What strategic communications can learn from Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)

Posted: 08/09/2016


It is perhaps strange to cite MMA as a source of inspiration for the future development of the strategic communications industry. But here goes… 

For those new to MMA, it’s a limited rules full-contact fighting contest. MMA is showcased most prominently in the Ultimate Fighting Championship in America, and the Pride FC in Japan. MMA is a hybrid of various traditional striking and grappling fighting styles.

The fascinating thing about MMA has been its development over the past fifteen years. From an outlier, this ‘composite’ sport has emerged as something entirely new in its own right; greater than the sum of its parts. With its own particular rules, characteristics… and global audience.

The fact that the UFC ownership group just agreed to sell to the WME-IMG group for $4 billion speaks volumes as to MMA’s popularity. The $4bn sum is expected to be the largest in sports history. 

And the relevance to our stratcoms industry?

MMA comprises elements of freestyle wrestling, karate, boxing, judo, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and various other competitive combat sports. 

A new breed of practitioners has emerged who have become experts at, not only the individual disciplines, but also the interrelationship between the various component sports.

For example, the combination of Muay Thai and boxing suits fighting on your feet. Whereas Jiu-Jitsu and freestyle wrestling are more appropriate when fighting on the floor. Each successful fighter learns to combine and adapt the various disciplines to suit their personal fighting style. It is in this process of combination and adaptation that real competitive advantage is achieved. These are not mere evolutions of the individual techniques themselves, but entirely new MMA innovations that constitute a burgeoning meta-discipline in its own right. 

This, in my opinion, is the lesson that the international stratcoms industry is still in the process of learning. We have niche experts in many diverse specialisms, including:  PR, marketing, data analysis, campaign activation, efficacy, and so on. However, it is only when the walls between these various silos are removed – and true cross-discipline-pollination is allowed to occur – that a new stratcoms industry will emerge, more suited to our modern consumers and engagement technologies.

It is self-evident that our individual skills do not exist in a vacuum. PR is increasingly aligned with marketing, which in turn should be rigorously underpinned by behavioural KPIs (in addition to the necessary commercial [sales] metrics). However, even in the most integrated agencies and stratcoms firms, the promise of a holistic through-the-line solution doesn’t always fully translate into practice. It is very rare indeed to find a cross-discipline team working in unison from the start to the conclusion of a project. It is more likely that individual teams – and their respective experts – will be phased in and out of a project or campaign, with little more than a cursory baton change.

There is at least a glimmer of hope in this regard, one that is already on the horizon within our particular industry. There are a handful of ‘next generation’ stratcoms professionals who are advocating new composite techniques and methodologies as an antidote to the ossified traditionalists. We can only hope that these mavericks have as much success as the early MMA go-getters.

It is my hope that stratcoms will show the way in the use of composite working models. After all, our industry is rare in that it broaches so many differing skills and disciplines as a matter of course. By taking the very best of what each of our specialist teams has to offer and contextualising their efforts within new overarching frameworks and methodologies (that allow for genuine innovation through cross-pollination), we may be on the cusp of a new golden age for British stratcoms.

Take ‘Target Audience Analysis’ as an example. At Global Influence we analyse the audience using four main areas of interest: the audience’s lexical usage, their underlying cognition, their contextual influences and their particular information-transfer characteristics. We use 24 specific parameters to complete this analysis – and many of the parameters comprise professionalism specialism in their own right, including psychology, ethnography, marketing, lexical analysis, and behavioural dynamics.

From the start of the process – the gathering of the secondary data lake – through to the hypothesis development, primary testing and subsequent strategy and KPI framework, the same cross-discipline team will work on the project, without interruption. This ensures that a bona fide cross-pollination of skills is achieved, resulting in new methods and measurements to suit each project and client’s particular requirements.

The individual expertise is harnessed and forged into a new meta-insight discipline that is far beyond anything that could be delivered by any of the individual insights methodologies in their own right. This does not undermine the latent knowledge and traditional techniques and methodologies – but it also doesn’t allow them to be used as a lazy default solution.

Just as within an MMA ‘octagon’ the working environment becomes a crucible for innovation. Behavioural science is advanced by accommodating the various new cross-discipline needs and insights. Just as in the octagon, this is where competitive advantage can be gained. This multi-discipline integration consistently delivers entirely new methods, a suite of new ways in which to engage with audiences and measure effect.

Assessed based on the evidence, this may be key to defining the stratcom industry’s future direction and purpose. The early signs are very promising.

From the battlefield to the boardroom, our clients need us to deliver tomorrow, today. Cutting-edge ways to reach and influence key audience groups. These composite methodologies may just be the way to ensure we keep innovating in our own industry, to ensure we continue to sell victory to others.

Sven Hughes is the founder of ‘Global Influence’ – a strategic communications firm that provides influence solutions for complex, challenging and high-stakes environments.

Are you involved in strategic communications or information operations? Are you working with others in the 'media battlespace'? Our annual Countering Violent Extremism forum will return to London next summer. Find out more at www.informationoperationsevent.com.

Posted: 08/09/2016

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