|Number 486||August 19, 2011|
This Week: Strategic Communication
This week I talk about Strategic Communication, and the example I use has to do with the debate about deficit reduction. This is interesting enough in itself, but it also led me to spend some time looking at the actual revenues and expenditures of our state and federal governments over the past few decades. What I found was surprising, so I'll write about that soon. When? Well, as soon as I can figure out a way to make a report on historical budget statistics entertaining, that's when. I mean, even writing those words invokes that Snooze Response, even in me! So I'll figure out what it is that makes this stuff interesting, then you'll hear about it.
I'm kinda hoping it will be in the next issue. But there's lots of other stuff on the agenda, as well. What's a modest, short-form newsletter to do?!
See you next week, or as soon as I can come up with something or other that will entertain and/or enlighten.
The headline in the August 17th Star Tribune of Minneapolis read "More of Minnesota's Kids in Poverty." The second paragraph is the "Quote" of the Week:
"Child poverty rose 56 percent in Minnesota in the last decade—much faster than the national average—so that by 2009, some 174,000 children lived in poor economic conditions, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Minnesota, which boasted the nation's second-lowest poverty rate in 2000, fell to 11th in 2009."
In Nygaard Notes I talk a lot about communication. I talk about how ideas pass between us, how they get mixed up or manipulated, and how we come to believe some things and not others. I am interested in helping us all to communicate more clearly and effectively, both on the receiving and on the sending side.
While all of us communicate all the time, some of us communicate specifically for the purpose of making something happen, of making people act or think a certain way. That is, they communicate in the service of a larger strategy. This is not accidental. In fact, a whole discipline has grown up around this idea, and it is known as "Strategic Communication." This is not at all like the regular old communication that you and I engage in. This week I want to have a look at this specialized form of communication, and give a hint of how it looks when we run across it in our daily lives.
What is "Strategy"?
In order to understand Strategic Communication, we have to understand the concept of Strategy. It's simple enough. If you've ever played pool, or billiards, you understand the idea of strategy. A good pool shot puts a ball in a pocket. A strategic pool shot not only puts a ball in a pocket, but it sets up the next shot, or makes the opponent's next shot more difficult. That is, strategic billiard playing thinks beyond the moment to focus on creating the conditions that will result in future success. Chess is the same: It might be a good idea to "lose" a piece if that is a part of the strategy employed to win the game.
An effective organization, or person, does not simply react to conditions of the moment. Instead, tactics are chosen based on how well they fit into a larger strategy. So, for example, a population group whose members wish to free themselves from occupation may choose a strategy of armed struggle, or they may choose a strategy of delegitimization of the occupier. The tactics they employ will depend on the strategy. A strategy of armed struggle will rely on physical force to drive out the occupier. Tactics in service of a delegitimization strategy, in contrast, might well be non-violent, choosing instead tactics such as carefully-planned rallies, acts of public defiance of the occupying authorities, and work in diplomatic arenas. The goal is the same in either case, but the strategy differs.
So, back to Strategic Communication: What's the difference between it and Regular Old Communication (ROC)? Well, while ROC is simply intended to send a message from one place (or person, or organization) to another, Strategic Communication has something more in mind. While ROC strives only to pass on some information to someone else—putting the ball in the pocket—Strategic Communication thinks long-term, in effect trying to set things up for the next shot, which in this case is future communication that will change people's behavior and/or the workings of the systems it is seeking to change. Changes could include changing voting patterns or building political support for cutting taxes, or any number of other things. (I talk about this elsewhere in this issue of the Notes.)
What is "Strategic Communication"?
None of what I have said so far is particularly original. I'm mostly re-stating ideas that I've culled from the worlds of business and the military. Now that I mention it, I think it's time to hear directly from the Pentagon on this subject. In the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms put out by the U.S. Department of "Defense" (Amended May 15, 2011) we find a definition of "Strategic Communication," which reads like this:
"Focused United States Government efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of United States Government interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power."
(This dictionary, by the way, is an artifact of another world, weighing in at 579 mind-numbing pages. The list of "ABBREVIATIONS AND ACRONYMS" alone runs to 166 pages! The definition of "Strategic Communication" is found on page 347, if you wanna know.)
In some ways I prefer the definition suggested in "Strategic Communications: A Primer," put out by the British war college (known as "The Defence Academy of the United Kingdom"). Apparently there is no "official" definition of the term, but the author of this Primer proposes one that reads like this:
A systematic series of sustained and coherent activities, conducted across strategic, operational and tactical levels, that enables understanding of target audiences, identifies effective conduits, and develops and promotes ideas and opinions through those conduits to promote and sustain particular types of behaviour.
If we combine the two definitions, we come up with some key concepts about Strategic Communication:
I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with Strategic Communication. I personally engage in it all the time (although I don't know if Nygaard Notes is the most effective conduit one could find). And the system of power served by Nygaard Notes is not very powerful at all, at least not yet. My goal is social change, and my strategy is to help us all to think clearly and understand the world as it is, since a clear understanding is the first step to take if we want to change something. My tactic is to use the various platforms available to me to explore and discuss things that might be useful in making change happen.
Communication that is designed to be strategic, as the military dictionary points out, is concerned with more than simply putting the ball in the pocket. It is aimed at eventually winning the game. And what is the game being played by the people who reside in the halls of power and who populate our newscasts? Let's have a look at a couple of Minnesota Republicans to help us understand today's game.
