How do you undermine the Islamic State brand?

More than 700 Britons are believed to have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State, as the group employs ever more sophisticated methods to radicalise young people online. The Government is concerned that existing programmes to combat radicalisation are failing to provide a coherent alternative message to counter the extremists, and are allowing them the space to present themselves as successful.

Islamic State: Promoting propaganda online (Credit: Sebastien Salom-Gomis/SIPA/Rex)
Islamic State: Promoting propaganda online (Credit: Sebastien Salom-Gomis/SIPA/Rex)
A fresh approach is being considered by the Government, in which returning fighters, disillusioned by their experience, could be co-opted to provide a credible counter-narrative to extremism and PR could be a key plank of the new strategy.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman told PRWeek: "The UK is leading a comprehensive programme to undermine ISIL’s narrative and highlight the extreme brutality and criminality of this organisation. It is vital we expose the vast gap between ISIL’s propaganda and the harsh reality of life on the ground to those potentially vulnerable to recruitment."

Outlining the proposal at a counter-terrorism conference at London King’s College late last week, Dan Chugg, head of the Foreign Office’s ‘ISIL Task Force’, said one of the keys to defeating Islamic State was to undermine its "strong brand" and "cool" image.

[Islamic State has] got a strong brand and quite a strong narrative

 Dan Chugg, head of the Foreign Office’s ‘ISIL Task Force’
He said: "The secret of ISIL's success is its success. It has a strong brand and quite a strong narrative. We need to do what we can to make it seem less successful and, where it hasn't been successful, make it seem less cool... and explain the truth about what it really is."

PRWeek asked a panel of experts: What tools are needed to undermine a brand and how can they be applied to Islamic State?

Stephen Waddington
Stephen Waddington (pictured above), co-author of #Brand Vandals and chief engagement officer at Ketchum

Islamic State is emerging as a powerful global brand despite being a criminal enterprise and purveyor of brutality. It has achieved global media attention using consumer and corporate marketing tactics. These include branded products, celebrity figures, personalised advertising and social media. It is making full use of the range of social and traditional media. It has recognised that anyone can take aim at the reputation of a brand, government or organisation. Smartphones and the internet have become primary weaponry. These techniques play out every day. Social networks inform traditional news headlines on issues ranging from FIFA to fracking.

Trust, transparency and openness is the antidote to propaganda

Stephen Waddington, co-author of #Brand Vandals
The reality is that in 2015 there are few organisations that are able to deal with a social media onslaught. Many remain focused on broadcasting content rather than engaging with their publics.

They aren't prepared for a network of activists, who can use speed and direct engagement as brand vandal weaponry. The big challenge in confronting Islamic State is that it propagates an alternate belief system. It’s an ideology where critics are enemies. Conflict fuels, and even promotes, the organisation.

Keeping the general public informed about Islamic State's actions can only go so far. Trust, transparency and openness is the antidote to propaganda. Avoiding difficult and complex conversations only galvanises Islamic State's cause.

There are two strategies to undermine Islamic State. First, the mainstream media needs reasons to call Islamic State to account and not just report on its actions. Second, an army of communicators needs to target those most at risk of radicalisation. Personalised discussions must take place to build trust and dissolve a sick belief system. Public relations at its best is a force for good. It can enable dialogue, rather than propaganda, between an organisation and its publics.

Aimee Anderson
Aimee Anderson (pictured above), head of brands at DDA PR

Let’s pull no punches: within the world of terrorism, Islamic State is the undoubted market leader. From obscure fringe group to front-page news, the group is a master of the language of propaganda – and swathes of impressionable youths are the target consumer. Once it was the humble war poster drawing teens to the cause (Uncle Sam’s pointed finger shouting ‘I Want You’). But now Islamic State understands that to connect with audiences emotionally, the images required today are invariably widescreen and Hollywood-born. It’s no surprise therefore that it has placed great stock in the big-budget development of recruitment films, glorifying violence with cinematic panache, and even appropriating images from Darren Aronofsky’s beautiful Noah into their newsletters.

Hollywood’s own recent dealings with the topic of terrorism often fall into the trap of underlining the very myths terrorists are so keen to promote. Take Oscar-winners Zero Dark Thirty or United 93: Brilliantly made, highly entertaining films – but doing little to lift the mystique, and truly undermine the sense that these attacks are perpetrated by a powerful, organised, underground force.

One film, one line, one image even, has the potential to bring its carefully cultivated image to the ground

Aimee Anderson, head of brands at DDA PR
To counter the dominant message of this market leader, a 'challenger' narrative needs to emerge. We need disrupters – Virgins and Red Bulls – with a toolbox of whip-smart, risk-taking alternatives to chip away and undermine its position of strength. Because, for all Islamic State’s work to date, the head of the pack is always vulnerable. The leader has it all to lose. And one film, one line, one image even, has the potential to bring its carefully cultivated image to the ground.

We need a challenger’s counterpunches: bold, reactive, outspoken, memorable images and narrative that hold the authority up to question and ridicule. And who better to help do this than Hollywood’s biggest comedians? Smart, big-screen satire is one hugely effective retort. The Interview paid a hefty price for its risk-taking, but ultimately had millions the world over asking questions about the North Korean regime. Team America skewered Bush and Rumsfeld’s post-9/11 foreign policy, taking on testosterone-filled gun-wielders and pompous actors in the process.

