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DoD Is Losing the Online Fight to Win Hearts and Minds

October 17, 2016 (Photo Credit: Staff Illustration)
“ISIS gets the Internet and its audience in a way the U.S. government does not,” tech reporter Eric Geller wrote for The Daily Dot in March.

What’s worse, the US is also losing the online fight against state powers like Russia and China. From Russia’s documented attempts to influence our presidential election to Chinese cyberattacks on U.S. companies, these governments — much like the Islamic State group — are aggressively attacking our country, our alliances and our values.

As the most powerful nation in the world, we can and must do better. We must dominate the informational battle space in the same way we’re able to control the skies or snatch a terrorist leader anywhere in the world.

To that end, the US Department of State has launched several public, high-profile efforts aimed at countering extremism online. But none have been particularly successful. And even if they had, what about those traditional threats like Russia? It isn’t necessarily a role for diplomats.

We have to start with the Department of Defense, an organization I know well. As the former head of DoD Public Affairs, I see a department locked in the past when it comes to influencing today’s complex information environment. In this world that blends external state and non-state threats with instantaneous news and social media, we need processes that are integrated, synchronized and nimble.
Integrating our communications in a strategic manner — specifically with our NATO allies — is the way to do this.

Yet DoD Public Affairs leadership not only recently rejected the term “strategic communication,” but it’s poised to veto further doctrinal advancements within NATO that would drive closer alignment among the organization’s communications disciplines.

This is a mistake.

As I type this, NATO is moving forward on a program that includes a strategic communications directorate. Of NATO’s 28 nations, 27 have concurred with its creation. The US is the lone holdout.

Former colleagues tell me that the US Information Operations and Military Information Support Operations (MISO) communities have agreed — but that DoD Public Affairs is driving the veto. In my view, this is a prime example of DoD Public Affairs again getting left behind, putting us at further risk.

The issue is the perceived blurring of the line between informing the public (the traditional bastion of Public Affairs) and influencing them — a task more often associated with the MISO community.

This is born of antiquated beliefs still held by many: influence equals deception; informing is good while influencing is bad; and the credibility of Public Affairs is somehow rendered suspect by mere association with other means of influence.

This could not be further from the truth. In fact, influence requires credibility, and credibility is based on truth and values. In operational terms, truth is our most potent weapon and credibility our most effective armor.

The most significant lesson I’ve learned after more than 20 years of government, military, political and corporate public affairs is that influence is at the core of the communications task. It is what Public Affairs does. The argument that Public Affairs doesn’t influence reflects an antiquated doctrine born in a very different time and a much less sophisticated information environment.

In fact, truth and credibility are no less important for an information operator writing in an extremist chat room than for a public affairs officer briefing a room of reporters. And when something is true, titles within DoD offices don’t matter. Reporters know that.
That’s why NATO’s strategic communications initiatives require US leadership — and it’s time for the DoD Public Affairs community to move beyond its obsolete ways and embrace its role in the new information age.

That begins with supporting our NATO allies in the field of strategic communications. Public Affairs must not hide from strategic communications because of its fear of influence. It must embrace and cultivate strategic communications. Public Affairs is in the best position to ensure our words are true, our deeds reflect our values and principles, and our credibility is beyond question.

Let’s move on that.

Robert T. Hastings Jr. served as acting assistant secretary of defense for public affairs from 2008 to 2009. He also served more than 20 years in the US Army as a helicopter pilot and public affairs officer. He continues to serve as a colonel in the Texas State Guard. Hastings is currently the executive vice president for communications and government affairs at Bell Helicopter. The views expressed in this column are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer. Follow him on Twitter at @RTHastingsJr.
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