Having been overtaken by events in London last week, I found it untenable to get out a daily blog post covering IQPC‘s Information Operations (or IO) Europe conference. There were also quite a few concerns from some conference-goers about how new media dorks like me attending could potentially bust up IO Europe’s tradition of “Chatham House rules” where none of the gathering’s discussions were attributable let alone reportable.
Wrestling with this personally, I’ve decided to go ahead and write up my thoughts on the conference because I believe the discussions are important to the wider global communications community. I will, however, decline to name some names to protect the guilty.
That said, let’s see what’s new in another year of IO.
True Best Practices Are Usually the Most Controversial
From what conference-goers told me, this year more than ever saw more status quo-challenging presentations than ever before at IO Europe. The IO community, being as small as it is, tends to attack points of view that make these challenges. IO being a military discipline tends to rely on structure, plans, and doctrine that do not evolve. This runs counter to the promise of the Now Media Age (with apologies to MountainRunner) where we see communication innovation happening every day. And before people rail against that assertion claiming that our most popular conflict environments are in traditional media dependent regions, we also saw plenty of controversy that had nothing to do with the internet. Ed O’Connell – late of the Alternative Strategies Institute, which has now been acquired by Blue Hackle – gave a rousing talk about how he has conducted “interventions” into historically denied areas. The influence effects of Ed’s work dealt with providing forums for locals to air grievances in ways they had not considered before.
Ed’s a controversial figure in the IO world. He’s rankled quite a few feathers but his effects are undeniable. He is a fearless believer in personal, face-to-face rehabilitation of societies that have been brutalized by everything from violence and terror to poor economies. As much as we would like to put a new media solution on everything, there is still need for the de-radicalization work of someone like Ed.
Most IO Pros Fear the Internet
Despite traditional approaches being successful and warranted in our current conflict environments, most of the IO pros I ran into at IO Europe are still massively afraid of conducting operations on the internet. While we have seen a huge ramp-up of media monitoring and analytical capabilities (i.e., programs that scour the internet for operationally relevant information and intelligence), very few organizations are actually doing anything with the information gleaned. Most arguments in favor of this fear have to do with limited policy and legislation governing influence operations on the internet but in my conversations with people, I detected a marked lack of motivation to even understand the online world. Many used excuses like “I’m too old to get it” or “My boss doesn’t care about this.” Worse, we even had a cybersecurity exercise one day lead by a facilitator who claimed to care nothing about social media and still professed to be an expert in online security operations.
IO Policy Still Stuck in the Dark Ages
Such fearmongering is exacerbated by onerous IO and strategic communication policy. There were more discussions on what simple terms mean than I could count, and when you factor in the international perspectives from the US, NATO, the UK, Canada, and many other nationalities represented, doctrinal debates became comical. Because of these debates, IO policy (and its overriding legislation) is still clawing for relevancy in an information age that has already left it behind. While professed IO policymakers and “experts” continually disagree over the meaning of “strategic communications,” citizens are moving on to the next platform, the next online game, the next social network, the next INNOVATION.
This facet of IO Europe upset me a little because this was one of the reasons I got out of the government business a while back. One of my former bosses used to say that government is about maintaining the status quo NOT innovation. Because of that, we will never see an IO or influence organization that thinks and operates ahead of the curve.
That Doesn’t Mean Innovation Isn’t Happening Though…
Quite a few private sector companies talked about communication systems monitoring platforms and methodologies. As we all know, entrepreneurial creativity occurs in the private sector. I met a number of companies who claimed to have technical solutions that provided end-to-end monitoring and sentiment analysis capabilities in multiple languages. Unfortunately, none of them were on hand to demo, something I would challenge all of them to rectify next year. IO Europe could be a great conference if IO pros could cycle from table to table to see the latest innovations in online data analysis.
Aside from tools, there were some great case studies of innovative approaches to operations. Hats off to the gents from Bell Pottinger for a supercool study of their strategic communications work in the Horn of Africa.
For Every Jerk You Meet, There Are 10 AWESOME Mofos
The IO community has its share of smarmy turd biscuits slinking through events like IO Europe, whether they’re government reps or otherwise. However, there are just as many, if not more AWESOME people hanging around with amazing stories, conversation, and things from which you can learn. I made twice as many friends at this IO Europe than I did last year, and these are folks with whom I anticipate having lasting professional friendships as well. The value of so many international perspectives in one place is hard to calculate, but may of the non-Americans at the conference gave me tons of new things to think about. I especially have to thank the gents from M&C Saatchi who recruited me to speak, offered some great conversations about music, and – in one case – hosted me at their home for my last day in country.
Final Thoughts: Be Better, Do Good
Ultimately, IO Europe was a great annual get-together for those of us in the community, but I think we can all do better. Too many of us got wrapped up in our own organizational prejudices, focusing on selling something or satisfying a government requirement. Instead, I think we all need to take a step back and remember why we’re in the influence business. For me, it’s all about experiential sharing – the process of understanding the complex global ecosystem in which we live that is made manifest by online means. At the end of the day though, all of us need to recognize a passion for communication, whether we’re a NATO PAO or a PR firm VP. There are too many people in this business who are just punching a clock, and that’s a shitty way to communicate with other cultures even if all you’re doing is approving comms plans.
See y’all next year.
- Engaging in a Now Media Continuum (mountainrunner.us)
- Now Media: engagement based on information not platforms (mountainrunner.us)