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How Does Strategic Communication by Organisations Affect Power Struggles among Different Groups in Society?
As suggested by Berger (2005), communication is used strategically by powerful parties in the public sphere to achieve their objectives. I will argue that the contemporary practice of strategic communication influences power struggles in the global order through the construction of power. To unpack this argument, I will look at the political forms of strategic communication employed by the Russian government through its international television network, Russia Today. The essay will illustrate how Russia Today uses strategic communication tactics to legitimise domestic and foreign policies in Russia and, in some cases, delegitimise policies of the British and American governments (Yablokov, 2015).
I begin by theorising strategic communication and power before explaining the problematisation of the historical understanding of the public mind as emotional, illogical and irrational (Lippman, 1995); second, the essay explores the political forms of strategic communication implemented by the Russian government mainly through Russia Today (RT). This will include the Russian government’s anti-Western rhetoric that is used strategically to oppose any discourse of the Western organisations, such as NATO, to achieve specific political objectives, as well as to brand Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, in a positive light (Catherine, 2014). These three methods of utilisation of political strategic communication by RT are discussed thoroughly. Thus, this essay sheds light on the negative uses of strategic communication where it serves the elite and the powerful and is used to establish hegemony rather than counter it. It is important to note that strategic communication is a broad concept; conclusive generalisations should not be applicable on all types of strategic communication (Jacobs, Cook, and Carpini, 2010).
Define: Strategic Communication
Since Edward Bernays first introduced the term ‘public relations counsel’ in the early 1920s, public relations has been widely practised by corporations and governments alike. It is a difficult task to formulate a single unified definition of public relations; yet, it is in a way or another related to reputation – the result of what an organisation does and says and what others say about it (Argenti, 2016). Strategic communication began to replace the term ‘public relations’ in the second decade of the 21st century (Ewen, 1996). This is because public relations began to be associated with the term ‘propaganda’ in the early 20th century (Bernays, 1928). It is argued that the pejorative meaning of “public relations” became so unbearable that even key academicians in public relations, such as James E. Grunig at the University of Maryland, began to introduce ‘communication management’ as a new term to replace it (Grunig, 1992).
Strategic communication or communication management is the discipline wherein you disseminate information, solicit input and look after the reputation of an organizational entity, with the aim of earning the required understanding and support as well as influencing opinion and behaviour (Lewis, 2019). Strategic communication is simply the meaningful use of communication by organisation, corporations or governments to engage with stakeholders and the public in order achieve specific strategic goals (Botan, 2018). Even social movements and those who lead it have to communicate strategically with their audiences in order to have mutual understanding with the public and maintain good reputation, more broadly.
As suggested by Zerfass et al. (2018, p. 2), “communication can play a distinctive role for the formulation, revision, presentation, execution, implementation, and operationalization of strategies”. While there are several ways to investigate these objects, the department of strategic communication in any given corporation, or the government team of strategic communications, attempt to achieve their goals only by means of communication. Strategic communications, however, can be linked with other industries, and its role can be extended to involve “a range of activities, including international public relations, public diplomacy, nation branding, psychological operations, and counter-subversion or counter-extremism activities” (Centre for Strategic Communications, 2017). Though this sometimes can be challenging, especially in situations where resources are limited, and the outcomes of the strategic communication campaigns are uncertain.
Similar to the previous definitions, Holtzhausen and Sriramesh (2007, p. 13) introduced the notion of “strategic communication as the purposeful use of communication by an organization to fulfil its mission”. This is managed with the assistance of several communications strategies. The processes of developing communication strategies are part of strategic communication, strategies in this frame are defined by Pearson and Culver (2016) as a reference list against which the communication strategist can judge the progress of his/her campaigns. Communication strategies identify clear and measurable communications objectives through evaluation, identifying the relevant audiences and choosing the appropriate available channels. Also, setting “a plan for activities and a timetable, communication risks and mitigation, and resources – financial and people” (Jamieson, 2018: p28). Channels of strategic communications can be the media, lobbying, marketing and events – these can all can be at a national or global scale and online or offline (Pitcher, 2003).
A communication strategy consists of four elements: communication, audience, message and the channel of communication (Lewis, 2019). These four elements incorporate the goals of communication, the management of reputation, trust, the objectives, the tactics among other consideration in the communication management. However, even after using the concept of strategic communication instead of PR, along with this modern understanding and conduct of strategic communication, the accusations of propaganda and of serving the power or the elitist interests remain visible (L’Etang and Pieczka, 2006). This is mostly visible in political discourse and communication outputs.
Political strategic communication is sometimes seen as the state’s projection of certain values, objectives and interests into the conscience of the domestic and foreign audiences through synchronisation of multifaceted activities in all domains of social life (Moloney, 2004). Governments and corporate communicators are often accused of influencing the narrative to gain power rather than reflexively and critically engaging with the public (Chambers, 2009). Strategic communication can also be consumer-driven and, ultimately, aims to inform the target audience about a specific product or service (Siegert and Rimscha, 2018).
