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Mission: Block ISIS online propaganda; develop counter messages that resonate

The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.”  — Edward R. Murrow

There is arguably no more critical communication mission in the world today than countering ISIS online recruiting propaganda.

On Friday, President Obama announced an “overhaul”of U.S. efforts on this vexing challenge. The administration emphasized that it needs the help of leading technology companies to more effectively police their platforms. Top White House and national security officials flew to California Friday to make that case.

However, even with the ISIS existential threat to the U.S. and other countries, it is not an easy sell. Privacy, censorship — and, frankly, revenue — issues have confounded progress.

In reality, this communication technology, although vitally important, is only half of the task of countering ISIS propaganda. The other half is that a carefully-crafted message must be beamed proactively and continuously online — and via many other media   — to ISIS potential recruits around the world. It will be an arduous task, requiring the best thinking on how to change attitudes and generate favorable outcomes.

About a year ago, we suggested that “it is not hyperbolic to say that ISIS is … a public relations challenge in the literal and true sense of the term” [communication applied to relations between publics]. Although it would be the height of hubris to believe PR principles alone can turn the tide, they are certainly relevant.” This profession is now rooted in social science (including the new sub-discipline of applying “Big Data”) — broad and deep applied research on the development of attitudes and outcomes.

Of course to be successful, a communication program must be consistent with sound policy and performance. Here, geopolitical and military progress will be fundamental in confronting ISIS. But President Obama has reminded us of the importance of addressing motivation: “Ideologies are not defeated by guns; they are defeated by better ideas — a more attractive and compelling vision.”

Former top administration officials now working at prominent technology companies attended last week’s meetings focused on the online technology issues. But also needed: A parallel meeting with several top public relations professionals from companies, counseling firms or NGOs to integrate the latest thinking on the critical matter of messaging that, over time and with “on-the-ground” progress, could offset ISIS recruiting effectiveness. Leaders of public relations professional societies such as The Arthur Page Society and the Public Relations Society of America come to mind in this respect.

Too, it’s hoped that this new counter-ISIS-propaganda “overhaul” will cultivate a global network of governments and nongovernmental organizations to project similar messages. Top public relations professionals in organizations such as The Global Alliance For Public Relations and Communication Management can extend such global outreach. Another important outreach channel is the United Nations Business For Peace program now operating in conflict areas around the world.

Melanie R. Newman, Department of Justice  spokeswoman, said of the new U.S. communication thrust that we must “ensure we are bringing our best private and public sector thinking to combatting terrorism.”

The great national security need now is  continuous delivery of content that resonates with the intended recipients.

Many experts say that this — and, more generally, “telling America’s story to the world” –requires resurrection of the robust U.S. Information Agency of a bygone era. Desirable as this may be, the need is immediate as well as long term. Mr. Murrow — distinguished journalist and, in the latter part of his professional career, Director of USIA — gave us a potential framework for such messaging now and in the future:

“To be persuasive We must be believable;
to be believable We must be credible;
to be credible We must be truthful.”