August 31, 2009
Uncommon Sense

Common sense, as we know, is not common at all. It is a rarity and always welcome, particularly coming from the Pentagon. So here are excerpts from an article in Joint Force Quarterly by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen:

We have allowed strategic communication to become a thing instead of a process, an abstract thought instead of a way of thinking. It is now sadly something of a cottage industry Ö The problem isnít that we are bad at communicating or being outdone by men in caves. Most of them arenít even in caves. The Taliban and al Qaeda live largely among the people. They intimidate and control and communicate from within, not from the sidelinesÖ

No, our biggest problem isnít caves; itís credibility. Our messages lack credibility because we havenít invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we havenít always delivered on promisesÖ

We didnít need a ďstrat commĒ plan to help rebuild Europe. And we sure didnít need talking points and Power Point slides to deliver aid. Americans simply showed up and did the right thing because it was, well, the right thing to do. Thatís the essence of good communication: having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselvesÖ

In fact, I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all. They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or donít follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we
are.

This may sound like obvious stuff, but believe me, it isnít. The first instinctive reaction to bad press of any executive, public or private, is to complain to his communications person that the message isnít getting out. It is useless (as a former flack, I know) for the poor wretch to explain to his boss that he has the problem exactly backwards, that the message is in fact getting out. And it ainít pretty. And that ainít the messengerís fault.

I would point out, to no effect at all except on my career prospects, that if you donít want to see what you do in the New York Times, then donít do it. This advice was no more welcome than a toad in the punch bowl, being considered by men of the world to be unhelpful, uninformed, unrealistic, Utopian, hopelessly naÔve, and just plain stupid.

But what is really hopelessly naÔve is to plant crab grass expecting roses to come up. It is good to see that Admiral Mullen is not that naÔve ó but under him are thousands of officers who are.


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at August 31, 2009 12:43 PM
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