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The information war

Former Director of Communications at NATO on communications and the Ukraine war.

Mark Laity, Director at the StratCom Academy, former BBC Defence Correspondent and Director of Communications at SHAPE/NATO, exclusively gives the Company of Communicators his insights on communications in the Ukraine war.

Just as the ultimate test for a nation is war, so the ultimate test for a Strategic Communicator is also conflict. A test of purpose, systems and structures, of training and education and especially of people. That said the principles of effective StratCom, civil or military, still largely apply, even if their operational application differs.

As I write this I am watching the Russian aggression against Ukraine and will say at the outset, what we are seeing is something beyond my experience in that it is an existential challenge – to Ukrainians it is their very survival as a nation. What we have faced in our lifetimes, and I have participated in, are wars of choice – often vicious at the personal level for those in actual combat, but not existential. The rules change when the stakes are that high.

I would be working with a gun beside me

If I was a Ukrainian holding the role I had when I was SHAPE’s Director of Communications, I would be working with a gun beside me. You never know until that moment comes but I hope I would have the guts to stay at my post and use that weapon if it came to it. Everything I have done in my life pales beside what my equivalents in Kyiv now face. In my NATO time I visited and taught some of them on StratCom. They are at their posts now. They are my heroes.

The first StratCom principle has universal application, which is preparation. General Dwight Eisenhower, commander of allied forces in World War 2 and NATO’s first Supreme Allied Commander once said, ‘In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.’

He was being very black and white for effect and it is a more subtle point than first appears. On the one hand it acknowledged the reality that the other side gets a say, so to use another military saying, ‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy.’ But on the other hand, the preparation provides the indispensable guardrail to adapt that plan and survive. The impact of that preparation is as much psychological as technical.

In military jargon we are competing to ‘get inside the decision-making cycle’ of the opponent – in other words to get him reacting to us so we have the initiative. Easy to say, harder to do, but it starts with preparation and there are various elements to survive that stress test.

It needs a flexible system and structure to absorb shock, share information, make assessments, enabling quick decision-making and its implementation. In a complex military structure that is hard but working at the strategic level I spent much of NATO career trying to create this.

That includes ensuring the chief strategic communicator reports direct to the commander as one of the key advisers. In civilian terms that would be a seat on the board and a role in all major decisions. Achieving this has been hard but is now happening, even if it remains a work in progress.

Then, when it comes to preparation, there is the training and education, both for communicators and the operators who need to understand how to use information as a line of effort. In civilian terms, not only do you need effective people doing your branding, marketing, media and PR, but the people who design your product must also understand what is needed and be aligned.

It is far harder to ‘sell’ a war than a car

In practice the civilian sector is often better at this – doing their research before they launch their product is hardly rocket science. However, I do not want to sound glib, but it is also far harder to ‘sell’ a war than it is a car. It is also harder to work out your audiences. What is known as Information Environment Analysis (IEA) is both art and science, working at ever-greater levels of complexity.

But behind this all, is the absolute fundamental, identifying the overarching objectives of our mission – why are we doing what we are doing – and then turning that into a narrative that can be illustrated and implemented not just in words but actions and resonating at an emotional level.

We are seeing that now of course in Ukraine – we are interpreting events through the prism of a narrative. Ukraine’s narrative is succeeding because firstly it resonates with our values but also because it fits what we see. Russia’s is failing because outside Russia it neither resonates, nor does it fit the facts, hence Russia’s desperate attempts to control what domestic audience can see.

All of this is the preparation, the planning that provides the guardrail when the plan meets reality, so we need the flexibility to adapt and respond. Essentially this is what the military call ‘Mission Command’, defined as: A philosophy of command, with centralised intent and decentralised execution.... (it) focuses on outcomes, as it stresses the importance of understanding what effect is to be achieved, rather than specifying the ways by which it should be achieved.

The toughest possible environment

In effect this is trying to overcome the confusion of combat by delegating decision-making downwards. To do this then those at the lower levels need to understand what is wanted by the higher level. My last decade at SHAPE was devoted to trying to develop StratCom Mission Command, to create structures, processes, and trained personnel so that they could do what was needed without relying on slow, ponderous decision making inappropriate to today’s information age. To say it is hard is putting it mildly, because we are operating in the toughest possible environment where the stress is enormous, the pace relentless, and the price of failure colossal.

What is also key is never to slip into the default of thinking StratCom is just words – public affairs on steroids. Effective StratCom in my world included the messages that are sent by facts on the ground, meaning the exercises, the combat power that deters potential adversaries, and – if it comes to it - bombs on target. It is vital to understand our business and so to have a strong ethical base.

In my time at NATO I have been involved in crisis and conflicts in Afghanistan, North Macedonia and Libya and the cliché about the fog of war is truer than most. It brings confusion and uncertainty and encourages doubt and indecision. In those circumstances the guardrail of knowing you have prepared as best you can and understand the overarching aim is vital.

The moral component is also critical - faith in your team, your mission and yourself, especially at the operational level when things are going wrong. Your feelings when you sit in a briefing room following a bad day when things have not gone well, when people have died, and failure is a real possibility is not something you forget. I was never involved in direct combat but my identification with those who were was total. I am humbled by even the indirect association with such people.

Of course, you get used to it, you get used to anything, and in ISAF in particular the shock at early casualties, minor compared to what followed, was steadily replaced by living with the brutal reality of soldiers dying. You get on with the job and hope it is, in its own small way, making a difference, also knowing that measuring what success is during conflict is hard and certainly slow.

StratCom in our new grey zone world has never been more important as one key element of what it takes to ensure security in challenging times. It has also never been harder, and I will end as I began, thinking of my Ukrainian colleagues on the frontline of their – and our – information war.

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