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Disruptive by Design: Weaponize Public Affairs

By Maj. Brian Kerg, USMC

Joint doctrine emphasizes the importance of information operations (IO) in campaign planning and operational design. Information operations include many information-related capabilities, such as cyber operations, electromagnetic spectrum operations, special technical operations and others. But as the battle for the narrative becomes exponentially more important in an increasingly interconnected world, joint planners must re-examine how they employ one of the most neglected information-related capabilities—public affairs.

The IO savvy of the Islamic State, the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China and other adversaries testifies to the strategic power of a concerted IO campaign. And while IO is often centered on targeting enemy capabilities, it must not neglect the battle for the narrative. Central to the narrative is the ability of friendly military forces to not only tell their own story but to tell it in a way that commands the attention of audiences. The gravity of effective public affairs only increases as communications and social media technologies become more capable, robust and ubiquitous. To compete with adversary IO and to effectively disseminate the joint force’s narrative, the joint force must weaponize public affairs.   

Presently, public affairs is largely relegated to responding to requests for comment from the public, updating unit websites or writing for base newspapers. Most of the unit’s story that reaches the public is the result of journalists sending queries to units, which may eventually release a statement from the public affairs office after the commander finds time to approve it. Meanwhile, adversaries aggressively release information and stories that support their narrative, win international support, and ultimately influence audiences and decision makers to take actions that support adversary end states.

Some IO professionals contend that public affairs can do little else beyond its current role because it exists to release information to domestic audiences, and the U.S. military is lawfully precluded from overt attempts to influence domestic opinion. But this interpretation is deliberately limiting. Public affairs exists to tell the military story. If the truthful telling of that story can be integrated into campaign planning and execution, joint force commanders can turn the truth into a force multiplier. Public affairs can tell the truth faster than the enemy can lie, and in this way, support the mission while remaining within the boundaries of the law.

To achieve this, public affairs elements must be manned, trained and equipped to responsively and consistently propagate the joint force’s truthful narrative in any given security environment. The joint force’s operational narrative will be actively and aggressively disseminated to all viewers; rather than posting production material to the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS) and hoping that journalists pick it up, public affairs professionals will actively engage media outlets while also disseminating material on actively managed unit social media outlets. Public affairs stories will not only tell the joint force story to domestic audiences back home but also to international audiences, in turn buttressing the joint force’s IO campaign and influencing decision makers and audiences who might directly impact the area of operations.

To this end, the joint force will assume the enemy’s capability to record all joint force operations, their intent to manipulate such footage in the most condemning way possible and to disseminate this for consumption to the same audiences in a battle for the narrative. To circumvent this, public affairs will tell the truth and tell it first. Public affairs elements in the area of operations will actively record the joint force’s operational activities to provide the public affairs element with material that can be used to produce pieces that support the joint force’s narrative.

Such narratives will be created and disseminated as a matter of course, and not simply in response to adverse incidents. Public affairs will be as continuous as security, and the joint force narrative for both significant and routine operations should be distributed before adversaries have the opportunity to disseminate their own propaganda.

In effect, the joint force story will always be on the “front page” of today’s global paper, while the adversary’s story will be the follow-up published the next day on page 12.

Maj. Brian Kerg, USMC, is currently serving as the Fleet Amphibious Communications Officer, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. He is a nonresident fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity. Follow or contact him @BrianKerg.