John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Admiral Mullen and Strategic Communications

Posted on August 28, 2009
Admiral Mullen and Strategic Communications According to the New York Times, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen wrote a blistering memo about the U.S. government’s efforts to communicate to the Muslim world. In part, the memo said: “To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate,” Admiral Mullen wrote in the critique, an essay to be published Friday by Joint Force Quarterly, an official military journal. “I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all,” he wrote. “They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are.” Exactly. As somebody who worked in the communicating field in Congress for close to two decades, these words not only should be applied to the war in Afghanistan, but almost all policy fights. Frank Luntz has made a good living selling the theory that words matter more than actual policies when it comes to getting things done in Congress, but I have always believed that the American people are not nearly that stupid. People make their decisions based not only on the words spoken by politicians. I would argue that most people don’t actually believe most words spoken by most politicians. Instead, voters base their decisions about whether to support a certain policy or party more on history, archetypes, attitudes, and in the case of legislating, process, than the words spoken in a campaign event or floor speech. When President Bush tried to pass Social Security reform in his second term, he tried to use exactly the right words in the right way to communicate that he actually wanted to protect the retirement system. It didn’t work because of the GOP’s long antipathy to the program. The only way that Bush was going to get Social Security reform was with a bipartisan process, but when the Democrats decided to play politics on the issue, the effort died. Thus it is so with President Obama’s efforts to foist a public option on the American people. Obama has tried to word-smith this thing to make it as non-threatening as possible, but his efforts have failed. A solid majority of Americans believe that the President is trying to impose government-run health care. Why? Well, because that is what Democrats have tried to do for the last fifty years. The spinners might have thought that their clever wording of “public option” would fool the people, but they were wrong. Nobody was fooled. And if the American people didn’t want government-run health care in the aftermath of the Second World War, when they were pretty used to government telling them what to do, what makes you think they would want it now. The bottom line is this. Strategic communications is only useful in telling the truth about what you want to do. Spin doesn’t work in the long-term. What Admiral Mullen was saying was absolutely true. Unless we have policies that the vast majority of Afghanis will support, no amount of communications spin will get them to suddenly like us. My own personal opinion is that Afghanistan is unfixable. We certainly can’t fix it. If the Afghani people want to continue to live in the thirteenth century, there is not much we can do about it. And that is not spin. That’s just the way it is.