THURSDAY 20 NOV 2014 3:04 PM


In modern warfare, counterinsurgency theory dictates that success can be gained through winning the hearts and minds of a community or audience – a process which relies on building relationships with the right people to influence the public. In a less high-stakes setting, corporate communicators can be called upon to act in a similar fashion. Effective stakeholder relations relies upon understanding one’s audience, communicating with the right influencers – essentially, who people turn to for advice – in the right way and building relationships with the community to eventually change opinions.

The problem, however, in both waging counterinsurgency warfare and in digital communications lies in understanding one’s audience and how best to communicate with it. Such was the topic of today’s discussion, ‘Networks and Netwar: ISIS and social media’ at which data scientist and public diplomacy expert Ali Fisher discussed the online war against jihadism.

By understanding the types of conversations that discuss ISIS and who those who are speaking are, a schematic of the relationships within the community can be derived. This allows those who, in this case, wish to counter ISIS’ online jihadist messages to target key relationships or leaders within the conversation. In an article Fisher wrote for the Daily Beast, he says, “In countering violent extremists, deterring the least interested and laziest users might measurably reduce the number of followers, but it misses the wider point of any counter-strategy. The most committed – and thus, the most dangerous – remain.”

In the corporate setting, external communications can be approached from the same foundation. By studying online datasets, as Fisher has done with ISIS, companies can analyse the people or pages others recognise as important, those that are important to people within the network and have earned its respect and those who build bridges between particular communities. This can create a robust understanding of a company’s audience across platforms, sectors, regions and languages.

“It gives you the evidence base to be able to make those decisions,” Matthew Willis, partner at organiser Fourtold, a comms consultancy focusing on reputation and issues management, says of the usefulness of data-based understanding for proving the ROI of communications. He adds that a data approach can help companies better understand their brand’s reputation, communicate around issues as they arise and evaluate the effectiveness of their relationships and communications.

One attendee at the event questioned the ability of data to help in a crisis situation and while it is more difficult to evaluate data real-time, says Willis and Fisher, by identifying and building relationships with key influencers beforehand, it will be easier for communications teams to handle crises. Such is true in counterinsurgency warfare as well. Small units on the ground build relationships with key local leaders, which then can become valuable if an issue arises in the community.