What the Information Operations community can learn from Hollywood

Contributor:  The Platform
Posted:  05/26/2015  12:00:00 AM EDT
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“You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality” - Walt Disney.


As far as I know, Walt Disney isn’t often cited in articles about information operations, but, having borrowed the anthem of the Seven Dwarves for the title of my article, it seemed but a short hop to allude to the sentiments of their creator. However, there’s editorial method in the madness.

Politicians, soldiers, strategists, advertising agencies and PR men are all adept at conjuring compelling visions of utopia – or at least peace and prosperity – for afflicted societies. But, as Walt Disney said, ‘it takes people to make the dream a reality’. Beyond the world of cartoons and magic kingdoms, the same is true. Ordinary people are the real agents of change, and information operations are intended to help inform, influence and inspire those people toward making the decisions and adopting the behaviours that ensure the dream becomes a reality.

To talk of ‘dreams’ may imply something fantastical or ostentatious, but in the stressed territories where information operations are often applied, people’s dreams are surprisingly modest: peace, security, a job, a future. Very few people in the world do not share this basic suite of ambitions, and information operations can exert great emotional power when acting upon these desires. 

My interest in influence operations is as a practitioner. However, I’m not a soldier, civil servant or academic, though I’ve worked alongside all of those groups. I’m part of a small coterie of professional people whose impact upon information operations is often taken for granted, but whose direct influence is out of all proportion to their number and status.

As a television producer/director, I and my colleagues interpret strategic intent and bring it to life. Without producers, directors, editors, cameramen and sound recordists, the campaigns and strategies, however eloquently described and however persuasively sold, remain confined to the gaudy realm of the Powerpoint presentation. This is not to downplay the role of the strategist, campaign manager or anyone else, but simply to highlight the importance of the television maker’s art in this field and to underline the point that upon the success or failure of the television product, may depend the success of the strategy.  The product itself, whether it be a short news feature, a youth entertainment programme or a full blown documentary, is the vital nexus between target audience and strategy. If the product fails, so does the strategy, and so does the effort to influence.

The purpose of this article is to explore influence operations from the standpoint of the IO Producer, giving an insight into what he/she does, and explaining why the right people with the right skills and experience are critical to the overall success or failure of any information operation, and, moreover, are vital to the future of IO.

In this article I intend to convey my own experience, instinct and conviction as someone who not only worked in prime-time broadcast television for over a decade, but who, in the last five years of concentrated activity, has written, produced or presided over somewhere between 750 and perhaps as many as 1000 television influence products across various territories and various genres. I hope this piece will be a valuable summary of lessons learned from the recent past and offer some bold propositions for the future.

In writing this piece, I want to assert some of the principles I apply in creating IO products. I should say at the outset, 99% of my experience is in creating ‘un-attributable’ television products, and therefore the particular nuances of that field inform this article. My IO experience is in ENG (essentially, short news features), documentary and youth entertainment, amongst other formats. I was never concerned with television commercials, and I’m not going to talk about written material or radio, though some of the same principles may overlap.

I should also add, the bulk of this very concentrated experience is drawn from operations in Iraq, participating in an influence campaign that it’s now rather fashionable to dismiss. Some of those who dismiss it are not perhaps acquainted with the intense daily activities of certain organisations, nor aware of the sophistication of some of the work or the innovation, let alone the products themselves. Whilse I certainly agree it’s all up for serious review and I would still passionately critique the flaws that I critiqued while I was actually working in Iraq, I would be very cautious about promoting a wholesale dismissal of the advances made and the lessons learnt. Moreover, I would suggest the institutional knowledge gained in Iraq is invaluable.

In my opinion, there are some critical foundations to any IO product:

1.     Firstly, whatever the message and whatever the intent, the product’s primary challenge is to succeed as a piece of engaging and entertaining television. The clarity and persuasiveness of any strategic message contained in the piece is irredeemably compromised - if not totally lost - if the product doesn’t grab the audience. Failure is assured just as certainly as if one scribbled a vital message and entrusted it to a dead carrier pigeon.

The role of the television professional is to capture the audience’s attention and hold it, using all the skills of his craft. Not only does he interpret the strategy and breathe life into it, he provides the vital sugar that helps the medicine go down. This is why, in my opinion, you can’t make successful IO unless you can make decent television.

2.     IO products should aspire to compete with the best quality broadcast television, even if they are un-attributable.

