Strategic Communication: perspectives and challenges for Latvia within the EU and NATO
As James Humes, White House Speechwriter to Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan formulated: “The art of communication is the language of leadership”. After 2016, this idea expressed more than a quarter of a century ago is a hyper-relevant issue for Strategic Communication. It is not an exaggeration to say that 2016 was a game changer. During the last year Strategic Communication was present in all political processes in most complex ways imaginable – starting from Strategic Communication in relation to hybrid war challenges until the leadership’s ability to speak on and with people. In comparison to the last century where leadership was strongly linked to the use of language (like speech) in addressing it’s people, today social media, fake news and various perceptions have turned political communication into a multilevel layer cake, where “being strategic” is the only way to succeed in communication.
This article unveils the latest meanings and roles of Strategic Communication according to trends largely underlined by 2016. These trends are also a part of wider unstoppable processes we brand with different titles – such as “digital century”, “changing media usage pattern”, “social media diplomacy” etc., and which can be summarised by this line: “future of political communication that started yesterday and distracts the present”. Article also touches upon various discussions on Latvia’s foreign policy in 2016 and challenges in 2017, including Foreign Minister’s Report to the Parliament. Finally, the authro provides an evaluation of the Strategic Communication in Foreign Affairs field of Latvia, and gives an overview and recommendation list.
Mapping the theoretical concepts
The concept of Strategic Communication has become popular over the last two decades under the pressure of several factors:
- Media (R)evolution shifts patterns of media consumption and production. Media users are drastically changing their behavior of media usage – both regarding the content and perspective. This means that governments are loosing credit of authority multiplied by one-way linear media, and face the challenge of social media self-created and self-multiplied informational flow. Audiences are changing not only ways of listening, but also - how they perceive information, which for centuries has been branded as “official”, “government’s”, “state’s”, etc. This makes Strategic Communication into a necessary instrument to highlight the governmental “communique” within informative noise and to deliver the message in the most effective way.
- Ability of governments to communicate with their demos is largely questioned across the Western democracies after the triumphal procession of the “populist”, “anti-European”, “anti-establishment” political party campaigns that are directly challenging the existing political elites. In 2016 the rise of populism backed by popular vote resulted in Brexit and Presidency of Donald Trump. However, the UK and the US are hardly alone in this phenomenon. In Europe Netherlands, Germany and France are in the focus of “next exits”, meaning the wave of populism from a single case-study has already transformed into a systemic issue. Hence, the Strategic Communication of governments across all the Western democracies is a field in development aimed at finding the proper way of speaking to societies and explain them the state politics. According to Cas Mudde, in a series of studies that focus primarily on the European right-wing populist parties, populism is a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups – “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite” – and argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people. From this perspective, Strategic Communication from a technical term is turning into an ideological one. Its basic purpose is to deliver the idea of complexity of politics (and “nature of things” altogether) to all groups of society.
- Security challenges across the globe are balancing on the edge – the Russian revisionism represents a direct threat to the Eastern and Central European countries. In turn, the ripple effects of instability in Syria, Iraq or Libya continue to be felt throughout Europe, not only through successive waves of refugees and migrants, but also through terrorism and mounting insecurity. Thus, member states of the EU and NATO are basically facing two questions - how to bring security to Europe’s immediate neighbourhood and how to balance attention and resources among Eastern Europe, North Africa/Sahel, and the Levant. While prioritization in the environment of threat complexity is essential, importance of Strategic Communication is also increasing rapidly. Moreso, the effects of hybrid-warfare, where the Strategic Communication already serves as an important part of institutionalized state defense mechanism, should be taken into consideration. Under hybrid-warfare umbrella, winning wars is largely about winning the “hearts and minds” of local populations, about persuasion rather than confrontation. A hybrid-war is a “population-centric” war, and Strategic Communication is aimed at communicating “effectively” with local populations.
The above-mentioned environments as drivers for the gravity and role of the Strategic Communication in local, foreign and defense policy, of course, are overlapping in their effects on development of the concept. Nevertheless, this overlap also defines the character of Strategic Communication itself, and frames borders for measuring its effectiveness. From this perspective, Strategic Communication is “an umbrella concept”, moving away from particularization of it into a broader discipline and becoming deeper at the same time. As it is formulated by K. Hallahan et al.: “although the term Strategic Communication has been used in the academic literature for many years, scholars are only now in the process of coherently exploring this in terms of a unified body of knowledge”.