And the best response to modern terrorism yet: Four Lions. Chris Morris knew that nothing stripped away the mystique more than showing simple scenes of a bunch of wannabe jihadists shaking their heads at their own suicide video bloopers and arguing about Chicken Cottage. So let’s see more satire. And let Islamic State targets – young, tech-savvy, curious Britons – share this alternative narrative populated by clips and films on their social channels instead: spreading a dialogue of common laughter, not fear.

Tony Langham
Tony Langham (pictured above), chief executive of Lansons

Islamic State is successful because of the appeal of its ideals. It has to be defeated in battle but can’t be wiped out in battle. The way to undermine it is to show that our ideals are better. Western liberal capitalism succeeds when it offers people a better life. Islamic State will be defeated when the Islamic nation states offer their citizens better lives than a future under Islamic State. This means inclusive societies where everyone in the country has prospects. It means better education. It means better life and career prospects. And it means an Islam that is as clear and well defined as Islamic State. When ordinary life in countries like Egypt and Syria is both Islamic and attractive, Islamic State will fail.

Islamic State is more of a cause than a brand, and causes are stronger than brands.

Demonstrating that Islamic State’s actions are not delivering the promised results for their followers is crucial

Tony Langham, chief executive of Lansons
Causes lose momentum when they divert from their stated path or they are not felt – by their followers – to be true to their original purpose. Islamic State doesn’t look to be suffering a crisis of authenticity. Demonstrating that Islamic State’s actions are not delivering the promised results for its followers is crucial. The leaders of the Islamic world – Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia (and to a lesser extent Turkey) – are the front line against Islamic State. The Arab Spring showed the power of the people; that power needs to rise up, from the bottom, against ISIS. It can’t be led from the top. Islamic State’s ideals can only be rejected one person at a time across the Islamic world. This will take a generation and it needs to start now. But first, defeat Islamic State militarily to allow time for a second Arab Spring to flourish.

Chris Calland
Chris Calland (pictured above), senior account director at Hanover Communications
Islamic State demonstrably stands for an ideology. So while it is more than a brand – it is a movement like Bolshevism was – it undeniably has a strong narrative (no matter how twisted), which it is using as an effective recruiting sergeant. The best way to undermine a rival brand is not to simply attack it, but to convey the superiority of the values of your brand.

There are four elements to doing that. First, detailed audience research. It is not simply young people in the UK who are being radicalised by IS, but mostly young people from particular communities. Understanding their likes, dislikes, grievances and prejudices is central to devising a counter-narrative that appeals to them.

Islamic State has been notorious in posting videos and images on YouTube and Twitter, so the counter-narrative needs to be highly visible there

Chris Calland, senior account director at Hanover Communications 
Second, the counter-narrative needs to be very clearly defined and framed in a way that resonates with the target audience. As a comparison, the No campaign in the Scottish independence referendum didn’t bang on about the Union Jack and Rule Britannia. That’s because audience research showed that narrative was not enough to persuade people of the merits of the union. Instead a narrative about pooling risks and "the best of both worlds for Scotland" was crafted.

Third, competitor research – what content and channels is Islamic State using? That helps inform the ways in which the target audience need to be (and can be) reached. For example, Islamic State has been notorious in posting videos and images on YouTube and Twitter, so the counter-narrative needs to be highly visible there.

Finally, credible 'brand champions' against Islamic State should be recruited. That means people with whom the target audience have an affinity. Think again of the Scottish independence referendum – there was a reason that Southern, English, privately educated Conservatives did not front the No campaign, but look at how instrumental Gordon Brown was in the final stages.
Arlen Pettitt
Arlen Pettitt (pictured above), junior consultant at Linstock Communications

At its simplest, a brand is shorthand for a set of values designed to trigger an emotional response. A good brand sets the subject apart from its competitors. Think of Coke’s tagline – ‘The Real Thing’ – which shouts that everything else is a pale imitation. The scenario a brand wants to avoid at all costs is its audience realising the values aren’t authentic, and that competitors do the job better.

So if you were going to undermine a brand, how would you do it? Exposure. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. You don’t want to see how the sausage is made. Never meet your heroes.

To pick apart the inner workings of Islamic State and its ideology suggests the need for a credible expert on Islam – a voice that will be credible with the young people being targeted – to take the shine off

Arlen Pettitt, junior consultant at Linstock Communications
These clichés are clichés for a reason – the longer we look at something, the more imperfections we see, and the less our imagined ideal stacks up. If a brand’s values break down, the door is open for alternatives. To interrupt the radicalisation process, inconsistencies in the brand offering need to be exposed.

To pick apart the inner workings of Islamic State and its ideology suggests the need for a credible expert on Islam – a voice that will be credible with the young people being targeted – to take the shine off. But it also suggests a role for NGOs and charities, which have done a good job of drawing attention to the acts committed by Islamic State, to speak up when those acts contradict their core ethos.

By exposing these inconsistencies, and encouraging young people to dig below the surface, the brand promise begins to dissolve. If we accept that the young people being targeted are inherently good people, then as the brand dissolves the appeal lessens. If the cause that young people believe they are joining appears less watertight, associating with it becomes less attractive.

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