What Makes Communications Strategic?

This essay was first published on the website of the National Summit on Strategic Communications. Jay DeFrank will present four case studies in a session - "What's Your Story? Strategically Mobilizing Narrative to Win in the Policy Arena and Global Marketplace" - at the summit on May 4.

The term "strategic" is to communications much like "proprietor's special reserve" is to wine. It sounds impressive, but does it actually describe anything truly meaningful? Is there any inherent value in the term? A recent study found that the average salary for a "strategic communications director" is more than 15 percent higher than that for a "communications director." What is the value they are paying for?

During the past few decades, the term "strategic communications" has become practically ubiquitous, as though it were the only form of communications that mattered to an organization. As important as it is, there seems to be a lack of a common definition, with the term often having different meanings in the policy arena, military circles, academia and the business world. Yet, we tend to think we know it when we see it, or at least know what we think it should be.

I would describe communication as strategic when an organization applies it systematically to achieve its goals and objectives. The linkage to organizational results serves to focus communications planning, tactics and activities. In essence, it is the discriminator between reactively responding to events or inquiries as they occur, and deliberately shaping the communications environment to achieve a purposeful end.

Viewed in this light, there is a broad array of communications that could be considered strategic.

One example I was involved in was the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom media embed program. Our objective was not to build an embed program. We started with an operational problem. The Iraqis were masters of disinformation. They had used this to significant effect in Gulf War I. Our concern was that we needed the support of neighboring countries to conduct operations and it would be difficult for their governments to support us in the face of sustained, successful disinformation targeted at undermining support among their general populations. We also needed public support at home not just to sustain operations, but to maintain the morale of our fighting forces.

The key to countering disinformation is credibility, which, as we all know, is the foundation of our profession. The best way to achieve the necessary credibility in that circumstance was through independent third-party observers. In this case it meant we would not dictate what could — or could not — be covered, who would cover it, or how it would be covered.

An added benefit of taking this approach was that if the opposition military forces saw the overwhelmingly superior firepower coming at them through reporting from credible, independent observers, and believed what they were seeing, they might be more likely to surrender, desert or defect. In addition, documenting the truly extraordinary things we ask our men and women in uniform to do for their country could significantly boost our fighting forces' morale.

These operational benefits convinced combat commanders to do something that was counterintuitive for them — something they had never done before: go to war with journalists they didn't select, and with no prior approval authority over what the journalists covered beyond general ground rules. In fact, for comparison, on D-Day, Allied forces came ashore at Normandy with approximately 40 hand-picked journalists, all subject to full censorship. When we invaded Iraq, we did so with more than 700 journalists, selected only by their news organizations, and all with no censorship.

We all know how the invasion of Iraq through May 2003, the period of major combat operations, and the classic embed program, turned out. It was a landmark success in applying strategic communications to achieve operational results. We maintained support from allied nations in the region; we enjoyed strong public support; tens of thousands of Iraqis deserted or surrendered; and our units' morale was sky-high.

However, you do not always need that degree of geopolitical significance to benefit from strategic communications. In fact, something as seemingly trivial as promoting a company anniversary matched to the right organizational objectives can be strategic and compelling. This year is Pratt & Whitney's 90th anniversary. When considering what, if anything, we were going to do to promote it, our first question was "why?"

A former Pratt & Whitney president once said every major advance in aviation followed a step change in propulsion technology, starting with the Wright brothers. When Pratt & Whitney was founded in 1925, Frederick Rentschler introduced the revolutionary air-cooled radial engine that transformed aviation. The company has been at the forefront of introducing those step changes in propulsion technology that have defined aviation for the past 90 years.

Today we have an unprecedented number of large commercial and military engine programs in development, and an equal number in our small engine business. These engines feature the innovative technology that is defining the future of aviation. Our technology has once again been disruptive and forced the entire aviation industry to respond.

This year, our PurePower® engine family with Geared Turbofan™ technology, enters into service on the Airbus A320 NEO, offering airlines unprecedented savings in fuel burn, and major reductions in emissions and noise compared to today's aircraft. In addition, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, powered by our F135 engine, the world's most powerful fighter engine, will achieve initial operational capability later this summer.

Further, we have invested more than a $1 billion in upgrading our facilities around the world to handle the tremendous volume of this new business. We have transformed our manufacturing footprint, leading the way for high technology manufacturing in the 21st century global marketplace.

As the preceding examples illustrate, in 2015 Pratt & Whitney will celebrate a number of milestones representing our tangible leadership position. Highlighting our 90 years of innovation and 90 years of defining aviation, and positioning the company as ready for 90 more, our anniversary offers an ideal vehicle to use the full spectrum of communications to publicly promote the company as the global industry leader in introducing the innovative technology that is shaping the future — just as we have throughout our history. It highlights our leadership for customers, policymakers, employees and potential employees, which support organizational objectives including sales, policy initiatives, recruiting and retention.

Strategic communications can take many forms. The unifying element is the linkage to achieving organizational objectives. At this year's sixth National Summit on Strategic Communications, I will discuss harnessing the power and inertia of pre-existing metanarratives to drive strategic communications.

In my presentation I will provide some compelling case studies demonstrating how this approach has helped deliver tens of billions of dollars to Pratt & Whitney's bottom line, and helped shape the communications, policy and business environments.

I once heard someone describe strategic communications as the difference between doing communications and doing the right communications.

The "right" communications are the ones that are applied systematically to deliver results.

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