I recognise that this assertion will seem counter-intuitive to some readers, because it’s often contested that an un-attributable product should appear similar to locally produced programming in order not to appear conspicuous. That’s often interpreted to mean it should look a little amateurish or home-spun. If the product is to deploy on social media and needs to look, ‘user generated’, that might be a consideration. However, I’d balance this concern about attribution - about products looking ‘too good’ - with a couple of thoughts.

Firstly, this notion has sometimes been employed cynically to excuse poor quality IO. That’s not what the client pays for.

Further, it’s folly to assume that all ‘foreign telly’ looks like Borat. It doesn’t. Particularly in the Middle East, high-quality production values are appreciated and frequently seen (editorial or journalistic issues are another dimension, but let’s confine ourselves to aesthetics for the time being). Secondly, to sustain the Middle East example, the demographic of the media industries there reflect the general demographics across the region. The Arab TV industry is young, comfortable with technology, multi-skilled, eager to learn and progressive. The TV industry in the Middle East is also influenced by the West - indeed a good many Western media professionals work in these industries now and standards are dramatically improving. Self-taught citizen journalists are moving into the mainstream media, being exposed to new technology and software, mastering it and seeking to excel. It would be complacent to assume that average work will continue to pass muster.

However, aside from professional pride, the overriding reason for making the best television we can possibly make, coincides with point one. It has to be judged at face value: It has to work as good television first. Bad or amateurish television doesn’t suddenly ‘work’ because it’s inconspicuous amongst the local programming. It simply means that it’s not only bad television, it’s bad IO too. My personal opinion is that if a product succeeds as a piece of television, the attribution will be of secondary relevance to the audience - it’s the Trojan Horse effect. The audience is too busy consuming the narrative to consider where the message comes from. This is predicated, of course, on the assumption that the message is discreet, and based upon what is reasonable and logical, because though people might repudiate a message because of its assumed source, they can’t generally repudiate logic forever.  

3.     Having talked quality, it’s time to consider quantity, and this section assumes a broad, large-scale television campaign. The available funding and the capacity to carpet-bomb an audience with IO products might appear a desirable situation, but if the ‘drumbeat’ becomes a cacophony, problems emerge.

As a member of the IO community, and moreover, as someone with a mortgage, expressing this caveat might appear fatal to the fortunes of the industry. However, whilse volume might swell corporate coffers in the short term, increasing output in a given theatre of operations inevitably diminishes returns, particularly where one or two formats are relied upon disproportionately and become conspicuous.

Increased volume creates a necessity for increasing numbers of conduits. Products need to be deployed, and in most territories, there are a limited number of viable broadcasters that cater to the particular target audiences. Over time, and relative to the quality, quantity and subtlety of products, the major domestic broadcasters’ desire to deploy material inevitably drops off. But, if the big boys won’t play, smaller channels will.

Minor channels, devoid of serious audiences and consequently strapped for cash, will deploy IO products. Presumably, some of these minor channels exist only to deploy IO products. They become a conduit not only for ENGs, but for regular transfusions of life-giving IO Dollars. As deployment of IO products become the major revenue for the channel and more and more jostle for space on the same channels, so audiences drop off even further, and the IO deployed becomes increasingly worthless. In these circumstances, IO merely props up failing channels and distorts the market.

As a wry footnote to this proposition, I recall watching a selection of minor Iraqi channels in around 2009-2010. It was a somewhat bleak epiphany. One channel’s output consisted almost entirely of back to back IO products, produced by various cells and exhibiting greater or lesser degrees of virtuosity. The IO products were interspersed with seemingly uncut footage of jubilant dancing sheikhs. I wondered at the time whether these frolicking Arabs might not have been the various channels’ owners, convening to celebrate the latest dollar bonanza. I hasten to add, that is no slur on them.

As an émigré from broadcast television, it would seem obvious to me to ask how many people were seeing the IO products I was making – indeed, that became a bitter obsession for me in Iraq. Arguments were advanced that the wafer thin slivers of the audience pie that represented the viewership of a considerable swathe of IO (mainly ENGs), was justified as it represented ‘key constituencies’. Above a certain threshold, there might have been some validity to this assertion. However, when certain broadcasters were offering a potential audience of 4% and less[1], it would have been a great deal cheaper to organise a key leader engagement and take enough baklava for everyone. Good products were the least that was being wasted.

In mainstream television, nothing matters more than eyeballs on the product. Given that reality TV ratings and sales of toothpaste are less important than many of the ideas being ‘sold’ in IO campaigns, we should be a similarly obsessed with audience numbers.

