For all the talk of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s warfighting capabilities, the fact remains that for the majority of her service life, she will be a tool of influence, not one of direct action. In this article, Tom Sharpe looks at how this deployment should be communicated so as to maximise its effect.
On 4 January, the UK’s Carrier Strike Group (CSG), and its flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth, reached Initial Operating Capability, an important milestone in the development of a carrier strike capability and an essential precursor for their first operational deployment to the Indo-Pacific later this year. (I covered the reasons for deploying to this part of the world in a previous article for the excellent 9Dashline.)
Communications is a fascinating subject; after all, every one of us does it every day, but its ubiquity belies an underlying complexity. Often people think it’s straightforward and common sense. But how often does it go wrong on an individual level? How often is that Tweet misinterpreted or that email misunderstood? Scale that up to complex organisations operating in a geopolitical context and it is anything but simple.
‘Communications is the art and science of influencing the attitude and behaviour of stakeholders that matter most to your future strategic success.’ James Gater, Special Project Partners
The planning structure that works well for a proactive communications campaign for a deployment such as this is quite straightforward (but must be tackled in this order):
- What is the Objective – the outcomes desired from this deployment?
- Who are the Audiences that matter most to HMG and the Royal Navy?
- What is the Strategy; the ‘idea’ that brings these two together?
- Who are the messengers, what is the message, channel and context that will deliver (Implement) (each element of) the strategy?
- How should its success (or otherwise) be Scored so that the plan can be refined either as it goes along or for next time?
HMG themselves sum-up the above process with the acronym ‘OASIS’; and it makes for an excellent start. There are many ways to get communications wrong and one of the simplest is to skip the first two and jump straight to ‘I want this article in this outlet’ or ‘I’ll only engage with these national journalists’, missing the bit where you work out who you are trying to influence and to what end – which, if you believe the definition at the top, is the whole point of communications. I see this so often, both at home and abroad, I have given it a label – ‘the tyranny of the quick win’. Sometimes there is a valid reason to shout your message from the mountain top, but more often than not, in a congested operating space, convincing your selected target audiences (whilst ignoring those that matter least) is cheaper, more efficient and more effective.
Let’s assume that for this deployment, the OASIS system is used. Even at line one, ‘what are the objectives of this deployment?’ there is complexity. Here is a list of organisations and people who will have a view on that:
|(1) Policy||(2) Pol/Mil||(3) Navy||(4) Defence||(5) Allied|
|No 10||MoD Comms||1SL||Joint HQ||NATO|
|FCO||Mil Strat Comms||RN Comms||UK HQ Bahrain||US Navy/USMC|
|SecDef||Com Strike Group||Info ops||Regional Allies|
|Defence Ministers||HMS QE||RAF||Other Allies|
What is the likelihood of this group being aligned on what the objectives of the deployment are even from an operational perspective, much less a communications one? And who amongst them has the authority to define which it is to be? Arguably that job falls to No 10, but they’re quite busy right now. Below that, it gets muddy…and competitive.
Next we have the audiences. Doctrinally, you want to reach the part of the distribution that matters most to your future strategic success. Trying to convince Sir Max Hastings ‘we don’t need carriers or even a navy’ group, or indeed adding ammunition to Richard Kemp’s ‘let’s go there and blow them all out of the water’ cabal, is probably wasted effort (although worth noting that many campaigns can and should have individuals as a target audience). With this in mind, I’ve had a go at who I think should be on the list, noting that this kind of work should really be the product of weeks of detailed analysis, ideally involving everyone in the table above:
|(a) UK Domestic||(b) Allies||(c) Potential Adversaries|
|Opinion Leaders||5 Eyes||Russia|
|Key Defence Commentators||US (POTUS, VP, DefSec)||Iran|
|Defence diaspora||Japan||North Korea|
|Other Indo-Pac countries|
Clearly, any communication plan would carefully define who exactly is meant by each of these groups, however, brevity must prevail here. Column (a) on its own raises some key issues. The first is that the priority UK target audience – decision-makers – also contains many of the key policymakers to the left of Table 1. The fact is that these often have competing agendas. How do you message them when they have their own messages? More on this below.
Opinion leaders are often overlooked as a group but they’re key; they influence the Decision Makers. Think tanks, focus groups and academics are part of this as are MilTwitter – a notoriously tough crowd in their own right!
Next come Key Defence Commentators, which include specialist members of the media. With huge reach, they should be considered both a target audience in their own right as well as an effective channel to and from the decision-makers. Above all others, this audience consumes the attention and resource of the MOD. Compared to say the US, UK political (and centralised) control of defence messaging is aggressive. This can overspill, particularly when it slows the whole process to the point where opportunities are missed. Attempting to embargo a key announcement on the Joint Strike Fighter for five days was a great example of this and besides, the press broke the embargo anyway, not unreasonably. But that’s where we are today and whoever is planning for this deployment will need to keep that in mind.
