention as well. The press of the winning side made headlines “Our president won!” The advisers of the lost president were quick to help their own news outlets. This media was supporting their slower president and informed that “Thanks to the great wisdom of our leader, he made second even if he was older. The other president was just before the last.”

In the story, the facts are the same, but the story given to their respective audiences were different. The winner’s simpler version is more compelling to Western audience requiring transparency. But at least according to the joke, there is an audience willing to accept the other version as well.

In modern democracies transparency and “deeds must match deeds” approach are seen as important principles, even if in practice they are not always followed [1]. However, this idealistic view is not necessarily shared everywhere. During this current era of overabundance of information there are not only two, but several ways to frame and express ideas.  In this paper, I discuss some conceptual aspects of the terminology. The paper promotes whole of government undertaking to strategic communications and using that approach to create positive and credible societal level narratives.

Defining Strategic Communications

Strategic communication as a profession or a field of study is evolving, which is reflected in the discussion about terminology. The level of detail in the terminology discourse starts from the very basics; should the term be abandoned altogether, should there be a singular word “strategic communication” or plural “strategic communications”[2]. For the sake of clarity, plural form is used here following NATO conventions.  Deriving from these extreme examples, it can be assumed that the area of study is yet far from reaching a consensus on definitions. But investigation of recent discussion, a vague approximation can be made to the boundaries of the topic as seen in the so called Western world.

Strategic communication can be e.g. seen as a process, capability, or an activity supported by capabilities, expected effects or art of communication [3].  As action, strategic communications can be defined as the purposeful use of communication by an organization to fulfil its mission. [4]

It is important to note that the way organization is delivering a unified message is not limited to speech acts or writings, because all the actions at every level contain some signalling about the organization. Tatham’s definition focuses on affecting audiences but includes also different levels of actors: “A systematic series of sustained and coherent activities, conducted across strategic, operational and tactical levels, which enables understanding of target audiences and, identifies effective conduits to promote and sustain particular types of behavior”. [5]

Farwell includes both the tools and objectives to the definition: “use of words, actions, images, or symbols to influence the attitudes and opinions of target audiences to shape the behavior in order to advance interests or policies, or to achieve objectives. For the includes creating conditions that define a desired end-state. [6] The above shows how strategic communication is seen as broad and integrative. Communication is not done for its own sake, but to support achieving strategic end-state. The goal can be sometimes clear for e.g. in military operations, while it is more difficult in civilian side of the government, at least in a non-crisis situation. If there are no existential or other serious threats on sight, the managing of daily business could reduce role of communication to only informing about events.

Military Concept for NATO Strategic communications written in 2010 follows the same logic adding NATO specific terms: “the aim of NATO Strategic Communications is to ensure that NATO's audiences, whether in the Nations or in a region where a NATO operation is taking place, either friendly or adversarial, receives truthful, accurate and timely information that will allow them to understand and assess the Alliance's actions and intentions. This will deter aggression and promote NATO's aims and objectives.” [7]

Admiral Michael G. Mullen produced an article in Joint Forces Quarterly in 2009, which has had strong impact on strategic communication. Then the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff was critical about the way it strategic communication was managed. In 2009 he saw strategic communication as “... an enabling function that guides and informs our decisions and not an organization unto itself. Rather than trying to capture all communication activity underneath it, we should use it to describe the process by which we integrate and coordinate.” [8] Despite Mullen the integrative mind set has given way to pragmatic division of labour. The normative military definitions stress different functions how different communication is done while supporting the strategic end state e.g. “The coordinated and appropriate use of NATO communications activities and capabilities – Public Diplomacy, Public Affairs (PA), Military Public Affairs, Information Operations (Info Ops) and Psychological Operations (PSYOPS), as appropriate – in support of Alliance policies, operations and activities, and in order to advance NATO’s aims.”[9] A RAND research team started from the NATO definition but rephrased it: “Strategic Communications is a process designed to coordinate communications (words and deeds) between inter-ministerial actors and to reinforce their strategic effect. To achieve this, Strategic Communications exploits all existing expertise, to be found in the various information and communication departments. The aim of Strategic Communications is to promote behavior in target audiences that is favourable to the actors’ objectives and, thereby, to shape the operational environment.”[10]

The discussion above highlights that a corporate view should be taken to strategic communications. The excerpts bring out how defining strategic communications has largely been driven by military thinking. However, this is a matter of description of the current situation, and far from an ideal state.

There is great need for professionalism, while avoiding organizational stove piping. Strategic communications is too important to be left only for communicators. Different functions of the organization should conduct its activities in consistent, coherent and coordinated manner. At nation or alliance level, it is widely acknowledged that strategic communications should be a whole of government undertaking. [11]

Trust and credibility – different standards

Major theme in Admiral Michael G. Mullen 2009 article was trust and credibility, which is expressed e.g. in the following quote “Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises. “ The civil servants and military must be held accountable on what they do, and what they fail to do. As transparency is ingrained in open and free societies, it should not be compromised. “When they [e.g. adversaries] find a “say-do” gap—such as Abu Ghraib—they drive a truck right through it. So should we, quite frankly. We must be vigilant about holding ourselves accountable to higher standards of conduct and closing any gaps, real or perceived, between what we say about ourselves and what we do to back it up.” [12]

If we take Mullen’s views here as proxy for principles of well-functioning Western governance, “The West” reaches for the moral high ground. By attempting to coherent, transparent, accountable communication, “the West” cannot say one thing and do the opposite.  It is obvious that this value or strategic view of communication principles does not come without tactical costs.  

