Fashioning a grand strategy for public communication

May 16, 2013

My gratitude to the organizers of this conference for inviting me to join you here today. My interest in and respect for public relations and public communication is deep and long standing. Of course, I represent a university that proudly offers instruction in public relations and is devoted to public communication in the broadest sense.

My first professional job was as a communications director for a public agency in Chicago, Illinois. One of my first teaching assignments in a university was teaching public opinion and public information methods. I subsequently wrote a widely used mass communication text that for three decades included material that tracked and analyzed this field, in the context of media and public communication.

Along the way, I came to know leaders in the public relations field, both in the U.S. and internationally. This includes being a client of some of the world’s leading public relations firms. Over the years and of special significance to me was a longstanding relationship with one of public relations’ founders, the legendary Edward L. Bernays, and even spoke at his memorial service when he died at the age of 103. As you perhaps know, he was the first to use the term “counsel on public relations” and established a successful firm.

He had a profound impact on the field, transforming it from publicity and press agentry to public relations, teaching the first university course in the subject and serving as advisor to chiefs of state, captains of industry and institutional leaders. He promoted ethical public relations based on mutual self-interest between the field of public relations and its clients as well as the public at large. Some say he was “the father of spin,” but I can tell you he was much more than that—truly an intellectual and organizational leader for this field for many decades, setting a high standard for performance and achievement.

Harnessing public relations to communicate a national vision would seem at first to be a straightforward proposition. To the extent that a national vision is stated—as is the case in Qatar and a few other countries—a public communications program aimed at articulation, explanation and understanding is not difficult to imagine, conceptualize and implement. But it is more complicated than that. In a recent conversation with a communications director for the new government of Libya, it was easy enough for her to state the government’s goals and urgent priorities. So too is developing a strategy and plan for expressing them can also be set out in short order. Indeed, the entire exercise can be accomplished in a few minutes, but making it happen is quite another matter as one considers the myriad of impediments to communication and understanding, let alone acceptance.

In any nation there are voices that challenge change ranging from opposition forces to various stakeholders who don’t always or perhaps ever agree. This has been true from ancient times forward, but in the modern and post-modern digital age it is even more complex—and troubling. A straightforward message from the government, a business enterprise or a social leader can appear on a variety of media and communications platforms, reinforcing its purpose and meaning, but at the same time encountering the daunting disruption of social media where many voices join the dialogue, adding facts and fictions, sometimes promoting and publicizing, sometimes impairing and misinterpreting.

Well-conceived strategies for public communication and public relations tactics now must consider not only the multiple audiences, constituencies and interests, but also the alternate means of communication, the receptivity of actual individuals, not just groups, as well as such  matters as attention span, whether the message is credible, believable, validated—and even “cool.”

Only a few countries of the world have what a Yale University seminar calls “a grand strategy,” where a national vision is tied to developmental pillars and specific plans for implementation. Drawing on masterworks by Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and others, the course tries to map national aspirations in the abstract and link them to policy solutions. In the Middle East and especially the Gulf region, some countries have well-stated and precisely honed national goals and objectives, tied to national resources and a vision for the future. That is the case here in Qatar where the National Vision 2030 imagines a time when extractive industries, the present source of the nation’s wealth, will be at first supplemented and then subsumed by knowledge-based industries.

This worthy and likely necessary goal benefits greatly, I believe, from three key factors, those being (1) a genuine belief in a sense of destiny, restoring and extending the importance to the region that existed in earlier times, (2) an openness to outsiders as befits a global society and (3) the resources and wherewithal to accomplish the goals of the grand strategy. As the plan’s preamble states, the nation “aims to be an advanced society capable of sustaining its development and providing a high standard of living for all of its people.” This National Vision is linked to four pillars that define and encourage:

  • economic development
  • human development
  • social development and
  • environmental development

Drilling down there are specific and evolving strategies and development plans intent on realizing and fulfilling a dream—and hopefully a reality. Both the overall plan and each of its specific areas of implementation cries out for a rigorous communications strategy to achieve its goals.

Inasmuch as public communication requires considerable background and the best intelligence, the Qatar plan which is harnessed to a National Research Strategy backed by a commitment to devote 2.8% of the GDP to that end is especially heartening. That opens the door for specific support for programs of public communication in each of the arenas designated to:

  • develop the capabilities of Qatar’s people and institutions;
  • build and maintain a competitive and diversified economy;
  • improve health and social wellbeing of Qatar’s population;
  • support Qatar’s distinctive culture and security of its people; and preserve and improve the national and built environment.

The challenge for public communication in each of these areas—and others—is to:

  • Create a communications program beginning with a conceptual map that scopes out the territory from the National Vision to each of its development pillars, sometimes in great and finite detail;
  • Promote and insist on greater transparency in all sectors than presently exists since transparency is the linchpin to trust and effective acceptance of communication in all forms;
  • Find ways of project creativity and imaginative images and messages that capture and describe in human terms the goals and purposes as well as their implications for the nation, specific communities of interest and ultimate stakeholders;
  • Fashion and implement a public communications general plan tied to continuity of messages and specific campaigns where useful and necessary;
  • Identify communications media and platforms appropriate to the message to be communicated and the audience to be reached, ranging from traditional media to digital platforms, including social media;
  • Invite feedback and engage a national dialogue between individuals and institutions while also testing the effectiveness of messages through quantitative and qualitative means—as well as demonstrating that the feedback is being heard, considered and used where appropriate;
  • Reconsider, refresh and update the communication plan and strategy based on regular assessment and evaluation by demonstrating that no national vision or strategy succeeds without continuous public understanding and support; and
  • Conduct research to assess communications programs while developing new models to improve upon initial efforts.

To my knowledge Qatar’s National Vision does not yet have a well-articulated public communications program. This can be accomplished by convening a confederation of the various communications efforts already at work at the Qatar Foundation, in ministries of government, leading businesses, universities and other enterprises. This would benefit by having national leadership blending public and private sector interests. This is better done by collaboration between and among the parties, rather than a centralized authority, which often hampers communication and diminishes trust. That trust can only be achieved by a transparent and well understood communications effort that is guided by principles of ethics and accountability. No matter what form of governance a country wishes to follow, its communications strategy needs to speak to and for its people. Thus each of the communicating entities ought to have considerable autonomy to pursue the interests of their enterprise and its stakeholders, but conscious of the national and public interest.

In few places in the world is pace of growth and development more robust than in the Gulf region—and ultimately, I believe its sustainability will be tied to its capacity to communicate to its own people, across the region and to the global community.