Strategic Communications Defined

Posted on June 21, 2012 by Grupp Global

It has been said that “strategic communications” is used with such ubiquity that the term becomes almost meaningless.

Granted, the term has a wide range of definitions, influenced by personal and professional preferences, but the precise definition is less important than the concept, and calling it “meaningless” is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

What strategic communications is, what it includes, and what it accomplishes is a hot topic of discussion in myriad channels. I’m thrilled that in just three weeks, 140 people – fellow professionals all – have joined our new LinkedIn Group: National Summit on Strategic Communications. (Join us at

Strategic thinkers have touched on the concept of strategic communication and its value for centuries. Some 2,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher and strategist Sun Tzu, wrote:

“To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

A few years ago, the columnist Richard Halloran correctly observed that there should be no great mystery about strategic communications – or an unnecessarily complicated definition of it.

In short, he wrote, “strategic communications”

  • is a way of persuading other people to accept your ideas, policies, or courses of action
  • strategic communication means persuading allies and friends to stand with you
  • it means persuading neutrals to come over to your side (or at least stay neutral)
  • and in the best of all worlds, it means persuading adversaries that you do have the power and the will to prevail.


That simple definition seems to fit.

I also like how Professor Dennis Murphy of the Information in Warfare Group at the U.S. Army War College, says: “Strategic Communication is simply a way to affect perceptions, attitudes and beliefs of key audiences in support of objectives.”

He continues:   “Certainly, communication is very important in ultimately achieving those desired information effects. But how military operations are conducted also is a key component of strategic communication, since actions send very loud and clear messages.”

“Effective strategic communication requires an organizational culture attuned to the information environment and recognition that strategic communication … consists of many capabilities that are an integral part of the commander’s arsenal” (or a CEO’s toolkit).”

“Staff expertise may be available to support these efforts,” but “trained staff is less important than a unit culture where the commander” (or CEO) “both recognizes what strategic communication is (and isn’t) … and emphasizes strategic communication as important to successful … operations.”

Christopher Paul of the Rand Corporation believes that definitions must respect what he calls “the unassailable core” of strategic communication. In testimony before a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, he suggested that the first part of the unassailable core of strategic communication is the fundamental belief that it is important to attempt to inform, influence, and persuade in pursuit of your objectives. (Yes, there are those among us who assail the concept of “influence.”)

Second, it is critical both that your objectives be clear and that the desired effect sought through communication be clear. Vague goals – whether they be military, government or corporate – do not imply any observable or measureable indicators of progress or value.

Third, actions speak louder than words. This truism is absolutely central to an effective strategic communication construct. Strategic communication that includes only traditional communication, such as messaging, press releases, media relations and the like, or even the new social media, is all but doomed to fail.

The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs – Admiral Mike Mullen, in a 2008 critique of the U.S. government’s approach to winning hearts and minds – rather famously suggested that … “It is time to take a harder look at “strategic communication.”

“Frankly,” Admiral Mullen said, “I don’t care for the term. We get too hung up on that word, strategic. If we’ve learned nothing else … it should be that the lines between strategic, operational, and tactical are blurred beyond distinction. This is particularly true in the world of communication.”

…and this is his important point…

“Beyond the term itself, I believe we have walked away from the original intent of strategic communications. By organizing to it — creating whole structures around it — we have allowed strategic communication to become a thing instead of a process, an abstract thought, instead of a way of thinking.”

“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.”

I like a definition that connects influence and advocacy with clear objectives and action. This is a definition that speaks to what we who practice strategic communications have in common, whether we work in the military, in private sector companies or in government agencies.

What do you think?



Leave a Reply