DOD Strategic Communication:

Integrating Foreign Audience Perceptions into Policy Making, Plans, and Operations

GAO-12-612R: Published: May 24, 2012. Publicly Released: May 31, 2012.

Additional Materials:


Michael J. Courts
(202) 512-8980


John H. Pendleton
(202) 512-3489


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

What GAO Found

DOD officials are seeking to approach strategic communication as a process that leaders, planners, and operators should follow to integrate foreign audience perceptions into policy making, planning, and operations at every level. However, descriptions of strategic communication in several key documents—including the Quadrennial Defense Review and the National Framework for Strategic Communication—characterize it differently. For example, the Quadrennial Defense Review describes strategic communication as the coordination of activities such as information operations and public affairs, among other things. According to DOD officials, these varying descriptions of strategic communication have created confusion within the department. To address this confusion, DOD is drafting an instruction to clarify the steps of the strategic communication process, which DOD officials expect to be completed in late spring or early summer 2012.

DOD has taken some initial actions toward integrating the strategic communication process into its policy making, plans, and operations at every level, such as ensuring that top leadership is driving the effort. DOD officials acknowledge that DOD staff across the department do not currently integrate the process into their efforts in a consistent manner. To address this condition, DOD is taking some preliminary actions to transform the department’s culture. Our prior work has identified some key practices for implementing successful transformations, some of which DOD is demonstrating, as follows.

  • Ensure top leadership is driving the effort. The Secretary of Defense directed the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs to clarify the strategic communication process so that policy making and communications planning are better integrated. Based on this direction, a senior advisor within the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy is tasked with guiding the draft DOD instruction through the department’s internal review and initiating the culture change needed to ensure that leaders, planners, and operators understand how actions and messages are aligned and how they may be perceived.
  • Establish a purpose for the transformation. According to senior officials, DOD needs to transform how its personnel view strategic communication because communicating the right message to the right audience is crucial to the success of DOD’s policies, plans, and operations. To ensure that this transformation occurs, senior officials said DOD personnel must understand that audience perceptions and reactions are integral to the department’s policy making and planning activities. According to DOD officials, to help achieve this change in thinking, the draft DOD instruction clarifies that strategic communication should be used by all leaders, planners, and operators and establishes that strategic communication is different from capabilities such as information operations. If the instruction is approved by the Secretary of Defense, it would be the formal guidance document for all entities within DOD to follow for strategic communication policy.

Officials from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff have also identified some subsequent actions to implement once the DOD instruction is completed. Specifically, the officials said they will need to update DOD documents, perform outreach, and augment existing training. For example, the Guidance for the Employment of the Force and the combatant commands’ theater campaign plans will need to be updated to reflect the completed instruction. In addition, the officials recognize the need to engage various entities within DOD that are responsible for training personnel to ensure that these entities appropriately incorporate strategic communication into their curriculum.

DOD officials stated that the department plans to initially focus inward on clarifying its approach to strategic communication and then update guidance documents to reflect the roles of its interagency partners. The draft instruction that DOD is developing does not include references to interagency partners because, according to DOD officials, the issuance of the instruction would result in updating other guidance documents, such as a potential manual on strategic communication or the combatant commands’ theater campaign plans. These updated documents would, in turn, explain the roles of DOD’s interagency partners. DOD officials noted that the department currently uses audience analysis conducted by State and the intelligence community, and they added that this type of interagency coordination could be applied throughout DOD to support the strategic communication process—for example, by identifying likely audiences for DOD’s communication.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Department of Defense (DOD) recognizes that everything it does communicates a message, from having soldiers distribute soccer balls in conflict zones to scheduling joint exercises off the coasts of foreign nations. However, DOD officials stated that the department has struggled for several years to strategically align its actions with the messages it intends to communicate to foreign audiences—an effort that is also referred to as strategic communication. With the growth of global communications, these messages are quickly transmitted around the world and can affect not only military operations, but also perceptions of the United States by foreign audiences. Other agencies, such as the Department of State (State), also directly engage foreign audiences and therefore DOD recognizes it can benefit from acting in concert with interagency partners.

Congress requested that we review DOD’s various efforts to engage foreign audiences. Our objectives for this report are to describe (1) DOD’s approach to strategic communication, (2) the initial actions that DOD has taken to implement this approach, and (3) DOD’s plans to reflect the roles of its interagency partners in strategic communication.

For more information, please contact either Michael Courts at (202) 512-8980 or or John Pendleton at (202) 512-3489 or

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