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The field of Strategic Communications Professionals: a new research agenda for International Security

  • Nicholas Michelsen (a1) and Thomas Colley (a1)


Communication has long been accepted as integral to the conduct of international affairs. The role that discourses, ideas, norms, and narratives play at the systemic level of world politics has been examined extensively. Scholarly interest has now turned to how international actors use political communication tools to create and counter threats, such as propaganda, hybrid warfare, fake news, and election tampering, and it is often taken for granted that states are inferior to their challengers in these domains. To address this, ‘Strategic Communications’ has emerged as a mode of thought and practice promising to enhance state communication; encompassing long-established activities including public diplomacy, public relations, nation branding, and information operations. In this developing field, private sector professionals are increasingly being called on to support and advise governments. Particular attention has been paid to the ‘Big Data’ private companies may have access to, but there has been little IR research examining the experts seeking changes in how strategic communications is practised. Informed by elite interviews with communication professionals across the public-private space, this article sets out a research agenda to fill this gap, enhancing understanding of the expert relationships that shape international strategic communications.


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2 Damien van Puyelde, ‘Hybrid war – does it even exist?’, NATO Review, available at: {} accessed 10 December 2017; Corner, John, ‘Fake news, post-truth and media-political change’, Media, Culture & Society, 39:7 (2017), pp. 1100–07 .

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4 Boudreau, Brett, ‘We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us’: An Analysis of NATO Strategic Communications: The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, 2003–2014 (Riga: NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, 2016); Betz, David, ‘Searching for El Dorado: the legendary golden narrative of the Afghanistan War’, in Beatrice De Graaf, George Dimitriu, and Jens Ringsmose (eds), Strategic Narratives, Public Opinion and War: Winning Domestic Support for the Afghan War (New York: Routledge, 2015), pp. 3756 .

5 van Puyelde, ‘Hybrid war – does it even exist?’.

6 See Briant, Emma, Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism: Strategies for Global Change (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Winter, Charlie, Media Jihad: Islamic State's Doctrine for Information Warfare (London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2017).

7 Bolt, Neville, ‘Strategic communications in crisis’, The RUSI Journal, 156:4 (2011), pp. 4453 .

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9 Miskimmon, Alister, O’Loughlin, Ben, and Roselle, Laura, Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order (New York: Routledge, 2013); Akhgar, Babak et al., Application of Big Data for National Security: A Practitioner’s Guide to Emerging Technologies (Amsterdam: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2015).

10 For a recent approach examining how political elites reflect on how they communicate on security issues, see the ‘Security Communication in Democracies’ Project, available at: {} accessed 3 May 2018.

11 Castells, Manuel, Communication Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

12 Strange, Susan, The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power in the World Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

13 Kriel, Charles, ‘Fake news, fake wars, fake worlds’, Defence Strategic Communications, 3 (2017), pp. 171190 ; ‘Cambridge Analytica: the data firm’s global influence’, BBC News, available at: {} accessed 4 May 2018.

14 Jonathan Allen and Jason Abbruzzese, ‘Cambridge Analytica's Effectiveness Called into Question Despite Alleged Facebook Data Harvesting’, available at: {} accessed 3 May 2018; ‘Reality check: Was Facebook data’s value “literally nothing”?’, BBC News, available at: {} accessed 3 May 2018.

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19 Bonelli and Bigo, ‘Mapping the European Union Field of the Professionals of Security’.

20 Hallahan et al., ‘Defining strategic communication’, p. 3.

21 Rosa Brookes, ‘Confessions of a strategic communicator’, Foreign Policy (6 December 2012), available at: {} accessed 30 June 2017.

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23 Brookes, ‘Confessions of a strategic communicator’.

24 Dennis Murphy, ‘The Trouble with Strategic Communication(s)’, Center for Strategic Leadership Issue Paper, Vol. 2-08 (2008), US Army War College, available at: {} accessed 12 July 2017.

25 Ministry of Defence, ‘Strategic Communication: The Defence Contribution’, Joint Doctrine Note 1/12 (2012), pp. 1–2, available at: {} accessed 7 June 2017.

26 Ellul, Jacques, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), p. 62 .

27 Taylor, Philip, Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Day (3 rd edn, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 6 .

28 Ingram, Haroro, A Brief History of Propaganda During Conflict: Lessons for Counter-Terrorism Strategic Communications (The Hague: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2016), available at: {} accessed 10 May 2018.

29 Brookes, ‘Confessions of a strategic communicator’.

30 Boudreau, ‘We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us’, p. 41.

31 Brookes, ‘Confessions of a strategic communicator’; Paul, Christopher, Strategic Communication: Origins, Concepts, and Current Debates (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011).

32 Jansen, Stealth Communications.

33 Röttger, Ulrike and Preusse, Joachim, ‘External consulting in Strategic Communication: Functions and roles within systems theory’, International Journal of Strategic Communication, 7:2 (2013), p. 100 .

34 For insightful examples, see Fisher Liu, Brook, Horsley, Suzanne, and Blake Levenshus, Abbey, ‘Government and corporate communication practices: Do the differences matter?’, Journal of Applied Communication Research, 38:2 (2010), pp. 189213 ; Gelders, Dave, Bouckaert, Geert, and van Ruler, Betteke, ‘Communication management in the public sector: Consequences for public communication about policy intentions’, Government Information Quarterly, 24:2 (2007), pp. 326337 .

