When one starts to scan the ‘Defence Strategic Communications’ Journal, published by NATO’s Center of Excellence for Strategic Communications, will undoubtedly be surprised by the variety of subjects, areas, topics, countries and approaches of the articles published in its 10 years of existence. And the initial surprise will usually follow with some questions. What gives unity to all this variety? What does NATO understand by strategic communication? What makes a defense alliance interested in this topic?
These questions are not just for those unfamiliar with the field. From the 16th and 17th of September, we, the members of the Editorial Board of this magazine, met in Riga, Latvia, with these questions in mind and looking to the future and the role of communicators and strategic communication in a world in dispute democratic values and contesting what is considered to be the truth.
What guided the debates was the understanding that, even though we operate as a journal in a defense context, the themes we address and the ideas we propose go beyond this complex environment. In these 10 years, the magazine has been fundamental in defining this field of strategic communication that is now so debated, contributing especially to a better terminological conceptualization in this area.
We can say that the main and most important contribution of the Journal was to explore the very concept of strategic communication, going beyond the perception that it is purely and simply propaganda, but that it actually involves an articulation between persuasion, influence, truth and contestation. Hence its extreme relevance in the world today, and especially in the context of an organization like NATO, which is going through a critical moment with the end of operations in Afghanistan.
Both the campaign in that country, as well as the many other dilemmas faced in promoting a security environment for its member countries, led the organization to understand that in addition to the evident domains of defense – land, maritime, cyber and space – a fifth domain, more critical and contested, must be included: the cognitive. And this is where strategic communication comes in.
By placing the cognitive domain as one of its strategic pillars, communication moves from a simple ‘conquering hearts and minds’, of persuasion, to an understanding that it is in fact in this environment that the dispute, the contestation, is happening. Communication is thus no longer an instrument, but itself a (battle) field that requires a specific strategy.
Thus understood, strategic communication should not be seen merely as a one-way process, in which messages flow from a sender to a target audience. This is because this so-called ‘target audience’ is also an actor. Even if we do very well targeted campaigns, with answers to the traditional questions about who our target audience is; even if we coordinate messages, images, actions and other forms of expression, guided by meticulous market studies, with a view to influencing, persuading and informing audiences; if we still think of a static target audience, we will be doomed to a communicative failure.
If we don’t realize that our target audience is not a static target, but is constantly on the move, absorbing the messages it receives, transforming them, and making them its (weapons), we won’t be able to actually execute a strategic communication. If we don’t take into account this aspect of the target audience as an actor, we will have a communication that is always reactive, not active. Consequently, not strategic.
Strategic communication will therefore be the fundamental factor in this defense cognitive domain. And why not say it, in the cognitive domain of politics, commerce, industry, companies, etc.
The Editorial Board was keen to ensure that the journal’s next issues will continue to enrich the critical thinking repertoire for coherent and efficient strategic communications.