author archive: amy-zalman

New Works on Strategic Narrative Advance Concept & Practice

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.

Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman

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.

Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order

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

Today's Public Relations: An Introduction

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.

Posted in: Crisis Management, Decision making, International Politics, Narrative Research, Story-to-Strategy, Strategic Communication, Strategic Leadership, Strategy Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

“Storify” Strategy to Locate New Stakeholders and Strengthen Advocacy

Angela Glover Blackwell  understands the power of stories to shape—and even change— outcomes. The founder and CEO of research and action institute, Policy Link, Blackwell’s goal is economic and social equity in the United States.

In order to explain why that’s important, she tells a dual story. One is about making sure that future Americans–the majority of whom will be people of color–are positioned Policy Link logoequitably to get the best education and jobs their talents permit.

The second is about the future of American competitiveness in the world: “If this country wants to have a middle class and be competitive in the global economy, we need to make sure that the people who are going to be the future are ready for the future,” Blackwell said in a recent interview with NPR Marketplace’s Morning Report.

There is genius in this narrative entwining personal and national economic advancement. Continue reading

Posted in: Decision making, Marketing & Branding, Public Relations, Strategic Communication, Strategy Tags: , , , , , , , ,

7 Necessary Narratives for the New Digital Age

In the future, nearly everyone will be connected to the Internet and to each other, claim Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt in The New Digital Age.

Mass connectivity will transform our relationships, our governments, our work, our bodies and the objects around us.  But even these dramatic transformations will not change the fact that we are corporeal creatures, and that we will still live lives grounded in phnew digital agephysical circumstances, whether those are urban or rural, rich or poor, lucky or unlucky.

We will also come into the world with a set of inherited stories about who we are, what our lives mean, and what the future looks like.   These stories will have the same universal threads they always have: we will still have stories of love, stories of family, stories that try reconcile life’s fundamental unfairness.  But they will also fail in important ways to explain the transformations of our lives, and the new ways in which we will do old things.

We need new stories

We need new stories.  Creating them is of necessity not only a collective task, but a transnational one. As we grow even more connected, we also grow more capable of exporting our ideas about who we are and what is important on others, wherever they are. Yesterday, two Nigeria-descended men hacked a third to death on a London street, and then stayed on the scene to tell how they saw themselves in a world at war: “We must fight them as they fight us.”   As we grow more connected, and more willing to share our selves with others, maybe pernicious forms of shame—that universal emotion—will be knocked out, and we’ll be more healthy.

It all depends on how we decide to tell our future. Here are seven of the areas where we will need new stories in the new digital age, as described by Schmidt and Cohen. Continue reading

Posted in: Books & Films, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Marketing & Branding, Popular Culture, Public Relations Tags: , , , , , , ,

Let’s Celebrate the 2nd Anniversary of “A National Strategic Narrative”

This has been a tough spring for national cohesion in the United States. Automatic federal spending cuts called sequestration kicked in after Congress failed to agree on how to manage the federal budget. The Senate voted down a bill that would expand background checks for gun purchasers, despite strong support around the country.  And bombings at the Boston Marathon committed by young men hovering between foreign identity and American citizenship confused any clear idea of American identity.

This makes it a good time to mark the two year anniversary of A National Strategic Narrative, published in April 2011 by aNational Strategic Narrativeuthors Captain Wayne Porter, USN and Col Mark Mykleby, USMC under the pseudonym Mr. Y.

The document grabbed the attention of politicians and pundits here in the United States, and foreign ministers in Europe and the Middle East. Perhaps most important, it garnered attention from everyday citizens for proposing a reinvigorated American identity and role in the world. Continue reading

Posted in: Books & Films, Decision making, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, National Security, Politics and Policy, Strategic Communication, Strategic Leadership Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Post-Boston: A More Effective Battle of Ideas (Part II)

Boston MarathonReprinted from The Globalist,  April 24, 2013

 Instead of getting sucked into heat-of-the-moment reactions to Boston, let’s base our responses on a more stable paradigm of contemporary global terrorism. To fight a battle of ideas successfully, one must first show what one is going up against. Amy Zalman makes the case that there are three distinct trends in terrorism — Hybrid, Multi-motivational and Narrative Terrorism.

This paradigm is evolving, but several trends are coming into view and are likely to deepen in the future:

  •    Hybrid terrorism:

In traditional categorization of terrorists, there are “lone wolves” who are unconnected to any organized group and those who are members of organizations.

Today, a hybrid type appears to be evolving: someone who works without full organizational support or direction, but who is not working in total isolation from others. Continue reading

Posted in: Crisis Management, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, News and Journalism, Political Analysis, Politics and Policy, Strategic Leadership, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Post-Boston: Keep Calm and Think Clearly (Part 1)

Boston Marathon

Reprinted from The Globalist, April 23, 2013

The Boston Marathon bombings provide an opportunity for the United States to consider how to combat extremist ideas more effectively than it did a decade ago. But this is not the time to let fear and uncertainty drive us into misguided and — as importantly — ineffective forms of countering violent extremism.

Warning: Prominent policy makers are already making demands to disinter the discredited concepts of the Global War on Terror. Options presented range from designating the bombers enemy combatants to calling for sweeping surveillance of majority Muslim communities.