Fewer, higher quality programmes with a greater variety of formats, longer lead time and better deployment would, in my opinion, provide greater value for money, avoid saturation and reduce ‘IO fatigue’ amongst the audience. [2]

4.     The ideal IO product is one that succeeds as an entertaining piece of regularly-broadcast media, securing its own following, and messaging effectively, but seemingly incidentally. It might be a youth orientated magazine programme, a historical documentary, or a news review, but it could equally be any other popular genre; it may be narrated or presenter lead: we’re limited only by our skill and our creativity.

Experience tells me that all of the above formats are viable. However, by and large, ENGs are undoubtedly still the default option. I’ll advance an alternative model below, but these are my thoughts on the IO workhorse.

ENGs have great utility from a number of points of view. Firstly, they should be relatively cheap to make, and it’s possible to turn them round reasonably quickly. A few skilled editors and a similar number of experienced producers have been known to post-produce thirty plus high quality ENGs a month. However, as above, fewer products with greater opportunity to craft and refine, probably represents a better modus operandi. Frequently deployed in the commercial space - sometimes rather too abundantly for discretion – ENGs are still a powerful tool to influence attitudes and change behaviour, if correctly composed.

To work effectively, I believe ENGs should be produced with reference to the following considerations.

ENGs should reflect reality. The producers need, as far as is possible, to understand that reality. Ideally, they’d live amongst the people they’re messaging and appreciate the challenges of daily life. Where that isn’t possible, they have to make every effort to understand the social and cultural norms which colour the environment. This understanding must necessarily go a lot deeper than rote learning of superficial stereotypes. Producers shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge the negative; it builds credibility and authenticity, and conceding a skirmish might just help to win a messaging battle.  Modest claims are better than bold claims, and less likely to backfire. Finally, manage expectations and never message on promises.

ENGs should relay the voice of the peoplenot the voice of the strategist. Sententious voiceover imposes a narrative, where the skillful television producer can draw out that same narrative from interviewees using carefully crafted journalistic questions. The best ENGs have minimal voiceover, or no voiceover at all, and speak to the audience in the familiar vernacular of everyday people - people to whom the audience can readily relate. This is a powerful means to convey a message.

Finally, stay journalistic, stay objective, stay in touch: don’t IO yourself…

Being involved in a long term campaign, especially one where you are removed from the general populace and from life on the street, one’s apt to start becoming susceptible to one’s own messages. Read everything, watch as much domestic television as possible and consume social media. Products which don’t reflect reality just don’t work.

So, what’s the future? This article isn’t merely supposed to be a Bluffer’s Guide to IO, it’s intended to influence, believe it or not…

IO needs to change. In my opinion, it needs to become more like mainstream television. IO producers and their clients need to proceed from the same professional start point as their cousins in mainstream TV. They need to commence with the question, ‘what do people want to watch?’ Once they have answered that question, they can think about messaging. It doesn’t mean the message is secondary, but simply that for the message to actually reach the audience, the vehicle has to be effective.  This applies whether the product occupies the advertising space or otherwise. It cannot be taken for granted that people will watch.  But we need to go further than making decent ENGs.

As global audiences become more and more segmented and people graze and multi-task even as they view, IO products will have to work much harder if they’re to secure people’s attention and perhaps even draw their own audiences. The best products will inform, some will entertain, some will even make people laugh. IO can be produced to exist within every media genre, and to some degree, it already has. It simply needs to be further refined. Moreover, clients need to fully understand what can be achieved by professional television makers.  To that end, they need to talk to them directly, to gauge feasibility and cost from the outset of any project.

Considering all the many billions of dollars that have been spent on IO in the last decade, there has been surprisingly little innovation or audacity, and even less attempt to stand back and take a long hard look at the basic propositions upon which messaging is founded.

From my own perspective as an IO producer, my ambition is not to have to foist my products upon the audience, but to have the audience seek out those products. This can be achieved if they are first and foremost successful pieces of television, cleverly conceived and creatively composed. This might seem like a huge additional challenge for the IO community, but when viewed objectively it must be recognised that it’s the only hope for IO, if it is to succeed in the multi-platform, multi-genre media world. The one thing consumers of media are not seeking out, is dull, worthy, unsubtle and amateurish film and television. So, unless you have a captive audience, what other options are there but to aspire to the standards and creativity of the mainstream popular media?

The answer to the above proposition might be, ‘but that’s not what we do!’ My riposte would be, ‘it needs to be’. Nobody will watch otherwise. A message can be woven into any vehicle, from a cookery show or reality format, to a full blown feature-length documentary. An experienced television producer/director will have spent their whole career following formats, composing narratives, adhering to editorial agendas - that’s all ‘messaging’ is. And is the gulf between popular media and IO so wide? Let’s look back.

