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Strategic Communications should tell a story…
Chief Storyteller Tony Quinlan from Narrate (www.narrate.co.uk) has spent 20 years shaping communications and change programmes for blue chip companies, international aid organisations and the public sector. He’s addressed international cultural differences, gang recruitment, and is helping the Information Operations Global delegation next week to better understand how militaries can use grassroots narratives to better formulate a communications strategy…
Why is narrative important to a communications campaign today, and how does this relate to international governments and militaries?
Narrative is how we all perceive the world – the thousands of micro-narratives our brains have collected over a lifetime immersed in our culture and family are the way we filter information and make decisions. Too often, communications is phrased in terms of values and facts that clash with our existing narratives and experiences. And narrative wins every time.
Nowhere is this more critical than where cultures meet and mix – the international arena and military deployments. Subtle, almost invisible, cues for narratives can be easily triggered by communications without ever realising that they’re missing their intended mark. From the use of metaphor to accidentally recalling past negative experiences, it’s easy for decision-makers in alien environments to create more problems than they resolve.
You’ll be talking on the subject of “using local narrative rather than countering it”. Can you give us an idea of what you mean by this?
In the field of COIN and CT, the idea of developing a “counter-narrative” is a seductive but misleading approach. It implies that it’s possible to construct a narrative that will meet and annihilate an undesirable narrative – a communications version of matter meets anti-matter. The problem is that it’s not how the world works. For one thing, it’s very difficult to construct a perfect narrative – Hollywood wastes billions of dollars every year on constructed narratives that it then turns out that people don’t like. But more importantly, we know that the implementation of counter narrative tends to reinforce the original narrative – by drawing attention to the area of concern. If a particular narrative has a strong grip on a population – has become a fixed point in their culture and beliefs – you need to take a different approach.
It’s far more effective to see where there are fixed myths and perceptions – and then look for emerging new narratives that might offer alternatives. And working with those new emerging narratives can involve far more than simple communications – we’ve seen opportunities for taking unexpected myth-breaking and myth-making actions. Thinking that understanding a local culture in narrative terms leads only to counter-narrative is to miss the real benefits.
…So there’s a risk in trying to impose a non-locally sourced narrative?
Absolutely – risks of introducing narratives that are perceived as fantasy and irrelevant to the culture is probably the best one can hope for. The greater risk is making a problem worse. It is the problem with using experts to construct narratives – it’s easy to lapse into transferring concepts or characters or viewpoints from the experts’ own culture into a proposed narrative for another culture in ways that will not resonate and may antagonise the intended audience.
To give you an example from a recent Narrate project in a country with a perceived problem with police corruption. There was a proposal for a telenovella or soap opera revolving around a police officer battling corruption in his department. And naturally giving him a back story with a family and his own tensions and temptations. From our work, we could see that cultural archetypes in this country are that men succumb to problems, only women overcome them – having a male-focused story where the protagonist succeeds would be seen as fantasy – or just another western cultural import – with little effect on the local culture.
How can strategic communicators actually deliver a message within a culture or community that they are not part of and cannot truly understand in depth, as well as with language barriers, delicate social layers, and many other obstacles?
A perfect understanding of a culture – and hence being able to deliver a message within it – is impossible. You would need to participate in a community for many years in many roles to fully understand it. (I’ve lived in my village in Bedfordshire for ten years, but am forever hearing new stories. And I’m certainly not a local yet.) What we need to be able to do is gain a sufficient understanding of a culture – and the key dispositions, narratives and interactions within it.
Understanding the culture on its own terms is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one – we use anthropological methods to gather not just significant stories and day-to-day micro-narratives from within communities, but also the meaning that those stories have for individuals in the culture. Looking at the underlying dispositions and attitudes, coupled with examples of experiences and contexts in which those attitudes lay out, helps build a better understanding – along with those areas that should be avoided in StratCom operations and potential areas where shift might be feasible.
Are there tools or methods that have been proven to work?
Some, but it’s early days in terms of the sophistication of their use. We’ve had considerable success using mass narrative capture and software from Cognitive Edge to help generate better cultural understanding, but I think the real power has yet to be unleashed – operationalising the research to improve live decision-making and integrating it beyond just StratCom seem to me to be the real opportunities. It’s easier to disrupt a narrative through unexpected actions than through any other method – so the connection between theatre operations and StratCom seems to be an important bridge to build by demonstrating what we can offer.
On a topical note, you’ve spoken out against social media being as much of an influence during the Arab Spring as many other people have proclaimed it to be. Can you explain your viewpoint?
It’s an interesting point. I think social media was an important facilitator of influence here – but not an influence itself. Where I truly differ on some of the early analysis of the Arab Spring is around how “on-message” communications was through social media.
I regard social media as a highly effective echo chamber – what we saw in terms of social media messaging was an accelerated process of evolution. In the early days, social media allowed huge variations of messages and contexts to be played out into the wider world. Some ideas and narratives died out quickly, some started to merge and others started to cluster around messages that had greater resonance – until within a relatively short period of time, there were dominant ideas and messages that everyone seemed to agree with. Too much analysis assumed “Intelligent Design” of the communications, rather than an evolved ecology emerging from the involved population.
There’s an important lesson in that for all StratComs in theatre – planning may help reduce failures, but evolution will generate success.
What are you looking forward to discovering at Information Operations Global?
I haven’t been invited to Information Operations Global before, so I’m looking forward to the interesting conversations and intellectual stimulation most of all.