This implies that the mentioned environmental and context pressures on the role of Strategic Communication, largely define what the most effective Strategic Communication is ad hoc to the situation. Thus, speaking on Strategic Communication it is necessary to divide between so-called “Master plan” communication and Crisis communication. The Master plan communication serves for sustainable building and delivering of information on any longterm process (including governmental). It is based on core values of organization, it is clearly operational and communicates the same message on all levels of ordination. The Master plan communication is characterized by consistency – which means that the Master plan strategical communication is possible only if there is a clear strategy to deliver. Crisis management preparation is a crucial part of the MP communication (crisis communication without the Master plan communication background is impossible). Simultaneously, for successful crisis management it is crucial to have a clear decision coordination and subordination chain (subordination here means not only decision-making within a state, but also inter-state political and defense structures). Any decisions should be based not only on the MP communication values, but also on decision makers’ preparation for crisis and clear division of decision making roles in crisis situation. Nevertheless, informing the public, which is, logically, excluded from the decision making at the crisis moment, should be carried out as soon as possible, switching crisis management back to the Master plan Strategic Communication.
Summing up the theoretical frameworks and transitions in the communication environments, it is possible to distinguish the following roles of Strategic Communication:
- Under pressure of media (r)evolution governments adapt policies to the new media environment, consumption and public demands;
- Under pressure of populism governments explain policies to their demos;
- Under pressure of global security and defense issues governments protect policies they want to implement in their demos.
Each role of Strategic Communication has forms of implementation that can also serve as a measurement for effectiveness of Strategic Communication considering particular narratives or policy issues:
- Adapt policies – broadening and deepening communication channels – for example, policies delivered on social networks at the same quality as other communication channels; targeted audience approach within digital media; adapting messages to ensure public understanding; integrating educational, defense and media policies for more solid, quick and transparent messaging on foreign policy.
- Explain policies – includes pro-active communication with focus on explanatory communication the decisions taken; communication as a instrument for inclusion of decision makers in decisions; explaining policies via framing them in basic values of narrative.
- Protect policies – this task is fully succumbed to the pressure of hybrid-warfare threats and includes strengthening public media and their narrative; strengthening narrative of state defence; localise communication – making messages and narratives in order to meet the needs and understanding of audience; and globalise communication – which implies a common narrative of values within the European Union and NATO. Important notion here is the need to “communicate on communication” or underline the increasing importance of Strategic Communication, especially under hybrid-war pressures.
Of course, the above-mentioned roles are slightly overlapping in their meaning, task and delivery. Considering specifics of Strategic Communication, and its inner paradox – that Strategic Communication can be branded as necessity mostly after absence of it (with recognition that communication wasn’t strategic, and this is the reason why particular communication lead to policy failure) – it serves also the opposite way – lack of crisis in communicational field of particular policies can serve as a reason to declare any communication a “strategical success”. To avoid sense of Christopher Paul’s paradox and puzzle, where time matters to measure success of communique, in this article the author looks on Latvia’s foreign policy Strategic Communication as a snapshot of 2016, knowing that the true effectiveness of Strategic Communication can be measured only in a longer period of analysis. The “snap-shot” will be used to measure success in three areas – is Latvia’s foreign policy Strategic Communication adaptive, explanatory and protective enough. The used case studies are author’s choice from 2016 political agenda, but, taking into account that “everything is Strategic Communication”, other examples also could be taken and evaluated according to the proposed theoretical framework.
Latvia’s Strategic Communication of Latvia in 2016-2017
To grasp the effectiveness of Strategic Communication, particular case studies should be arranged in the above-described bigger theoretical picture. That allows to see where do they “fit and sit” in state strategies and if they reflect on state, the EU and NATO narratives. Latvia’s foreign policies Master plan of Strategic Communication was extremely effective in 2016. Priorities outlined by the Foreign Minister of Latvia Edgars Rinkēvičs on the annual Foreign policy Parliamentary debates on January 2016 can be used as markers for strategic targets:
- Strengthening the external security by arranging NATO’s long-term presence in the Baltic region and facilitating effective fight against terrorism by the EU and NATO;
- Reinforcing the unity and effectiveness of the EU and facilitating stability in the EU’s neighbourhood;
- completing the process of accession to the OECD;
- promoting foreign economic relations and entering new markets.