The value-driven principles of doing strategic communications are questioned if “say do gaps” remain open. The urge for accountability develops democracies but at the same time helps adversaries. E.g. both advocates of democracies and adversaries of open societies can suffocate administrations by focusing public attention to trivial items. The first group improves open and free societies, while the latter tries to turn our advantage as our deficit.  As Admiral Mullen stated in his article, if mistakes or wrong-doings are made, “the adversaries” will leverage them for their own good.   

The primacy of moral high ground is not necessarily shared by everyone. On 4 March 2014, Russian president Vladimir Putin explicitly stated that Russian soldiers were not surrounding Ukrainian government and military buildings in Crimea [13], while only two weeks later Putin told the opposite. According to Putin, Russian soldiers were in Crimea to ensure “free vote” [14]. According to the phone-in transcript, Putin told “Russia did not annex Crimea by force. Russia created conditions – with the help of special armed groups and the Armed Forces, I will say it straight – but only for the free expression of the will of the people living in Crimea and Sevastopol.”[15] But this story was turned upside down again, when Putin later explained how the decision to absorb Crimea was taken already on 22-23 February, 2014[16]. That is three weeks before the “free expression of the will” of Crimeans.

For a follower of Admiral Mullen’s logic, president Putin’s logical turns would result in loss of credibility and trust, and underline also failed strategic communication. But it can be that Russia is not following same line of thinking. To investigate this further one could change the point of view.    

If one is losing a game, he might try to change the game, or at least the rules. This applies to strategic communication, as well as anything else. Here one can learn from a distinguished military Vietnamese general and military thinker, Viet Minh Commander Vo Nguyen Giap. It has been described that the Viet Minh forces led by Vo Nguyen Giap won the war despite losing many battles. The Vietnamese war questions the causation of strategy and tactics. “When your enemy changes his strategy or tactics, you have to do the same. In every war, a strategy is always made up of a number of tactics that are considered to be of great strategic importance, so you have to try to smash those tactics”... [17].

Giap highlights how the opponents are playing different games. If the advice by General Vo Nguyen Giap would be given to an exemplary adversary strategic communicator, this communicator might see the information warfare as a war of attrition. The adversary might consider his side several losses in individual fights e.g. revealed manipulations as indifferent. For the adversary, the loss of credibility, trust and transparency might not be an issue, as they belong to the game “the West” is playing. Russian current policies of neglecting long term coherence can be understood from this underdog perspective.

Instead, the objective of the adversary and its StratCom is to attempt to change the game. Vo Nguyen Giap remember how the U.S. utilized their superiority but without expected effects. “And, when the Americans tried to apply their ‘seek and destroy’ tactic, we responded with our own particular tactic that was to make their objective unattainable and destroy them instead. We had to...force the enemy to fight the way we wanted them to fight. We had to force the enemy to fight on unfamiliar territory. “[18]

Digitalization, information and trust

Two questions emerge if we follow Vo Nguyen Giap logic described in the previous chapter. Can “the West” win with its current superiority (e.g. trust, credibility, “deeds matching words”...) and what is the unfamiliar territory, or name of the game of today and tomorrow? Attempts to answer these questions can be derived from the current megatrends.

Digitalization, globalization, technological and informational change are all intertwined. People in the industrialized world are consuming and producing information at pace that would have been incomprehensible only few decades ago. Increase in data grows exponentially, while our own personal capacities stay relatively the same. The never-ending flow of informational snippets makes our environment look fragmented and complicated. E.g. the picture of the drowned Kurdish boy on the Turkish shore has been used on the one hand by the DAESH Dabiq magazine and by Save the Children on the other [19]. It is very difficult to make sense, especially positive sense about issues, if one sees chaos of data around.

Credibility is easier to lose than before, as there are more correct and incorrect information available. Both the decision-makers and the electorate have more difficulties to follow what is important and what is either trivial or manipulation. Damages caused by faulty information cannot always be mended. Two fake letters allegedly from different Swedish ministries implied close contacts between Sweden and Ukraine. The letters caused suspicion and the Swedish government refuted quickly, which may have been a cause for the original spin. [20]

Unfamiliar territory is also linked to the information age. In Western societies, the concept of trust is essential. Free and fair elections are examples how trust is evaluated. The elections are a competition for who is trusted to govern. Free media plays its part when opinions are created and stated. Changing governments by elections might show signs of mistrust to one party, but showing trust to the system. In this case the political mechanisms are working as planned. But what if mistrust about the system is not genuine, but planted from the outside via manipulation of events, or magnifying existing problems to create divisions among population or nations utilizing features of social media. Planting mistrust to societies through social media might be the “unknown territory” of today.

