How to communicate: Gillard should take a leaf out of Al Qaeda’s book

The way we communicate is changing and Al Qaeda have been ahead of the curve AFP PHOTO/DoD.

The nature of influence is changing, yet Governments, particularly in Australia have yet to absorb it. Influence is no longer wielded by pronouncements through traditional media sources. New media has now taken hold.

The strategic interests of Australia could depend on embracing these new technologies. Other organisations like Al Qaeda have led the way, using new media to spread influence in the market of ideas. Unless governments, including the Gillard government, follow this example, they risk being left behind in the fight for influence.

Lack of trust in traditional media

Even before the widespread use of new media technologies, traditional media was already threatened.

As journalism standards eroded through cost-cutting, trustworthiness in them as a source of reliable information has declined. Mainstream media has been slow to reveal stories of government incompetence and now their entire ‘believability’ is at stake.

Audiences now demand the right to talk back, and be heard. They feel free to comment, investigate and challenge anything the traditional media reports, as well as flooding the Internet with their own material.

Social media sites have led the move to spurn top-down communication. This is where news organisations act as gatekeepers to information and presenting ‘information by appointment,’ such as the morning newspaper or the 6pm news bulletin.

People mistrust official announcements and are tired of spin. They can get all their information from the source and believe it is more reliable.

A third of the world is now online

Australians are amongst the most prolific new media consumers – the latest Nielsen survey showing that 34% of us now reach our media online as opposed to 23% each for radio and television.

And the picture for the rest of the world is even more dramatic.

A third of the world is online, that is over 2 billion people. More people on earth have mobile phones even though they do not have electricity in their homes. In two years, everyone of the 6 billion people in the world will have a mobile phone.

And the demographics are fast changing too. Nearly half of humanity is under 30 years of age and most of them are on the Internet. They disdain traditional media and challenge authority. This next generation:

• Value peer-peer networks

• Value activism

• Get their news from the internet alone

• Use social sites to influence each other

• Are on the threshold of becoming middle managers in the workforce

How do governments exert influence?

A new form of communication is starting to develop that takes this changing environment into account. It combines new media technologies with what is termed strategic communication.

Many folk talk about strategic communications, yet few understand it. At its core it is, as U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander Europe puts it: “to provide audiences with truthful and timely information that will influence them to support the objectives of the communicator. In addition to truthfulness and timeliness, the information must be delivered to the right audience in a precise way.”

For Governments to exert influence in this environment they must look beyond policy on the run. The principles of strategic communication are to first of all tap into the emotional intelligence and perceptions of audiences. Then to prepare messages that they will trust, backed up by solid evidentiary support and delivered by credible third party advocates.

The key to testing a message is enshrined in the question: “If I were the recipient of my message, would I believe me?” Sadly, it is a test and a process that is seldom employed. And yet Governments constantly wonder about why their messages do not resonate.

Al Qaeda’s success for hearts and minds

Perhaps the time has come to look beyond mainstream media and use strategic communications via new media technologies. The time has come to take a leaf out of the book of the one organisation which has had to take to the internet very early on, and which has had outstanding success in the selling of its message: Al Qaeda and its franchises.

Al Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalist organisations were early and quick embracers of the opportunities provided by the new media technologies as they were forced underground. Al Qaeda’s strategic leader Ayman al Zawahiri had quickly identified the ideological battle as being for ‘the hearts and minds of Muslims’. Their primary strategies were aimed at winning those hearts and minds.

They have a sophisticated video production and distribution house named As Sahab, and are connected to other terror networks via two other media production networks. They produced an online magazine justifying suicide bombing to mothers hesitant to allow their sons to become martyrs, quoting from religious sources. Sermons from what could be termed the cyber mosque crossed borders instantly to preach to their viewers on the Internet.

An e-magazine called the Technical Mujahid is their online military manual, with everything from how to use Microsoft movie editor, to how to make an improvised explosive device. A slick English-language magazine, Inspire, is designed to soften the image of Islamic insurgency in the West and act as a recruiting tool for potential ‘home-grown’ terrorists.

The Islamic fundamentalists on the Internet have understood the emotional fears of their audience (“Islam is Under Attack”), have created sophisticated messages to reinforce these fears, have enlisted the support of key ‘influencers’ on the internet and are using a multiple series of new media platforms to promote their policy.

Some Governments are changing tack

The key constants in the new media environment are the emergence of ‘the image as truth’, the creation of many more thought-leaders, the encouragement of interactivity and dialogue and the use of multiple languages.

Some governments have read these tea leaves and are trying to engage with international audiences. Already, we are seeing Governments acting as ‘enablers’ in this area, to gain trust and exert influence. In a keynote speech on Internet Freedom, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stated: “The Internet has become the public space of the 21st century—the world’s town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee house, and nightclub. We all shape and are shaped by what happens there. All two billion of us and counting.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has been a vigorous proponent of what she calls her Digital Engagement Teams and provided the top cover for the officials appointed by her as her first senior advisers for innovation.

They created the concept of ‘technical delegations’ - joint government and industry groups of experts, who travelled the world under State Department auspices, to try and provide good governance, using new media.

The U.K government has taken the lead in a number of ways – its Cabinet Office created www.Data.gov.uk, as a space to share government data through and create innovative applications for the iphone.

In policy areas, the UK government have kicked things off with a number of different policy crowd-sourcing initiatives – opening up the policy-making. The first of these initiatives was the Your Freedom crowd-sourcing website.

We can’t be left behind

When the US state department starts direct messaging online in Arabic to protestors in Egypt clamouring for regime change, we need to sit up and take notice.

When that same department extends twittering in Persian when Iranian protestors follow Egypt’s example, we might glimpse that the nature of international diplomacy has a new finesse.

When the Chinese government spends vast amounts in Africa to set up communications infrastructure for dictators to flood the populace with their messages, public diplomacy has a new dimension.

China is also offering this same region a propaganda-free news service, at a vastly cheaper cost than traditional Western news services. This is a sign of soft power and strategic influence are now going online.

Gillard needs to learn how to communicate

All this is a long way from a few Australian politicians dipping a cautious toe in the water by opening a Twitter account. While the Internet in India was ablaze with stories about alleged racism in Australia over the attacks on Indian students, Australia was busy trying to send ineffective messages through VIP visits and invitations to print journalists to promote the Government’s views.

There was no online interactivity, no attempt to engage in the languages of the subcontinent, and little understanding of where key allies in the subcontinent could be enlisted. This scenario is repeated when we see the attempts at communicating the Government’s refugee policy to Malaysia, the attempt to secure a seat at the UN Security Council and indeed promote its views on climate change.

“If this Government had a duck, it would drown”.

When Phillip Coorey wrote the above words in the Sydney Morning Herald, he was reflecting on the inability of the Gillard Government to sell its policies. The Government is now embarking on a $12 million advertising blitz we are told, to try and sell its carbon tax.

Yet, an analysis of Government policies which have stumbled, from the BER, to the pink batts issues, through set top boxes for pensioners and refugee solutions, to the forthcoming battle over coal-seam gas, shows an apparent neglect of one of the most powerful tools of exerting influence – strategic communications in the new media environment.

Prakash Mirchandani is the author of “Reporting War, Waging Peace – The impact of New Media technologies