All but the EU’s migration policy issue, can be attributed to the Master plan category (the EU migration is merely a crisis, and as such falls under Crisis communication pattern). The strategic targets listed above have been fulfilled. Considering the first priority – the decision made in NATO’s Warsaw Summit to ensure the presence of four allied multinational battalions with extended military tasks coordinated by the member nations (USA, Great Britain, Germany, Canada).
The presence of these batallions will be part of new, in terms of quality, deterrence and defense measures of the Alliance, can be measured as a success of Strategic Communication of all three Baltic states under the current security and defense challenges. Logically, NATO membership and Latvia’s adherence to the “Western values” is a longterm strategy developed in 1990s by the “founding fathers” of the political party “Latvijas ceļš”, and strongly supported by all administrations. This trend is usefull from the Crisis communication perspective, also.
Is the outcome of the Warsaw Summit a matter of the Crisis or Master plan communication? It is hard to draw a precise line, but from a wider historical perspective it is absolutely a part of the Master Plan while from the present perspective it is a result of a precise strategic Crisis communication. Regardless of the perspective, it has been a result of an effective communication strategy, because it serves the strategic goals of the state in both – short and long term. From the explanatory perspective the national security narrative is strong and well explained. In this sence the national security and defence narrative are indisputable within local Latvian language media, Latvian speking society and all appropriate levels in government. Undeniably there are huge possibilities to expand Latvia’s Strategic Communication in the “adapt policies” sphere, but this refers aslo to all NATO member states, and NATO as an institution.
Importantly, it is a clear advantagde that the NATO Strategic Communication Center of Excellence is present in Latvia. NATO StratCom COE plays a crucial role in rising public awareness and providing expertise for the professionals. Nevertheless, in foreign policy and on the governmental level Strategic Communication should not be totally “securitized” or associated only with defence and hybrid-threat narratives. A purposely maintained Strategic Communication with no exception is a continuation of every state policy. Lack of Strategic Communication in areas besides the foreign and defence policy is dangerous, especially under pressure of current challenges in all fields of politics (starting with basic values of democracy, political participation and decision making). Strategic Communication goes far beyond one field; it is about nearly everything.
Regarding the EU, its unity, solidarity and coping with migrant crisis – the evaluation is much more difficult, and the results are also not as positive. It is important to understand that this is a definite case of crisis communication under the umbrella of strategic interests. Migrant crisis is a pan-European crisis, and it should be treated as such. A bigger impact should be put on “clarity” of government messages – clarity of the decisionmaking chain (and role of Latvia within it) and subordination within it – as well as on explaning them to society. From this perspective Strategic Communication is practically the only instrument to withstand pressure of populism, wich poses the main challenge to Europe’s political stability. “Blessing in disguise” in this situation is that Latvia’s foreign policy has been very consistent and value-based, at least on the “global communication” level showing support and solidarity for the European strategic values.
Another issue is “localization” of Strategic Communication – or – how to bring the decision-making on the European migrant crisis closer to the local population, making them into the stake-holders of decisions. This question has no easy answer. While Europe is on a page, which is critically speaking far away from a real planing and implementation, Latvia has a “double trouble” of communication. It has to communicate to local population through Europe’s uncertainty, and at the same time get credit for its own actions. It is a very challenging task for Latvia’s government, especially under conditions whenre the Latvian society is strictly against the participation in migrant crisis solution and acceptance of migrants. Summing up this particular issue, knowing that it can be marked as Crisis communication, an extra effort on delivering the message is strongly recommended. It is necessary to increase the transparency of decisions, be more pro-active in providing information, and explanations, and making the society into a stakeholder of the decision-making. The European migrant crisis is not only a crisis of migrants – it is also a crisis of EU’s credibility. In Latvia this second perspective – Europe, its values, Latvia’s place in Europe and Europe’s place in the World – should be taken very seriously. Pro-active Strategic Communication is essential especially due to the challenges of 2017 – elections in Germany, France, etc., which can “shake” European value system even more. The demise of this value system is not in the strategic interests of Latvia. Of course, events like Brexit in 2016, are just a part of Crisis communication for the Latvian government. However, it also relied on “Master plan” or Latvia’s strong support to the European values. This is an effective way of managing a particular situation, and it should be also included in the strategic vision about the future of Europe, and communicated additionally.
