Sunday, October 21, 2007

Afstan: NATO's pathetic public communications

Video may be large part of the answer. Mitch Potter of the Toronto Star has another good story (poor CF communications have also been a major frustration for Babbling):
The classified video that is about to change the way NATO reveals itself to the world was aired secretly to a select group of military brass one month ago.

The clandestine clip, shot from a top-secret military platform, shows a Taliban fighter with an AK-47 over his shoulder.

Just before he rounds a corner and prepares to open fire against NATO soldiers, the man reaches into his backpack, pulls out a burqa and disappears under the head-to-foot robe, instantly transforming himself into another faceless woman in the Afghan crowd.

Senior NATO spokesperson James Appathurai was in the room when the footage was shown to headquarters staff in Brussels.

The Toronto-born public affairs specialist, envisioning a YouTube coup, asked for permission to release the video immediately.

Permission denied. It is classified, after all.

Fast forward less than a month, and the frustration of working within the confines of Cold War-era caution no longer shows on Appathurai's face. Weeks of intense internal debate sparked by the video in question has led to a sea-change in NATO's entire approach to public diplomacy, with the order for wholesale change coming now from the very top – Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

Scheffer crystallized the change in a major speech last week that itself passed below the public radar.

Addressing a Copenhagen gathering of insider delegates, including a sizeable contingent from Canada, he said NATO is "frankly in the Stone Age" when it comes to many aspects of public diplomacy.

"When there is an incident in Afghanistan, the Taliban are quick to say there have been high numbers of civilian casualties. The wires pick it up, then the TV stations, then the Web," Scheffer said. But by the time NATO has investigated, checked the results and passed the information through its approval system, "our response comes days later – if we are lucky. By that time, we have totally lost the media battle."

Scheffer also faulted commanders for tending to deal only with reporters from their own countries.

"The result? The population of Canada thinks Canadian soldiers are fighting alone. So do the British and the Dutch. That undermines solidarity, diminishes the multilateral nature of the operation and makes it harder to sustain," he said.

"Canadians need to see Danish soldiers in the south, and Romanians and Poles as well as Dutch and British and Estonians and Americans
[emphasis added--The Torch has been trying to do its bit, Romanians, Australians (end of post), and Danes too]."

Scheffer's words were music to the ears of Appathurai, who has been the "lone voice" urging his colleagues to awaken to tempo of 21st-century communications.

"The Taliban is making videos every day and NATO is not on TV," Appathurai told the Star. "The Taliban has websites. We don't have websites [not quite], certainly not an effective Afghan website...

The issue will be revisited this week when NATO defence ministers meet for informal discussions Wednesday and Thursday in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

Sources say NATO will put new emphasis on Web videos, including the declassification of images previously thought too sensitive to publicize, and place a premium on fleet-footed communication, possibly using rapid-reaction teams to mobilize when Taliban-conceived falsehoods hit the press.

"This is a turning point because now there is consensus that NATO needs to do much, much better at communication, first and foremost with video," said Appathurai.

"We need to be on YouTube."

Appathurai said NATO's failure to communicate deepens perceptions of failure on the ground – perceptions that play directly into the hands of the enemy.

"The average Canadian or Dutchman sees what NATO is doing either as a stalemate between us and the Taliban or as a series of random acts of violence, without being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But there is a tunnel and there will be light. The challenge for NATO in Afghanistan is to do everything possible to bring us to it. And the challenge for those of us here in Brussels is to make sure people can see it coming."
Let's hope those ministers glom onto YouTube.