Power can be defined as the capability of one social actor to overcome resistance and achieve a desired objective (L’Etang and Pieczka, 2006). Power is a force that is exerted from one actor unto another to influence changes behaviour, thoughts or values. It is argued that since the early decade of the 20th century, public relations and communication practices did not focus on appealing to the public rationale for support of political and/or corporate causes. It focussed upon appealing to the public emotion rather than critical reasoning (Ewen, 1996). The influence of power can be more evident in how the ‘public mind’ was regarded as illogical, irrational and in need of governance from “responsible men” trained in decision-making and leadership (Lippman, 1995). This is the basis for several hegemonic thoughts. Hegemonic thoughts can perceive their value by ‘the ability to manipulate symbols which assemble emotions after they have been detached from their ideas.’
Lippman (1995) went beyond this point, suggesting that when public opinion is empowered enough to govern directly, it will result in either a failure or tyranny, since it is not possible to master problems intellectually without influential and elite actors involved. An example that may reflect this point Lippman is making about power can be seen in literature about strategic communication campaigns. For example, the Military Concept for NATO Strategic Communication outputs (NATO, 2010; Moloney, 2004, p. 25) states that:
“As part of the overarching political-military approach to Strategic Communications within NATO, the vision is to put Strategic Communications at the heart of all levels of military policy, planning and execution”.
Hence, it is argued that at the centre of NATO’s communication approach is the notion of ‘soft power’, as in shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction (L’Etang and Pieczka, 2006). For instance, while NATO was undertaking military campaign in Kosovo in 1999, it is argued that a NATO spokesperson played a significant role in representing the organisation as a humanitarian military powerhouse (Schoenberger-Orgad, 2010). NATO also used discursive positioning of the organisation acting in the interests of the international community and, by doing so, “it legitimised its own continuation as a viable supranational organisation for the 21st century” (Schoenberger-Orgad, 2010: p380).
This can be connected to emotional appeal of strategic communication to the public to influence national and global power dynamics. However, NATO’s conduct of strategic communication is faced by oppositional campaigns, mainly from Russia, that sees it as the main source of instability, and its actions are considered as unprecedented and aggressive. While Russia, through its RT channel, claims to be countering the Western hegemony in the political strategic communication realm, its objectives are found to be reinforcing the Kremlin and Putin power.
The case of Russia Today (RT)
A more specific example of the negative connotation associated with strategic communication and power is seen in the conduct of Russia Today (RT), a global TV channel funded by the Russian government. Since the establishment of RT in 2005, Russia has invested a significant amount of money in its public diplomacy and other strategic communication measures. Particularly, Ilya Yablokov (2015, p. 2) argues that “RT has been used to legitimise Russian domestic and foreign policies”. Legitimacy can simply be defined as ‘the right to govern’ and, in the case of RT, it has been regarded as the ‘mouthpiece’ of the Kremlin, giving Russia the right to decide and the platform to judge different topics (Hutchings, 2018)
One way of doing this is through using populist rhetoric. According to Fenster (2008, p. 84), “populist theory possesses an important communicative function by helping to unite the audience as the people against the imagined other”. The communicative aspects of populism involve the rhetoric that is used strategically to address the imagined ‘Other’ and, thus, achieve the corporate or the government objectives. In RT, the ‘Other’ has usually been the US and the UK, both imagined as ‘undifferentiated entities … regarded either as a positive model for Russia to emulate or as a negative example to be rejected’ (Tolz, 2001, p. 70). Anti-Western populist discourses in Russia’s strategic communication campaigns depict the West as an ultimate and insidious ‘Other’ seeking to undermine the progress of the Russian nation towards its glorious future (Fenster, 2008).
Its argued that Kremlin-financed public relations firms are covertly spreading anti-Western conspiracy theories, such as that the disappeared Malaysian MH370 airplane might have been shot down by the US, German authorities tried to cover up the alleged rape of Russian girl Liza by migrants in Berlin and, more popularly, is that the 9/11 attacks may have been planned by the US government (The European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, 2016). RT’s anti-Western discourse deliberately overrepresents issues, such as racial unrest or growing social inequality in the United States, in order to deliver the message that the West is not better than Russia (Tolz, 2001). In 2015 as well as 2018, Ofcom sanctioned RT over a “series of misleading and biased articles’ about the BBC” (Jackson, 2015: 45).
The anti-Western rhetoric reveals RT’s editorial strategy to participate in an informational war using disinformation and misinformation aiming to deliberately “provoke doubt about the Western mainstream news, incite distrust in Western governments and institutions and, ultimately, undermine democratic stability by fracturing public consensus regarding fact-based reality” (Richter, 2017: p4). All of these can be seen as tactics used strategically to reinforce the Russian government’s position in power within wider political and economic contexts, and these tactics involve the utilization of strategic communication.