Speaking on Latvia’s priority to join the OECD – it has been an absolute success of long term Strategic Communication. Of course, there are elements that could be developed further. As in every field more explanatory job could and should be done in order to inform the population and to fix Latvia’s participation in the OECD in a larger strategic narrative and picture. More explanation could be done on what does the membership mean in a long-term; how the effects of it will be felt by the local population; how it will serve the new strategic targets etc. This addresses a point that is relevant to all policies – Strategic Communication never ends, like strategies never end. Each strategic achievement has to be explained as a step towards the next strategical goal. Breaking this principle leads to the identity crisis in states and organizations, or in the best case diminishes the role of a particular achievement. Considering the OECD, this is a risk that has to be taken into account. It is important to demonstrate how it serves, where it leads, what are its impacts, or saying into more simple basic rhetorics – “what's next? What's in that for me?” More than this, the OECD is really a success and achievement of the Latvian political administration. More communication on this in a more active mode could bring more gains to credibility of the next strategic steps of the government and the foreign affairs administration.
Finally, speaking on promoting foreign economic relations and entering new markets in 2016, we should discuss an ambitious large-scale event. This refers to the 16+1 Cooperation format between Central and Eastern European countries and China, and the fifth Meeting of Heads of Government, which took place in Riga on 5 November 2016. The summit had a side event – the 16+1 Business Forum for business contact exchange and future development. Additionally to the main event, on 16-17 May, Latvia hosted the first 16+1 Transport Ministers’ meeting. During it the Secretariat on logistics cooperation was inaugurated, and on 14 October national coordinators from the 16+1 countries gathered at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On 4 November Latvia was hosting a discussion of representatives from think tanks, and on 5 November 5 – of sinologists. The 16+1 Cooperation definitely is a part of long-term Strategic Communication, where all engaged parties are fixing their status quo for common future cooperation. It also recognises the issues to deal with – those connected to Strategic Communication are two. Firstly, how to deal with relations among stakeholders in the Central and Eastern European area, the EU, the US, Germany and Russia. Secondly, the need to actively create conditions and promote policy communication by all stakeholders.
16+1 Cooperation is a huge step towards the possible trade relations with China, but it is also crucial to ensure proper Strategic Communication in Latvia and Europe. The past 10 years of cooperation between the EU and China have been complicated. In fact, China’s style of communication with Europe is highlighting Europe’s weakest points. For instance, since the euro crisis, China has been establishing bilateral cooperation with individual EU member states and with regions within the EU. Simultaneously, from time to time in its internal rhetoric it calls Europe as a whole a crisis zone, and highlights the EU’s lack of common foreign policy. There is a potential in the relations between the EU and China, but there is also a certain amount of risk. China at the moment seems to be more interested in playing an investor than actually being an investor. Of course, the incapability of Europe to act as a single actor and regain its soft power to communicate with China on an equal basis also comes into play. In this context, the biggest Strategic Communication challenge for Latvia is to properly out-communicate its self-interest on a pragmatic level, not forgetting about the principles which characterize us as “European”. At the same time, of course, 16+1 Cooperation and particularly the Summit in Riga is a huge long-term Strategic Communication success, and this “staregicness” definitely should not be lost in future.
Overall, 2016 has been challenging for Strategic Communication, while demonstrating the strength of Latvia’s Strategic Communication’s Master plan, and its ability to out-communicate values and narratives of Latvia, the EU, and NATO to an exceptional detail. Hence, it can be characterized as highly effecient. Nevertheless, there are certain issues with strategic Crisis communication (like the “one page” communiqué on the migrant crisis), but the nature of Crisis communication makes these challenges hard to overcome. However, Strategic Communication – both planned and in crisis mode – should be an important topic on the political agenda and included into the framework of every state policy.
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Published 17 January 2017