FRIDAY 8 JUL 2016 10:31 AM


Awareness campaigns for NGOs plaster the public transport systems and NATO’s Twitter feed has over 365,000 followers. Army commanders and political leaders make the headlines of national newspapers and broadcasters report on the moves and changes in international relations.

Communications and media relations are of the utmost importance for organisations working in defence, diplomacy and development. They may be the only means of reaching the general public and building understanding about issues of international importance. This week’s conference at the London College of Communication, ‘Defence, Diplomacy & Development – (Re)Shaping Societies: Global Tasks for Public Relations in the 21st Century’ discussed the challenges and successes in this field.

Speakers from academia, communications practitioners and in-house communicators from NGOs and public organisations shared their research and expertise with their peers and the college’s PR students. Keynote speaker Ben Heap, media operations consultant for the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, said NATO’s role as a communicator is to show how the decision to use lethal force was determined. Its role as a supranational organisation formed of 28 nations means it must engage with the public in each country and worldwide to help people understand its own work and the conflicts in which it may operate.

For others, issues around public engagement are linked more closely to development and diplomacy, rather than defence. Eva Grosman, CEO at the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building in Northern Ireland talked about the Unite Against Hate organisation and its work in rebuilding civil society in the once-unequivocally divided nation. Through public relations and local stakeholder engagement, Northern Irish communities are now less prone to violence and divisive behaviours.

Others spoke of the Ukraine and the issues of reputation management on the part of Russia and the EU. Ashley PR founder and former CIPR president Sue Wolstenholme says counternarratives combatting the Russian influence in the Ukraine can use reputation as a weapon; by destroying Putin’s reputation, they can destroy Putin’s power.

Gareth Thompson, senior lecturer at LCC, applied this to the concept of a counternarrative against terrorism – a path the UK government and Foreign & Commonwealth Office has pursued in combatting domestic Islamist radicalisation. He said, “Terrorism is not only an event. Terrorism is a message.” Kate Ferguson, research associate at the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research at the University of East Anglia said counternarratives do not reduce the threat of radicalisation because they are not effective at targetting their audience nor can one single message combat the numerous messages used by the Islamic State to recruit. A more long-term focus on development through media relations and civil society is preferable, she said.

Jem Thomas, director of training and innovation at Albany Associates, a communications company that works in conflict and post-conflict zones, spoke further about narrative. He says communications is about understanding behaviours, finding intermediaries and influencers, engaging local media, and allowing local stakeholders to own the message themselves. Albany’s work in Somalia, among other places, has helped to rebuild a devastated civil society through local projects and communications that develops ties between people and groups. It acts to some extent as a communications version of the counterinsurgency theory of ‘winning hearts and minds.’

Finally, though, there is communications for development. Lawrence Parnell, from the George Washington University and former corporate communications professional talked about the diplomatic value of CSR. The U.S. government’s ACE Awards honour those companies – large and small – that act in a socially-responsible manner in developing nations and markets around the world. These companies are a benefit to the United States’ diplomatic mission in that they can develop relationships between locals and the U.S. through the work the companies do.

The jam-packed programme is only one of the conferences the London College of Communications runs throughout the year. For more information on upcoming events, email Simon Collister.