Russia might have understood thoroughly than others that it is possible to negatively influence other countries by wrong information. They are seeing this as a threat, which can be evidenced in their new Information Security Doctrine [21]. In the doctrine they are e.g. trying to limit foreign influence in their information environment. At the same time, Russian operated TV and news channels in Western languages have together with actors in social media enabled Russia to caused confusion and obscured the truth [22].

The Western countries should not follow the Russian example in tackling this problem, as this might be compromising Western values and the moral high ground argument. If the Russian approach is to limit freedom, in the West a viable free and critical media is seen as part of a solution. Strategic communication is a whole-of-government issue, but StratCom is working at arm’s length from the independent media.

Implications for Strategic Communicators - initiative and forward-looking narratives

Free and democratic societies are very popular in the world. This fact is backed with broad evidence, e.g. if global popularity is measured by immigration flows and life-expectancy, the Western societies are a favourite destination to live [23]. Reporting on different negative topics often challenge the big picture i.e. strong current of positive evidence. The informational noise is distracting the mind.

Similar problem occurs, if an adversary is flooding the information environment. Replying each manipulative message or lie is resource consuming. It is difficult to lead a discussion if one is always running after separate incidents. This creates a need for unifying societal level contexts, or narratives. Stronger own story takes initiative, and puts data fragments in comprehensible order. This is not to say, that organizations should not try to correct e.g. all the lies. But if the resources are limited relating to the current situation, the priority should be on creation and delivery of own story.

Narratives are stories that can effectively link separate pieces of information. Narratives about ourselves can be defined as statement of identity, cause and intent around which people can unite [24]. Narratives help in creating messages and organizing communication priorities.

At societal level, narratives can tell everyone where the society is going. Whole of government approach ensures that all the major stakeholders are included. Inclusive societal narratives should be strongly rooted in values of society, and therefore they are able to stand time, and political fluctuations.

Positive and credible narratives build population’s resilience against hostilities. Holding that credibility requires that the deeds match the words. This principle emphasizes the communicative role of every person in the organization, from the top level and through all the echelons to the last man and woman.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are these of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, NATO, Latvian Ministry of Defense or Government of Finland.


[1] E.g. Former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael G. Mullen,, retrieved 20.10.2015

[2] Chistopher Paul, p. 19, Strategic Communication: Origins, Concepts, and Current Debates, April 2011 Praeger;  Anais Reding, Kristin Weed, Jeremy J. Ghez, NATO's Strategic Communications concept and its relevance, RAND TR-855/2-MOD/FR 2010, retrieved 23.10.2015.

[3] Chistopher Paul, p. 19, Strategic Communication: Origins, Concepts, and Current Debates, April 2011 Praeger.  James P. Farwell; Persuasion and Power: The Art of Strategic Communication. Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press, 2012.

[4] Kirk Hallahan, Derina Holtzhausen, Betteke van Ruler, Dejan Vercic & Krishnamurthy Sriramesh; Defining Strategic Communication  International Journal of Strategic Communication Volume 1,  Issue 1, 2007. 

[5] Steve Tatham 2008 Strategic Communication: A Primer, Advanced Research and Assessment Group December 2008.

[6] James P. Farwell; Persuasion and Power: The Art of Strategic Communication. Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press, 2012.

[7] Military Concept for NATO Strategic communications 2010

[8], retrieved 20.10.2015

[9] NATO Strategic Communication Policy PO (2009) 0141

[10] Anais Reding, Kristin Weed, Jeremy J. Ghez, NATO’s Strategic Communications concept and its relevance, RAND TR-855/2-MOD/FR 2010, retrieved 23.10.2015.

[11] Chistopher Paul, p. 19, Strategic Communication: Origins, Concepts, and Current Debates, April 2011 Praeger; Anais Reding, Kristin Weed, Jeremy J. Ghez, NATO's Strategic Communications concept and its relevance, RAND TR-855/2-MOD/FR 2010, retrieved 23.10.2015.

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[13] Putin: Russia force only ’last resort’ in Ukraine, 4.4.2014,, retrieved 23.10.2015.

[14] Ukraine crisis: as it happened, 17.4.2014,, retrieved 23.10.2015.

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[22] Giles, Keir 2015 Working Paper: Russia‘s Hybrid Warfare: a Success in Propaganda, Arbeitspapier Sicherheitspolitik, Nr. 1/2015, retrieved 23.10.2015. Rácz, András Russia’s Hybrid War in Ukraine - Breaking the Enemy’s Ability to Resist, FIIA report 43, 2015, retrieved 23.10.2015.

[23] This does not apply to every country or every year, and there are differences among countries due to e.g. economic situation.,, retrieved 20.10.2015

[24] Paul Cornish 2009 The United States and counterinsurgency: ‘political first, political last, political always’ p. 42 International Affairs 85: 1, 2009 09 Blackwell Publishing