35 Abrahamsen, Security Beyond the State.

36 Berndtsson and Stern, ‘Private security and the public–private divide’, pp. 422–3.

37 Leander, Anna, ‘The power to construct international security: On the significance of private military companies’, Millennium, 33:3 (2005), pp. 803825 .

38 Bigo, Didier, ‘Globalized (in)security: the field and the ban-opticon’, in Didier Bigo and Anastassia Tsoukala (eds), Terror, Insecurity and Liberty: Illiberal Practices of Liberal Regimes after 9/11 (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2008), pp. 1048 ; Leander, ‘The power to construct international security’.

39 Burt, Tim, Dark Art: The Changing Face of Public Relations (London: Elliott and Thompson, 2012).

40 Bernays, Edward, Propaganda (New York: Ig Publishing, 1928); Jansen, Stealth Communications.

41 van Es, Robert, ‘From impartial advocates to political agents: Role switching and trustworthiness in consultancy’, Journal of Business Ethics, 39:1–2 (2002), pp. 145151 ; Grunig, James E., ‘Public Relations and international affairs: Effects, ethics and responsibility’, Journal of International Affairs, 47:1 (1993), pp. 137162 .

42 Fullerton, Jami A. and Kendrick, Alice G., Advertising’s War on Terrorism: The Story of the U.S. State Department’s Shared Values Initiative (Spokane, WA: Marquette Books, 2006).

43 ‘British PR firm Bell Pottinger apologizes for South Africa campaign’, The Guardian (10 July 2017), available at: {} accessed 4 September 2017.

44 Ian Cobain et al., ‘Inside RICU, the shadowy propaganda unit inspired by the Cold War’, The Guardian (2 May 2016), available at: {} accessed 27 February 2018.

45 See, for example, Vercic, Dejan, Grunig, Larissa A., and Grunig, James E., ‘Global and specific principles of public relations: Evidence from Slovenia’, in Hugh M. Cuthbertson and Ni Chen (eds), International Public Relations: A Comparative Analysis (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996), pp. 3165 .

46 L’Etang, Jacquie, ‘Public relations, culture and anthropology – towards an ethnographic research agenda’, Journal of Public Relations Research, 24:2 (2012), pp. 165183 .

47 Quotations were sometimes abridged due to spatial constraints, with false starts and fillers omitted to improve flow while remaining as faithful as possible to researcher’s interpretation of the original meaning of the text.

48 This aligns with the British government’s perspective on strategic communications. See Ministry of Defence, ‘Strategic Communication’.

49 Inkster, Nigel, ‘Information warfare and the US presidential election’, Survival, 58:5 (2016), pp. 2332 .

50 Davis Cross, Mai’a, ‘Rethinking epistemic communities twenty years later’, Review of International Studies, 39:1 (2013), pp. 137160 .

51 Adler, Emanuel, ‘The spread of security communities: Communities of practice, self-restraint, and NATO’s post-Cold War transformation’, European Journal of International Relations, 14:2 (2008), p. 195 .

52 Ibid., p. 202.

53 European Communication Monitor Report 2017, available at: {} accessed 10 December 2017.

54 Haas, Peter M., ‘Introduction: Epistemic communities and international policy coordination’, International Organization, 46:1 (1992), p. 3 .

55 Björn, Jerdén, ‘Security expertise and international hierarchy: the case of “The Asia-Pacific Epistemic Community”’, Review of International Studies, 43:3 (2017), pp. 494515 .

56 Cross, ‘Rethinking epistemic communities’.

57 Bigo, Didier, Bonelli, Laurent, Chi, Dario, and Olsson, Christian, The Field of EU Internal Security Agencies (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 2008), p. 8 .

58 Bourdieu, Pierre, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993).

59 Bigo et al., The Field of EU Internal Security Agencies; Bueger, Christian, ‘From expert communities to epistemic arrangements: Situating expertise in international relations’, in Maximilian Mayer, Mariana Carpes, and Ruth Knoblich (eds), The Global Politics of Science and Technology, Volume I: Global Power Shift (Berlin: Springer, 2014), pp. 3954 .

60 Michelsen and Frost, ‘Strategic communications in international relations’.

61 Bigo et al., The Field of EU Internal Security Agencies.

62 L’Etang, ‘Public relations, culture and anthropology’.

63 Davies, Philip H. J., ‘Spies as informants: Triangulation and the interpretation of elite interview data in the study of the intelligence and security services’, Politics, 21:1 (2001), pp. 7380 .

64 Bolt, ‘Strategic communications in crisis’.

65 Inkster, ‘Strategic communications in crisis’.

66 Castells, Communication Power.

67 Galloway, Chris, ‘Media jihad: What PR can learn in Islamic State’s public relations masterclass’, Public Relations Review, 42:4 (2016), pp. 582590 .

68 Michelsen and Frost, ‘Strategic communications in international relations’.

69 Ikenberry, John, ‘The plot against American foreign policy: Can the liberal order survive’, Foreign Affairs, 96 (2017), p. 2 .

70 See Miskimmon et al., O’Loughlin, and Roselle, Strategic Narratives.

71 Leander, ‘The power to construct international security’.

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