Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Military Perception Management: Not As Easy As It Looks

For those of you who read the blog regularly, my apologies for not posting in a while. Frankly I’ve been on vacation in Yellowstone and Idaho and didn’t even check e-mail for a week! I’ve found that unplugging is a productive mental health technique.

Like many of you I’m engaged in a number of on-line groups. One of my groups raised the issue of the military’s need to include ‘media manipulation’ as part of its planning. The author went on to say that the military needed to be more aggressive in developing and maintaining a positive image in the media.
Since this touched upon a number of points I’ve made in previous posts, I’ve adapted my response here.

Commercial organizations recognize the importance of perception management by funding PR, marketing and government relations. PR is the company's voice to the media, marketing provides a range of services designed to influence decision makers and government relations is a conduit of information from the company to the government. Stated differently, PR influences the media and marketing influences the customer and customer organizations.

All of these entities are driven by the goals set by management and approved by the board of directors.
Presumably there is a top level company strategy that clearly states revenue and profit goals and is focused on increasing the value of the company's worth (its shares of stock).The military does not have the same coherence.

While there is a National Strategy for Public Diplomacy, there is no comparable overarching strategy for perception of cabinet departments (beyond Dept of State) or for the government as a whole.Furthermore, there are legal bounds that the military cannot cross - PSYOP cannot be conducted domestically for example.

Another key difference is that the media is positioned to be a counter balance to the military because doing so helps them achieve their corporate goals and gives their platform more credence to their audiences who are pre-conditioned for anti military views.
When you take all of this into consideration, the DoD needs to develop a 'corporate' strategy that can be approved by the POTUS and that serves to guide PAO and other actions.

The point about access is a good one and the embedding strategy for reporters is one that seems to have been a good one in granting access that leads to positive results.
Recognize that like many multi-national organizations, DoD is made up of a large number of often conflicting parts (e.g. services) that have their own influence to peddle as witnesses by the recent stories concerning the Air Force's alleged used of recruiting commercials for "Cyber Warriors" as a means, not to increase recruits, but to enhance their competitive position with respect to budget dollars.


Jeff said...

One thing that bothers me about the corporate analogy. You point out that within corporations:

"All of these entities are driven by the goals set by management and approved by the board of directors. Presumably there is a top level company strategy that clearly states revenue and profit goals and is focused on increasing the value of the company's worth (its shares of stock).The military does not have the same coherence."

Corporations work for their owners or shareholders. Any attempts to influence the public via media manipulation is done for the sake of owner profit. The military, on the other hand, in theory works for the people. So when the government manipulates the public through the media, it is doing this, theoretically, on their own behalf. I think we can all agree that 99.99% of civilians would not want an organization that works for them manipulating them through the media. How do you reconcile this contradiction?

Lawrence Dietz said...

Thanks for the comment. I think the central issue may be where is the line between 'influence' and 'manipulate'? Manipulate has a negative connotation. In my opinion, even though the military works for the people, the organization has an obligation to maintain the value/image of its 'brand', consequently interaction with the media is vital to do so.

Jeff said...

I'm not sure the difference between the terms 'manipulate' and 'influence' is significant enough to obscure the larger issue at hand. I certainly appreciate the necessity of a military, and the subsequent necessity of the military informing its owners (civilians) about its activities.

However, its seems as if a symptom of an incredibly well functioning military (such as the United State's) is that it tends to want to maximize a full spectrum of capabilities - including media dominance. It is easy to sympathize with the military's desire to do a good job, especially as they are beginning to understand the strategic importance of the media.

My worry, however, is that in its desire to achieve cognitive dominance, the military may lose track of its mandate to work for Americans, and begin to treat them as targets.

I think the adoption of a corporate model does just this - it treats Americans as consumers, not owners. Do you think there can be a compromise that respects the rights of Americans not be influenced by an institution which they own, that still gives the military the ability to properly represent itself?

Lawrence Dietz said...


Your comment required some thought. First of all, the military doesn't work for the people per se, rather the Department of Defense is run by elected and appointed Civilans. The Constitution makes it clear that leadership is always pre-eminent. As for the contradiction you point out, it would seem to come down to (with apologies to President Clinton) what manipulate means. I think we can both agree that the military needs to be truthful with the media. However, there is nothing wrong with stating your case or position in the most positive way.

Over time the military has had a laudable record of lack of self-interest, perhaps 'manipulation' of the media comes from their lack of due diligence rather than the military's direct actions.

Jeff said...

I think you hit the mark by pointing out that the question comes down to what we consider 'manipulate' to mean.

This is something I would like to hear more PSYOP/IO people talk about. In the official literature surrounding PYSOP and PA there is no discussion about what sorts of things are and are not manipulative.

Instead we get terms defined after the fact, i.e. if something is done by a PAO it is not "manipulating", even if the same action in another situation might seem to be. It is, officially, not manipulation because it's done by a PAO, who, officially, do not manipulate the public.

I think rigorous definitions and guidelines for what counts as manipulation will help strengthen PSYOP (where manipulation is allowed) and also increase the integrity, credibility, and public confidence in PA.

I blog about these issues at

I am, I warn you, generally critical of IO, but with that said I understand that soft power is oftentimes much more preferable than kinetic operations. I'm mostly interested in striking a balance between the rights of people not to be manipulated by their own governments, and the understanding that good IO can prevent a lot fighting.