Fourth is defence diaspora, important because they too influence the decision-makers, or so the theory goes. Only then do we come to those that pay for the whole affair. Clearly, a key audience in their own right who, faced with a barrage of competing voices, deserve clear, factual communications. Logically, if communications with the smaller, more challenging (and more directly influential) audiences above get done well, then Taxpayers will benefit from a carefully curated stream of content to ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ with abandon.
I think that the ‘Allies’ and ‘Potential adversaries’ columns probably deserve a blog of their own, but for now, I’m going to duck out just by asking you to imagine how hard it would be to identify in detail, reach and then influence with these groups efficiently and effectively. Add to that the group in Column C not only has their own voice but also total control over their channels, which makes them rather good at it.
The size and length of this deployment mean that the communications strategy will need to be carefully subdivided. The Narrative, which should sit at the top of this section, will bracket the whole thing but the subordinate key messages will need to be split into key phases and regions: passage/workup, Med, Gulf, India, Japan, Korea and Singapore would be where I would start. Key Messages are fundamental because they provide consistency of both message and tone and, critically, can be pre-agreed and therefore used quickly without fear of misspeaking. They should be sufficient in number and complexity to that they don’t become a slogan or the object of derision, i.e. not three words…
The Group Commander’s tweet at IOC certainly looked like the start of this:
- UK no longer dependant on allies for the delivery of carrier born aviation
- The group is now at very high readiness (5 Days) to deploy
- First deployment of a QE class carrier
- Largest peacetime RN group in 25 years
- Proof of UK commitment to global security
- Visible demonstration of Global Britain
- IOC is just the start
I would be surprised if 1, 2 and a merge of 5 and 6 aren’t in there somewhere when the plan is finished.
There will also need to be ‘Lines to Take’ for the whole deployment, and for each phase, to deal with emerging issues. Drafting these is both fun and demanding as seniors need to be challenged by all sorts of scenarios, from a ship being unable to sail, equipment not being ready (from a Diesel Generator to an F35 to an entire capability such as Crowsnest), an accident or collision, an operational delay in The Gulf or the PLAN posturing in close proximity (or worse) and, of course, Covid. The issue here is getting the right seniors around the table to thrash out these various gloomy scenarios and agree on the line before it’s required.
Thereafter, you’re into chopping it up into sections for delivery. Each subsection needs a Messenger (see Table 1), a Message (see Key Messages), a Channel (i.e. broadcast, digital, press release etc) and a Context in which the communications themselves will occur (which will often determine the other three). This part of the plan is large…
The final part of the plan is a robust series of measures to ensure that the success, or otherwise, of the messaging is being constantly analysed such that the plan can be updated as the deployment progresses. This needs to be rigorously quantitative. Using a Tweet as an example, the number of impressions or even likes is largely irrelevant. Who interacted with it and better still, has their opinion been changed by it (and how) is key. This type of research, insight and evaluation is time-consuming but the alternative is to fall into the trap that ‘reach = success’.
Where are we now?
If one takes the announcements so far, it is clear that a pan-Whitehall communications plan is not yet in place.
Gavin Williamson first mooted the deployment’s destination in February 2019 and then quickly had to defend it as the Chinese cancelled trade talks in response.
All went quiet until the Fleet Commander told the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) last summer that the CSG was going to the Indo-pacific. The jury is still out as to whether this announcement was planned or not. The gagging order placed by the Defence Secretary on the First Sea Lord shortly afterwards suggests probably not.
The autumn then saw various Whitehall discussions about it which started to suggest it was formalised including in the House of Lords on 4 November, by the PM in the multiyear settlement and by Stephen Lovegrove in the House of Commons Defence Committee.
As we move into 2021, things are picking up, with the IOC announcement on 4 Jan quickly followed by a thread from the Commander of the Group. Yesterday came the announcement that the US Navy will be joining the group. Interest will increase from now on and if ‘the system’ doesn’t fill the vacuum, others will. The Sun ran a piece on 7 Jan suggesting that the RN might end up forward basing in Japan. If true, that is huge, so where was the release of this information in the plan?
The MoD will certainly have convened a policy group by now to work on this deployment and try and bring in all the strands. Of course, the best communications plans are worked up lock-step with the operational plans and one senses there is already a lag. However, to mitigate this you have to navigate a web of operator and communicator, classified and unclassified and dare I say it, political, military and civilian divides. Not easy.
Politics and priorities
It’s worth noting where this deployment will sit in various in-trays. To the Royal Navy, it will be the most significant event of the year bar none. To Defence it will be important, particularly given its proximity to the Integrated Review, although don’t think for one minute that everyone in Defence will be behind it; they will not. To senior politicians, it will provide the perfect backdrop for general post Brexit messaging and also focussed messaging in the various countries and regions it visits. Nothing says you mean business quite like the photo on 65,000 tons of sovereign territory. But for much of the time, at that level, it will go unnoticed until something goes wrong then, heaven help anyone who gets in the way.