Populist strategic communication conduct by RT is also seen in its representation of Vladimir Putin as a charismatic, glorified leader (Voltmer, 2012). It is argued that since 2005, near the time of establishing RT, Vladimir Putin’s public image was carefully managed, such that in 2015, despite the economic crises his country went through, he was declared as the most powerful person in the world (Forbes, 2015). Constantly reinforcing the idea of a single person being a charismatic, powerful leader can be seen as inherent to populism in the strategic communication industry (McDonnell, 2008; Canovan, 1999). This is because the spectacular, sensationalist and emotional framing of politicians as well as the repetitive pattern of personalised storytelling is associated with the new strategic communication concept ‘Celebrity Diplomats’. According to Martensson (2018), the concept of celebrity diplomats attempts to reach the global public and is increasingly more involved in international affairs as public diplomacy activities and initiatives are adapting to new ways of strategic communication.
RT’s representation of Putin as the key purveyor of Russian strategic deception at the global level is part of its politician celebrity strategy. Vladimir Putin utilises elements of both fame and celebrity to show himself as liberal and modern rather than the previous image of him as a mere technocrat. This strategic communication branding of Putin represents a considerable shift in the cult of political personalities within Russia (Andrew et al., 2017). Putin’s celebrity status appeals to both the Western audience as well as the Russian audience either at home or overseas. According to Müller (2011), Putin’s celebrity persona does not exist only in a Russian context but he has also become an icon for anti-liberal politics closely associated with the personality of the founder – referred to as ‘putinisation’.
The populist rhetoric and branding of politicians has arguably been intensified with the internet age. The growth of commercial interest online has given strategic communication practitioners an authority to explain complex sets of data to an average client. Vladimir Putin and RT with its political technologists, as suggested by Stephen Hutchings (2018), have adopted changes in communication technology quickly and adapted information-psychological warfare for the digital age, deploying a diverse arsenal of media networks and Internet trolls into Western information channels. The usage of algorithms and users’ data to target advertising and disseminate messages by the web’s giants have been empathised by strategic communication critics. Algorithms, as David Beer (2017) explains, can be powerfully deployed within the social world, as it influences the broader rationalities and ways in which the public see the world.
The power of corporate algorithm lies in its ability to sort and prioritise the communication messages that the public encounter. This is done through the algorithm’s use of models of ‘authority’, in sorting, filtering, searching, prioritising, recommending, and deciding on behalf of the individual for the objective of shaping one’s knowledge and producing outcomes (MacCormick, 2012 and Beer, 2017). This, according to Davis (2013), is an individualised form of communication; the purposes of communication here is promotional and involved in the self-construction of identity. A contemporary example of the use of algorithm by corporates to influence power dynamics is RT disinformation and cyber hostilities against the United States during the 2016 election (Richter, 2017). According to the US intelligence community, during Trump’s election, the CIA concluded that Vladimir Putin was directly connected to a cyber campaign and its goal was to disrupt the presidential election, mainly by undermining the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, and helping elect the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, President.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson (2018) argues that Trump would not be president without the Russia’s online interference as they persuaded certain people to either vote for Donald Trump or not vote at all. Jamieson (2018) notes that the Russian government paid for social media strategic communication campaigns to be circulated among the audience. Trump denies Russia’s interference in the elections and the capitulation of many in the Republican Congress to partisan interests at the expense of the American national interest (Richter, 2017). Yet, as suggested by Jamieson (2018), Russia had a decisive impact in the 2016 election’s and very likely delivered Trump’s victory. Before reaching this conclusion, Jamieson (2018) examined Russia’s social media conduct and reviewed the sampling of dozens of Facebook advertisements some of them produced by RT, during the Presidential campaign.
RT is not isolating itself from the Russian government’s cyberwar; it maintains an active presence on social media websites, mainly Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, and claims to be “the top non-Anglo-Saxon TV news network in terms of online PC audience” (RT, 2015: p1). These three cases – the anti-Western rhetoric, the branding of Vladimir Putin and the Russian government’s disinformation on digital media to influence the narrative abroad as different – prove the claim that strategic communication can intensify the hegemonic struggle. The hegemonic or power struggle in this context is the capacity of Russia to persuade subordinates to accept, adopt or, at least, think of the values and norms which it has adopted and believe to be right and proper (Miliband, 2008).
To conclude, it can be argued that strategic communications has an influence on society’s values, culture and everyday life through the ways it enriches power struggle. The manifestation of this is seen in the political forms of strategic communication and how it helps powerful countries dominate and influence the narrative in different international contexts. The Russian government’s utilisation of strategic communication to achieve its objectives around the world is a clear example of the same.
This essay discusses NATO’s defence and military strategic communication work; it explores the Russian government’s practice of strategic communication, which can be seen as responsive through the Kremlin-funded television network Russia Today (RT) and other internet media and communication firms. More precisely, the RT’s and other Russia-affiliated online media outlets’ usage of strategic communication tactics including the usage of Anti-Western discourse were examined, including the usage of social media websites to brand Vladimir Putin in a positive manner. Putin’s celebrity status created by RT and other Russian media outlets, it is argued, has appealed to both the Western and the Russian audience. This guarantees RT a larger international scope which may result in it being regulated by non-Russian regulators; this was exemplified by Ofcom’s sanction on RT. Finally, RT’s strategic communication role implemented by the Russian government that is allegedly linked to influence the outcomes of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States was briefly discussed. Therefore, strategic communication and its role in the construction of power can be prominently seen in the cyber-war digital age.
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