It’s Another Strategic PR Opportunity We Can’t Afford to Blow.
The U.S. has an opportunity to elevate the “F” grade it deserves for its foreign policy PR strategy, especially its fight against ISIS. To be fair, all the other developed nations that appear to be a target of Jihadist terrorism also have performed miserably on the PR front. As I’ve noted before, this failure isn’t a sort-of-interesting observation, but a critical flaw because this is a war where the victory will go to those who win support for their ideas versus achieving a high body bag count or control of territory.
The U.S. now has a brief window to name this war before our antagonist (ISIS) does. Turn on your TV and watch the current news coverage. The news media refer to what’s happening as individual episodic events rather than an ongoing war. So, what occurred in Paris on November 13 is referred to simply as the attack on Paris. The downing of the Russian plane is referred to, again, simply as the event: the downing of the Russian Metrojet. The assault on the Radisson Hotel in Mali – same thing. Event after event, all of these are reported as separate incidents, tied to other events for sure but not part of a bigger pattern that is known and institutionalized by a single name. At a certain point – soon – despite the reluctance of some political leaders to avoid using the word, these events are going to be appreciated for what they are: a WAR! The war will be named eventually – also, soon. The U.S. should take the initiative while it can to do the naming.
Why naming the war is important.
Words shape perspectives, and perspectives influence support. For example, the conflict that broke out around Manila in February 1899 was named the “Filipino Insurrection” in the U.S. because, as Edgar Raines, senior historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, noted in an article in the Society for Military History blog:
“By adopting this nomenclature, the McKinley administration clearly implied that this violence was not legitimate—that it was an appeal to arms against duly constituted authority. McKinley and the Republican party bosses clearly did not want a name like ‘The War for Philippine Independence’ to take hold because this would legitimate the anti-imperialist argument in the upcoming presidential election of 1900 that by becoming a colonial power the United States had turned its back on its own revolutionary heritage.”
I wonder if our current political leaders can be as perceptive as McKinley.
Take the logic McKinley brought to the naming of the Filipino Insurrection and apply it to what is happening now. Do we want ISIS to name this war in some way that will resonate with its critical audience of prospective recruits? Do we want the terrorists to position their activities as part of, say, “The War to Liberate the World for Islam”? I think if I was 23 years old and looking to be part of something great, I’d be more likely to volunteer for such an effort as compared to, for example, “The War Against Irrational Jihadist Extremists.” This is especially relevant given the way ISIS exploits social media – meaning this is hardly a minor matter.
Another reason why the U.S. needs to assume the initiative for naming this war is for “internal PR”: winning the support of the American public. This is likely to be a very long conflict that will be global, will inflict itself on the daily lives of civilians, will be costly, and will eventually involve highly charged political issues that will prosper if the U.S. population is of one mind about shared values and shared goals. That was not the case during what eventually became known as “The Korean Conflict” — also widely known as “the Forgotten War” because of the lack of attention (and support) by both those outside the U.S. as well as our own citizens. Well, how else would you expect Americans to react to an undeclared “police action” attributed to the United Nations rather than The U.S., who soldiers actually fought the war?
So … This Is The PR Strategy The U.S. Should Adopt Right Now!
- Acknowledge that this is indeed a war. Daily attacks in the Mid-East. The downing of a civilian plane. The attack on a major western city (Paris). The effective freezing of citizens’ daily life in another major city (Brussels). All within the space of just one week. Event after event. This ain’t sporadic terrorist events. Accept that we are at war.
- Name the war. Brand it. Give it a name that undermines the recruitment efforts of ISIS and bolsters the aspirational goals of those who are engaged in the war against ISIS (whether we like it or not).
- Promote the name. Win the support of our allies and journalists around the war to brand the war under the name we choose.
I’m certain there are those who will say that these comments are silly and maybe inane given the horrendous actions of ISIS and their ilk. Maybe. But after more than four decades in the communications business, I have a very deep appreciation for the impact that can be exerted by well-conceived and highly promoted images. The U.S. Department of Defense has a very keen appreciation for the power of “strategic communications,” which our military officially considers to be a “primary weapon of war.” Now it is time for our President to share the same sensitivity and to act accordingly. Great oratory and the ability to rally the American people to support him and his vision put Obama into the White House in the first place. It is now time for him to use those skills to rally people throughout the world to support our war effort – and to come to terms with the unfortunate fact that, thus far, the U.S. PR efforts that relate to this war have been weak and ineffective.