The New York Times ran a front-page article on July 1st headlined "No End in Sight as Minnesotans Grapple With State Shutdown." Having been born and raised in Minnesota, my ears perked up at this, and I read it with interest. Before we go any further, a little background is needed: The Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled legislature in Minnesota this year failed to approve a budget for the state by the mandated budget date of June 30, so the state government shut down on July 1st. I could write several issues of the Notes on this subject alone, but for now I just want to pull out as my first example of Strategic Communication a comment in the Times article by the Republican leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives, Speaker Kurt Zellers.
The debate in this bizarre episode in Minnesota, as elsewhere, has degenerated into a choice between two options for balancing the budget: cutting state spending, or taking in more revenue, in the form of taxes. (I say "degenerated" for reasons that I'll explain in a moment.)
Zellers speaks for the Republican Party when he advocates for no new taxes whatsoever. In service of that goal, presumably, Speaker Zellers said, "We're talking about runaway spending that we can't afford. And we will not saddle our children and grandchildren with mounds of debts with promises for funding levels that will not be there in the future."
Now for my second Strategic Communication example: It was on July 17th, a couple of weeks after the Zellers comment appeared, that I read a column in the local daily newspaper the Star Tribune by the right-wing activist Katherine Kersten. She was speaking along the same general strategic line as Zellers, but in support of a different, if related, goal: Weakening labor unions. To Kersten, unions—specifically public employee unions—are the organized manifestation of "the left" or "the progressive agenda." She said:
"Raising taxes is at the heart of the progressive agenda. More tax money is essential if government is to continue its rapid expansion, which they [progressives] ardently desire... Here in Minnesota, the left's challenge was to muscle [Democratic Governor Mark] Dayton's bloated budget and new taxes through a GOP-controlled Legislature. They had to succeed to prove the national tide has not turned inexorably against ever-expanding government... Public employees have come to expect state budgets to grow endlessly. The outcome of our state's budget battle suggests they may be learning what other Minnesotans already know—the party can't go on forever."
Strategic, Maybe Unconscious, Communication
Whether or not Zellers and Kersten are consciously communicating in support of a formal strategy, their comments to/in the media certainly function as a part of a campaign of Strategic Communication. Here's what is strategic about it: These comments are not only communicating a couple of points that are obvious and overt—the first point being "no new taxes" and the second being "reduce state spending"—but at the same time they are reinforcing a more basic point that, if accepted by enough people, will provide a mandate for pursuing the grand strategy of the Communicators, which is to convince people that all power—and the wealth that fuels that power—belongs in private hands.
The noble gloss put on the Republican agenda by Zellers is that he and his allies are standing up for the principle of removing future burdens from "our children and grandchildren." In Kersten's column the point she is overtly making is that reasonable people (like her) are waging a principled battle against lazy and greedy public employees, who just want to party—forever—at the taxpayers' expense.
These two comments are "strategic" because of the arguments they make and—more importantly—the arguments they DO NOT make. Or, rather, the arguments that they make by not saying them out loud.
Recall the Pentagon's definition of Strategic Communications, which includes efforts to "engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of [certain] interests, policies, and objectives..."
Interests, Policies, and Objectives
The primary interest of the reactionary elements represented by Zellers and Kersten is a reduction in public power and an increase in private power. The objective is to reduce the size and power of certain parts of the government, the parts which potentially, if not so much in practice, can be employed to the benefit of the majority of the people. And various policies flow from those interests and objectives. In the current period, this is expressed largely through the targeting for elimination certain policies that already exist, especially policies that redistribute wealth or impede the capacity of the powerful to accumulate wealth. Policies that redistribute wealth include taxation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare policies, safety-net programs like unemployment and workers' compensation, minimum- and living-wage policies, and so forth.
Policies that limit corporate power include taxation, and any and all regulatory rules, as well as any policies that support workers or their unions.
You'll notice that taxation is on both lists. That's because taxation redistributes wealth—at least progressive taxation does—and it also limits the power of the wealthy (including corporations) by staking a public claim on some of the nearly-infinite wealth that they control. That's why taxation is the biggest target of them all.
And here we circle back to the Strategic Communication of Zellers and Kersten. The argument they state is that we have to do something about our endlessly-growing, rapidly-expanding party-time government. The argument that is not stated is that the government is, in fact, growing. Rather than arguing this point, they state it as a given, which then forms the basis for the points they do argue. When an idea is stated by being unstated like this—as a given, as common sense, as something that is assumed to be true—it takes on great power. After all, who would argue with something that "everyone knows"? Stating an important idea in this way makes it very difficult to consider the possibility that the basis for the argument may not be true.
The basic idea upon which the reactionary program, as articulated by Zellers, Kersten, and so many others, is based is the idea that government at all levels is out of control, growing like a cancer, taking over our lives. Once this point is widely believed, then it is perfectly logical to argue about the best way to control this problem: Cut spending? Or raise taxes? That's it.
Yet, contrary to what you may have heard, the idea that Minnesota's state government is growing and expanding at a rapid pace doesn't appear to be true. Nor does it appear to be true at the federal level. Yet the acceptance of this (false) premise places deficit reduction at the top of the day's issues. It's not an accident.
In the next Nygaard Notes I hope to talk about state and federal spending, and how the available facts typically get reported in a way that makes them harder to understand, rather than easier, which results in them being widely misunderstood. This, in turn, results in them being easily manipulated by people like Kurt Zellers and Katherine Kersten.