How the public sector can communicate against radicalisation

Presented to the World Bank’s Centre for Mediterranean Integration on 4 April 2016.

Before we start discussing the main focus of this presentation — how the public sector can communicate against radicalisation — I wanted to quickly define a few key terms to help make our discussion as clear as possible. I was writing an article a couple months ago and half the questions from the editor were around these things. So I thought best to head this off at the start.

  1. “Strategic communications”: This means taking communications activity and rigorously structuring it under a single strategy to meet a single objective using a clear communications architecture that enforces message discipline and makes sure communications activity is coordinated. This may not seem like much but it makes a huge difference—it is impossible to set the agenda without this. It means that everyone within your organisation is speaking on the same issues using the same language no matter where they are or when they are speaking. This amplifies your messages and makes your communications more effective. To help illustrate this, take the 2015 UK General Election. The Scottish Nationalist Party played a pivotal role in the election, not just because they did well but because they were a major issue for Labour. What Ed Miliband was saying differed drastically at times from what Jim Murphy, the leader of Scottish Labour, was saying. The Conservatives seized on this and used it to attack Labour, telling British citizens that Labour couldn’t be trusted when it came to dealing with the Scottish nationalists. In the end, this simple failure to communicate strategically ended up playing a significant role in Labour’s major defeat at the hands of the Tories.
  2. “Narrative and messaging”: All campaigns must have a core narrative that can be heard throughout all communications activity. This core narrative will have individual key messages that support it. Taken together, your narrative and messaging are what tie your campaign together.
  3. “Channels”: A channel, simply, is a way to reach your audience. This can take any number of forms. Obvious ones like Twitter and Facebook and speeches and op-eds are channels. Less obvious ones like one-to-one conversations or sermons count as channels too — and take on even more importance in the context of anti-radicalisation communications.
  4. “Public sector”: There is an extreme degree of variance between the different types of organisations in the public sector, from local councils to national governments to multilateral organisations. Each of these has a different burden on it based on its constituents. This means that each will face very different obstacles in trying to communicate credibly, even though they are all “public sector” organisations.

ISIS propaganda

Everyone understands that ISIS has built one of the most formidable propaganda machines ever seen. But what not everyone has grasped is why it is so effective. ISIS propaganda, contrary to how it is presented in Western media, is highly varied. It combines positive and negative themes that appeal to both ideological and political supporters. And it doesn’t just do this online: propaganda is just as likely to be delivered in person as it is via Telegram. ISIS has built this varied propaganda and its delivery mechanisms on four key pillars:

  1. ISIS does not just target potential recruits or those living within its borders. It also targets sympathisers, enemies, media, general publics — the list goes on and on. ISIS understands that in the digital age everyone can be an instrument of propaganda. It exploits each audience accordingly.
  2. ISIS propaganda is tied together by the same core narrative, which is delivered to each audience. Loosely, this core narrative is: “The Caliphate is a triumphant, model society that offers community to all who desire it, and destruction to those who don’t”. This core narrative is adapted based on which audience a particular piece of propaganda is meant to appeal to. But, crucially, each piece of communication always comes back to this core theme.
  3. ISIS propaganda comes in a variety of packages. The tweets and videos have spread most widely — helped along, it must be said, by Western media and audiences fascinated by the horror ISIS perpetrates. But it also produces magazines, has its own newswire, publishes religious decrees, distributes nasheeds, and has built a radio network. Propaganda delivery is underpinned by one-to-one interaction, which helps increase the impact of those mass produced messages.
  4. At the same time as it retains tight central control of its message, ISIS empowers its official propagandists and their followers to improvise. It allows them to choose the right channel and tailor messaging depending on audience.

Why ISIS propaganda works

These four pillars are important because they demonstrate what ISIS understands about the underlying principles of strategic communications. Taking them in turn they are:

  1. The starting point of any campaign is a strong understanding of audiences.
  2. A strong core narrative must tie all communications together — messaging can be tailored to audiences but must always be in tune with the core narrative.
  3. Choosing the right channel to deliver communications matters as much as the messages being communicated.
  4. Coordination is key for a campaign to succeed across multiple audiences and geographic areas — for maximum impact, messaging and communications activity must be aligned. The most successful campaigns go beyond centrally-led coordination to empower individuals further down the food chain to be creative and take ownership of message delivery.

Successfully combatting ISIS propaganda requires anti-ISIS communicators to begin using these principles when they plan and execute communications campaigns.

How to communicate against ISIS and radicalisation

In addition to adopting these principles, the public sector faces an additional obstacle to successfully communicating against radicalisation. Unlike ISIS, the public sector — especially governments — faces a large credibility gap when it comes to speaking on these issues. So any solution must focus first on solving this problem, and then tackle these other issues.

