As I wrote on this site a couple of years ago, there is no one definition of “strategic narrative.” International relations scholars, public relations practitioners, and professionals of all stripes working at intersections of leadership, strategy and communications use the concept. Yet as these different disciplines continue to develop ideas and scholarship around the topic, a general discipline of “strategic narrative” appears to be emerging.
All share the recognition that effectively mobilizing a story that explains unfolding events can influence the events themselves. The “strategic” part of strategic narrative lies in understanding how to develop, and enact, a story whose internal logic induces its various audiences to choose to behave in ways that will lead to a desirable outcome.
Three works published in the last decade epitomize that move, and I recommend them all. Together they help to clarify how to use “story” as an analytic device and an active instrument for making better decisions. All move beyond our understanding that storytelling is a way of thinking that comes naturally to us, and that our individual and collective stories perform cultural roles that regulate our social and political behavior.
Story as a Tool for Developing Strategy
Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman, Oxford University Press, 2013.
Freedman addresses the enduring fact that strategies frequently do not work as planned. This endemic issue is not the fault of individual strategic failures, but a problem with the rationalist premises of modern strategy. The Western Enlightenment left us with the idea that reason and knowledge could eliminate error from our plans, and provide us control over our own futures. Yet even reason cannot eliminate the complexity of plans dependent on multiple actors, particular sequences and unexpected intrusions into the expected chains of events, and despite best efforts, we can never gain the perfect knowledge that perfect strategy would require.
Yet, Freedman argues, we need not throw out strategy altogether, but rather “recognize its limits.”
These limits include recognizing when strategy is actually required, and when it is not. For Freedman, only conditions of instability or conflict generate that need. Second, strategy should be “modest”: rather than establishing a complete desired end state, it can be productive to think of strategy simply as reaching for a next, better stage than the current one. This is especially the case when conditions are dire, and simply managing crisis or preventing a collapse that is already in motion, are what’s needed.
Third, we should understand the difficulty introduced by the fact that strategy involves a lot of different parties, both friends and enemies. Freedman points out that although “strategy is often presented a seeing solely about opponents and rivals,” in real life it introduces tensions among friends and those whose cooperation is required. Necessary negotiations and compromises impinge on strategy’s best efforts to be a rational document.
As an antidote to the idea of strategy as a perfect rational document that will lay out a clear, quantifiably verifiable path to the future, there is the idea of strategy as a story. Indeed, as Freedman points out, many have observed that strategy is about language and communication, the ability to tell a story that persuades others to follow a course of action or that warns adversaries of what will happen if they fail to participate. “Not only are stories instruments of strategy, they also give form to strategy.”
But stories are also problematic as strategic documents. One of the puzzles of the human personality is our virtual compulsion to storify our reality: we love stories. But stories simplify reality; grant too much power to human agency and too little to luck and randomness in the way that events unfold; they can be ambiguous and difficult to interpret.
These challenges are formidable. Yet Freedman proposes that a way to make stories more useful as a strategic tool is to consider them in terms of “scripts.”
“Scripts” is a term psychologists use to explain how we internalize the typical sequence of activities in various situations–whether it is taking money out of a bank at a teller’s window or undertaking known processes in our professional lives. Scripts are useful shortcuts when situations are unchanging; however when a new situation presents itself, following a known script can be unhelpful or dangerous. The problem is that it is very difficult for people to relinquish their known scripts.
Composing strategy thus becomes an act of “rescripting,” of consciously reflecting on existing scripts, rejecting them, and writing anew from the starting point of the challenge or conflict of the present. The strategist becomes a dramatist, developing a story, opening options before the characters and exploring their most plausible responses to these new circumstances.
Finally, for Freedman, strategy is ”a story about power told in the future tense from the point of view of a leading character.”
Strategic Narrative as an Instrument of Power in International Relations
Strategic Narratives: Communication and the New World Order, Alister Miskimmon, Ben O’Loughlin and Laura Roselle, Routledge, 2013
For several years, the transatlantic team of scholars, Alister Miskimmon, Ben O’Loughlin and Laura Roselle have been sharpening their definition of strategic narrative as an identifiable artifact of the international push-and-pull between nation-states to shape the balance of power between them. As they explain:
Strategic narratives are a means for political actors to construct a shared meaning of the past, present, and future of international politics to shape the behavior of domestic and international actors … a tool for political actors to extend their influence, manage expectations and change the discursive environm
ent in which they operate. They are narratives about both states and the system itself, both about who we are and the kind of order we want.
The authors seek to help us understand how the 21st century technological conditions alter traditional questions about how political actors achieve power. They offer the unique proposition that strategic narratives are a conventional instrument of power. A good strategic narrative gets others to do what they would not otherwise: if it is persuasive, “allies will commit resources, publics will re-elect your party to continue your foreign policy, and enemies will realize their prospects are bleak unless they change course.”
More forcefully still, strategic narratives, through repetition and strong appeal, can shape how political actors, like states, experience themselves: “If one convinced another state to commit to specific policies and actions on a consistent basis, then that other state may come to take on the identity of a state that carries out such policies naturally, as an expression of their values.” The everyday equivalent of this maxim is the directive to act “as if” a particular trait were true until it actually begins to feel true.
Miskimmon, O’Loughlin and Roselle’s work promises to have great explanatory power. It can help make sense of current events such as Russian efforts to shape international perceptions of Putin’s actions in Ukraine and the meaning of American soldier Bowe Bergdahl’s release from Taliban captivity in exchange for Guantanamo detainees. The Taliban video record of that release arguably helped establish a narrative of Taliban as powerful political actors, able to commit to legitimate negotiations with great powers.
In Freedman’s terminology of strategic scripts, we might describe strategic narrative in international relations as the work of states and actors who seek legitimacy on a world stage, such as the Taliban, seeking to establish and reinforce scripts for the rest of us about how we (and our governing institutions) should understand them, and how to behave in ways that serve their strategic agendas.
Public Relations as Strategic Narrative
Today’s Public Relations: An Introduction, Robert L. Heath and Timothy Coombs, Sage Publications, 2006
In Today’s Public Relations: An Introduction, authors Robert L. Heath and Timothy Coombs argue that “publicity and promotion” can be conceived of as “strategic narratives.” In truth, the book is more new to me than it is new to the market, and ‘strategic narrative’ is a well-worn phrase in PR circles. But Heath’ and Coombs’ textbook is one of the only explanations I’ve found in print to explicitly map publicity and promotion to strategic narrative, and strategic narrative to PR as the co-creation of meaning between organizations and their stakeholders.
As they explain:
Publicity consists of the strategic processes of creating and responding to a story. Promotion requires that a series of strategic tactical functions be performed over time to keep the story alive. To create and sustain the story, practitioners give some information in various stages in the evolution of the story. Practitioners may formulate afferent story lines or plots, all of which merge into one story.
Coupled with the deep insights of Freedman, and Miskimmon and his colleagues, this concrete practical advice may help us grasp how a strategic actor constructs stories for their “markets, audiences and publics” or MAPs.
Although Heath and Coombs offer their advice to new writers of press releases engaging the media for publicity purposes, their advice is sound for strategic leaders and international actors as well:
Connect each new story with previous ones. You are wise to think of the activities of your organization as constituting a narrative. Each newsworthy event or activity is merely an episode in the ongoing narrative of your organization.