The Droning of Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy

IN THESE DAYS of smart bombs and unmanned drones delivering lethal payloads, we sometimes see strategic communication and public diplomacy as little more than engineering problems. We have jettisoned real people from our conception of warfighting, and we have forgotten that foreign audiences have emotions more complex than the electrical circuitry in modern munitions.

I am an anthropologist who, 21 years ago, traded backpack and quinine for a three-piece suit, Hartmann carry-on luggage, and Dramamine. I travel a lot, but I do so in search of contemporary narratives and mythologies that moderns create to account for how the world works. I organize these stories into “grand narratives” and consult with corporations, public communication agencies, and governments on how to understand the public’s mind and mood and communicate with them.

Using an amalgam of ethnography, narrative analysis, and semiotics, I uncover the ways people design information, emotion, and belief to create their own brand of meaning. No more product-oriented focus groups and survey questions for me! I voyage into peoples’ internal dialog, exploring nuanced attitudes, opinions, and reflections about life.

Soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, I asked a group of Russians, “What is life like, nowadays?” Their replies boiled down to: “It’s better now, but it wasn’t worse under communism.” You can’t quantify such a complicated notion in a survey statistic.

The mind evolved to act, not think. It doesn’t wait for Rosetta stones. Recent evidence in neuroscience demonstrates that emotion is the most important factor in the making of meaning. People constantly create emotionally-based narratives to make the fog of life manageable. Each brain is actually three brains-base, limbic, and neocortical-and they can be at odds with each other, authoring different, complicated, even contradictory stories.

A misguided assumption in public diplomacy is the notion that all people are rational actors, who, if they can just be pragmatic, would basically think like Americans; in other words, we think the world is a mirror image of us. This is a dangerous failure of imagination.

Our methods for assessing public opinion are similarly dubious. A recent poll indicated that most Americans were experiencing a rat’s nest of emotions about the war in Iraq. Within one day-or even one hour-they felt “yes,” “maybe,” and “no.” Given conflicting “facts” and emotions, they couldn’t find their way out of the maze. Nevertheless, in the face of complexity, we deploy the same old polling questions-mechanistic, made-for-TV questions such as that asked of an Iraqi just after Baghdad fell: “How do you feel about being free?” (To which the Iraqi replied, “I think freedom implies security. We still don’t have security.”)

Our government’s conception of people is too simplistic. Why does the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy believe it can change minds inclined to be against us by showing foreigners videos with man-on-the-street testimonials about the good life in the U.S.A.?

And what about the opinions of Americans, supposedly the most open-minded people in the world? When I talked with a group of Americans about their perceptions of Japan and the Japanese, I asked them, “What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the word Japan?” The most frequent responses were Yoko Ono, Bruce Lee, and Godzilla.

I replied, half-mockingly, “What do you mean? Yoko Ono has lived in New York most of her life; Bruce Lee is Chinese practicing a Korean form of karate; and Godzilla, well, Godzilla is a cinematic creation. …Read the full article in PDF of Military Review, September 2007 >>

By Dr. Bob Deutsch, from Military Review, September/October 2007 .