'Persuasion and Power: The Art of Strategic Communication', by James Farwell

Contributor:  Patricia H. Kushlis
Posted:  01/23/2013  12:00:00 AM EST
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The following review was originally published on Public Diplomacy blog WhirledView. Reproduced here with permission.

By Patricia H. Kushlis

James Farwell’s book Persuasion and Power:  The Art of Strategic Communication (Georgetown University Press) is a “how to” book for professionals and wannabe professionals as well as an interesting read for those who simply want to learn more about how governments and politicians (elected and non-elected) have informed and influenced publics about their policies and candidates. 

Farwell is a long-time political campaign and US military strategic communications consultant. He wrote this book as a way of explaining in lay terms the thinking behind campaigns of influence – or in less pejorative terms – ways of “winning hearts and minds.”  In essence, Farwell suggests that there are certain common elements between what the US military calls strategic communication, governments call public affairs and public diplomacy, businesses see as advertising and political advisors view as campaigning.  He eschews or questions incomprehensible jargon and quantitative studies and instead uses numerous real world examples told through narrative to illustrate his points.

Paramount importance of truth telling

Farwell’s basic argument is that the overriding goal of any information campaign is not only to inform but also to influence the people who matter.   He suggests that this is the case for authoritarian regimes and dictators seeking to keep their populations in line as well as for democracies, militaries, foreign offices and elected politicians.  And, he argues that whatever the message – the facts and the story need to be accurate.  They must be judged as credible by the intended recipients because the long term veracity of the messenger is crucial to his or her obtaining and maintaining popular support. 

I also think the medium is not the message; the message is the message; but the messenger must choose the most effective medium or media for its delivery whether for good or ill.  Witness - as Farwell tragically points out - the efficacy of hate radio campaigns in the 1996 Rwandan genocide and, I would add, also 1990s Former Yugoslavia.   

Truth be told, you will see my name in several different chapters of this book because I was involved in its initial editing.   I donated my time – and expertise on public diplomacy – because I thought the book had the potential to go beyond the tiny readership of communications specialists cloistered – for the most part – on military bases and in university communications departments.

And although I have been subjected to various social science quantitative theories over the years in graduate school and beyond and found some useful in practice, I also know that people remember concepts told through stories far better than when presented through hard, cold data or entangled in specialist jargon.  Farwell uses his gift for story telling – he after all, lives in Faulkner country – to excellent advantage in this readable and instructive volume.

It’s incredibly hard to keep a book of this sort up-to-date.  Farwell did as well as he could before it went to press in July. Unfortunately, his last update occurred when the 2012 US presidential race was very much tied. At the time, he called the Obama campaign unimpressive – perhaps underestimating the campaign’s organizational activities on the ground - although Farwell did credit Obama for “getting onto the Bain issue,” an approach which the campaign then played successfully and relentlessly to and through election day.

In short, I would have told this tale differently – but then Farwell and I are simply on different sides of the political aisle. Besides, hindsight is always better than foresight.  This, I might add, made for a number of interesting conversations early on – although let me be clear, we agree on major concepts, approaches and operational principles of influence as presented in this book.

What Can Be Done?

In “Change that would Matter,” Farwell’s penultimate chapter, he includes lists of recommendations for the US military as well as the State Department as these behemoth bureaucracies navigate the shoals of reduced government spending during the final four years of the Obama administration and yet again divided government.  Since one of those lists is mine –you may credit or blame me for its contents – let me conclude by indicating that I stand by all of my recommendations.

They, in a nutshell, suggest that I think American public diplomacy – indeed American foreign policy - needs to begin at home with “the last three feet” and that the State Department has not only been derelict in its treatment of public diplomacy specialists abroad and hence squandered much potential influence needlessly but that it has yet to grasp that it needs to obtain support for its activities abroad through educating and communicating better with publics right here in the US. 

Living in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s River City on the Rio Grande, believe me, the Pentagon has been far more effective in selling its heavily armed approach to “solving” US foreign policy problems than State’s far more benign, nuanced and non-lethal diplomatic views.

I would just add one more recommendation in retrospect:  there needs to be much greater support by State, Congress, the US political leadership and members of the international business community for the long planned Museum of Diplomacy than there has been up to now. This Museum is designed to fit into an open space next to the Department.  Let’s face it, the State Department is a boring, security entombed building to which not even retired US diplomats have much access - let alone the public. Meanwhile, the US capital overflows with easily accessible and impressive memorials to America’s war dead.

There’s even a Spy Museum that commemorates the CIA and the Newseum trumpets the feats of the commercial media. Maybe, however, with a greater accent on diplomacy and what it can bring combined with far less reliance on shoot’em ups at the OK Corral America's fiscal and social wellbeing would be far better served. An attractive and welcoming Museum not far from the Mall – should be part of that mix.

James P. Farwell, Persuasion and Power: The Art of Strategic Communication, Georgetown University Press, December 2012, 271 pp.          

Patricia H. Kushlis Contributor:   Patricia H. Kushlis


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