Why the West, the UK Government and the Metropolitan Police will lose the communications war against Isis and Islamist extremists 
  • Posted 3 years ago

By Andy Green

SERIOUS Creative Director

The UK Government is guilty of waging a communications war to fight Islamist extremism using the equivalent of pea-shooters .

Judging by the comments made by the Prime Minister David Cameron and the views of the Metropolitan Police, as expressed at the Public Sector Communications Conference in London earlier this month, there is an evident failure to understand the true nature of a communications battle based not on messaging – but how it is a Meme War, a Brand War, and a Story War.

Unless, these fundamentals are addressed counter Isis and Islamist extremist activities will be the equivalent of fighting an enemy using pea shooters and communicating by telegraph.

Ten years ago a remarkable Chartered Institute of Public Relations conference was held in response to the London 7/7 Bombings called ‘Hope after the Bombings’. There a plea was made to develop a coherent values-driven British Brand created through bottom-up, rather than imposed from above in top-down strategies.

Sadly, little if any progress has been made in the last decade.

At this month’s Public Sector Communications Conference in London, Martin Frewell, the Metropolitan Police’s Director of Communications, outlined the communications responses being made to the Isis threat, and efforts to deter would-be Jihadists from going to the conflict in Syria and beyond.

There was understandable appreciation of the immense difficulties being faced, yet the platform for the communications responses was all about ‘messages’. While there has been some worthy efforts to create credible channels of engagement, notably through seeking to influence mothers in these communities it significantly highlighted how the Memes/Brand/Story is not being addressed.

Unless these 5 points are addressed, the West, David Cameron and the Met Police, will continue to be a poor second in the communications war.

  1. It’s a Meme War – recognise how viral communications has at its heart memes, cultural constructs – including messages – that replicate themselves. (Think of how you know the words to the song ‘Happy Birthday’ – that’s a meme.)

Until you appreciate the mechanics of how memes work you cannot respond to them effectively. You don’t counter memes with data and counter-argument: You win by creating more potent counter-memes.

  1. No one can stop a ‘Conspiracy Meme’. If someone believes there is a conspiracy, no amount of rational, logical facts will change their mind: in fact it will be counter-productive, merely providing fresh ammunition to justify the conspiracists existing world-viewpoint.

Any new info or data contradictory to the meme will be met with the response ‘Well they’re bound to say that!’

  1. What are our Brand Values?

David Cameron is right to signal up the need for a debate around Values, yet what are these Values. Repeatedly, our society has failed to encourage a proper and thorough exploration of what are ‘British Values’ – and how in turn, can we make them meme-friendly, so that they are ‘sticky’, easy pass-on-able and shareable. The very least we need to do is establish the 5 key ‘British Values’ – because we cannot remember more than 5 things so therefore need to limit the number we need to recall.

  1. It’s a ‘Brand War’. We are facing an opposition that has a remarkably coherent Brand. This was brought home to me hearing the exasperation of a CNN reporter who could not understand that ‘[Isis] are people who publicise their own atrocities.’

What he failed to comprehend, and he is not alone, if you understand the mechanics of how Brand communications work, you will recognise that powerful Brands have coherent and visible icons – the picture in your head that is triggered when you mention their name.

Isis publicise their atrocities because it is perfectly congruent with their Brand Values. They recognise that atrocities are meme-friendly: you see the news about the atrocity and pass it on in succinct, crystal clarity.

  1. It’s a Story War. Every activity has an integral narrative. David Cameron has made a start in weaving his earlier ant-Isis messaging into a wider narrative about what it means to be British. He needs to develop this narrative to deepen understand about its past – and how this has relevance for his target audience.

Crucially, it’s also a narrative about the future – how is the future of a would-be Jihadist better by being loyal to the British brand rather than the Isis usurper Brand?

With his recent announcement, David Cameron is not signalling the beginning of the end for the spread of ‘Islamist poison’. He is failing to fight them on the memes, on the Brand, and on the Story.

Sadly, this is one battle for the West in supremacy in communications it seems destined to lose.