A conversation with Capt. David Waterman, Commanding Officer at Joint Public Affairs Support Element, United States Navy
University of Florida: Can you discuss some of the topics you will address during your panel?
Capt. David Waterman: I will be discussing the information environment, where adversaries build their road to crisis. This is essentially the primary battlefield of today and tomorrow.
UF: When you say tomorrow – how do you feel that the information domain will change?
DW: I don’t think the domain itself will change, but rather, I think the awareness and use of it will. If we look back at history, back when the Internet or even telephones weren’t known – information was used to manipulate somebody to achieve an end state. Then, if needed, physical or kinetic activity followed in order to emphasize, or enable the information domain. So while the actual physical battlefield is where the kinetic battles take place, I would suggest that the war is fought in the information domain.
UF: What would you say are going to be the challenges of addressing those issues you just mentioned?
DW: Flexibility and speed. The more strategic the event taking place, the more levels of decision cycles there are. The adversaries we are attempting to engage have very few, if any, levels of decision cycles. Our future ability to establish a set of common objectives and give individual elements the ability to engage within the boundaries of their profession or agency – but along a common timeline – will help us in both speed and flexibility of engagement.
UF: Would you say that currently this work is more reactive to what is occurring in the information domain?
DW: Currently, yes, in general we react. When terrorist or guerilla organizations do things, studies have shown they are usually following a plan. Everything that al-Qaeda or its subsidiaries have done can be connected, one way or another, to a manifest called, “Acts of Barbarianism,” published years ago. For those of us who know of the document, it is like watching a TV series unfold, but we already have an idea of what could happen in the next episode. The same document indicated years ago that Yemen should fall to instability. Syria was also identified as an objective.
That said we are getting better at responding. In the future, we should be driving engagements and neutralizing narratives before they evolve into crisis. We should be able to identify published manifestos, identify the actor who is using the manifesto, and the audiences they are trying to reach before crisis reach a tipping point. In the perfect future, it should be possible, through rhetoric supported with actions when needed, to neutralize a crisis before it becomes one.
UF: Does that type of work fall within your command of public affairs, or is that more on an intelligence level?
DW: It is a “whole of everything” effort. We need to build accurate information assessments that help each of the communication entities, ranging from public affairs to information operations to public diplomacy, design implementable courses of action. For example, technology has enabled folks to be able to predict the weather—we know when a storm is coming so that people can prepare for the storm, or perhaps avoid the storm if that is the case. In the communication world, in many cases we are still just reacting to the equivalent of the storm, the adversary’s messages on the news or on a blog. We need to learn more about adversary infrastructures and networks to assess their capabilities and capacity to communicate. So rather than only engaging on a tactical level – message for message, or counter-threat for counter-threat – with a robust information environment assessment constructed from all available sources, we can conceivably disable a network so they can’t effectively communicate in the first place. Using a fire extinguisher analogy, instead of spraying the foam at the top of the flame, we should aim at the base of the flame to put it out much quicker and more efficiently.
UF: What are they resources that you would need to start at the “base of the fire,” as you say?
DW: In a perfect world, where there are no limitations, to get a full network nodal analysis we would build a comprehensive picture of formal and informal organizational relationships, financials, etc. Essentially, all the elements of DIME or PMESII. It would include: What is the capacity to communicate? How do they communicate? Which models of communication are they using? What is their capability to communicate?
However, the real world approach is to put together open source information, known intelligence reports, and build the best possible scenario we can. The best way to get information of this nature is to have eyes on the ground. But due to the realities of the world we can’t always do that, so we have to partner with others to accomplish this.
UF: Why are the topics that you are going to discuss during the panel important for the audience? What are the takeaways?
DW: The takeaway is that we are engaged in a battle for the narrative—we have been, and we always will be. We can either choose to maintain the course and stay on our heels, reacting, and have our opponents – who are much smaller but much more nimble – lead us around the information domain, expending our resources at their convenience, or we can position ourselves to where we are proactively engaged in, if not dominating, the information environment.
UF: What would you say is the biggest challenge for gaining ground in the battle for the narrative?
DW: Coordination and synchronization, also known as the process of strategic communication, are the biggest challenges. Being able to take a holistic approach – using coordinated rhetoric and actions in a synchronized, collaborative way – to achieve a set of common objectives and a series of shared set of desired effects in an efficient and effective manner. This also avoids information fratricide, keeps us from being drawn into resource-exhausting propaganda battles, and keeps strategic efforts on course.
UF: We have talked about some of the challenges you experience in your work. What are some of the rewards?
DW: The ability to work with awesome people: my command and the commands we support. And the excitement of working in the world of rhetoric. To understand the dynamics and mechanisms of rhetoric, and to see how people are presenting narratives, whether it’s through persuasion, manipulation or other methods. If you can see this, that is the first step to analyzing it, which leads to engaging and/or neutralizing. My passion is continuing to learn more about the mechanism and design of rhetoric. To me, a fascinating fact is that while rhetoric manifests itself in our mind, perceptions that are built from that rhetoric act out in the real world. And that is very powerful. You don’t always need tanks, planes, and bullets to change peoples’ knowledge, attitudes or behaviors.
UF: What do you feel is the difference between manipulation and persuasion?
DW: Persuasion should not be viewed in a negative context. Communication with intent has three parts: sender, channel and receiver. Without any of those three, you are not communicating. The intent of communication, or rhetoric, is to present a concept to another individual and have them do something with it. The way you form or frame your conversation will have an impact on their response. The point being, when you communicate with intent, you are engaging in the act of persuasion.
Manipulation, on the other hand, alters one or more of the communication elements (sender, channel, and receiver). You may be using someone’s own anchors or core beliefs in such a manner as to engineer a desired response from them. Persuasion is conveying a message so that it has the possibility of being accepted. Manipulation is attempting to engineer communication where acceptance is the only option.
UF: For your junior public affairs officers, what advice would you give to those who currently hold similar positions and to those who will in the future?
DW: Know your craft. In the military, the pilot knows how to fly his aircraft. He also knows what his or her adversary is flying and how they fly. Success will come down to who knows more in the air. There is no real difference to the public affairs profession in the military for engaging an opponent or adversary. Know your craft; know your art. Not only for your own purpose, but also for those who make big decisions. Additionally, a public affairs officer should have the fortitude and wherewithal to raise his or her hand in a room full of senior officers and say, “Sir, I have concerns, and let me tell you why.” The good PAO will be able to back it up with comprehensible logic. You can’t go into a long-winded explanation about theory and facts, or simply rely on gut feeling as the basis for recommendations.