ANALYSIS: PROs can learn from army's psyops

The military campaign in Iraq may have ended, but the PR war for 'hearts and minds' is far from over. Chris Scott talks to 'psyops' expert Christopher Tanous about its ongoing relationship with the commercial PR world

Arguably the modern PR and marcoms industry wouldn't be what it is today if it were not for the propaganda tactics used by British and US forces in the two World Wars.

From World War II veteran David Ogilvy, who went on to enjoy massive success in advertising in the 1950s, to the current crop of in-house and consultancy reservists who make up part of the military's PR machine, the links between the realities of war and business are undeniable.

One such modern PRO with experience of both sides is IPR Marcoms Group chairman, and Lieutnant-Colonel in the Territorial Paras, Christopher Tanous,.

A veteran of the military PR operation during the Bosnian crisis, he is now an expert on 'psyops' - otherwise known as psychological operations in support of military goals - and earlier this month gave a lecture to IPR members on the subject.

Tanous, who advised on the marketing of radio stations in Bosnia and remains in close contact with colleagues who recently served in Iraq, says much of what is undertaken in military terms is undeniably comparable to the strategic planning of most PR campaigns.

'You have a string of target audiences, identify the key communicators and then manage the campaign down through 15 to 20 target audiences based around five or six long-term themes', although he emphasises the difference in subject matter by adding, 'such as land mine awareness'.

Tanous explains that, as was the case in Bosnia, the British military is currently operating radio stations in Iraq mainly to give basic information about where to get food and water, but also to reassure that the allies are working towards a stable government.

Clearly prevalent in Iraqi hearts and minds is the fear of a repeat of the anarchy that followed the immediate aftermath of the toppling of Saddam Hussain's regime.

But while there are clear differences in technique - how many PR firms can lay claim to running their own radio station or accessing a military aircraft for a leaflet drop? - the use of local communication is similar.

British military psyops produces its own monthly magazine, for example, and liaison with local journalists is in its infancy.

Tanous believes the lessons to be learnt by PROs from the work of psyops are principally in planning and strategy: 'Although consistency of message is often nodded to by those running non-military PR campaigns, it's not properly done and the military do it better.'

He says of military PR: 'Once a key theme, for example relating to availablity of food and water, is drawn up, it cannot be deviated from. All individual uses of it, whether in a radio broadcast or a leaflet, have to be checked at a very senior level.'

In Iraq, he adds, this process was helped by the presence of commanders at a local level - in Bosnia, Nato chiefs in Brussels often had to give final sign-off.

However, Tanous sees some developments in the civilian PR sphere that the military still needs to fully embrace, in particular regarding evaluation.

'It is something that is gradually being introduced in the military.

In Iraq, at the moment, a psychologist working for the British military is setting up focus groups as part of evaluation techniques to see how the PR effort is going. He is also developing long-term effectiveness assessment techniques to prove that psyops is working,' he reveals.

While he concedes the concept of focus groups in military PR in Iraq is 'extraordinary', he adds that it is a move in the right direction.

Perhaps the most significant lesson that can be taken from psyops lies in connecting with an audience whose lack of faith in the message communicated to them far exceeds that of even the most jaded UK consumer.

'You have to remember that, for years, the Iraqi people have been continually receiving propaganda from their government, including their celebrated information minister, and it takes some time for people to believe what you are telling them.'

How then, does that apply to civilian PR? 'Conceptually, you have to be sure that you can be credible and believable. It's fashionable these days to believe that companies don't tell the truth. But another major distinction is that the military is offering fresh food and water, which is very different from attempting to persuade someone to buy a new TV,' he adds.

While the work undertaken by psyops teams differs markedly from that of the average PRO, their shared heritage is still very much in evidence. Although embedding journalists with PR teams is unlikely to become commercial reality, the exchange of advances in techniques evidently offers benefits to both military and civilian comms campaigns.

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