Strategic Communications in Conflict and Stabilisation Interventions

17 October 2019   ·   Stabilisation Unit

During recent years, communications have evolved into an integral component of UK conflict and stabilisation interventions. This article presents excerpts of a 2016 paper by the UK Stabilisation Unit that aims to provide practical advice about strategic communications in conflict and stabilisation interventions.

Strategic communications are communications with a purpose, conducted to achieve specified, agreed and measurable objectives and effects, such as mobilising support for a particular policy or promoting a desired behavioural change. They encompass the strategic, operational and tactical levels of activity and are an indispensable component of any conflict and stabilisation intervention. 

Communications have evolved into an integral component of UK conflict and stabilisation interventions

The UK government practises strategic communications on a daily basis both at home and abroad. It is routine business across government, whether promoting certain policies or encouraging behavioural change. During recent years communications have evolved into an integral component of UK conflict and stabilisation interventions. In some areas, particularly the ongoing fight against Daesh and countering violent extremism (CVE) more broadly, communications are central to the overall approach. It is frequently observed that our adversaries have at times understood this better than Western policy makers. 

In 2005, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri stated that “More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle, a race for the hearts and minds of our Ummah.” While the same principles of communications apply in stable and unstable environments – such as the need to understand one’s audience, define one’s objectives and strategy,  promote change, conduct research and analysis and communicate clearly and consistently with compelling stories – conflict and stabilisation interventions also bring additional and sometimes inherently different challenges to policymakers and communicators alike.

In some countries there is a radically different ‘information ecology’

In recent years the UK has often operated in countries where the local political culture has, for instance, been diametrically opposed to that prevailing in liberal western democracies. Social, political and economic turbulence and instability has been the norm during various interventions. Communicators in such contexts are likely to be faced with unscrupulous, technologically adept adversaries and spoilers skilled in the latest communications techniques and willing to spread damaging lies and propaganda. 

Freedom of expression and a free media may be noticeable only by their absence, frequently necessitating additional work on media reform, regulation and development. Journalists can be targeted for assassination, as they have been in recent years in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Libya. During or after a conflict, the rise of ‘free’ media aligned to political, religious and armed groups may bring dangerous issues such as hate-speech and incitement to violence to the fore, as witnessed in Libya in 2016. In certain countries, particularly in remote areas, there is a radically different ‘information ecology’ where people inform themselves through traditional channels and networks, rather than employing digital means of communication.

Communicators need to remain flexible and make use of local expertise

All these factors and more besides will have a direct bearing on communicating in conflict and stabilisation environments. Among the most important consequences arising from these particular conditions is the need to remain flexible on the one hand and make use of local expertise on the other. A foreigner’s understanding of the local environment will necessarily be more incomplete than that of the indigenous population and valuable local knowledge, ground truth and perspectives may be gained from working alongside local partners.

Conversely, communicators may find they are working with local partners – such as a government department or a military organisation – in which there is an acute lack of communications capacity, experience and professionalism. In such circumstances diplomatic and teambuilding skills, together with the ability to initiate local capability and capacity-building programmes, may be just as important to achieving success as formal communications expertise.

Key points for communication practitioners and project implementers

The following key points should be considered by communications practitioners, programme staff in country offices and project implementers when designing strategic communications in conflict and stabilisation interventions.

  • Strategic communications should be fully integrated into policy making from the earliest stages – not bolted on as an afterthought – and regularly monitored and evaluated to ensure they are aligned with wider policy and are achieving the desired effects. Communicators should be fully engaged in decision-making at the most senior level.
  • When undertaken as part of stabilisation interventions, strategic communications need to be based on a thorough understanding of the local context, audience and the environment in which they are taking place. Such an understanding can be gained through the recruitment of high-quality local staff, together with a research and analysis capability that makes use of a variety of investigative methods including target audience analysis.
  • There is a fundamental requirement for communicators to engage in a timely fashion and mobilise their audiences with attractive, plausible content. Effective partnerships with local counterparts are critical to success. Communicators must seek to engage audiences, build trust and remain credible. They should be driven by energy, imagination and commitment. But communications take time to register the desired effects and should not be expected to achieve overnight success. 

Modern communicators have a comprehensive ‘toolbox’ available to help them achieve their objectives. These include: a communications strategy and core script or narrative; key messages; the latest research and analysis; local expertise; the HMG communications network; planning grids; news production and an extensive range of media products, from press statements to short films; social media; campaigns; external expertise, including private-sector providers; local capability and capacity building projects; and monitoring and evaluation programmes.

Stabilisierung Kommunikation

Stabilisation Unit

The Stabilisation Unit (SU) is a cross-government unit supporting UK government efforts to tackle instability overseas. This article presents excerpts of the paper “Strategic Communications in Conflict and Stabilisation Interventions” written by Justin Marozzi for the UK Stabilisation Unit in July 2016. The paper also includes case study evidence from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia. This paper is not a formal statement of HMG policy.