In 1939, Jan Anstruther’s fictionalised account of a wartime British family was published under the title, Mrs Minever. It recounted the tribulations of the eponymous heroine and her family as they braced for war, and subsequently fought it on the home front. The book crossed The Pond and became a huge publishing sensation at a time when America was still neutral, and the public, and many within the establishment, were still opposed to involvement in another European war. The book and the more famous film, which followed in 1942, was credited with engendering empathy for the beleaguered and embattled British, and having a significant influence on American attitudes toward joining the war. FDR credited the film with having hastened US intervention, while Churchill claimed it had been worth, ‘six divisions’.

Different times? Well, perhaps. But what about Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock? Don’t they do IO? What about Richard Branson’s latest documentary project, Breaking the Taboo, which comprehensively dismantles the strategy behind the war on drugs? Isn’t that IO? And very compelling IO?

Admittedly the two documentaries, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Supersize Me, cost $6m and $1m respectively, but it’s the ethic, not the budget and scale I’m highlighting here. These were engaging, entertaining narratives which sold complex ideas[3]. We’re in the same game; we just have to play it better, using the right people. If there is any gulf between traditional IO and popular media in terms of influencing and motivating, it’s only really in terms of relative success.

The point of the above illustration is not to advocate that the IO community goes head to head with Hollywood. But it’s not far off. We at least have to see ourselves as competing in the same marketplace for the same audience. That’s the critical point.

The ultimate expression of the above model will be a commercial satellite channel which generates its own audiences from a mixture of popular programming - some produced, some bought-in. The schedule would include subtle IO, and the overall editorial agenda would broadly suit the client or clients’ needs. It may need to be populist, even tabloid in character, but what it can’t be is dull. This model would see deployment issues become an irrelevance, and might even generate revenues. Audacious? Maybe. Possible? We believe so.

The challenge for the IO industry in coming years will be to draw people into it with the right skill set to realise a radical but necessary evolution. Principally, these people need to be experienced television professionals, not PR people, not ad men. Clients need to work closely with people who understand television, understand the possibilities and the constraints and, moreover, understand how you translate an idea directly into a piece of compelling television. A TV format or an editorial agenda is, after all, little different to a campaign strategy. Working directly with TV people from the outset of a campaign better enables clients to plan, assess and realise their goals.

The broadcast TV world has another unique selling point as far as IO and, more importantly, IO budgets are concerned. In the last ten years, as advertising revenues fluctuated and the market fragmented, production companies have had to do more with less. Long gone is the boozy TV lunch and the over-populated production team. The industry has become lean, versatile and efficient. Many good directors are also excellent cameramen; many producers write; many offline television editors can create from very average rushes a gloss and an allure that competes with costly TVCs.

The gold-rush years for IO have undoubtedly passed, at least for the foreseeable future. However, this provides an opportunity for sober reflection and recalibration. Clients need to know that much can still be achieved. In my opinion, the skills, ethics and creativity of the television industry and its versatile professionals can serve the commissioners of IO well – and cost-effectively.

IO needs to be competing for its audience with the best broadcast television and online content. At the end of the day IO is just another media format vying for the eyes of the audience, and it needs to give itself the chance to compete. The industry needs the right people to engender a revolution.

[1] Reliable statistics from December 2009 record the following figures for a selection Iraqi channels deploying IO. With regard Mashriq and Diyar, 1% declared they’d watched the channels yesterday. For Babiliya and Salah a Din it was 3% and 4%, respectively. A further sobering point to note is that these figures only indicate people watching the channel, not the ENG. So viewership for these products was a proportion of 1%, 3% and 4%.

[2] It should be noted that many TV commercials (TVCs) got very good deployment in Iraq. The major state broadcaster, in common with leading regional and provincial channels deployed TVCs prominently, giving them excellent access to audiences. However, my view is that IO fatigue undoubtedly afflicted this genre of products in the same way that ENGs were blighted. However, given consumers’ acknowledged resistance to advertising, I’d be interested to explore to what degree a highly conspicuous messaging vehicle such an expensive, glossy TVC is more influential than a cost-effective factual ENG, the narrative of which is led by ordinary, apparently impartial members of the public. If given the same deployment, might not an ENG perform as well for a client – if not for an ad agency’s balance sheet?

[3] As a footnote, many will probably be musing, that monthly IO budgets in Iraq could well have accommodated some of the productions mentioned.

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