The motivations that led Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev to set off lethal bombs at the Boston Marathon last week may not yet be clear. But the characteristics of that event already tell us a substantial amount about the direction of 21st century terrorism — and how we might combat it with increasing effectiveness. Continue reading

Posted in: Crisis Management, Decision making, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, National Security, Political Analysis, Politics and Policy, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Resilience Narratives Key to Resilient Systems

The 2013 World Economic Forum Conference that began today in Davos is dedicated this year to resilient dynamism. As Arianna Huffington noted earlier in the day, the key concept that gives rise to the need for resilience is our global interconnectedness. Quoting Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin, she cites five attributes that resilient systems characteristically share:

  •  Spare capacity
  • Flexibility — the ability to change, evolve, and adapt in the face of disaster.
  • Limited or “safe” failure, which prevents failures from rippling across systems.
  • Rapid rebound — the capacity to reestablish function and avoid long-term disruptions.
  • Constant learning, with robust feedback loops.

Huffington adds a sixth, “the will to want to be resilient.”

To that list, I feel we must add a seventh requirement for the present and future, Resilience Narratives: stories that will help disparate and potentially adversarial players see themselves as active participants in collaborative futures. Continue reading

Posted in: Conferences, Crisis Management, Decision making, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Politics and Policy, Strategic Communication, Strategic Leadership Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The Need for a New Story: Faizullah Jan Compares Narratives of the U.S. Drone War in Waziristan

The narratives told in Pakistan and by international organizations about the secret U.S. drone war in Waziristan are so confused that “the people who are caught in the crosshairs of the war have lost their voice and their story to tell.” In this guest blog, reprinted from, Jan explains the issues.

Reprinted from

January 5, 2013 by Faizullah Jan

THERE are competing narratives about the US’s drone war in the Waziristan area, a bastion of militants. These narratives have so far failed to gain traction in the public, inside Pakistan and elsewhere.

The Pakistani narrative goes like this: the drone attacks are a violation of our national sovereignty. They kill innocent people, including women and children, as collateral damage and hence incite suicide attacks across the country in a cycle of reprisal and retaliation, thus killing more Pakistanis, which again includes women and children.

In short, suicide attacks on public places like markets — and even mosques and shrines — are provoked by drone attacks. If there are no drone attacks, there will be no suicide attacks in cities and towns. Continue reading

Posted in: Guest posts, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, National Security, News and Journalism, Political Analysis Tags: , , , ,

Narrative for Survival: My Grandmother’s Story

Stories can save lives. In One Thousand and One Nights, Sheherezade uses her storytelling talents to end King Shahrayr’s plot to punish his unfaithful wife by punishing all of the women of his kingdom.  Having put to death the unfaithful Queen herself, the King embarks on a plan to marry a virgin of the Kingdom each night, and to have each killed at dawn.  That is, until he marries Sheherezade, who spends her wedding night narrating to the King a most exciting and suspenseful tale. So exciting that the King puts off her death to hear how the story continues. And so their story continues for a thousand and one nights, after which the King abandons his goal to punish women, and marries Sheherezade.

My grandmother may not have had a thousand stories, but she had at least one, and telling it to an American Consul in 1939 saved her life and that of her husband and baby, when it permitted her to leave warring Europe on one of the last ships to cross the Atlantic. I had the opportunity to tell it at a local TedX event earlier this year, and was delighted when TEDx organizers chose it as one of their favorites.  I’d love to hear about other stories that have saved lives, if you have one you’d like to share.

Posted in: Books & Films, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Narrative forms, Politics and Policy, Popular Culture, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Intertextuality for Strategic Communication

The Power of Reference, Allusion and Quotation in Communication

Two recent films, Skyfall and Anna Karenina, are made more intensely meaningful by their intentional intertextuality–their incorporation of previous iterations and interpretations of the story they are themselves telling.  Both offer insights into the ways communicators can benefit from the same kind of internal referentiality.

The Concept of Intertextuality

Literary and linguistic theorists began to work with the concept of intertextuality in the mid-1960s, when theorist Julia Kristeva coined the term.  Scholarly definitions have proliferated and grown increasingly technical in the intervening half century. For our purposes, the following definition works just fine: Intertextuality means that texts – novels, paintings, films, but also tax codes and thank you letters –gain meaning not through their reference to an external reality, but by their reference to pre-existing other texts. Intertextuality is not a choice, but rather an inevitable by- product of creating, because we are always creating into already existing histories, discourses and ways of interpreting. These existing frames have already partly shaped what we will produce and how it will be recieved. An author or an artist may intend to give us something original, but they can’t, fully.  We readers,  in turn, never have direct access to a work, but can only get at it by making our way through its prior iterations and interpretations.

James Bond and Anna Karenina are among the most iconic popular texts in modern Western culture. The James Bond series, which is the longest-running film series in history, has given us the rules by which we define spy thrillers. Anna Karenina is no longer only the Leo Tolstoy novel, but also the dozens of derivative films, ballets, operas and musicals that have been created since the late 19th century.

Both are completely enmeshed in our everyday language — we think things about ourselves through the mesh of their expressions:“Bond, James Bond,” and “Shaken, not stirred,”are shorthand invocations of suave masculinity. “All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” has become a catch-all syntax for describing the singularity of just about anything, including in statistics, where the “Anna Karenina principle” is applied to ecological and economic puzzles.

Semiotics professor Daniel Chandler explains the implications of intertextuality: Continue reading

Posted in: Books & Films, Intercultural Communication, Marketing & Branding, Narrative forms, Popular Culture, Public Relations, Strategic Communication Tags: , , , , , , ,