If you are a decision maker of any enterprise of any size, anywhere in the world, with any mission, you are making a major mistake if you do not – right now – understand that strategic communications is a primary weapon of war. And, unlike all other weapons of war, where only institutionalized armies have access to the most powerful and damaging weapons available, strategic communications is accessible as a weapon regardless of an enterprise’s size, mission or financial or technological resources. Here’s the harsh reality: if anyone can use such a powerful weapon, then all enterprises are vulnerable to attack. Are you prepared?
First of all, let’s do a sanity check on the premise: “strategic communications can be used as a weapon of war.” Rational fact or hyperbole?
The U.S. Army Central Command acknowledged in 2008 that it was ready to deploy bloggers over the Internet as it would do with troops on the ground, based on the premise that“the battles of the present and near future are of words, narratives and concepts.” You can browse through to get an idea of the number and titles of articles the US Army War College library lists regarding strategic communications. The topic is serious business.
But you don’t have to go to that much effort. Read your newspaper or watch the news on television about what ISIS is doing in Iraq, for example. On June 18, 2014, here is part of a report you would have heard of CNN:
“It’s a truth of warfare in the digital era: Bullets and bombs often are augmented by status updates and tweets.
“The is no different. And Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, a terror group so extreme that al Qaeda has denounced it, is taking the lead with a social media propaganda war the likes of which has never been seen.
“From recruiting fighters to spreading word of their violent attacks, is taking to the Web in what analysts say is a more sophisticated manner than previous combatants.”
Opposing sides in a battle of communications can have very asymmetrical resources. In fact, the chances are high that established entities possess far more resources than a much smaller group of antagonists who launch a communications campaign against them, most often targeting the ideas that are the cornerstones of the target’s existence. Antagonists could be motivated by a competitive business reason, because of passionately held beliefs, or because they dislike a charity to which their target has donated. What does it matter? After the war is launched, the cause is irrelevant and the reality of the situation is of paramount importance: There has been an attack that is likely to continue, and the larger enterprise’s risks of defeat (or, at the very least, significant long-lasting damage) are very real.
I do not think it will take much longer for this premise to start being integrated into every well-run organization’s Standard Operating Procedure. But eventually – after evidence mounts that strategic communications warfare is a risk confronted by every organization – all leaders, whether they head a government, a business or a non-profit, will share an attitude very similar to our military leaders. They will accept a new reality: that they must always be ready to respond to the unknown antagonist that launches an attack on their reputation and core beliefs – with no notice, very few resources, and the potential to cause irreparable harm. Every enterprise will come to see strategic communications as a critical capability that must be used in an ongoing campaign as an offensive weapon to assert their critical messages, and as a defensive weapon to be used when needed to maintain its reputation and its supporters when attacked by an antagonist working without rules.