There was a time, not too long ago, when it wasn’t a big deal if the U.S. image wasn’t well managed during a war in which it was involved. Maybe our image was marred. Maybe enough people in enough places didn’t understand the reasons for or the goals of the conflict. OK. Look up to the skies. See those bombers? Look in the field. See those trained troops? Look at the aircraft carriers. Look at our muscle. All that will lead to a victory and then we’ll have plenty of time to fix our image. But that was before “image” – strategic communications – became a strategic and primary weapon of war. So today, how the U.S. fares in the PR front is much more than a side issue. It defines who is winning and losing the entire war.
So how’s the U.S. doing? It is losing the PR war with ISIS for at least three fundamental reasons. The C-suite needs to understand these reasons for the sake of their own communications strategy.
Let’s start with what seems to me an obvious premise: The idea that military force will allow the U.S. to shape the future of the Mid-East (and beyond) is a naïve and outdated concept. Instead, the Mid-East is going to be defined as the result of a triumph of ideas, passions, concepts, icons, personalities et al, ultimately leading to the support of the population, whether willfully or under duress. Does anyone think the U.S. is winning the war in those terms? Look at the trends. Who is dominating the headlines and the agenda worldwide? Who is forcing the greatest human consequences, including the current dramatic human migration? It’s obvious that in the PR war, the U.S. is getting clobbered. Here’s three major reasons why:
- The U.S. could have controlled the positioning of ISIS from the start – but blew the opportunity. Before there was ISIS, there was Al Qaeda. Remember them? They had a widely accepted image as a band of ragtag passionate religious zealots who did really nasty things and lived in caves in the mountains. They were defined primarily by the image of their single highly visible leader. Then came ISIS. At first, they were unidentified. They had no image. When President Obama first described them as “junior varsity,” it was in response to: “Who are these guys?” We had the opportunity then to brand them – to take control (or at least partial control) of their image on the world stage. For God’s Sake: they didn’t even have a widely-accepted name! We could name them! And what did we choose to do? We decided, for some very strange and completely irrational reason, to give them a second name (ISIL) that some people (as in President Obama) insist on using.
By allowing them to name themselves for the world, whether called “ISIS or “ISIL,” we allowed these terrorists to use the word “state” in their name. Big mistake. From the beginning, therefore, this wasn’t just a group of extremists/terrorists. It was a “state.” It had stature. A state is presumed to have a structure. It is presumed not to wage a series of episodic events created in some caves, but battles of a war with a deliberate strategy to achieve a predetermined goal. We should have started calling them some other name, when we had the chance while they were still mere junior varsity extremists. Maybe something like “Irrational Mideast Terrorists.” Well, that isn’t very catchy, and a half-decent copywriter can do much better, but you get the gist: the immediate knee-jerk reaction is vastly different than letting these guys to present themselves as a state.
They who define the issues, will ultimately win the war of ideas. We could have branded them under a different name, ask our allies and the news media throughout the world to use that brand and thereby influence their brand. That would have been a major PR victory for the U.S. We didn’t even try it. If you accept that this war all about who controls the thoughts and loyalty of a large part of the world (if not the entire world), that was a major battle that the U.S. lost.
2. We have failed to realize that in a PR war, actions can speak louder than words – and inactions can speak even louder. The ISIS strategy of using social media is often cited as an example of their brilliance in how to use new media. Forget that. Just think of the decapitations. Think of the decapitations without any words; without any voice-over from an ominous invisible face. Just the act. Point made? The very act makes the most dramatic statement.
Now consider the concept of Obama’s “red line” with Syria. The very non-act makes a dramatic statement.
It’s almost an oxymoron, but in a PR war, events and non-events can often exert the greatest PR impact.
3. The U.S. failed to realize that the PR war includes the home front. It’s hard to believe, but there has been a decline in the U.S.’s PR skills at explaining a war and gaining support from our own citizens. Think of WW II. People rushing to enlist. Populist financial support through War Bonds. The widely shared understanding of why we were the good guys, who the bad guys were, what we were going for, how we were doing, and an acute awareness that ultimately we would most certainly win. Flash forward to today. See anything that comes close to that? The U.S. has failed to explain this war to the public. It’s even refused to call it a war even though a two-year old standing in their crib and watching five minutes of news knows it’s a war. We’re getting clobbered in the PR war even with our own population. I think in tennis it would be called an unforced error. But what’s happening in the Mid-East isn’t about a point in tennis.
The lessons for the C-suite to incorporate into their communications strategy:
- Take every opportunity to define the terms of the key issues, both your own and your competitors’.
- Don’t think for one moment that what you say or how you spin something can have stronger impact than what you do or don’t do.
- Don’t take the support of any group for granted, especially the support of your most obvious groups of supporters, including your employees, investors, customers, vendors, voters, whatever.
Photo credit to GongTo / Shutterstock.com