Other countries will be interested. The US Navy has for years been looking to allies to support with its stretched carrier fleet operations, a calling answered often only by the excellent-if-expensive FS Charles De Gaulle. The USN runs a tight ship when it comes to communicating the right to ‘freedom of manoeuvre’, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, and will be very keen to join up any messaging that comes from the UK doing the same, both bilaterally and as NATO. CNN have already started, “UK says aircraft carrier strike group is ready to deploy. China’s already watching.” Other navies and countries in the region will take particular notice, especially those sending ships to join the task group at various stages.
How interested will China be? My take is very…whilst pretending not to be. The Mil Strat Effects (MSE) team in the MoD will be all over what their responses to the different stages of the deployment might be. There is a document called a StratCom Actions and Effects Framework (SCAEF) that they will have helped draft for this deployment. Converting this from its traditional near mythical status into heat and light for this deployment will be important. And a first.
I have an anecdote that sums much of this up – the ship of shame. In January 2017 the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov returned from conducting bombing missions in Syria to its base port in Russia. Escorted on the outbound leg the previous Autumn by a single Royal Navy destroyer, considerable operational effort went into ensuring this was upped for the return leg. Frigates, destroyers and much of the RAF were duly mobilised.
There is another discussion to be had about what appropriate means when escorting foreign warships past the UK but what everyone (in Table 1 above) was in agreement with, was that the communications element should be downplayed. NATO, the Navy, MSE, FCO all agreed that there was really no need to fuel the Russian propaganda machine and that it should just quietly sail on by. Everyone bar one person: the then Secretary of State. Unilaterally, he declared with a loud voice that he wanted it to be called the ‘ship of shame’ and ‘sent home with its tail between its legs’. At that point, either no one was able to, or had the courage to, talk him down.
My point here is not to argue who was right or wrong in this instance, simply to point out that you can have all the plans in the world, but if a political agenda is at play in Whitehall then your timing will be thrown out and most likely your effect will be reduced.
There is a sub-story to this. The above picture was chosen by many outlets including The Telegraph, the preferred paper of the then SofS. My phone on the Navy desk in the MOD press office duly sprung into life as seemingly half the Naval Service rang to give me their displeasure at having allowed the picture without the RN ships in it to make the press. Out of interest, I rang my friend (who happens to be the picture editor of the Telegraph) to ask him why they chose that one, “because it’s a better picture” he said. So there we are.
Back to the more serious business of inter-ministry politics occasionally hampering sequenced communications. A more recent example saw a respected UK journalist, in Bahrain, reporting ongoing Royal Navy operational activity from the flight deck of a US warship, because she was forbidden from stepping onboard a RN ship.
One couldn’t pick a stronger tide to swim against right now than suggesting that the current centralisation of communications should be relaxed. Only a few months ago, the desire to bring communications under one roof was so strong it challenged whether separate ministries even needed their own communications departments at all. Although those personalities have largely moved on now, it is still the case that political control of even the most tactical military communications often resides with SofS in person (or their SPAD). I’m not suggesting that anyone is ready for a US style freedom of manoeuvre (although I do admire it) however, I do believe that if all opportunities are to be exploited, what is required are suitably empowered experts (not advisors) who can operate within clearly defined parameters. Historically, RN Captains have had rather more freedom to operate multi-million pound weapons systems than they have their own Twitter account. Why are they utterly trusted to do one and not the other?
If one drew a line from ‘state control’ to ‘free for all’ and had to place an arrow where UK military communications lies then, in my view, it should be nudged right for this deployment. However, I also know a lot of people who couldn’t disagree more.
Admiral Parry’s tweet and letter to the Telegraph of 1 January summaries this nicely: “In order to be Global Maritime Britain and the leading maritime power in Europe, the UK needs to employ our @RoyalNavy carriers and their air power in strategically literate and innovative ways.”
To be ‘literate and innovative’ they will need clear and succinct objectives that have been agreed across-Whitehall and are coherent for both operations and communications. Audience analysis will need to be conducted, refined, tested and refined again. A nuanced and phased strategy will need to generate sharp yet adaptable content that will bring these two together. An implementation plan that makes full use of all channels, not just the favoured few, is then required which must be flexible enough to withstand change and robust enough to defend against criticism, foreign and domestic. Finally, a system of measuring this is needed that is both honestly reported and then faithfully acted upon.
At some stage high-level politics will drive a bus through some, or all of the plan – those are the perks of communicating in a democracy. However, the plan does still need to be there if as many people as possible are to be influenced by this deployment which is, after all, the whole point.
Commander Tom Sharpe, OBE RN (Retd) spent 27 years in the Royal Navy, 20 of which were at sea. He commanded four different warships; Northern Ireland patrol vessel, Fishery Protection, a Type 23 Frigate and the Ice Patrol Vessel, HMS Endurance.