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Top Officer Criticizes US Military 'Strategic Communications'

By Al Pessin
The Pentagon
28 August 2009

The top U.S. military officer has written a sharp critique of the Defense Department's efforts to communicate with people around the world. In an article for a military journal, Admiral Mike Mullen says the U.S. military too often launches its messages like rockets, rather than engaging with its audiences and demonstrating its intentions through actions, rather than words.

Admiral Mullen writes that the Pentagon's "biggest problem is credibility," which he says comes in part from building trust and relationships, and delivering on promises. In a column for Joint Forces Quarterly, the admiral derides the popular new concept called Strategic Communications, saying there is too much attention put on message formulation, coordination and transmission, and not enough on actual policies and their impact.

He writes, "To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate." He also says, "…most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all. They are policy and execution problems."

Admiral Mullen spoke about a related issue earlier this week at the American Legion's annual convention, where he said this about the war in Afghanistan.

"This isn't just a war against something; it's a war for something, the trust and confidence of the people who live there, who, if given the chance, will, I believe, choose not to allow themselves or their land to become a safe haven again," he said.

The admiral, who is the top military adviser to the president and the secretary of defense, said the United States can only gain that trust by understanding the people it is trying to help and being a reliable friend.

In his opinion column, he indicated he thinks the United States communicates best through example -- by helping people, upholding its own values and being honest about its mistakes. He writes that "the essence of good communications [is] having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves."

Admiral Mullen also serves notice on advocates of Strategic Communications that he wants a change. He says the current department-wide policy process, the Quadrennial Defense Review, should redefine the concept so it is not a separate function, but rather a process for guiding and informing decisions. He says the goal is to take "actions that speak for themselves." He also said the U.S. Defense Department needs to be "more humble" and "listen more."

The admiral's article comes the same week that the U.S. military was criticized for rating reporters who cover Afghanistan. The ratings were done by a private Strategic Communications company, the Rendon Group, paid by the military. The company's website says it measures "message effectiveness" to help identify communications strategies.

Admiral Mullen himself has been increasing his own communications effort in recent months. He posts updates on the social networking websites Twitter and Facebook, in an effort to reach members of the military and other young people. And he is inviting people to post video questions for him on YouTube, which he says he will answer next month.



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