The best way for public sector organisations to communicate against radicalisation is built on four core principles:

  1. Identify on what and to whom you can speak credibly. Target audiences are often already skeptical of what the public sector wants to say. Overreaching by taking stands on subjects on which you have no credibility with your target audience not only means communications will not succeed — it also damages your credibility when speaking on other issues. There are two issues to keep in mind when working out where you can establish credibility:
    1. The public sector should aim to communicate locally. Distant organisations shouting across national borders — what we have seen many governments do so far in the fight against ISIS — are often ignored. The best change for creating an impact might come from those working directly with the audiences the public sector is trying to reach.
    2. The public sector should consider looking more deeply at communications and take a less direct route to delivering its messages. This might be best illustrated with an example. Consider a World Bank program saying “ISIS does not offer a path to financial inclusion”. This might be dismissed by many because they might not look to the World Bank as an authority on ISIS. But hearing the World Bank saying “Financial inclusion is only achievable in societies with gender equality” might resonate with those same people who do expect the World Bank to speak on those issues. If supporting arguments are then seeded through local communicators about ISIS’ treatment of women, these audiences could then be brought around to the World Bank’s point of view.
      • In sum, establishing up front a strong understanding of who you want to talk to and what you think they might be open to hearing from you will inform the rest of your communications work. This doesn’t mean that the other issues that the public sector can’t speak credibly on should be ignored — they shouldn’t. We will pick these up in Principle 4.
  2. Create coherent messaging to drive the campaign narrative and identify delivery channels. Regardless of the audience, a core narrative must drive all communications activity around the public sector’s work against radicalisation. Mixed messages will diminish the credibility of communications. Equally as important, the public sector needs to identify the best way to deliver this core narrative and accompanying messages to target audiences. This will vary by audience, which is why it is crucial to preserve flexibility across your communications work and make sure delivery comes from the local level.
  3. Build the strategic communications infrastructure to coordinate communications. Most public sector organisations operate on multiple levels. Each level — from the central, highest-level functions to the regional and country offices down to the individual, local programs — can amplify what is being said by the others. This effort must be led by a central communications hub that has oversight of all communications activity and sets the core global narrative. The regional and country offices should be responsible for coordinating between themselves — and with the levels of this structure above and below them — to ensure that the same messages are being used across all communications. The individual, local level should be tasked with tailoring messages to local audiences, identifying the best channels for communicating, and delivering the bulk of the direct communications — preferably working in partnership with local actors.
  4. Let go of control of the delivery of communication. This is how you get to talk about the things you can’t talk about. Taking the extra step to empower non-official, local communicators is a risk worth taking. These communicators are people or organisations who can be trusted as anti-radicalisation and hold pre-existing, offline relationships with your target audiences — and should not be overtly linked with Western interests, which would destroy their credibility. Because they are closer to the target audiences and don’t carry the baggage of the public sector, they can talk to the issues that public sector communications can’t touch. These actors are best placed to tailor messages to the local audiences, identify the right channels to reach those target audiences, and have the one-to-one engagements that have the best change of changing minds. To get them involved, they should be offered behind-the-scenes funding and logistical support. While they might not stick word-for-word to the campaign script, this is part of the point. As long as they communicate the core narrative against radicalisation, they should have the freedom to tailor messages as they see best. If they do this, their net contribution can be positive. One example of this setup is being worked through right now in Jordan and Lebanon by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue. To implement their CVE programme, they are partnering with local leaders and NGOs — which have high levels of credibility in their local communities — to deliver the core message against ISIS. This is highly valuable work and needs to be encouraged. The best way to encourage it — and to make sure it is replicated across other high-risk areas — would be to bring it under that overall umbrella and give it the resources and messaging to make it part of the wider campaign.

Demonstrating value

One of the biggest challenges in all this is demonstrating the value of your work. When I was in briefing the Coalition Communications Cell, one of their chief issues with taking their name off content and empowering local actors to communicate autonomously was that it meant no one would know that they were the organisation behind it. But, simply put, it’s the only way to actually have an impact. So there needs to be an ironclad understanding within the leadership of public sector organisations that these programmes are worth investing in over the long-term. Previous anti-extremism communications campaigns have failed because they were not given the time to show benefit. This is often because administrators are focused on quick results, and exacerbated by critical media coverage. It is very difficult to demonstrate a concrete ROI in counter-radicalization communications. Traditional communications metrics like engagement numbers or readership stats do not really accurately measure progress — or, if they do, it is in a far less direct way. A successful result is, in effect, the absence of a result — nobody traveling to Syria to fight, for example. Given that such a result will take several years to manifest, it is crucial that any large-scale communications campaign has the internal backing both to persist through setbacks and slow progress as well as to speak to external audiences about the long-term communications goals and roadmap.

Public sector

What constitutes success will vary depending on the organisation. What you communicate and how you deliver communications will vary greatly depending on the type of public sector organisation. Governments, for example, carry significant political baggage, not the least being colonial history and the legacy of war. This makes their communications challenges vastly different from the challenges faced by multilateral organisations like the World Bank. It is a small point but important to keep in mind because context is extremely important in communications. There is no one size fits all approach, just principles and guidelines to follow that must be applied to each situation.

Applications beyond ISIS

To close, while ISIS presents the most immediate threat, we should not lose sight of the wider picture. Radicalisation threats will persist beyond ISIS’ lifespan and we can expect those organizations to build on ISIS’ success at creating convincing propaganda. That is why investing in creating the communications infrastructure required for a campaign like this is worthwhile. Audience identification and messaging development can be carried out relatively rapidly. But development of the actual delivery infrastructure and institutional knowhow cannot.


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