Psychological Warfare · Russia

Announcement of 77 Bde: how not to do comms


Chindits

Last week I twice published articles about the “Chindits”. Here and here.

Then a source told me that it was all ca-ca.  You know, a non-story.

I sat back and watched the Russians ‘flame on’ about UK psychological warfare in cyberspace, about terrorism in cyberspace and about an abuse of the Geneva Convention in cyberspace.  Sitting here, reading the Russians blathering on and knowing they were going to appear a wee bit foolish, okay a lot foolish, when the truth was exposed, gave me a little amusement.

Today someone published this wonderful little tidbit about how not to make an announcement.  How not to tell the world about an internal reorganization within a Psyop organization.  This story even caught fire within the Kremlin, for gosh sakes.

So… if Russia continues to blather, continues to go on about the Chindits or the 77th Brigade, let them.  Give them enough rope to hang themselves from the humiliation, now that the truth is known.

Thanks for the laugh, Russia, for once again over-reacting.  I owe you a wodka.


Background

Over the last weekend of January 2015, the UK media was awash with stories about a new “special social media propaganda unit” trained to use the “dark arts” of PSYOPS!

Soon the Twittersphere was rampant with stories of “special forces”, “unconventional tactics” and how the unit will tackle radicalisation of UK Muslims and conduct counter-propaganda against ISIL, al’Shabab and even the Russian campaign of disinformation in Ukraine.

Of course the truth is a far duller affair … the Army is bringing together into one organisation three existing capabilities; Civil Affairs (formerly CIMIC), Media Ops and PSYOPS, along with some other enablers. The idea of this unit was first announced as part of the Army 2020 restructuring and called the Security Assistance Group (SAG) — a working title.

A lot of work has been done in the last year to get “stakeholder buy-in” and many saw this approach as being the best way to corral these capabilities, manage the existing talent and start to make some headway in focusing UK information operations (also referred to information activities and outreach) to better support commanders during campaigns in a post-Afghanistan context.

However, what occurred over the weekend was an uncoordinated, poorly executed and ill-conceived announcement about a unit that will not be established until April. The result was utterly predictable to anyone who dared to give it an ounce of thought: The media’s selective hearing heard, “Social media … propaganda … psychological operations … new … special … brigade … like the Chindits!” The resulting ill-informed stories have done irreconcilable damage to a unit that has even yet to form up.

The Chindits they are not

Lessons

Plan, plan, plan! Firstly, understand the environment in which you intend to operate. Plan some more and engage with other organisations who already do this kind of work. Talk to those who count — the practitioners, experts and analysts. AND LISTEN TO THEM! Think about who may also be affected; the Chindits Veterans’ Association, maybe?

Write a comms plan — and stick to it! Clearly articulate your message (in simple English) and identify your target audiences. Ask yourself, “What effects am I trying to achieve?” and would the poor staff officer nominated with this task dare to write:

Audience: Politicians and Policy Makers

Effect: CONVINCE of the relevance of Army capabilities and ownership of information activities and outreach, in order to SHAPE opinions in the run-up to SDSR 15.

Secure the home bank. As soon as you know your new name, title or brand — own it! There are now a bagful of @77Brigade accounts on Twitter. No doubt most will in time become parody accounts, further undermining your ability to manoeuvre in the environment, or at worst be used for “false flag” operations.

Prepare your spokesman. If the communications plan calls for a senior officer to make an announcement, prep him thoroughly. For example:

“Sir here are some words and phrases your should avoid: propaganda, controlling the narrative, complexity … etc etc.”

If in doubt, have a prepared statement and be prepared for those difficult questions. But if your unique selling point (USP) is that you are a social media unit, announce it on Twitter. If Israel can declare war on Twitter, 77 Bde can prepare the ground by actually having an account, with a profile picture (not an egg!) and a “watch this space” tweet. Develop some anticipation and put your stake in the ground.

Launch it properly. The unit will be operational in April and the media and your audiences are now expecting to see 2,000 #TwitterTroops on parade, because a lazy journalist has Googled “How big is a Brigade?” and the organisation has failed to communicate that the unit is (at best effort and fully manned) only 455 strong! As an absolute minimum, the general’s announcement should have been accompanied by a press release.

Many will declare that “the press release is dead” but it remains the simplest way of ensure that what the journalists (ergo their readers, viewers and listeners — your audiences) receive is accurate. It should have outlined the capabilities, the units that now make up the new brigade and information about their roles. It can also explain why the Chindits badge was selected. This would have stopped the frenzy of speculation that ensued.

Don’t use someone else’s brand. The Chindits is a strong brand, founded in blood, sweat and toil in the Far East. Not something you would associate with a medium-scale headquarters of staff officers. Look at how the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) formulated their brand identity; not using the number 14, or the Recce Corps capbadge. As another example, 30 (IX) Commando RM has also brought together many of the same capabilities as 77 Bde from within 3 Cdo Bde.

Above all and here is the real lesson in all this…

ENGAGE!

No one from 77 Bde was available to comment. The conversation raged all weekend and by lunchtime on Monday was being rebroadcast in Portuguese, French, Russian, Arabic, Swedish and a multitude of other languages around the world. But no one from the unit, Force Troops Command, the Army or Defence said anything. Speculation was allowed to run riot.

An expert/officer did comment on the Radio 4 Today Programme. Had any analysis been conducted, it may have suggested that your key audiences do not listen to Radio 4 and were not out of bed when it aired. (Senior officers on the other hand…)

Third-order effects and unintended consequences

As a direct result of the failure to properly communicate the establishment of this new formation, failing to rebut the rampant speculation by “defence journalists” who should know better and by failing to engage in meaningful two-way communication with audiences (including critics, detractors and conspiracy theorists) the following consequences have already been seen:

  • Hackers Anonymous declared ‘civil war’ against 77 Bde, saying they would target the unit and issued guidance on how to spot 77 Bde activities online and appropriate countermeasures (press the ‘block’ button)
  • George Galloway MP said that it was an insult to the memory of the original Chindits to use their name and badge
  • The Israeli Defence Force has also commented on the story, fuelling allegations and conspiracies of a US-backed Zionist plot
  • The forum ARRSE generated over 20 pages of comments in under 48 hours, not many of which put the unit in a good light
  • A mocking headline from academics at Kings College London, asked “Are there any in the British Army who know what Facebook is?”
  • Russia Today’s @InTheNow account posted the story and asked for comments, none were positive

And speculation, rumour and hearsay continue to dominate any mention of the new unit.

So what?

By not sticking to a simple UNDERSTAND-PLAN-CONDUCT-ANALYSIS framework, developing a well-written comms plan with a concise and effective ‘narrative’, 77 Brigade has already lost the first battle and will struggle to regain the operational advantage in the very operating space it was set up to dominate.

[Tactical Pause]

Meanwhile, other units and organisations continue to effectively operate within the information environment, using social media and other tools to shape perceptions and change behaviours and communicate the UK narrative. They are engaging effectively with target audiences and achieving operational successes that support the commanders’ intent, protect British interests at home and abroad.