Communications strategy lacking at MoD

At a meeting at yesterday, we were looking at the assessment tools for the Advanced Certificate and Diploma qualifications (as well as for a new Introductory Award pilot which will be launched soon).

One of the ideas proposed for the Diploma is to replace the “planning assignment” which is generally a campaign document with a strategic proposal or recommendation.

So I was interested to see, via PRWatch, reference to an article in last weekend’s Sunday Telegraph which contains a link to Ministry of Defence Communications Strategy said to be drawn up by Simon MacDowall, the MoD’s director general of media and communications (and I think, also the author of various military texts on the Romans) to “reduce the bureaucracy of the department’s public relations machine”.

Comment about the number of Press Officers (over 1000), their cost (guessed at £39m) and what they might be doing is interesting – but there is more to the full MoD document [PDF] than the headline outrage (which is understandable given concerns about the war in Iraq and lack of funding for essential troop equipment especially in Afghanistan).

From a public relations perspective, what strikes me is the lack of clear purpose, strategy and evaluation of the PR function.

This was apparent in the report into the HMS Cornwall incident known as the ““.  The report by aims to identify lessons for media handling and is very informative for PR practitioners.  One fascinating observation is that:

“Today, the public knows far more about the details of military operations and the thought processes behind them than at any point in the past. This greater level of openness and scrutiny has, to a large extent, been accepted by the MOD and Armed Forces as part of modern public accountability, but its consequences have not yet been fully worked through. Neither the Armed Forces, nor the MOD, nor the media would yet
regard today’s more accessible situation as optimal, but there has been some real, deliberate progress. Finding the correct balance between openness and operational and personal security is crucial, but that balance will always be dynamic and therefore requires constant, mature reflection by all involved.”

Recognition is also given to “the attitudes and approach of the media” particularly 24:7 coverage and online media behind the demand for exclusive, more “human interest”, sensationalist stories.  It also acknowledges changes in society with less deference to organisations and more opportunities for personal communications from “operational theatres”.

This all makes Simon MacDowall’s reflections on the PR operation even more important.  However, I’m not sure that he gets the point about how communications are changing as Tony Hall clear does. 

The Defence Communications Strategy aims to enhance the reputation of the Department and Armed Forces both internally and externally, through influencing the understanding, activity and perceptions of internal, domestic and international audiences.

The Sunday Telegraph felt the strategy supports “news management” and “spin” with an emphasis on using a “steady stream of positive stories” to “promote the MoD and Forces’ reputation and offset inevitable bad stories”.

I know the states that “public relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”

But, this bothers me in that some people seem to interpret this as meaning reputation is simply a matter of communications – particularly one-way dissemination of messages that “changes or reinforces beliefs and behaviour”.   Any feedback is sought simply for crisis management purposes.

I consider reputation to be what people say about you when you are not around.  Of course, if others perceive the MoD as having a reputation it doesn’t deserve, then PR can devise strategies to help address the misperceptions.  Even then, it is vital to listen and understand, and be prepared to change, not simply to advocate a position that may not accurately reflect a reality.

If operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are not supported by the public – should public relations be used to change opinion?  Are people ignorant and open to influence, or do they have a right to hold different viewpoints?  Isn’t the MoD responsible to an elected government in a democratic country rather than existing to enforce a single worldview?

Criticism of the investment in public relations in public and private sector organisations can only be expected when it is seen to lack robust management and does not reflect best practice (that is flexibility and dialogue rather than “command and control”).

In fact, this is exactly the type of situation where I’d like to see a clear recommendation of a public relations strategy from Diploma students.   It is great to see public access to these documents which can be used in discussion and education too.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

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